Sporting Dog Series: Tracking

All about the sport of Tracking or Trailing with your dog.

I am sure you have seen the old prison movies with the bloodhounds baying into the wind and their noses to the ground as they scamper to and fro looking for their bounty, the prisoner that somehow escaped and is on the run, always in the woods and still in the middle of the night and in a rainstorm. The dog handlers are drugging all over the place. Here is a little-known fact, they still use dogs in tracking prisoners, and they ALSO use inmates from the prison as training quarry when they are working with the dogs to build up their skills. Imagine if you were a prisoner and it was your “job” to go out every day and “escape” just to be caught over and over and over again. Groundhog Day times 10! But did you know that tracking is becoming a trendy sport for pet dogs too? Tracking refers to a dog’s ability to detect, recognize, and follow a specific scent. Possessing heightened olfactory skills, dogs can detect, track, and locate the source of specific odors. This is a great exercise to teach your dog. It encourages bonding and uses a dog’s mental and physical capabilities. Our own Robert started his professional career working with and training tracking dogs with his first dog training company, Northwest Lifeline, in the early 1990s.

Prefer to listen? Check out the Dog Works Radio podcast below and subscribe for free on Apple Podcasts 

So what is tracking and why is it useful? 

Tracking or trailing is a first step in teaching a dog to perform search and rescue, to tree a raccoon, or even locate an autistic child that has wandered away from home.

There are lots of techniques in teaching a dog to track or trail. This podcast is going to focus on competition trials. Whether you want to compete or not there is a lot of information through the American Kennel Club and most local search and rescue clubs will often have fun events that use tracking trials.

A Tracking trial is an event to encourage dogs to make use of their strongest facility, the ability to follow a scent trail. The competition emulates the finding of a lost person or article in a situation where the performance of the dog can be fairly assessed. Because of this, the tracks laid are straightforward, not the wanderings that may characterize a lost person, nor do they include deliberate attempts by the tracklayer to deceive the dog.

Tracking Trial Basics

Although different organizations specify somewhat different rules, the basics of a tracking trial remain the same. The objective is for the dog to find the deliberately “lost” tracklayer and any articles they may have dropped along the track.

Generally, tracks are laid, marked, and mapped on the day previous to the tracking trial by the trial judge or steward. Tracks are chosen so that the judge or steward can easily determine where the track is located, and where articles are to be placed, even after the marks, ribbons, or flags have been removed. The length of the track, the number of corners, the number of articles left on the track depends on the level of difficulty of the track and the rules of the organization under which the trial is being run.

On the day of the trial, a tracklayer follows the marked track and removes any marks that have been placed on the track, then leaves articles of clothing on the track as specified by the steward or judge, including one at the end of the track. After a specified time, depending on the difficulty of the track and the requirements of the rules of the organization, the dog and handler is directed to the track and find the tracklayer and articles as required. The dog is usually worked on a 10-meter or (30-foot) lead, but the length of lead actually used depends on the terrain.

In general, a dog must work continually as if genuinely looking for a lost person without assistance from the handler and find the required number of lost articles and the tracklayer at the end of the track, for the dog to be awarded a pass. This pass can also be graded on the quality of the work. After the required passes have been awarded, the dog may apply for a tracking title according to the rules of the organization the trials have been run under.


Begin by choosing an area to train your dog. Training your dog to track can be done indoors or outdoors. Because various weather elements (e.g., wind, temperature) can affect scent molecules, you may want to start his training inside to keep the scent in one place, so to speak.

  • Whether you train inside or outside, try to eliminate potential distractions, such as other pets, people and loud noises.

Select an object for your dog to track. Although there are many ways to hone your dog’s natural tracking instincts, most dogs will enjoy following the scent of their favorite toy. Choose your dog’s favorite toy, and use it for each training session.

Play fetch with your dog. Playing with your dog before your training session will get him warmed up and excited to train. Fetch is a great game to get your dog warmed up because it is so similar to tracking. Play with your dog for about 10 to 15 minutes before beginning your training session.

Command your dog to sit and stay. Spend some time teaching your dog these commands if he is not yet familiar with them. Having him stay in one place will teach him patience and will help your track training go more smoothly.

  • Attach your dog’s leash to his collar when he is situated in one place.

Hide your dog’s toy in plain sight. Although your dog’s tracking sense is likely very sharp, his training should first involve him retrieving his toy when it is in plain sight. While your dog is seated or standing in one place, hold the toy in front of him. Allow your dog to watch you as you place the toy where he can see it

[bctt tweet=”Tracking or trailing is a first step in teaching a dog to perform search and rescue, to tree a raccoon, or even locate an autistic child that has wandered away from home.” username=”alaskadogworks”]

Command your dog to retrieve the toy. Pick up your dog’s leash and give him a verbal cue to get the toy. Familiar cues include ‘search,’ ‘seek,’ and ‘find it.’

  • Your dog may follow your command with ease the first time. On the other hand, your dog may not initially understand what you want him to do.
  • If your dog needs extra help, guide him with his leash to the toy. When he has the toy in his mouth, run back to your starting position, and encourage him to follow you with the toy still in his mouth.[10]
  • Tell your dog to drop his toy when you and he reach the starting position. You may need to practice hiding the toy and giving your dog the verbal cue several times until he can retrieve the toy without your guidance.
  • Reward your dog immediately with verbal praise and a treat when he retrieves the toy.

Hide the toy where your dog cannot see it. To challenge your dog, hide your dog’s toy so that it is out of his line of sight. This will allow your dog to use his nose, rather than his eyes, to find his toy. Examples of where you can hide his toy include a different room, under furniture, or under a cardboard box.

  • As you did before, command your dog to sit or stay, hide the toy, then command him to find it.
  • Remember to allow him to sniff the toy before you hide it.
  • Reward him immediately when he finds the toy and brings it back to you.

Use the wind to improve your dog’s tracking skills. Once your dog has gotten good at using his nose to find his toy, challenge him even more by incorporating wind into your training. After you hide the toy, stand downwind of it with your dog. By facing downwind, the wind will carry the scent of your dog’s toy to his nose, allowing him to find it more easily.

  • Downwind means that the wind will be in your face.
  • If you stand upwind, your dog will actually have to run past the toy until he is downwind of it. He probably won’t mind doing this, but it may increase your training time.

Have a helper hide the toy. This is another way to challenge your dog during your track training sessions. As you stand silently with your dog, have someone else hide the toy while your dog is watching him or her. Command your dog to retrieve the toy when the helper comes back to you.

  • Your helper may need to initially hide the toy in an easy place so your dog can adjust to someone else hiding the toy. Your helper can then escalate the difficulty by hiding the toy in a harder place to find and not having the dog follow his or her movements.
  • Make sure not to verbally encourage your dog to follow your helper’s movements. Your dog will probably look at you rather than your helper.