So You’ve Got a Sniffer? How to Teach a Dog to Track
We’ve all seen the movies portraying dogs tracking the scent of a fugitive or missing person. Have you ever wondered how they get their dog to sniff people out? Well in this article, I’m going to teach you how to teach a dog to track!
Tracking is another one of those skills or “tricks” that I LOVE because it exercises your dog’s nose, mind, and his genetic predisposition to need to utilize his nose. So often we chastise our dogs for sniffing and pulling and using their noses, and though I understand this, I also believe it is critical to allow our dogs to be DOGS and teach them to use and control their instincts.
Why not teach him HOW to do this and then allow him to do it on command from time to time. It is great for puppies and old dogs alike! And this is a skill that can be done in summer, in winter, in snow, in rain and anywhere there is ground (which is pretty much everywhere). Eventually, you can even teach your dog to track on pavement or hard ground (although this is pretty advanced). But it is a great game that most dogs like!
So, Let’s Get Started!
What You Will Need:
- Distilled Water
- A Spray Bottle
- Rubber Boots or the same basic shoes (use the same ones each time in the beginning)
- 2 Flags
- Treats (you can use your dog’s food or something good like hot dogs)
- A Harness for your Dog
- A Long Leash (at least 6 ft to start, then 25 – 50 ft as your dog learns and excels)
Just what it should look like!
First I want to explain that we want to teach your dog to track HUMAN scent, we are not “just” teaching your dog to search for treats. So I use what is called “Scent in a Bottle” (taught to me at an APDT conference by the great Steve White) to help my dog training succeed in the beginning. Often people just lay a regular track with treats, but I use stinky human scent water sprayed on my shoes from the beginning so my dog better understands WHAT he is tracking (that would be the “stinky human scent” water).
So I want you to sleep in a shirt or a pair of socks for a few nights or work out (without deodorant – I know it’s stinky but that’s the idea) for a good sweat session so that you have a concentrated amount of your smell/stink on an article of clothing. Next, you are going to soak your socks or shirt (underwear *gasp* – to consider something this gross) in distilled water. It is very important that it’s not drinking water or tap water as the cleansers and fluoride in that water might damage the smell. Distilled water will hold the stink to the scent.
Then you are going to put this stinky water in a spray bottle so you can spray it on the bottom of your shoes or boots just prior to laying your track. Make sure to label it so no one gets a bad surprise! I often use rubber boots because I like to lay my track first thing in the morning and there is usually dew on the ground and I hate it when my feet get wet! These work boots can usually be picked up fairly cheaply at Lowes or Wal-Mart.
Grab your flags, treats, boots, scent in a bottle and head outside (while you leave your best friend in his crate). I always get my dog excited prior to tracking by getting him all riled up and asking him “Do you want to go tracking? Do you want to go tracking?” then I put him in his crate while I go lay his track. This gives his crate a good connotation and lets him know we are about to track. It also gets him used to this behavior if we go anywhere else for training sessions.
Next Go Outside
Even Puppies Can Learn How to Track
Find an unadulterated patch of grass where other people and dogs have not necessarily wandered that day (a park has too many scents for your dog to distinguish against in the beginning). I want it to be easy from the start! Spray your shoes or boots with your stinky scent.
The first thing you are going to do is start with a scent patch about 4ft by 4ft in a square you are going to scratch your feet around making sure to crush the grass and get your scent all over that specific area, you may go over it a couple of times. As you scratch around you are going to deposit hot dogs or treats all over in that area. You can use plenty of treats here or your dog’s entire breakfast from his bowl for your dog to find and start to get excited.
In the next few days or weeks, you will begin using less, but at first you can use lots to motivate him and teach him to sniff around! This area is going to get him used to smelling scent and finding treats, and is something you will do each time you lay a track. Put a flag in the grass to the left of where you are about to lay your scent patch (so you know where it actually is).
And mark the upper right hand corner of the patch so you know where the treats are laid. At first, to give him the best chance of understanding it is best just to teach him about the scent patch or box. In a week or so, you can begin laying a short track (this will soon be covered in a Part 2 article)
Now wait about 5 minutes for the scents to mingle together and become stronger for your dog to track. Put his harness on him and click your leash to his harness and take him out to the scent patch. It’s okay to get him a little excited before you start. Point to the patch and tell him “track” or “Search” or whatever you want your word to be; as you point to the treats in the scent patch. Allow him to sniff and find the treats, if he misses one or several don’t worry.
Remember: He Doesn’t Know What He is Doing Yet!
If he moves forward on his own toward the next treat, calmly praise him. If he is confused, help him by pointing down to the treats.
Tracking is Serious Fun!
If he comes out of the scent box or patch and there are many treats left, stand still and wait for him to come back in. Be calm and praise him as he sniffs and finds more treats, let him figure it out so that he learns what you want. Eventually, you will have to trust HIS nose to tell you where the track is (when someone else lays it) and you will have no knowledge of his correctness.
So learn to trust your dog early! Be sure and pat his sides and praise him for job well done! Keep tracking at this level for a week or so until he understands.
If he is wanting to RUN around and not paying attention, take him back in and try again later. Tracking should be slow and methodical! It is important to make sure this phase of dog training is successful before you move him forward to the next phase. You can even do this for both of his meals!
Once your pup is proficient with the intro training, you’re ready to move forward. You’ve gone from a scent pad and now we need to teach him more!
What You Will Need:
- A Spray Bottle with your “Scent in a Bottle”
- Rubber Boots
- 2 Flags
- A can of sardines (packed in water)
- A Harness for your Dog
- A Long Leash
Grab your flags, treats, boots, scent in a bottle, and can of sardines and head outside (while you leave your best friend in his crate). I always get my dog excited prior to tracking by getting him all riled up and asking him “Do you want to go tracking? Do you want to go tracking?” by now he knows exactly what you mean. Then I put him in his crate while I go lay his track. Now, if your dog is already “off the chain excitable” you can skip this – no need to get your eyes scratched out or get him so excited he can’t concentrate!
But some dogs (especially those not genetically disposed to scent training may need some help). This gives his crate a good connotation and lets him know we are about to track. It also gets him used to this behavior if we go anywhere else for training sessions.
Again, Go Outside
Like before, you will find an unadulterated patch of grass where other people and dogs have not necessarily wandered that day. I want it to be easy from the start! Spray your shoes or boots with your stinky scent.
The first thing you are going to do is start with a scent patch about 4ft by 4ft in a square you are going to scratch your feet around making sure to crush the grass and get your scent all over that specific area, you may go over it a couple of times. As you scratch around you are going to deposit hot dogs or treats all over in that area. Don’t go crazy by using too many treats, but make sure you get a decent amount of treats here for your dog to find and start to get excited.
This area is going to get him use to smelling scent and finding treats, and is something you will do each time you lay a track. Put a flag in the grass to the left of where you are about to lay your scent patch (so you know where it actually is). Pick a tree or something straight in front of you to keep your eye on to make sure your track is straight.
It is essential that YOU lay as straight a track as possible, veering to the left or right or curving may confuse you and your dog later. Trust me, when you come back to your track you may not remember EXACTLY where it is… yet you need to be sure! This is why tracking in the dew in the morning can be beneficial because you can see your tracks in the grass!
Now you are going to drag and scuff your feet in a VERY straight line for about 10 feet. Put a piece of hot dog or treat every foot or two as you very methodically make your straight line forward. At the end of your 10 feet stop and scuff your feet around as the end of the track.
Set your flag in front of you to mark the end of the track. And, dump the can of sardines or a portion of sardines at the end of the track as the FINAL excitement and to mark that the track is done. Now JUMP as far as you can from this spot to the right or left of the track and then go WAY around the area so as not to cross track the track you have just laid.
Now wait about 5 to 15 minutes for the scents to mingle together and become stronger for your dog to track. Put his harness on him and click your leash to his harness and take him out to the scent patch. Point to the patch and tell him “track” or “Search” or whatever your word is as you point to the treats in the scent patch.
Allow him to sniff and find the treats, if he misses one don’t worry. Once he has found most of them, take him just to the right of the flag and command him to “Track” or “Search” as you point to the treats. Remember he doesn’t know what he is doing yet.
If he moves forward on his own toward the next treat, calmly praise him. If he is confused, help him by pointing down to the treats. Don’t panic if he misses a few treats
Allow him to move forward toward the end of the track. If he comes off of where you KNOW the track is stand still and let him sniff around and don’t move forward until he is back on the track. Move forward slowly as he makes his way to the end.
The sardines are the “jackpot” for tracking well. Be sure and pat his sides and praise him for a track well run! Keep tracking at this level you can begin to make it longer after a week or two for several weeks so he understands.
If he is wanting to RUN the track, slow him down by standing still and not letting him pull too fast forward! Tracking should be slow and methodical! If he comes off the track stop and wait for him to come back into the track, you will get use to knowing when he smells it. As he excels you may make the tracks longer, use less treats on your scent pad, use less treats in your track, and age them longer.
However don’t do all these things at once! It is important to make sure your dog is successful before you move him forward. This is not a type training that should be rushed or he will begin to come off of the scent and you will both get frustrated.
If his head is coming up from the track you may put his leash under his front right shoulder as you move with him, this keeps his head in more of a natural down position. Eventually you can make the track yards long. Then you can add corners (don’t do this too fast, or you will lose your dog), I double stamp my corners so that he is sure where they go and I mark them with squeeze chalk on the edges so that I can see them and know if he is going in the right direction.
It is essential that you always know where the track is, and that you understand that tracks that “blow” in the wind may take your dog a foot or two off the track, this is normal and sometimes you must learn to trust your dog’s nose. The next step after making it longer, using less and less treats, adding corners and then eliminating treats would be having someone else lay your track for you and your dog, to see if you are working as a team, however this takes months and months of fun tracking work! Most of all have fun, this will turn into a great skill and game for you both!
Did you know that the American Kennel Club has Tracking Events? Now that he has a good understanding of tracking, it makes sense to get him involved in an AKC Tracking event where he can show off his ability to follow a scent.
Here is the Eligibility—According to the American Kennel Clubs website:
Any breed can compete and must be:
- At least 6 months of age.
- In both excellent physical and mental condition.
- Have an AKC number via one of the following:
- AKC Registration Number – This number is provided to a dog owner via a registration certificate received from the previous owner, or via a puppy registration paper given to the new owner by the breeder.
- Purebred Alternative Listing (PAL) – If a dog is purebred but an AKC Registration Number is not possible, owners can apply for PAL number
- AKC Canine Partners Number – This number is given to either mixed breed dogs or a purebred.
- Foundation Stock Service®(FSS) Number – This number is used for breeds whose status is currently in the foundational stage of being recorded into our registry and requires a copy of the dog’s pedigree.
- Spayed and neutered dogs are eligible to participate in these events, but females in season are not.
- Dogs that are deaf are eligible to participate, but blind dogs are not.
- No dog may compete if it is taped or bandaged or in any way has anything attached to it for medical purposes.
NOTE: If you’re not quite ready to jump head first into some of these more advanced training sessions, I think you’d find my Calm Dog Bootcamp program worth your while. It’s a program that’s focused on harnessing your dog’s emotions, and shows you how to use them in a more effective way to get your dog to be more calm and less out of control. You can learn more about that program here: The Calm Dog Bootcamp
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.