Scent Work: Training Your Dog To Track
Dogs are amazing! They have amazing noses and the ability to detect or use scent. A dog’s nose is 100,000 times better than yours! Even your pup has this amazing ability.
And scent work can be very rewarding for dogs!
So, let us talk about getting started on how to teach your dog to track! Because any dog can be taught this skill... even if your dog doesn't know much basic obedience yet!
German Shepherd, Blood Hound, Belgian Malinois, Dachshund, Shih Tzu… breed doesn’t matter.
My experience comes from both teaching Service Dogs how to find lost items (like their owner’s dropped or missing cell phone or the remote) and it also comes from learning from seasoned and skilled trainers who trialed and titled in Schutzhund. And, it comes from going to classes taught by expert police dog trainers and others whose jobs insist on good tracking! I have taken a bit from all of these experiences to best teach my dogs. taken a bit from all of these experiences to best teach my dogs.
The American Kennel Club also offers titles in tracking for dog training. And your dog doesn’t have to be a German Shepherd to play this game or get a title. Even mixed breeds of all shapes and sizes and ages can engage.
How To Start Training Your Dog To Track
I have worked with some amazing tracking and scent detection trainers! You should see what goes into having an explosives or a drug detection dog! It is pretty easy if you are willing to put in the time for how to teach your dog to track.
Thankfully, tracking is slightly less tedious for owner and dog!
Personally, I like to start by teaching my dog that he has a nose.
Yes, that's right, you need to teach your dog he has a nose! It sounds ridiculous, even as I type it! But just because he has the ability doesn’t mean he knows how to use it or that he knows how to control it.
I have many owners that tell me their dog already gives them eye contact (since one of my big things is teaching eye contact on command), but as I say, if you can’t control it; why does it matter? That is like saying my dog “sits”… but if he doesn’t “sit” on command, what use is it for you as an owner? NONE
So, let’s teach him!
Supplies You're Going To Need
- Low salt, no butter popcorn or air-popped popcorn as a treat
- Cans of sardines for ultimate treats
- Liver treats or other good smelling treats
- A 6-foot leash
- A 10-foot leash or 25-foot leash
- Buckle collar
- A squirt bottle
- Distilled water
- Rubber boots (these aren’t 100% necessary) but when you begin laying tracks for your dog in the morning you will appreciate your feet not getting wet!
- A few lawn flags
- A crate (will be best)!
The First Steps... Teaching Your Dog He Has A Nose
I prefer to begin training with popcorn as a treat! I mean, who doesn’t physically and emotionally get stimulated by the smell of popcorn? Personally, I like an air popper. I can pop, popcorn with 0 salt or butter because neither are good for your dog! So, if you do use microwave, then use low salt no butter. These make better treats.
First, I toss a piece that my dog can see and I say “find it” insert whatever command you want…. Track, find, search or whatever you like. He sees it, easily, which is another reason I prefer popcorn and gobbles it down. We do this a few times. He associates “search” with popcorn and a snack and seeing me toss it! It’s fun! There is literally 0 negatives to what we are doing. We do this many times, to build a good foundation.
When I say “find it” he begins looking for his treat, this is what I want! This will help you train your dog for the eventual behavior.
Next, I distract him and toss a treat behind me (don’t make it difficult to find) that he can’t see, and I ask him to “find it”. At first, he is confused, because he can’t see you toss the popcorn but he soldiers on and looks and sniffs because he has associated popcorn with the command, until he is successful. This begins his journey into using his nose and not his eyes.
Up until now he has used his nose, but he hasn’t really learned how to use it on cue or on command.
He hasn’t really learned to develop his ability to control his nose or use it for training!
Next Steps... Increasing The Challenge
So the next step is to make it more and more challenging...
Often, I use a 6-foot leash in the house, so that I can control where he is and make sure he doesn’t see where I am tossing the popcorn. Again, this is 100% positive; it is nothing but a fun game for your dog so of course he is going to be excited to play whenever you ask him to engage in further training! A leash gives you better control and also desensitizes him to a leash indoors it also helps you engage him when he is distracted. Because distractions are likely to happen outside as well.
Any dog owner can play this game and it is the foundation to all of my scent work. You can train your dog this way! It’s fun!
How to Start Training Your Dog To Track HUMAN Footsteps
This next section is going to sound “odd” to you at first, but I promise it works.
Dozens of years ago, I was at the week worth of lectures put on by the Association of Professional Dog Trainers (APDT)
I have always had an affinity for police dogs and working dogs in particular and the training it involves. One of my opportunities was learning from a great trainer named Steve White, He was continually seeing problems with police dogs being able to search for human scent on hard pavement. Grass is easy, but tracking a missing child or a criminal or any human scent over hard surfaces is difficult. These surfaces don’t hold scent for very long, like grass does.
The action of the human breaking the strands of grass, adds to the scent for your dog! Don’t worry, I am not going to expect you to train on hard surfaces, you can stick to grass but I wanted to incorporate his methods into my Schutzhund tracking. Any dog owner can teach these tools.
He came up with the idea of “scent in a bottle” (this is why you need the squirt bottle) to help the dog adjust to more difficult surfaces and solidify WHAT he is tracking.
Typically, when teaching or training a dog to track we scratch a track with our feet and add delicious food in each foot step. So, in the dog’s mind; are they learning to track food or are they learning to track human scent? I think it takes them a while to figure that out but if you use “scent in a bottle” you are overwhelming them with a lot of human scent which better helps them to understand what you want and that they aren’t just seeking food.
Preparing To Train With "Scent in a Bottle"
So what I need you to do, is going to sound a little gross to you… but your dog is going to love it! Pick a T-shirt a pair of socks, underwear (ha ha) I don’t care and wear it with no deodorant, which masks your smell of course, and do some yard work or sleep in whatever you choose. The idea, unfortunately, is to get a bit stinky so your dog will easily recognize your human scent from others. Don’t go crazy! But your dog needs some real human scent to help him appreciate what you are about to try and teach him.
Once your item is stinky enough, put it in distilled water. Water from the faucet has some chemicals and fluoride in some countries and other things that will break down your scent. Then ring it, and put it in a squirt bottle.
We will spray our shoes prior to each track or training session, in the beginning. This solidifies that you are communicating better with your dog. Your scent is going to be much more overwhelming to him and he is also going to find food treats!
Take Your Scent Work and Training Outside!
Your dog has already learned how to use his sniffer through finding treats in your home.
Taking It Outside
Next, it is time to take him outside to teach him the first step of actual tracking.
Tracking should be done first thing in the morning, before your dog has breakfast. This is why I recommend rubber boots, otherwise your shoes will get soaked by morning dew. And, they should be truly hungry for this to work well. Remember this is mostly a new skill! New for both of you!
You should crate your dog and prepare to build a “scent box” first.
A “scent box” is a 4x4 or so foot area where you are trying to teach your dog the exact scent you want him sniffing to find.
Take your flag and your boots and your scent in a bottle, treats, and sardines.
Spray your shoes only when you get out to the spot you want to train and place the flag to the very right side of the track. The dog will be on the left so the flag should be on the right. The flag is for YOU to know where your scent box or track has been laid. YOU have to bring your dog to the right place.
Spray your shoes, set your flag in the ground to the right, and begin scratching around with your feet and kicking and trying to lay a box-shaped area of broken grass and scent. At first, you want to place not easily seen treats (no popcorn) this should be challenging into that scent box. Be generous in the beginning! This should be rewarding!!! Don’t make your dog sick but put small cut up hot dogs or pieces of liver every several inches. Once you are done with this process, I want you to JUMP over to the right-hand side away from the box you just laid and walk far around the area.
The reason we do this is so the dog doesn’t immediately follow your scent out of the box without reward. We want to communicate effectively and continue making this fun without confusion, at least to the best of our ability.
Wait about 5 to 10 minutes before getting your dog. Let that scent soak into the ground and mingle with those treats you left. Put a can of sardines in your pocket.
Next, go get your dog out of his crate put his 6 ft leash on and get him really excited! We don’t usually do this in most training, but this is an activity your dog should LOVE. Tap his chest, ask him if he wants to go tracking and get excited with him as you lead on his leash him toward the area.
Take him around to the front of the scent box. Hopefully you can see where you stomped the grass or laid the scent box in the dew. Remember your flag is just to the right of the edge of it.
Have him sit if you can (this is really the only basic obedience he needs), sling his leash between his front legs and behind his right leg. As you do so point toward the ground and give him the command or cue that you have been using. Allow him to pull forward and sniff. Slinging his leash between his front legs helps to keep his head down and the pressure off pulling hard against you. I do NOT like a harness, this puts you too far behind the dog and doesn’t encourage the head being down.
In tracking, we allow controlled pulling on the leash, it is actually what we want. Most training should be controlled with no pulling at all, but you are going to want your dog to move out in front of you during this type of training. You may quietly praise as he finds and eats treats, but stand quietly and allow him to track mostly on his own. If he lifts his head, or sees a distraction quietly point toward the box and give his command again. We want that snout glued into the scent box and slowly discovering treats. Don’t get too excited at this point; this will draw his face out of the scent. Just allow him to methodically search.
Once you are fairly certain he has found most of the treats, open the can of sardines and give it as a final reward. We use sardines because they are smelly and they are a very high reward. Pat his ribs and praise him and then lead him back inside. Put up your boots and your scent in a bottle.
Do this for at least a week, and try to do it daily.
Laying Your First Real Track
I want to teach your dog to track from footstep to footstep with his nose deep in the track. Air scenting is not as challenging or fun for either of you! Air scenting also means your dog is much more likely to pull because he is much less controlled or methodical.
Begin by picking an object in front of you that you can line up straight with, being STRAIGHT is crucial. So pick a tree, a fence post, a bench. We are only going to lay a short straight track of about 20 feet. Be sure you have 2 flags.
Begin the process as described above, laying your scent box. Put that flag to the right and move to the middle of the box and find that object you are going to move toward. Begin dragging your feet and moving in a straight path towards it. In each footstep, lay a treat. One in the left foot step and one in the right foot step; so about every foot there will be a treat on one side or another. Drag and stomp at first to get that scent in that track, this is your dog’s first track!
When you reach approximately 20 feet drop the can of sardines and place the flag right behind it. This flag is to help orient you.
Now, jump off the track; walk around and wait your 5 to 10 minutes for that scent to settle into the track.
Go get your dog, get him excited and follow what you have been doing with the scent box. Sling that leash under his front legs! Once he has found the treats, make sure your dog is directly in front of that straight patch and give the command to search again. If his head comes up or there is a distraction quietly point to the track and let his nose do the work. Remember he will be going back and forth a bit now from footstep to footstep.
Let his nose do the work. You can’t really teach him this, you can only support him. If his head moves off of the track, stop moving completely and wait for a few moments, if he doesn’t engage on his own slowly point to the ground and give the command again. Don’t let him move much further in front of you than his body length at first. This way you can slowly stop and help him, if he needs it. But please try to let him work it out on his own.
When he gets to the end, praise and pat his sides again! This should be a fun process!
Continue To Increase The Level Of Difficulty
Keep things simple for a long time! Train like this for weeks before trying an added difficulty level and only try one at a time.
Typically, I move to longer straight tracks 30 feet, 40 feet, etc.
Let him move out to the end of his 6-foot leash… so about 5.5 feet in front of you. Allow him to do more problem-solving. If you like this sport typically the dog will track 10 feet or more in front of you.
Then, I do more walking and less dragging of my feet. After several weeks he should have gotten the idea.
Next less treats in the scent box.
Then, I stagger the treats a little further on the track, for example instead of every foot, every 2 feet etc.
You can also begin to age the track longer up to 20 or 30 minutes.
Then, begin to drop the amount of scent in a bottle and just use your regular boots.
If you enjoy this article and this process I let us know and I can update you on how to do corners and later add articles to your track to have your dog indicate. But for now keep your tracks straight.
If you move too quickly, you will both get frustrated but you will have trouble as a human understanding what is confusing him because you don’t have his nose
This can be time-consuming but this is a great behavior to teach and have in and under your control! And, it can become more and more difficult as time progresses. And you can even title him through the American Kennel Club.
I have been a professional dog trainer and pet sitter for over 20 years. I am a Certified Professional Dog Trainer, through the international Certification Counsel of Professional Dog Trainers. I have trained and worked with police, Schutzhund and personal protection dogs. I trained Assistance Dogs in a men’s prison and ran my own nonprofit organization to take adult dogs from shelters and to train them to assist children and adults with disabilities, at no charge to my clients. My nonprofit organization and I were nominated for several awards of merit and even made the front page of the Denver Post. I was a veterinary technician for many years, where I learned about all aspects of health and preventative medicine. I have trained and worked with exotic animals and cheetahs. I introduced a temperament testing program in my local shelter and sat on the board of directors. I volunteered with my dog “Mr. Snitch” and helped local children learn to read. I have attained obedience titles and several blue ribbons. I am constantly in search of ways to continue my education and excellence when it comes to animals, their behavior and their health.