E161: Lucy Newton - "Training to Track"

Our dogs are innately born with the skills they need to track a scent — so in this episode Lucy and I discuss how to take that and channel it for competition!


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And now, back to our regularly scheduled programing.

Melissa Breau: This is Melissa Breau and you're listening to the Fenzi Dog Sports Podcast brought to you by the Fenzi Dog Sports Academy, an online school dedicated to providing high-quality instruction for competitive dog sports using only the most current and progressive training methods.

Today we'll be talking to Lucy Newton.

Lucy was involved in search and rescue for over 15 years, training numerous personal dogs for wilderness search and rescue, as well as land and water human remains detection. She has deployed for hundreds of missing person cases in both urban and remote wilderness locations with her own dogs and has provided training to hundreds of search and rescue dog handlers and their canines.

She also spent over 10 years as a full-time police sergeant and police canine handler, where she handled multiple dual-purpose patrol/narcotics canines for her police department and was a state certified police canine training

instructor, serving as a field training officer for her department.

In 2013, Lucy took a full-time position as an instructor and trainer for the Randy Hare School for Dog Trainers, where she taught detection trainer schools and working dog training classes to law enforcement, military, and professional dog trainers.

In 2017, she relocated to North Carolina where she offers high-level training and instruction to police, search and rescue, working and sport dog handlers.

Most recently, Lucy took a position as service dog trainer for the American Humane's Pups to Patriots Program, which trains dogs to be service dogs and pairs them with veterans coping with post-traumatic stress and/or traumatic brain injury.

In addition to working with dogs professionally, she competes in a variety of sports with her own dogs. Together they have achieved titles in obedience, tracking, and Schutzhund.

Hi Lucy, welcome back to the podcast!

Lucy Newton: Hi Melissa. Thanks for having me.

Melissa Breau: Absolutely. To start us out, can you remind us who the dogs are that you share your life with right now and what you're working on with them?

Lucy Newton: You want the permanent ones or the temporary ones?

Melissa Breau: You might as well give me all of them.

Lucy Newton: I have seven dogs. Like you mentioned in the intro, I train service dogs. I usually do three to four service dogs at a time and then place them with veterans, so right now I have three dogs that are in here for training.

I share my life with four additional dogs that are permanent residents. My oldest dog is 11-and-a-half. Steele is my retired police dog. And then I've got two Dutch Shepherds, one that's 8 that I've mostly competed in Schutzhund with her and she's also done tracking, and then I have a young Dutch Shepherd that's 1 year old that I'm hoping to do Schutzhund with. And then I have a — he's always last, he's always the stepchild — Jack's the 4-year-old Rottweiler.

And I have a mix of accidental and on-purpose dogs. The 1-year-old dog is sort of my on-purpose dog. Jackson's a little bit the accidental dog that ended up staying with me. He's a master of all things. He does a lot of my demo work for some of my classes and stuff, but mainly I'm doing tracking with him, thinking about doing Schutzhund with him, and I just trained him to find truffles, because my permanent dogs, one of them has to have a real job. So he just learned how to find truffles for his outlet.

And then I have the three service dogs that are living with me as well. 

Melissa Breau: Awesome. I think last time you were on the podcast — it was a while ago now — we talked about your background and a little bit about tracking. Today I want to do a deeper dive into all things tracking. To start us out, I know nosework has really ballooned in popularity lately. So how do tracking and nosework differ, and is there overlap beyond just being sports where dogs use their nose?
Lucy Newton: You're correct, both are sports where dogs use their nose, but where they're the most similar probably is that in both aspects it's a sport where we're not really teaching the dog the actual task.

Most of the other sports that we do, either there's some genetic predispositions for it, obviously, but a lot of it, a lot of different sports, thinking like obedience and agility especially, that we're teaching the dog to do tasks that they wouldn't necessarily do even close to similar that we're asking for without training. Whereas going with nosework and tracking, they already have the genetic predisposition for it and they have the skill for it. What we're doing is setting up the environment so they can hone a skill that they already have genetically as being dogs.

Within that group, of course, there's some dogs that are a little closer to the genetics that are going to make them excel at it. But every single dog that we have is capable of doing that type of behavior, using their nose to find something. So that's where the similarity would be.

There's a little bit of a difference in the environment and what we're asking them to do. For nosework, you ask them to search a blank area, come across scent, and then follow that scent to the source of the odor, so that distance that they're following that scent is a lot shorter. Whereas in tracking you're starting them at the point where there is scent and asking them to follow that line of scent for a long distance. Does that make sense? 

Melissa Breau: Mm-hmm. What are they searching for in tracking?

Lucy Newton: That's one of those dog trainer arguments that can start a debate. Probably the best tactful answer that's not going to get people in an uproar is some combination of the crushed vegetation, whatever the surface disturbances that we place on the ground when we walk, and also whatever scent that we leave behind as we walk too. It's probably some combination of those two different types of styles of tracking. Emphasize one over the other, depending on what type of behavior that you're trying to shape in the dog and what kind of style you want the dog to track in. But some combination of those two things is what the dog is following. 

Melissa Breau: Do you use the same, like, you mentioned the scent that you leave behind. Do you use the same types of scents that they use in nosework or are they completely different?

Lucy Newton: No, it's completely different, because in nosework you're looking for specific odor that's been placed out, whether it's birch or specifically to whatever that nosework venue is. Whereas with tracking, they're just following the path that that person left that walked on the ground.

Melissa Breau: So it's personal scent.

Lucy Newton: Yes, exactly.

Melissa Breau: Gotcha. So what does it look like when you talk about a competition for tracking? What's actually being judged and what does that look like in terms of setup?

Lucy Newton: It varies, depending on what type of tracking competition. The courses that I teach, I focus mainly on AKC type of tracking, CKC, which is the Canadian Kennel Club, similar type of setup with some small differences, and then we have a very large group of people in Australia that's pretty similar. Their competition is laid out a little bit different. They have different levels than we have. But the basic setup for all the types that I teach classes for, you have a designated starting point to a track. So you bring your dog up to the starting point of that track, start your dog on the track, and the dog follows that track from that point to the end. The majority of the time there's articles along the way that the dog has to indicate, has to stop and find.

The Australian people in some levels they have a person at the end, but for the majority of tracking competition, you're just finding the articles. You're not really finding that person that laid the track and is waiting at the end.

At different levels of tracking, there'll be different challenges to that layout of that track, whether there'll be specific types of turns, is it a 45-degree turn versus a 90-degree turn, number of turns, the length of the track, the difficulty of the terrain, challenges along the way. Those are the things that will increase in difficulty as the levels of competition go up.

Melissa Breau: If somebody's just looking to get into the sport, what kind of equipment do they need to get started to explore the topic? 

Lucy Newton: It's pretty minimal. Generally you want to have a tracking harness. Some of the harnesses that are designed for everyday wear are no-pull harnesses. You want something that dog can move pretty comfortably in and can actually pull a little bit and have enough shoulder movement. But even that's not necessarily a critical piece of equipment if, say, people can't get their hands on it now because whatever's going on. There's work-arounds for that. But that's really it, is 6-foot, 10-foot leash, and a harness.

I use targets on the track, so I use little foam squares that we place at intermittent levels in spacing on the track. We usually get those at craft stores like Michael's or something. But even that, I've had people use squares of cardboard, or originally, when I first started, I was using little

tiny butter-dish lids. The only reason I went to the craft things at Michael's is because I couldn't eat that much butter. So it's good to have the right things, there's a reason for why I'm using them, but we can certainly improvise. But you're pretty minimal.

And then generally, most of the time, we're using some food on the track, just to really get the dogs going and make them … we want to have it intermittently. I don't want them just eating in a line. But same thing as you would do a rate of reinforcement for teaching other behaviors. That's where I would be putting the food on the track is at a rate of reinforcement on the track.

Melissa Breau: With the world being shut down right now, I've got to ask: Does that make it easier or does that make it harder to work on tracking? What kind of spaces are we talking about for the early phases?

Lucy Newton: It's definitely a more social-distancing-friendly sport.

People are generally doing it on their own to begin with. You're laying your own track at the beginning. It's perfectly OK to lay your own track. Later on you'll want to have somebody lay a track for you. But the majority of my competition tracks, for a variety of reasons I generally like to lay them myself. So there is that.

You do need some access to some good grass. You want an ideal type of grass, not too long, not too short. I'm a little bit fussy about grass just because that's the environment that you're shaping this behavior. Just like as if you were teaching agility, you want to be fussy about the right equipment and being able to adjust your equipment and position it properly, you want to have the right kind of grass, so you're really shaping a behavior that you want to get out of the dog. So a little bit fussy about grass, but we can work with a variety of different things. That's probably the biggest challenge right now is if people are in an environment that they can't get to any grass.

We don't need tons of grass starting out. When we start the foundation class, they're putting down thirty targets that are one step apart, and then they'll increase that to one and two steps apart. So it's a pretty slow progression and a nice, clean movement down the track for that short segment before we increase distance. So we don't need acres and acres of grass, but they do need a little bit of access to that.

And I have decided personally that driving to tracking counts as exercise and walking you dog. It's my definition, I'm going with it. As long as there's not other people around, then that's what I'm going to do. 

Melissa Breau: Fair enough. I think when when most people think about tracking, they picture that finished behavior. But I'd imagine, like any sport, to train it really well, you need to break it down into pieces that then you train individually and you gradually increase the difficulty as you go along. Looking at that, what are the first pieces that we're talking about training here? 

Lucy Newton: Well, like I said, we're not really teaching the dog to do the behavior. We're teaching them that that track has some value to them. Say a wild carnivore that's hunting for its meal knows that the scent of a rabbit or a deer track or whatever has some value because at the end of it is the reinforcement. They get their meal.

We've all seen all of our dogs find an interesting scent on the ground and shuffle after it. That's what they do. So we're teaching them that that specific track, whether it's crushed vegetation or human scent or some combination, that has some value to it. And also eventually what we're doing is really creating value for those articles. I really want the dog following the track, but the dog's following the track to get the reinforcement, which I want to be the article. So I want to create a lot of value for the articles so that what they're seeking is that article along the track.

I'm going to set them up to do that behavior in a way that I want them to do to meet the requirements of a sport, rather than what they would just do naturally if they were hunting for something. But that first step is really putting down those targets and that food on the track, and basically teaching them that track has value.

I want them to start using that track as a way to, I always say, cheat to find the articles. I want that to be the dog going, "Hey, I figured this out. If I follow this path of scent, that helps me find the articles." So that's why I'm really a lot of emphasis on value for the targets, and then value for the articles, following that path to get that reinforcement, that something that's valuable to them.

Melissa Breau: Do you have to train an indication separately on the article?

Lucy Newton: Depends on what sport, what venue, you're working. AKC requires an acknowledgement of the article, which is pretty vague.

Melissa Breau: I was just thinking that.

Lucy Newton: Yes, which is good and bad. I like to have something that's pretty strong. For my dogs, I teach them to down on the articles because the stronger that behavior is, then in times of distraction or confusion, I'm still going to get what the AKC calls "an acknowledgement." Like, if they don't down, they'll stop and stand over it and it'll still be OK. They just have to have some acknowledgement of it. They have to just … you can't spot it and say they found it. They have to have some behavior that somebody else sees. If it's stopping and pushing it with their nose, then as far as AKC is concerned, then they're OK with that. 

Melissa Breau: What kind of tracking do dogs find "easy"? I know you talked about starting with an easier track and then building it up. If you could talk just a little more about how you do that, like, how do you gradually work to make things harder? Especially since we can't smell what they're smelling, we don't really know necessarily what's obvious versus what's not for them. 

Lucy Newton: Right, and that's why foundation is so critical and I really want to have pretty methodical tracking early on. I want to lay this solid foundation, because when the track becomes, if you say, for a variable surface tracking test that can be three to five hours old and over a variety of surfaces, then I have to trust the dog because he's the expert and he knows where the odor is, and I can't be deciding whether he's right or wrong. So the best way to prepare for that is to have that foundation really, really solid. And I know on these tracks where I've got a really good idea where the track scent should be in these foundation tracks where there's not complexity to them, the track scent should stay really close to the track, that I have a dog that's very precise, because once you get to the level where there's a lot of complexity, like you said, you don't know, so you have to just take your hands off and go, "OK, you're on your own, you're the expert here," and you need to self-teach yourself how to do this.

There is some level of knowing how to set up tracks, knowing how to set up the track so that you are honing that skill for the dog. But you don't have a lot of power in controlling things as far as going, "Oh no, you can't go that way," and limiting the dog's environment, because you just don't know. 

Melissa Breau: Can you talk just a little bit more about setting up the track and what you mean by that? I know you started off earlier with, OK, the targets are a step apart. So how do you get from there to the multiple services and the complex stuff and the aging and all that? 

Lucy Newton: One thing at a time. Well, you don't necessarily have to master one. You need to have a plan going out and setting up your track. You really want to lay a good foundation, and I aim towards, in my initial foundation class, I really start prepping people for the AKC TD tracking dog test, which is not particularly heavily aged, does not have a lot of terrain challenges to it, has 45- and 90-degree turns. I want really precise performance on that before I move the dog onto different levels. But really with everything else as I'm adding it in, it's a little bit, if you think about with other training, I want the challenges to be background noise.

So the same thing as if I'm doing obedience and I'm going, "Well, my dog's really good in not distracting environments, I'm going to start adding a distracting environment. I want to do that in a way so that that's not some big thing that the dog has to deal with.

The same thing with tracking. When I start putting obstacles on my track, they're going to be little pretty simple, "Oh, we're just going to go through a ditch or over some …" I want all that to be background noise, so that as I add that in, the dog doesn't even really think about it. I want it under that threshold, just as if you were adding in complexity to any other type of behavior that you're training.

Melissa Breau: You mentioned earlier the one-step-apart targets. What are those first couple of steps? If you had a brand new dog, how do you even give them an idea that the targets have some value for them? What does that first training session look like?

Lucy Newton: It can be messy for the first couple of times, I'm not going to say it's not, depending on the dog. And I've had the whole range. I've had the ones that get it the first try, and I've had … one of my best tracking dogs, I honestly will admit that I kept at it for a really long time as a science experiment to see if he would ever get it, because he really was frantic.

His thing was he was a Malinois and he just wanted to go. Once he found out there was food on the track, it clearly was 40 feet down the track in some direction, which may not have been the direction of the track.

So with him I just pursued for a long time just really to experiment and go, "Is he ever going to drop his head and settle in and and be a tracking dog." I have to say that he was placed with the state police. I actually placed him because he was such a good dog. He's a S.W.A.T. tracking dog now. It's just, like, embarrassing childhood stories about him.

But really they're so close together because we want as minimal input from the handlers as possible, other than just holding them in that line of targets. So just putting thirty targets down, one step apart, and the dog mostly is going to come up and eat the food off the first target and look at the owner like, "That was great. Do you have any more?"

But because the targets are so close together, and they get ignored by the owner, and then they drop their head and check that target again to see if there might be more food on it, our hope is that they grab that second one. And then once you get into a rhythm, they realize that there's a row of them. 

We don't want the targets to be completely visible. That's why I'm fussy about the grass. They can see them when they get to them, obviously, so they can eat the food readily, but we don't want the grass to be so short that they're just visually going from one target to the next.

We'll spend the first probably week with those targets one step apart. It depends on the dog. If they progress faster, then we increase the spacing. It also depends on the size of the dog. One target step apart for a Dachshund is different than one step apart for a Great Dane, so some of that adjustment too. But that's really our first goal is to get them realizing that there's food out there and it's in a straight line, and then we can start adjusting with the spacing of those targets. 

Melissa Breau: You specifically called out the grass again in there, so I'm just curious: What is an ideal? What are we talking about here? Just tall enough to hide the targets in the grass? Is that basically what you're looking for?

Lucy Newton: Yes. I don't want to hide them so that if you walked over, you could see them. If I laid out thirty in a row in a straight line and you knew which direction it was going, you might be able to see the first two or three, but you couldn't look down the whole track and see thirty laid out in a row. And we can work around that a little bit sometimes with grass. We don't want really short grass because we want there to be enough scent for the dog.

Dogs obviously can track on hard surfaces, they can track in dirt, a lot of things that are short grass or no grass. But starting out with this foundation, we want to really set them up to shape a behavior that we really want, a certain style of tracking. So we want to be a little bit fussy about the grass and also not have them visually be spotting those targets. 

Melissa Breau: Right. So not the grass in my front lawn that I keep pretty short because the landlord says so. 

Lucy Newton: Yes, exactly. That's the problem with lawns. In our classes we always end up cursing the lawn mowers. People find good places to track and then somebody comes through. Landscape maintenance has to come through and buzz it right down to the ground. 

Melissa Breau: You've got to find out the day before maintenance is supposed to come, so you can get in to work that day.

Lucy Newton: You do become a tracking field stalker too, though. There is that. I remember flying into Detroit and realizing as the plane was coming into the Detroit airport, I was looking at the ground and looking at nice green fields and thinking about they would be good tracking fields. 

Melissa Breau: Prepping for this, I looked over the syllabus for the class and I know you specifically call out start-and-end routines. I was really curious about that. Can you walk me through an example of a start-and-end routine for one of your dogs? 

Lucy Newton: It's a little bit like, with other things, it's not as critical so much that you do it an exact sort of way as that you're consistent, that you're really cuing the dog in, "Here's the start of the track."

I will instruct people to bring the dog up, I bring the dog up on leash, and then switch them over to their harness right at the start of the track, because I don't want to put the harness on and hook the dog up as if they were tracking and then walk a hundred feet from my car to the start of the track, because all that ground sniffing — there's no track there.

So I want to just be very clear to the dog, "Here's the start," just like with any other behavior that we're asking them to do, "Here's the cue." The start article is the cue for the behavior, and then have them take that cue and do the behavior. And then at the end, same thing, have a very clear piece of information, the dog, that tells them that we're done.

The end routine is pretty important because realize that when you lay that track, you don't stop laying that track when the track is over. You put down the end article and then you walk all the way back to your car. We don't want to confuse the dog by, after that last article they continue to track, especially early on.

Later on, it's not quite as big of a deal because they understand it. But early on I want to really collect them and move them off the track so that's not confusing to them, that we were asking them to perform this behavior and all of a sudden we're asking them to stop. But really, that's the start, and the end is just really those cues of starting this behavior right here.

AKC has an article at the start of the track. Some other venues don't have a start article. They have more of a scent pad. But the same thing applies. You're just coming up in a routine where the dog knows, "This is the spot where I'm going to start doing this behavior that I will get reinforced for." 

Melissa Breau: Picturing this in my head, first of all I wouldn't have thought about the end routine. That wouldn't have occurred to me to think about if I was trying to make it up as I go along. So that's really interesting. Thinking about the start in competition, are they pretty tolerant of giving you the time you need to change your dog into their harness and hook up the lead and all those pieces? 

Lucy Newton: You pretty much have to be ready to go, so you'll get ready at your car. You're usually parked relatively close by, or you'll walk a fair distance, like halfway across the field or something, to your start. But none of it is this long process. Usually I just put my dog's harness on at the car and have them clipped to their collar, have the leash on their collar, and then walk them up to the start, and then just move the clip from the collar to the harness. It's more that real quick … think of setting your dog up at the start for an agility run. The same amount of time, really. It's more of the ritual rather than a long process. 

Melissa Breau: Gotcha. That makes sense. Your foundation tracking class is on the schedule for April, as is your tracking skill-building class. That means registration is open until the 15th. Can you just talk a little bit about what you cover in each class, who might want to consider them, if there's anything that students need to know maybe before jumping in? 

Lucy Newton: The 101 class is really just that. It's the brand new to tracking class. It also tends to get a fair number of brand new to Fenzi people within that class too, which is good. But it doesn't assume anything. Sometimes we get people that want to go back and improve some foundations, get to a certain point and realize that they're missing some pieces, so to go back and put in a little bit of foundation always helps. But a lot of times it's just brand new dogs. A lot of times it might be younger dogs that aren't ready for other sports, but a lot of times we get older dogs that this is their retirement sport, which is pretty cool too.

I actually have a puppy in my class too. I really love it when I get puppies. I think it's the best great thing for puppies because … I like puppies because they have not learned to look to us for all the answers. So I always like teaching my puppies to track because they're just these little sponges of, "Hey, cool, there's food out here. I wonder if she knows about this." They aren't really looking to us for information. They haven't occurred to us that we have all the answers yet, so they're just really fun to track.

But it's just dogs brand new to tracking. The question that I get a lot of that we want to cover is whether dogs can do both nosework and tracking, and they absolutely can. Every police dog is trained to … usually most of them are trained to find some odor substance and also to track. They look very different to the dog, and that's where that start routine/end routine, really explaining to them the different contexts. But the only thing I probably wouldn't do necessarily, unless somebody has a lot of time, is start both things at the same time.

Melissa Breau: Fair enough.

Lucy Newton: I probably wouldn't go Nosework 101 and Tracking 101
at the same time, unless you're like me and this is all you do 24/7, and then you could space it out over the course of the day enough that it would look different. But it's probably easier just to focus on one. So that's a 101 is just brand new to tracking.

Skill-building, there's 101 and 102. Those both have lectures involved, and we're progressively adding things as we go along to those two classes. So 101 will be in April and then 102 will be in June.

The skill-building I think was my first set of classes where students just wanted to keep going, and at that point there's not a lot more lecture I can give, because a lot of it's just increasing the spacing between targets and just really working on the turns and making the turns precise. So it was more them continuing to train under my supervision is how the original skill-building class came in. So there's not really a lecture to there. It's just them getting more mileage before they get turned loose on their own to continue to increase the challenges and make the track longer. 

Melissa Breau: As a final question, the question I've been asking folks is what's a lesson that you've learned or that you've been reminded of recently when it comes to training?

Lucy Newton: I don't know if I can call it "recently," because I do so many different types of training, like, with my service dogs, and when I train the service dogs, the veterans of PTSD come and stay with me and train, so they're with me for a couple of weeks. We basically teach them how to train their dog. So I do a lot of different venues and different types of training.

The underlining thing is that I give the same lectures because it's all shaping behavior. Whether it's nosework or tracking, we overlook a lot of times with the scent sports that we're still shaping a behavior. The odor is a cue. Bringing the dog up to the start of the track and presenting them at the start of the track is a cue for the behavior. Me setting up a certain environment to get repetitions of the behavior that I want is important, but that's my underlying approach to everything is it's just shaping behavior, regardless of what the venue is.

So when we really look at it at that point, and the same thing for problem solving, I always tell, especially my 101 class, I'm always telling them we want the track to teach, to shape, this behavior. We want the track to do the teaching. So our goal is to set up an environment that will create this behavior that we want that gets reinforced.

Tracking is a little bit of a challenge because, with the articles out there, the reinforcement or what's valuable to the dog, what the dog is trying to find, is already there, so you have to really be aware of how the dog went about getting that reinforcement. You can't withhold it because it's laying out there. So if my dog is casting around and spots something with his eyes and gets food or gets the article and gets rewarded on the article, then that's what I've rewarded is them picking their head up and looking for things.

So we need to be mindful of what we're setting up, but the same rules apply with tracking and with nosework that we're shaping the behavior that we want. When we're not getting the behavior that we want, we have to look at the environment and go, "How am I setting this up so that I'm clearly getting the behavior that I'm training?" I need to adjust it so that I can get the behavior that I want.

So that's been pretty much my whole career of dog training right there, because I teach a lot of different people and I do a lot of different types of things, but I don't really change it. I give the same lecture. I just have to repackage it for whatever venue that I'm working in. 

Melissa Breau: I like that. That's a good reminder that no matter what you're teaching, ultimately it comes down to the same kind of training principles. 

Lucy Newton: Correct, right.

Melissa Breau: Thank you so much for coming on the podcast Lucy!

Lucy Newton: Thank you for having me.

Melissa Breau: Absolutely. And thank you to all our listeners for tuning in!

We'll be back next week with Sharon Carroll to talk about positive training in the equine world.

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Today's show is brought to you by the Fenzi Dog Sports Academy. Special thanks to Denise Fenzi for supporting this podcast. Music provided royalty-free by BenSound.com; the track featured here is called "Buddy." Audio editing provided by Chris Lang.

Thanks again for tuning in -- and happy training!

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