Clifford and I went to Montana and passed the TDX track. On *not-flat* ground. In the Mountains. Over bunchgrass, through snow bush, aspen and pine trees and along an old wagon road. He passed. That's the important part. The rest of this post is story telling, and gives me a chance to relive the thrill.
On Villa's last practice track, things didn't go as well as I'd have liked. The test had at least one "alternate" entry, so I pulled Villa out of the test and let the alternate entry run in her place (The dog, a Rough Collie from the Spokane area, also passed!) So, on the Thursday before the test, Clifford and I and all our "stuff" left Auburn for Missoula.
We arrived in Missoula fairly early on Friday, after spending the night in Coeur'd'Alene, Idaho. I drove out to near the tracking site where I'd been told I could practice with Clifford. Oh, my. The cover was bunchgrass with not much vegetation between the plants. The footing was tricky in places and there were lots of critter holes. It was sunny and a little breezy. I laid a short track up through some waist high snow brush, up a steep hill and along the top of the ridge. Then waited. And waited, and waited a bit more until the track was about 2 hours old.
Clifford picked up the track after casting a little at the start, moved along briskly to the snow brush where he cast back and forth to find just where I'd gone in. Once through the snow brush, he motored up the hill and cast for the turn on top. He paralleled this a ways away but came back to the two articles. At the "end", he got his special treat - a can of cat food. YUM. I considered this "acclimation" track a success. Clifford's attitude and performance were good. He got hot, though, and it gave me something to worry about. Sunday's forecast was for sun. Though the air temperature was only going to be in the upper 60's, the sun made everything feel hot.
We relaxed the rest of the day. I got to visit a friend and see her flock of Gotland sheep, which was quite a treat for me. Saturday, Clifford spent most of the day sleeping and I knitted, watched him, worried about sunshine and practiced positive visualization. Really. I think it helps. I "practiced" reading his body language, "rehearsed" his article finds and giving him water, and planned for lead handling in potential snagging situations.
Sunday, indeed, came with clear skies. We got to the site early enough to watch one of the TD tracks, then headed to the campground for the drawing. Three dogs were present for the TDX. We drew track number 2. A Golden Retriever from NW Montana drew track 1, and the Collie from Spokane - the one who got to run in Villa's place - drew track 3. The actual tracking site was a little ways from the campground, so we caravanned up the side of the mountain. At first the road was quite steep and through evergreen trees, but we soon broke out into grasslands punctuated by bands of trees. It was very, very pretty, and had nicer vegetation than the land by the campground.
The Golden started off well, but quickly ran into trouble and failed. We moved to the start of Clifford's track and had a few minutes to wait before it was aged the required 3 hours. I used the time to untangle my 40' tracking line and spray Clifford with water to help keep him cool. By this time a few clouds had rolled in, and it was only partly sunny. What a difference the clouds made!
When his track was ready, I put on his harness. He is so used to wearing it that he waits patiently and holds up his front legs one at a time for me to put them through the leg holes. Our start flag was only about 20 yards from the road and we walked over to it and the start article. In typical Clifford fashion, he just nosed the article and was ready to go. I clipped the line onto his harness and immersed myself into "reading" my dog. There was now no time for nerves; only time to watch Clifford and follow him on the track.
He cast in a couple of directions at the start, then moved purposefully away from the road with his head down and moving from side to side, taking in the scent. I stumbled on a critter hole and concentrated on letting him follow the track. The first leg went slightly downhill through the grass, and soon Clifford broke off and started casting around. His first corner? Yes! He zeroes in on the scent going off to the left and I follow. We go flat for a ways, then he jogs off to the right, slows and weaves a little. Cross tracks, I think to myself, and just like that we're continuing on the second leg, now going uphill.
I'm occasionally jogging behind Clifford and am getting winded. Fortunately, he breaks off again and I get a breather. It's brief, though, as Clifford starts off again to the right, slightly downhill, through a little patch of brush and into more open cover where he stops! Stopping??? It's an ARTICLE! Yeaaa, Clifford! Throughout his tracking career, Clifford has cared little for articles; he'd much rather follow the track. Yet, here he was, with a very clear indication and definite stop. GOOD BOY! I went up to him, petting and praising, held up the article for the judges to see. We were both relatively fresh, and not in the sunshine, so I didn't offer Clifford any water. As I poked the article (a pretty, needlepoint, oversize checkbook cover) into one of my vest pockets, Clifford was off again.
After another little jog to the right (second set of crosstracks?), I could see that we were heading right toward a grove of trees, aspens, as it turned out, at a fairly steep angle. It looked impenetrable. As we got closer I could see what looked like maybe a clear path into the trees. Sure enough, with little hesitation, into the trees went Clifford. I had a chance to close up on him - in trees and bushes and other obstacles, the handler is allowed to move up to 10' from the dog. It helps to keep them from getting tangled, and to be close in case they need to be untangled. Going through the trees was challenging for me even though once we got in, the ground was relatively clear of brush. Clifford moved right along, occasionally going around trees. Once I wove with him, once I had to reach around a tree and grab the lead because there wasn't room for me to get through quickly.
Ahead of Clifford, it looked like the brush got thick and indeed, when he got there, he turned right and within a few steps was back out in the grassland! This leg was downhill and he moved right along. I was back to alternately jogging and speed walking... and the sun came out. It had been nice and cool in the trees and now it felt HOT.
I didn't have much time to think, Clifford disappeared over and down a berm. I got to the top just as he decided to go LEFT along the ... road? I had just formed the thought... I wonder if the judges would follow the road? when off he went, first on the right side of the narrow road, then on the left. I took three big jumps down the berm and onto the road to follow. This "road" turned out to be an old wagon road and was set several feet deep in the mountainside. It was rocky soil with little vegetation and a few trees growing at the edges. Past a couple of these trees, Clifford stopped again. ARTICLE TWO! Yes, oh, yes!
This time we were both hot and I got out the water bottle and his bowl. I poured water for him and he drank. Another unusual thing that told me, indeed, that he was getting hot. Clifford usually refuses water while he's tracking. Like leading the proverbial horse, I can only offer. I poured him a little more and he drank it, too. And I drank some. I held up the article for the judges to see, capped the water and stowed both. I had just enough time to pick up the bowl and pocket it as I followed Clifford off again, down the wagon road.
There probably is a lot of history in that wagon road. Several of the wagon routes west came through this area of Montana, but my mind was not on that. It was focused on Clifford. I tried to count how many legs and turns we'd had on the track so far, but couldn't do the multitasking. Clifford had broken off the wagon road just past a little tree and was up the left side berm. I could only react by scrambling up behind him as fast as I could. Once up off the road, I could see more grassland ahead of us. Clifford was headed straight toward a grouping of pine trees, uphill again. He wove through the pines and one grabbed my hat. I poked it back on before it left my head. The lead was almost all the way out and I didn't have much to maneuver with but I did get it passed around another tree. Winded again, I was doing my best to keep up with Clifford, when the next trees grabbed my hat and I let it go.
A little ways past the trees, we started through a section of low scrubby bushes. Clifford got through them, then started casting. And casting some more, and even more. For the first time during the track, I had time to look and try to guess which way the track went. I couldn't figure it out. He kept casting; I kept my attention on him. Finally he went to the right, but broke off after about 25 yards. I knew I had to let him work back to that section of bushes. It took a little time and he eventually came back to the bushes. He was hot and tired. I stopped him and offered more water and a rest. He again drank. I petted him and let him roll on his back on the ground. I got out the sock article and showed it to him, offered him more water, which he drank.
Now we were back in the middle of the bushes and he cast all the way back to one of the judges. This is the first time I'd seen the judges since we started the track, which is actually a good thing. Okay, so the judge should be on the track, but Clifford kept casting, this time on the left side of where he'd come through just a few minutes earlier. He was working and working. I again got out the water, but he refused it this time. He rolled on his back again. I scratched his back when he got up, showed him the sock and he started casting further to the left side of the patch of bushes. I ask the judge if I can move up to the 10' mark behind Clifford because the line keeps getting caught on the little scrubby bushes. He says "bushes are bushes" somewhat enigmatically, and I shorten up on the line.
The judges are by now well within their rights to call us off. Clifford has cast in this area numerous minutes, has stopped and rolled on his back twice and shown no indication of following the track, wherever it is. Clifford, does, however, get back to work and finally leaves the bushes, moving to the left along a line of heavy brush and trees.
He works the edge of the brush and gets caught on a little snag. I have to move up and pull the line off the little snag. As soon as he's freed, he goes back the other way around the snag and gets caught again. This time, though, as I get him freed up, he angles up the hill behind me and away from the trees and brush and starts looking like he's found THE TRACK! Relief floods through me and I'm back into "follow your dog" mode.
We're now moving through thinner vegetation with a lot of bare dirt showing. I can see the ground at Clifford's feet and mine. Any article should be eminently visible and I'm looking. Up a little rise next to a couple bushes, Clifford circles and pokes around with his nose. Nothing there. He pokes and circles a little more, but there is no article near him. I don't remember now who said something first. I remember shouting "He's indicating something." back toward the judges and hearing from them "Look back here!" Nooooooooooooo. We can't have missed the end article. I was dejected... but. There was no whistle to indicate we failed. Both judges are standing on the route we'd just traveled. I could see the ground between us. No article.
Clifford is still casting, circling, working back and to the right of where we'd just come through. Judge says "You look, too." What?? Then "Over there" just about the time Clifford finds The Glove. It was about 15 to 20 yards off to the side of where he'd just tracked. I met him at the glove with lavish praise, scritches, hugs, water. Afraid we hadn't passed, but also knowing something wasn't right. Then "CONGRATULATIONS!" from the judges. Oh, Amen, Amen and sweet relief. Clifford had passed the TDX track and earned the title "Tracking Dog Excellent". He made it look so easy up until the last corner, and that probably influenced the judges to let us work just a little longer on that corner.
All my attention is on Clifford, yet I hear the tracklayer say to the judges, "Yes, I put the article right here" - back on the track Clifford had been following, right next to a little tree. The judges verify, "yes, the article should have been right next to this tree." Then they're all up with Clifford and me, congratulating us. I'm grinning from ear to ear. Clifford is soaking up the attention.
We'll never know what happened at the end of Clifford's track. "Something" had removed his article and it ended up well off the track. Would he have come back to find it if I hadn't hesitated when I recognized his search pattern, and then heard the judges? or would he have followed the tracklayer's path off the field? Had that "something" also messed with his final corner? Perhaps dropping the glove there? Had a pack of coyotes played keep away with the glove? Crows picked it up and dropped it? I saw no scratches or bite marks on the glove. It's a mystery.
The rest of the day was pretty much a blur. The judges left to follow the Collie from Spokane - who also passed! The gallery who'd watched Clifford's last corner and the missing article swarmed us with congratulations and hugs and lots of wonderings and expressions of relief. I eventually made it back to the truck where Clifford got his can of delicious cat food and as much water as he wanted. I got to watch the Collie track across the hillside, under a downed tree and off toward their final article. We all celebrated at the campground. It was hard to leave. I wanted to stay. I wanted to go back up and rewalk Clifford's track, take photos, bask a bit more. Practicality won out and we headed for home. Victorious!
Start is at upper left.
Green line - approximate track
Blue line - approximate Clifford path
Red line - Planned Cross tracks
5th leg is on the old wagon road