Tracking hound expert Thomas Müller shares his experience on conditioning both pups and hound handlers to ensure that they are literally up to following the right track
Training the puppy actually starts at the breeder’s kennel at about six weeks. I breed Styrian rough-haired mountain hounds and start with a piece of lung or intestine, dragging it for a few metres in a straight line somewhere in my garden, next to the kennel. At the end of the ‘trail’ I leave the lung and let the puppies out into the garden.
It is interesting to see how some of them will immediately find the fresh trail and follow it to the end. Conversely, some puppies will run around excited but will not able, or interested enough, to locate the scent source. Others will find the trail but are still too excited to follow it for any distance.
This is where I start selecting hounds as blood tracking specialists. The thorough and concentrated tracker at this early stage is the one I prefer for training as a scent hound specialist. A puppy with its nose down constantly, that doesn’t hear or see anything outside of its task and seems to live by its nose alone, is the one I usually choose. When buying a puppy, ask you breeder how the little hounds behave. Better still, watch the pups yourself, preferably working a simple drag trail, and try to choose the young hound accordingly.
A scent hound does not need to obey too many different commands, but it should be a reliable and obedient companion when tracking and stalking. The basics must be instilled: sit, stay, heel and recall. Thereafter it is mainly a case of harnessing the hound’s natural ability to track and reinforcing the basics. My hounds will progress to walking at heel with and without the leash for longer periods. They will learn to stop without any command, progressing to stopping automatically when I observe something. Furthermore, they will have to sit and stay at my rucksack for extended periods of time when I give them the command to do so. All of this is reinforcement of the basics instilled from an early stage. It is imperative to achieve this before progressing training any further.
Another important factor is the clearness of oral and hand commands. Often both are combined. Indeed hand signals are a progression of oral commands and will eventually replace the spoken commands when the hound is older and further advanced in its training.
Because I live in an area where we have red deer, roe deer, chamois and wild boar, I will not specialise my young hound to track only a single species. As a puppy and ever after, the youngster will get into contact with all of these species and the hound must be familiar with the scent and shape of its expected quarry. It could be disconcerting for a young dog fresh in the field to suddenly find itself opposite a large stag or a big boar when all it has seen so far is just a roe doe.
Equally, I use every opportunity to get the youngster into contact with all sorts of other animals that are not quarry species. We have horses and goats at home, and cows and sheep right next door. All these animals we might some day encounter when tracking wounded game. It should be natural for the hound to stay on its track even with a herd of cows or a bunch of horses following it through curiosity. Long walks and frequent visits to stables and barns will get the trainee hound accustomed to these animals and save problems in later life that may prove fatal or expensive.
I once had a friend of mine helping me track a wounded red deer stag. When his hound was loosed to chase a wounded stag that lifted from its wound bed in front of us, things went badly wrong. The track ended with the hound abandoning the stag and chasing a herd of young heifers. The farmer was very upset about the whole affair. When I talked to my friend afterwards, he explained his hound had never had contact with farm animals before.
The same applies to game birds like pheasants, geese and hares. Get the hound used to the scent and what they look like at an early stage, but discourage any attempt to chase them or show any interest in them at all. That will make life much easier for you, and your rate of successful ‘follow-ups’ will rise a lot.
If you want to specialise a hound to track a certain species, it is important to imprint this species on it from an early age. Show it all the other animals and game species you might encounter that are not quarry, and make it clear with negative conditioning that they should be passed by. But take every opportunity to instil positive conditioning with the species of your choice. Show the young hound the carcases, and feed parts of them to the hound. Any interest shown in other species should be instantly smothered and discouraged immediately, either by a sharp command or a tug on the leash.
That, of course, is one of the reasons why our young trainee hound will have to stay on the leash a lot. Roaming around freely will give the hound opportunity to find all sorts of different and very interesting things, such as fresh tracks, droppings or animals to chase. This uncontrolled action will make your job of training a calm and reliable companion much more difficult, so it is always better to be one step ahead and avoid scenarios that may undo all our good work as best we can. I understand that it is easier sometimes just to let the little bugger go. But time spent at this early stage is always well spent, because you will soon have a much easier job and a more reliable hound in the end.
There is one other part of training your young scent hound that should not be forgotten. Tracking wounded animals can be a challenging job, especially when you track wild boar or red deer in difficult terrain. Following your scent hound for long hours, often bent over, trying to avoid being hit by branches or brambles, descending into gullies and climbing out of them, crossing marshes or following your hound on the chase, might bring some trackers to their knees. I stay in shape with cross-country skiing and snow shoe hiking during the winter season, and hiking and horse-riding the rest of the year. Swimming and mountain biking are also on my training programme.
Most tracker dog handlers do some sort of physical training, either while at work or in their free time. You must be able to follow your scent hound at all times, no matter what the terrain, the vegetation or the weather – in short, you must be fit. The same applies to your scent hound. I have my hounds with me most of the time when working, but I still give them some additional training when the season starts. They have to accompany me on my long hikes in the mountains, forests and marshes, the long patrol rides I do on horseback, and – the most severe, in my opinion – following me on skis or snow shoes for long hours in deep snow.
During the summer period I train them with the mountain bike and I get them to swim over longer distances at every possible opportunity. But remember, a young scent hound should not be pushed too hard at the beginning. The training level should rise gradually, just as it should for you. A puppy of 10 weeks old should not do more than one or two hours of fast hiking a day.
After teething, the scent hound’s fitness and track training can be gradually increased – but only when it is fully grown at two to three years, depending on the breed, should a full training programme be fulfilled. This means your scent hound should be able to follow a track for six or seven hours on a hot and dry day and still be able to make a chase and keep a deer at bay or even pull it down for stronger types.
These are high goals, but for me this is often daily routine. Depending on your time and physical shape you may say this is way too much for you. No problem, but be sure you only start on follow-ups that you and your hound will be physically able to bring to a successful end. If you have a young, unproven scent hound, or feel the track may be too demanding, it is better to let another enthusiast with more experience take the track rather than jeopardise a follow-up right from the start. Your hound’s time will come, but being fit enough to follow it through will give you the greatest chance of making the most of what will be a lifetime partnership.