Dog trains man

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Sniffing for Footprints: why Tracking is not always Tracking

The tracking posts on this blog raised some questions I would like to answer. Some asked if they could start with tracking for search-and-rescue. And some questioned if treats laid down on the track itself is proper tracking training. Before I can answer these questions, we first need to clear something up.

Basically both questions reveal the same misunderstanding. "Tracking" is a commonly used term for dogs following a scent. But sometimes tracking is not tracking. There are different styles involved. These styles are air scenting, trailing and - actual - tracking. Each style fits the task we want the dog to perform.

Air scenting

With air scenting the dog focuses on air born rafts. This is used when there is no specific track - like when you are searching for drugs, money etc. Or in rescue situations, like searching collapsed buildings for survivors. With air scenting the dogs usually scent for a specific category of scents, not necessarily individual scents.
When searching for a missing person, the point is to reach that person as soon as possible. Even when the track itself already has evaporated. Sometimes following the exact track or trail is not the fastest way to get to the person, as the picture on the left illustrates perfectly. Air scenting would still give success in those cases.


With trailing the dog is focused on the rafts of a particular person that have fallen down along that person's route. They sniff for an individual scent belonging to an individual person.

Because of the wind they usually follow the track close, but not exactly. Dogs can trail quite fast and trailing is therefore ideal when the goal is to reach the person as soon as possible.

With trailing the handler usually has a scent article of the lost person they want the dog to find. We not only want to to find "a" person, like when air scenting, but also want to find the exact person we are looking for. They should be able to pick them out of a group if necessary.


With tracking we want the dog to slowly and methodically follow the exact track of a person and indicate the objects they find along the track. They focus on the ground and use deposited rafts and disturbed surface to follow the track. This gives the characteristic nose down posture we know so well.

Because the scent of a disturbed surface sustains a lot longer than human scent, tracking dogs have the ability to follow the oldest of tracks, from which human scent already has disappeared.

In K9 police work tracking is used as they also set out to find any evidence a criminal might have "lost" along the way. Finding evidence is almost as important as finding the criminals themselves.

There is no "best" way. But depending on the task at hand, one of the specific styles will fit best. Dogs can master multiple styles.

Which brings me back to the first question. Can we teach our dogs tracking for search-and-rescue? The answer to that would be a no. When we are searching for a missing person, we want to find them fast, and a tracking style is too slow to be an option. When there is still a track available we can use trailing, or when too much time has past and the track has evaporated, we can use air scenting.

On the second question about using treats on the track during training sessions, the answer would depend if we are talking about trailing or tracking. With tracking, treats on the track are needed to learn the dog to slow down, and also to let the track itself become the reinforcer. When the reward would first come at the end of the track, all dogs would rush ahead to get their reward. Using treats on the track and no reward at the end creates trackers - no treats on the track and a reward at the end creates trailers.

Kenzo is getting quite savvy in both air scenting and tracking. And since last month's nosework camp, we have been training a lot with following the individual footsteps as required in tracking, and getting his focus back on the track. Before nosework camp, I trained Kenzo without treats and a reward at the end which explains the problems we encountered. It made him move towards a "trailing" style, not "tracking". Her is the last video from yesterday's session, and you can see the progress he made. He is very focused and moves his nose from one footprint to the next:

What do you think? Does it make sense to follow only trailing or air scenting style in search-and-rescue? And what is your opinion on using treats when training tracking?


All illustrations are from the excellent book about scent, "Scent and the scenting dog" by William G. Syrotuck. If you want to know more about the world of scent this is definitely the book to read. It is obligatory material on police K9 training schools. It is not so much a training manual, but more a thorough description of what scent is all about, and what your dog can do with it. After you have read this book, even a routine dog walk will never be the same. Welcome to the dog's world of scent!


  1. I really liked the video, Leo! I was wondering why Kenzo was focusing in individual spots every few feet, but then your comments in the video explained it.

    Kenzo is taking his job very seriously! And I must say, he has a very nice tail! So fluffy :)

  2. This was a really interesting post! I didn't k now all of that stuff about tracking vs. trailing!

  3. @Karen
    Kenzo's tail is a great indicator of what he is doing. When he is on track he wags it a little higher than usual. And when he finds the track initially or finds an object on the track, it stands still for a moment. With his tail, I can see from far away how he is doing :)

    @Pup Fan
    Thanks, I was afraid to scare people off with all the detail, but I am glad you liked it !

  4. This explains a lot, thank you so much for taking the time to break it down. I have always wondered why handlers lay treats down on the trail as it seemed so much like luring to my un-knowledgeable eye. But it makes sense now. I guess what I have been doing for fun with my dog is a lot more like trailing.

    Interesting stuff for sure and it makes dogs sound even more impressive than I'd already thought, which was a lot! Thanks for the great book recommendation!

  5. @Kristine
    Spot on Kristine, what dogs can do with scent is so impressive!
    Trailing comes very natural to a dog, so just keep on doing that with Shiva, you almost cannot go wrong, and she will love it. And I hope you like the book, scent is maybe not the most exciting to read about, but for me it elevated my understanding of the world Kenzo is living in.

  6. I grew up with beagles and I remember my dad's training technique to get a puppy interested in tracking. He'd tie a chunk of meat to a string and have us kids drag it around the yard. At the end of the trail he'd untie the meat as the puppy's reward. It was so much fun watching those big ears flopping as they unraveled the trail.

  7. @Amy
    Awesome, beagles are excellent trackers, I am sure they had a lot of fun with that!

  8. That was such a clear explanation and I'm really glad you included the illustrations and video.

    I think that understanding scent will become increasingly important to people who want to strengthen their relationship to dogs. Not understanding what scent means to dog is like misunderstanding the importance of vision to humans.

  9. @Pamela
    Did you read "Scent of the Missing" from Susannah Charleson ? It is a book about Susannah's experiences with Puzzle (a Golden) that she trains to be a search-and-rescue dog. What the book describes so wonderfully is how their relationship strengthens through all the training sessions, and Susannah efforts to understand Puzzle and how she sees the world. One of the best books I ever read.

  10. Admiring the time and effort you put into your blog and detailed information you offer!.. gps equipment tracking


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