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Tracking for Dogs: Tips for Beginners on Successful Scent Finding

07.10.2022 - Reading time: 4 minutes

Ein Beagle folgt auf einer Wiese einer Fährte

Tracking work is a form of occupation that is appropriate for your dog. It corresponds in full to its disposition because dogs are scent specialists. Their sense of smell is far superior to that of people when it comes to sensitivity and ability to differentiate. Turn your dog into a veritable sniffer dog and go tracking with it. Read in this guide about tips for tracking that are also suitable for beginners!


Tracking: the special search task

The ability to distinguish odours is about 1,000 times more pronounced in dogs than in humans. Depending on the breed of dog, their noses have 100 to 200 million olfactory cells. We humans only have around five million olfactory cells. So it’s no wonder that dogs are great nose workers. Tracking is a special type of nosework.

There is a special focus on the ability to distinguish different smells. In contrast to mantrailing, where the dog follows the direct scent trail of a human, which is made up of sweat, skin flakes and/or cosmetics, in tracking the dog follows a so-called “trail”.

The trail consists of:

  • Churned, broken or damaged earth surfaces
  • Crushed plants from which liquids and fragrances escape
  • Microbes and microorganisms

The dog’s tracking work or track search is mainly practised as a sport. Police dogs and trained search dogs for the rescue services mainly follow the direct scent trail of the scent layer, i.e. a wanted person.

Off we go: dog tracking instructions for beginners

Especially at the beginning of their career as tracking animals, dogs should not be overtaxed. Because nosework is exhausting for dogs. A dog breathes in and out a good 200 times a minute when sniffing, and their brain is also challenged. The area responsible for processing the sense of smell is larger than in humans. You should therefore take it slowly and start with simple exercises and simple tracks.

The equipment you need consists of a search harness for your dog and a leash three or four metres long, as well as treats that your dog likes very much. Take your dog to a meadow or field with little potential for distraction. Your dog should not have eaten anything for a short time beforehand so that the treats are really appealing. Also remember to reduce the amount of food you give your dog accordingly. While you lay the track, your dog will wait or will be tied up for a short time. Your dog is welcome to watch you lay the track. Take about 15 steps in one direction, stepping firmly so that there is a clear track in the grass and on the ground. At the beginning, place a treat in each footprint.

Lead your dog to the beginning of the track. Among professionals, the starting point is called the “exit”. Give the command “Search!” Your dog will follow the trail of treats and learn what a trail smells like. If it strays from the track, do not correct it, but praise it as soon as it picks up the track again. If you take it off the track before it can pick up the final one or two treats, it will be motivated to do more.

In the beginning, it is best to lay out clear and not too long tracks so that your dog can sniff them cleanly and find its target. Remember that tracking work is very strenuous for beginners.

Increasing the level of difficulty – always following the nose

After the first successful series of exercises, you can now increase the difficulty level. Here, too, your dog should neither be over- nor under-challenged. Firstly, omit every other treat on the track and do the exercise again. As an additional difficulty, bends and then right angles are added to the track. Observe the dog. Does it already unerringly find the next footprint without treats and find the right track without any detours? Then try to mark only every third footprint with a treat. At the end of a series of exercises, a larger reward can be waiting for your industrious tracker, because although this is an exciting and appropriate task for the breed, it is also a hard job for the dog’s nose and concentration.

In time the dog should demonstrate a concentrated and calm search behaviour, working out the angles laid out with confidence. The next level up is the incorporation of what are known as diversions on the search path. This is, for example, a crossing track laid by a second scent layer. In this series of exercises for advanced trackers, an object should be picked up or indicated by the dog at the target location. Only then is the reward given. A dog that picks up a scent cleanly and ignores all distractions and enticements is called a “clean scent tracker” by the professionals.

Would you like to deepen your knowledge of tracking with your dog? Then take your dog on more tracking expeditions. We have put together some tips for you in our guidebook on nosework.


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