Dog trains man

Sunday, May 9, 2010

How to: Going your first track

Dogs love to find and follow scents. They discover the outside world with their nose. Its what drives them to go out for a dog walk. Tracking plugs directly into this elementary need. Making tracking one of the most rewarding training forms for the dog.

Teaching a dog to track is not difficult at all. They can already do it. And we can learn to be a part of it. Do you like to give it a try? Here is how to go your first track. The next two videos show how to lay and go your very first track. After the videos there will follow some more detailed instructions.

Now that we have laid the track, we are going tracking with Viva the Hovawart. She joined our family recently and I have only done some "find it!" excercises with her, so this will be her first real track you will see! For the sake of the video I made it difficult for her by crossing a path in the field where I laid the track. That way I am sure she will go off the track and I can show you what to do.

So far a quick video introduction. Did you notice how natural it was for Viva to follow the scent? Dogs just do that, the only thing we have to teach them is to follow the same scent and mark objects along the track. Now some more detailled instructions to help you on the way.

Laying the track

First of all, you will need some gear:

  • two flags/markers to mark the start and end of the track;
  • a leash, as long as possible;
  • preferably a harness, but a normal collar will do. No choke collars because your dog will do a lot of pulling and breathing when on track;
  • lots of treats;
  • an object like a cell phone, a purse, etc., what we want the dog to find by tracking.
  • water, dogs get very thirsty when tracking
When you and your dog start to enjoy tracking there is plenty of opportunity to buy special tracking gear. To get a taste of tracking, the above will do just fine.

Find a grassy area which is as undisturbed as possible and where there are not too many distractions. Going to a busy park can set you up for failure, as your dog will find many tracks and also see and hear things that might be of more interest then going tracking with you.

Tie your dog to something or let somebody hold him. Now you can start laying the track. The track should always go downwind. This will force the dog to put his noise down to find the track. Mark a triangle in the grass the size of your dog. Trample/stomp all the grass inside the triangle. Put a flag in the ground left of the triangle so you have marked where the track starts. Start to walk in a straight line. Make small heel-to-toe steps and leave a treat beneath every other step.

The first track shouldn't be long. We just want to have a success out of it and have the dog to learn that following one particular scent track will lead to a reward. You can make longer tracks later. A track of max. 30 meters will do.

At the end of the track, lay down the object you took with you and put some treats on top of it. Now take 5 big steps forward and put the second flag/marker in the ground. Return to your dog in a big circle, well away of the track you laid.

Now we have a track that is made up of human scent and the scent of crushed vegetation that the dog can follow. Wait at least 10 minutes before going the track. That will allow all the scents to start settling in. Don't worry about taking too long time, the ideal time to follow a track is after 30 minutes.

Going the track

Put your dog on the leash and give him the "down" command, so that he is laying inside the triangle at the start of the track. Try to calm the dog and wait until his nose comes down and begins to sniff in the triangle. If necessary motivate by moving your fingers through the grass in the start of the track. When the nose comes down and the dog begins to sniff he has picked up the scent. Immediately give him the "track" command, and make a forward move with you body encouraging him also to move forward. Let him follow the first steps and discover the first treat.

Follow behind the dog with the leash extended as much as possible. Use the flag/marker at the end of the track to check if the dog is still on the track. When you are on track just follow to dog. No praising or sounds at this time, that will only distract the dog. When you can see the dog is off the track, stop walking. And here again, no commands whatsoever. The dog will start to circle trying to find the track. As soon as he finds the track again, follow. First when you see the dog is making no effort to find the track or is distracted by something in the surroundings and has forgot about the track, get him gently back to you and show him the track and use the "track" command again.

Don't be disappointed when your dog goes off the track. It is his first, and he hasn't understand yet to follow one particular track. He has probably picked up another scent track and is following that. Just stop and let him on his own return to the original track. Dogs are fast learners, they can smell the difference in scents for a track, and will quickly understand that following the same scent gives a reward.

It is possible the dog is going slightly beside the track but seems to follow its direction. Don't worry about this, it is probably caused by a change in wind direction, which blows the scent away from the track. The treats you used on the track will draw the dog back to the original track.

When you come at the end of the track, stand still exactly at the moment the dog has reached the object you placed. Now is the time to praise! and make it loud! This will teach the dog that he tracks to mark or retrieve an object.

Congratulations, you have finished your first track! How was it to have your dog in the lead?



  1. Wow, this really makes me want to go and try it right away! Can't - middle of the night right now :-)

    I find it fascinating in the winter, when I can actually see what my dogs are tracking from the prints in the snow.

  2. Happy to hear you want to give it a try. In daylight :) Looking forward to hear how it will turn out.

    The snow helps us to see and understand what they are doing and it is fascinating to follow indeed. Dogs can track in all weather types. Only when it is raining a lot (like in pouring down) or when it is very hot and dry, their scenting ability is affected by the weather.

  3. This is a really good "How-To" kind of article/blog. Usually, whenever trainers/coaches give me directions, I have about a million "what if?" questions, and I'm never satisfied with what they have to say.
    I don't even have any questions about the directions, or what to do if things don't quite go as planned. (Although, with my deer-in-the-headlights, stress could equal having to find a high note and try again later.)

    This is very well thought out and very well put together.

    Does the thirsty-scent-dog-syndrome have to do with all the mucus...? I've read at least three nose books that mention scent dogs being thirsty a lot when they're working.
    Also, I read somewhere that long ears help scenting? Is there any merit to that?

    Um... wow. Long as can be for a comment. Yipe. @_@
    Enjoyed the read. Excited to try it out at home, and also excited for the next installment!

  4. @JJ
    Still expect a lot of surprise when doing your first track :) Try to trust your dog and see where it gets you, and you will find more answers. But please also post them here, I will be happy to answer. Or at least try to answer. Also working on a post "troubleshouting tracking" for these "ok ... what now?" moments. Coming soon!

    The thirst. Somehow they have to lubricate their scenting system. Analyzing the scents changes their way of breathing and this makes them longing for water. You will notice when you make the track. Because of the many treats they will be very interested and make lots of consequetive sniffs. But they are not "breathing", just letting the air pass their olfactories. You will notice because even it looks like they are breathing, they regularly put the noise up in the air and gasp after oxygen ... And right after a track they start to drink a lot. On longer tracks you also should give them water breaks.

    Fun you ask about the ear-size. They are so many fairytells going around. Probably because we humans cannot check what they are doing. The dog is simply better at scents then we are. So us humans have to come up with some kind of explanition :) Every dog can track and scent unbelievable good. The only difference is small and large dogs, but that is because large dogs have more olfactory cells then small dogs. And therefore can distinguish more scents. The dogs scenting capability depends on the amount of olfactories, not the size of their ears. But don't be sad for the small dogs, it's still a scenting capability that could point out each individual human on this globe.

  5. Oh! Aha to the thirsty-scenting-dog syndrome. I'll make sure to have lots of water this weekend. =] ....And a really, really long leash.
    I think the reason that the guy mentioned (in Stanley Coren's book... haha. Everything comes back to this guy today) is that the ears swoop down and help the scent get to the nose. It *sounded* reasonable, but I'm sure it is just another myth. =]
    I read that (also in same book) certain breeds of dogs are better at certain types of hunting. Like bloodhounds for tracking, GSDs for air scenting, etc.
    ...Can you work against a dog's natural tracking instincts and make him just as good at another type of scenting or is that something inadvisable? I don't know how I'd feel about trying to train a dog who is best at tracking to air sniff like a GSD, simply because I don't know how that would work. Hmmm. So many questions!
    Anyway, thanks for answering!

  6. Movement of the ears has probably to do with the use of the facial muscles forcing the air to flow along the olfactory.

    Bloodhouds are naturel trackers, but thats also because we humans breed on that.

    Any dog can learn to track/trail and/or do air scenting. When the dog tends to use air scenting, you have to get him to put his nose down on ground. Treats on the track. Go older tracks, because the human scent disappers before the crushed vegetation scent. Going downwind. And stop as soon as your dog goes only a little of the track. Actually, they will get it in no time.

  7. I don't know about getting it in no time ... Hahaa.

    I took Kittie outside and followed the directions, telling her to "track" when she started to sniff around the triangle (which was accidentally more of a circle!)

    Obedience and agility buff that she is, she stopped and asked me for direction by looking up at me not two seconds after she started to sniff. When I waited, she laid down and waited too.
    ....and didn't put her nose to the ground.

    So, I tried to start over again. She wouldn't sniff...too anxious because she didn't understand what I was asking of her.

    Eventually, I tried to teach her to put her nose to the ground - successive approxamations and all that. We worked from "nose" (nose on ground) to "sniff" (take a whiff) to "find it!" Find it just so happens to mean run toward the treat I just tossed and you'll eventually have to put your nose on the ground to find out exactly where it went.
    I may be messing this all up, but Kittie needs teensy steps for a lot of things. (We taught her to weave one pole at a time.)

    This all seemed so straight forward until I tried it. Go figure!

    So. For troubleshooting, how low level can I start when I'm teaching to track? Am I going about it all wrong? (I even used "Ready" which gets her all amped up and dancing. Pretty good for a nervous dog, if I do say so myself. She was excited and wanted to figure it out, but isn't a dog who typically uses her nose much at all. Silly little lady.)

  8. Absolutely! Nervous obedience buffs are the most difficult. They need to be calm and want to work for themselves, almost the opposite! Here is what you can do.

    Try using more and/or better treats. If you put one treat every other heel-to-toe step, do one every step. Use the best treats you have. She is happy for treats? Do you also use those when doing obedience training?

    She is used to get instructions. Ignore her as much as possible, don't make a sound and look the other way. Don't even whisper a "good girl" when she is on track. She really has to find out by herself. Only praise when getting to the object at the end of the track (make it loud).

    Try using more time to calm her down in the tri angle. Put her in "down" and stroke her gently until she has calmed down. There can go several minutes with that. Kenzo had a set back a half year ago and was too anxious. I had to wait almost 5 minutes before he would have calmed down enough to track.

    Good you didn't pushed her to continue when you saw she didn't got it. Just tossing some treats on the ground and let her search it was a good thing you did to get some kind of success out of it.

  9. This is so fascinating! I don't think a lot of dog owners get exposed to this unless their dogs are working in a capacity that requires it or are competing. It's nice to be able to share "how-to's" with people. Thanks!

  10. Glad you like it. It just updated the post with some videos that hopefully make it more clear.

  11. Thank you for this article. We have a rescued blind hovawart (blind from birth now 5) and are at times stuck for things to stimulate him. Reading this article makes me think that it is potentially something to try. Would you see a problem with this?

    1. How wonderful you have rescued this Hovawart.

      Tracking is a great idea. I am sure he/she will find it very rewarding to follow the scent on a track. It is a wonderful experience for the handler too, when you see how your dog acts on scent first, before sight and hearing. When tracking, all dogs are a "little blind" :)

      I would love to hear your story, how you came together and how it is to care for a Hovawart that is blind. I am sure it will be inspiring. Would you consider writing something for Hovawart School of Witchcraft & Wizardry to feature on this blog?


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