Teaching a dog to track might seem like a process better left to a professional dog trainer. But in reality, any attentive and patient dog owner can train a dog to track. Once you have the right tools and necessary knowledge, all it takes is consistency and hard work to train the perfect tracking dog.
Before going into the process, setting your expectations realistically is essential. All dogs have different personalities, so they can also progress in their training at different rates. In this article, I’ll be explaining the best strategy for training your dog to track.
If you’ve expressed a desire to teach your dog tracking, you may have heard of the term “trailing.” While both are designed to achieve the same goal – following the scent of a person left on the ground by passing through their environment – a trailing dog has a little more freedom and independence in following their trail.
For example, a professional tracking dog used in the police force must not deviate from following the human’s footprints on the ground they are trying to track. If a trailing dog catches that human’s scent in the air, they can deviate off the path to find them – whether the human walked this new route or not.
Odds are, your dog is not a professional police pup, so whether you teach your dog tracking or trailing is entirely up to you!
The Process of Training a Dog to Track
To train your dog to track, you’ll need to engage in a multi-step process that gives your dog an understanding of the concept before introducing many of the complexities of real-world tracking, including strange terrain and distracting scents. You’ll also need to gather some essential supplies and determine the sites where you intend to train your dog to track.
If you’re ready to train your dog to track, you’ll need to start by gathering some essential supplies, including:
- A harness (which should be placed on them every time they train to associate wearing the harness with tracking). Depending on your dog’s personality, you may need to train them to wear the harness.
- Scented items
- A scented item to search for, such as dirty clothing or even meat.
- Scented water, which is made by putting the scented item in distilled water (NOT tap water, which already has scents) and allowing it to soak for several days.
- A scent article, such as another piece of dirty clothing or meat, will allow you to introduce your dog to the scent.
To start, you’ll need to ensure that your dog understands the concept of searching. You will need to teach your dog a cue, like “search” or “seek,” and ensure that they know the command tells them to retrieve something. This is relatively easy to accomplish with a dog familiar with simple commands like “sit” and “stay.”
Choosing an area to train your dog with few distractions would be best. Unpredictable elements like wind or the leftover scents from passing wild animals can be too distracting during the early stages of training. Hence, a controlled environment like a room inside the home or a fenced backyard is ideal.
Next, you can pick an object from your home (like a toy) to teach your dog how to “seek” it. There isn’t a particular type of object you need to use, however — objects like an unwashed shirt, your dog’s favorite toy, or even a hot dog are all good candidates for seeking.
Teaching the ‘seek’ command is simple. Start by commanding your dog to sit and stay and place the object within plain sight as they watch. Then, use your dog’s leash to bring them to the object while repeating the cue in a calm, neutral voice (such as “seek” or “search”). Guide your dog to pick the toy up, immediately giving verbal praise and a treat when it is retrieved. Then bring them back to where you started and repeat until your dog can retrieve the object on command.
After your dog understands how to “seek” objects, you can start giving simple seeking challenges to engage your dog. You will need a scented item, a scented article, and a scent trail. Using these objects, you can set up a trail for your dog to follow. You should hide the scented item somewhere that won’t be too challenging for your dog and then create a straight trail to the item by pouring some of the scented water onto the ground.
Once everything is set up, you should bring your dog to the training area and allow them to smell the scented article. You should then show your dog the scented area and command them to seek it. Once the dog finds the object, they should be immediately rewarded and given enthusiastic praise. You should repeat this scent training, creating longer trails each time. As your dog progresses, you should provide fewer treats each time to break the expectation for rewards.
Take Your Dog On Complex Searches
Once your dog has mastered simple searches, you can begin to change the location and scent to challenge your dog. You can continue increasing the trails’ length and introducing different trail shapes. You can introduce unique terrain like concrete and allow for environmental factors like the wind to begin to provide a challenge. The increases in difficulty should be subtle and incremental.
As your dog begins to master complex searches, you can start to simulate near-real-world conditions with your searches. You can create long, winding paths and introduce your dog to rugged terrains like rocky hills or wild trails. During this stage, you should look to simulate all possible conditions your dog may be exposed to train your dog to be consistently successful.
You should also make sure to challenge your dog by providing different scents. As mentioned in the last step, you should ensure that the difficulty increases are incremental — challenging your dog too quickly might lead to failure.
Once your dog can successfully track in most terrain, it’s time to start honing your dog’s ability to focus. This step is essential. When tracking through something like a wooded area, an untrained dog would easily be distracted by the scents of various animals that have passed through the site.
To train tracking dogs to distinguish between a distraction and a target scent, you can create two scents with distilled water and have the trails go together for some time before splitting. You will introduce your dog to the target scent and then allow them to follow the mixed trail. When the scents split, you should give your dog positive reinforcement for continuing to follow the target scent and ignoring the distracting smell.
Tracking is a handy skill set, whether used for saving lives, helping with a hunt, or actively engaging your dog’s mind. And while it might seem difficult to train a dog to track at first glance, the process is quite simple as long as you provide the necessary consistency and challenge for your dog to thrive.
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