6 Steps to Teach Tracking

Most people, when thinking of a tracking dog, visualize a baying Bloodhound or a hard working German Shepherd.

In reality though, most dogs can learn to track. Although dogs with shorter muzzles, such as Pugs, Bulldogs, and some Boxers, may have a more difficult time following a track, many dogs of these breeds have been successful in tracking. Tracking is often associated with search and rescue dogs but it can a be a competitive sport as well as a fun activity for family dogs.

Equipment Needed

This is not an activity that requires a lot of equipment but there are a few things you’ll need to get ahead of time. First of all is a harness. There are special, non-restrictive harnesses made for tracking but to begin you can use any harness with a D-ring on the dog’s back that doesn’t impede the dog’s forward progress. A no-pull walking harness won’t work as it does discourage pulling forward. If you find you and your dog like this activity, you can invest in a tracking harness later. You’ll also need a long leash, twenty to thirty feet long, that is strong enough to hold your dog when he’s pulling.

You also need to mark the track your dog is to follow. Most people use the small flags that are used to mark utility lines or sprinkler pipes. You can get these in garden or hardware stores.

Your dog will need to find something at the end of his track. Search and rescue dogs find a person but your dog can find one of your well worn gloves, an old well used leather wallet or even an old shoe. As you can tell, the item he is to find needs to smell strongly of you.

©istockphoto/Alex Potemkin

©istockphoto/Alex Potemkin

Find a Few Motivators

Dogs know how to use their nose to follow a scent. However, they follow a scent to satisfy their own curiosity so for tracking, we need to provide some motivation so the dog will follow the scent we wish him to follow. Food treats can be used and if you do use food, have some treats you know your dog likes a lot. A ball is a great motivator for some dogs as is praise. A tug toy and a vigorous tugging session can be a great motivator also. Choose two or three motivators and have them available for each tracking session.

A Place to Track

Advanced tracking dogs can track just about anywhere, including on concrete, asphalt, forests, meadows, swamps, and even downtown city blocks. For beginners, though, it’s preferable to begin on mowed grass. If you can, find a spot without much distraction that hasn’t had any foot traffic when you begin.

Laying Your First Track

You will be having your dog follow your scent. To begin, stand in the spot where you will have your dog begin tracking. Place one of your flags there. Then rub some hot dog on the bottom of your shoes. This is to get your dog interested and to begin sniffing. Take a few short, shuffling steps forward, looking ahead of you so you walk in a straight line. After five or six feet, begin walking normally. Place a flag every five or six feet and then at about fifteen to twenty feet, stop, place a flag, drop your item and place a treat on top of it. Then hop to one side and come back to the start a ways away from your track. Do not walk your track backwards; since that track will be a few minutes older and moving in the wrong direction it will confuse your dog.



Send Your Dog

Walk your dog up to the start of the track, give him the command you’re going to use, such as, “Sweetie, find it!” Your dog is going to be attracted to the scent of hot dogs and will begin sniffing there. He is, however, also going to smell crushed grass, disturbed dirt, your shoes, your clothing, and even shed skin particles. It’s a bouquet of scents.

As he begins moving forward, be quiet and let him concentrate on his nose. Let him move forward from you, too, and let that long leash play out. On short tracks like this, walk about 10 feet behind your dog. The leash can be a little taut so you can feel his movements but don’t drag behind him.

When he finds your article let him eat the treat, praise him, then ask him to sit so that he learns that will be his signal to you that he’s done. Then give him his additional motivators. Toss his ball or play tug with him. He’s an awesome dog; let him know it. Do three or four short tracks just like this, using a fresh track for each one, then stop for the day.

On your next training session, make the tracks a little bit longer. Maybe thirty feet long instead of fifteen to twenty.

Increase the Difficulty

After several tracking sessions of straight tracks, then introduce a corner to the right or the left. Let your dog figure this out by himself; don’t attempt to steer him around the corner. Vary the tracks also by having a long first leg or a short one before adding the corner. Train in different places, too. Lay the track in short grass or long grass, and in different types of grass.

When your dog is following your track easily then ask a friend to lay a few tracks for you. Explain the process, including rubbing hot dog on their shoes, then step away and let them do it just as you did. They should drop their item at the end. Your dog may hesitate initially but will quickly adjust.

As your dog gets better, remove the hot dogs from the process. After all, he has also learned to smell a human’s individual scent as well as the grass, dirt, and other scents. However, if your dog becomes confused at some point, bring the hot dogs back for a refresher.

You can also add a second article to the track. It can be one with your scent that you’d like your dog to find or it can be someone else’s item without any of your scent (handle and store it in a plastic bag). You want your dog to pass on by that item as it isn’t yours (or your track layer’s).

Tracking can be as easy or challenging as you like it. You can keep it easy with short tracks and lots of rewards for your dog or you can increase the difficulty. It’s entirely up to you.

Meet the Author: Liz Palika, CDT, CABC

Liz Palika is a Certified Dog Trainer and Certified Animal Behavior Consultant as well as the founder and co-owner of Kindred Spirits Dog Training in northern San Diego county. Liz is also the founder of Love on a Leash therapy dogs; her dog, Bones, goes on visits on a regular basis. A prolific writer, Liz is also the author of more than 80 books. Many of her works have been nominated or won awards from a variety of organizations, including Dog Writers Association of America, San Diego Book Awards, the ASPCA, and others. Liz shares her home with three English Shepherds: Bones, Hero, and Seven, as well as one confident and bossy orange tabby cat, Kirk. To relax from work, or to take work on the road, Liz and her crew travel the West and PNW in their RV. If you see an RV on the road named "Travelin' Dogs", honk and say hi!

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