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My First Tracking Class - A Lesson Learned in Context

My wife and I took the Ridgeback for her first tracking class last Saturday at the Oak Ridge Kennel Club. It was basically an introduction to tracking for the handlers, with a short hands-on exercise with the dogs to wrap things up. The exercise was not to have the dogs track at this point; the instructors wanted to get the dog to realize that there is something “out there” for them to find, and when they do find it they hit the jackpot with treats galore, exuberant praise, and playtime. The idea is to get the dogs to follow a trail of food from a starting point with one article, usually a sock or a glove, to the end where a matching article is located.

We laid the track by using a survey flag to mark the start of the track, and we would place the first article on the ground, step on it, and place a piece of food on top of it. We would then walk twelve to fifteen steps, place another survey flag, get the dog’s attention, wave the second article around while they were watching, then place it on the ground, step on it, and place a good treat on top. The handler then walked back to the starting flag, making sure to follow the exact path they took out, dropping food at every step, in effect creating a double-laid track for the dog to follow.

The handler then retrieved their dog, took them to the start of the track, and attempted to keep them on the track while the dog sniffed out the food that had been dropped, all the while staying behind the dog so that it had to work out what the task was. If the dog was having trouble finding the food, the handler was allowed to step up with the dog and help them find it. Once the dog reached the end of the track they were rewarded with more treats, and had a short play session with the handler, then another, slightly longer track, was laid and the exercise was repeated.

What I found interesting was how the dogs approached the task differently. One dog was so interested in getting to the end of the track that it passed up treats that were lying in plain sight. Another showed no interest in the treats at all, and was content to just sit at the start of the track until they were led from treat to treat, finally reaching the end of the track. The third dog would find one treat, and then begin searching to the side of the track until the handler directed it back to the track. The fourth dog started on the track, found each piece of food that had been dropped, until it reached the article at the end of the track.

On the drive home from class it struck me how important context was to understanding each situation. At this point it wasn't that some dogs were better at tracking than others, although that may prove to be the case; it was that the context was different for each dog. Since they knew nothing about tracking at this point, and had yet to figure out why they were there, each dog had a different objective in mind.

The dog that bypassed all the treats to get to the end was a younger dog that had been playing with his handler and the article they had brought, so his context was that he got to play some more when he got to the article. The dog that showed no interest in the treats and had to be led to each one had just been feed, wasn't really treat-driven, and had no real interest in finding the treats laid out on the track. The dog that kept going off track after finding a treat was distracted by one of its owners sitting off to the side, and so it kept trying to get over to them. The last dog that went from treat to treat was very food-driven, wanting nothing more than to find another treat.

My takeaway from this is that context-driven testing applies to more than just testing; it applies to the attitudes of the testers, as well as to managing those attitudes and testers. As a test manager I need to not only be aware of the attitudes of my testers, but I need to understand how context affects and shapes their attitudes. I need to be aware of how I can best work with them, assist them, and guide them in that context. After all, people, working together, are the most important part of any project’s context.


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