As an average dog owner, you might have seen search and rescue dogs and thought to yourself “I wish my dog could do that too”. Well, the good news is, you very much can learn how to train a tracking dog. And yes, your dog doesn’t even have to be a purebred tracking dog to do it.
Both mixed breed dogs and tracking dogs can use their noses to try to track down elusive quarry. Just don’t expect mixed-breeds to perform better than dogs specifically bred to track.
How to Train a Tracking Dog (or any dog, for that matter)
Search and rescue dogs’ trainers have a 5-step training process for new doggy recruits. You can easily model a dog training course after these steps, even with ordinary household objects. Let’s get started.
Intro to Tracking: The Short Search
To begin training your dog to track, you start simple: getting them to detect a hidden object by following a straight line. A leash and harness are essential here, but if you can get by with just a collar if it’s enough to control your dog with.
Try to get a long leash, around 20 to 30 feet long, to allow them more slack. Otherwise, they might think all of their tracking targets are always in a straight line from their position.
To begin, place an object that gives off a strong or pungent odor someplace hidden. If you’re willing to go further, you can even bury it to exercise your dog’s ability to dig. Along with this object, place a treat to give them positive reinforcement for their performance.
It’s better if the object they’re looking for is the treat itself, such as a hot dog for example. If your dog has a taste for hot dogs, they will be great at tracking them down.
Then, you create what professionals call a “scent patch” or “scent pad”. A scent patch or scent pad is a surface on which you impress the scent of the thing you want your dog to track. If you’re going to use a hot dog, rub some hot dog residue on a piece of cloth or other object, and have your dog smell it.
Afterwards, hide whatever item you used so they can try to regain the scent. Make sure to start your dog at a point that’s a straight shot from the place you hid the target object. Give them a lot of slack on the leash when they start searching, and only tug them towards the right direction if they’re going too far off track. Alternatively, you can also make use of a GPS fence for dogs, such as a Halo pet fence, to subtly nudge them towards the direction of the target object. These devices often come with training apps to guide you in using it them on your pups. Once they unearth the prize, make sure to praise and pet them heartily.
As with any kind of training, it’s best if you begin early in the pup’s life. As the old saying goes, you can’t teach an old dog new tricks. And it’s going to be difficult to teach scenting to a dog who has barely used their nose all their lives as well.
Raising the Bar: Complex Short Tracks
If your dog successfully completes the training session, raise the difficulty of the search. Professional trainers do this by extending the track, and adding more scent sources every dozen feet or so. You can also skew the track instead of having your dog follow a relatively straight path. Just remember to keep it simple so that your dog doesn’t get too confused.
To make things more interesting, select areas with slightly more confusing terrain. If your dog is having difficulty, lay down what’s called a “treat track”. This essentially entails placing treats along the path you want them to take. Alternatively, you can just place treats on the scent sources along the track.
In order to keep things fair, as you make the track more difficult, you should also leave more clues to help your dog along. This includes visual cues left in plain sight, such as crushed grass and scuffed wood to give the impression that their quarry had passed by there. To accompany this you should also leave plausible smells, such as grass scent and the scent of the object they’re hunting, in the air. You can use a spray bottle to do so. This will hone their air scenting skills as well.
The Long Search
Once your dog has mastered the short search, it’s time to have them engage in the long search. For these training purposes, you’re advised to create more and more convoluted tracks to get your dog used to the process of tracking things down.
Similarly to the short track sessions, lay down scent sources and a few treats or your dog’s toys throughout the area for them to follow. Increase the density of treats and scents closer to the target.
You may want to get a GPS fence or dog tracker to keep them monitored for more difficult searches.
The Unknown Search
This is the phase in which things get serious. The unknown search entails seeking out an object that has left scents and traces on the environment organically. One of the most common targets set for most dogs trained for tracking is deer, because of how widespread they are and how often they leave scents and traces. However, there are also special bird hunting dogs and some small hunting dog breeds that are equally skilled at tracking.
However, if you’re not a hunter, or if your dog is having difficulty, you can artificially create a natural-looking scenario by tracing a blood trail and placing a conspicuous scent target, such as a dead deer, at the end of your track. Make sure to leave clues along the path as well, such as by rubbing the deer leg on a tree trunk, stripping some branches off of a bush to make it look like a deer ate from it, etc.
Alternatively, you can also rub your own human scent onto the environment, and challenge your dog to find you.
The Final Test: An Unknown Search, With Distractions
In the real world, no tracking dog will undertake a search without distractions. Even the most seasoned search and rescue hounds have to deal with this. So as a final test, hunt down the most elusive prey in your area, or create the most complex track you can, while having your dog deal with temptations along the way.
These can entail everything from treats to toys to other types of quarry that they’d want to chase after, such as squirrels. If you want to make it more challenging, you can even confuse the air scent by spraying some hot dog water along the path.
Frequently Asked Questions
When should I start training my dog for tracking?
The best time to start employing training methods is as early as possible. As soon as a puppy can function on their own, you can begin simple training sessions, and raise the difficulty as your pup masters them.
Can any dog be a tracking dog?
All dogs have evolved to depend on their noses to get food. Whether it’s blind dogs, neutered dogs, purebred or mixed breed, they can be taught to become a tracking dog.
What is the best dog for tracking deer?
Certain breeds have been specifically bred for tracking deer. These most effective ones include labradors, dachshunds, beagles, and bloodhounds.
Which dog has the best tracking skills?
Purebred dogs of breeds that were purpose-built to be tracking dogs naturally have the best tracking skills. These include the german shepherd, the bloodhound, the labrador retriever, and the malinois. However, dog training can make any dog as competent at tracking as most other dogs. And contrary to popular belief, spayed and neutered dogs are no worse at tracking than intact dogs.