It’s no secret that the scenting ability of dogs is amazing. Dogs have been instrumental in assisting humans whether it’s searching for missing people and animals, identifying gas leaks or bombs, indicating early medical changes in people and in helping resolve criminal cases.
Some dogs have even more unusual tasks like the trained beagle who has been trained to identify whether or not a female polar bear is pregnant and who has a reported 97% accuracy rate in his work. Another dog is trained to detect the presence of the bacteria “C. difficile” in the hospital environment. When he indicates that there is bacteria present, staff target specialized cleaning to the area.
While many of these dogs are specially trained “working” dogs, many family dogs enjoy learning to track, trail and search on cue and are good at it. Tracking and trailing with the dog is also a lot of fun for people too. A lot of people associate these activities with larger “working” breed dogs but smaller dogs can be very good at it too. It can be useful too: a dog belonging to one of my students quickly located a pet tortoise who had been missing outdoors for ten days.
I have found that scent work can increase the confidence of a dog and can provide an under- occupied dog with a job.
Teaching a dog to follow a track and increasing the difficulty as the dog gets more skilled, can take away the need to chase inappropriate things (for example, a herding breed dog who is not being used to herd but chases joggers and cyclists can be redirected into tracking).
Trainers use a variety of methods to teach dogs to track and trail on cue (tracking is when the dog follows each footprint on the track while trailing takes into consideration that the scent may not stay exactly on the track and the dog may move off the track to follow odor that has moved). I use reward training to put tracking on cue and I move to trailing as the dog gets the idea. I find that by appealing to a dog’s senses and instincts, the dog quickly learns to identify and follow scent on cue.
When we initially lay a track for a dog, we start with the scent of the tracklayer. The tracklayer is the person who is laying the track for the dog. Each human has their own particular scent and dogs can discriminate between individual scents. Studies have shown that dogs can even differentiate between identical twins living in the same house.
The tracklayer makes a map showing where the track is laid. This is the part people often find the hardest and is often their weakest skill but it is worth doing. The person laying the track should explain the map to the handler and, initially, markers can be put along the track. A good tracklayer will lay tracks in keeping with the dog’s ability.
When a dog is first learning, the track should be easy for the dog to follow and always on safe terrain.
I start dogs by using a vegetative surface because it holds scent well and so that the dog can follow the scent of the disturbed vegetation as well as the rafts of scent left by the tracklayer. There are several things that can influence the difficulty of the track such as weather, vegetation, traffic, type of surface, how quickly the tracklayer was going when laying the track and so forth. A word of caution, avoid laying tracks that are too hard for the level that the dog is working at as this can very negatively impact the education and confidence of the dog.
The owner works quietly and allows the dog to move ahead and explore the track. The owner avoids correcting the dog but teaches cues that assist the dog and rewards the dog for following the scent.
If you enjoy learning new activities and think your dog would enjoy this too, look for tracking and trailing classes in your community. There are also several good instructional books on the subject.
Jane Bowers, B.A., CABC, CPDT-KA
Jane Bowers has been training dogs for over two decades. She teaches people to train their dogs in group and private training courses and has a keen interest in assisting dogs with behavioral issues. Her company is Dogs of Distinction Canine Training Inc.Jane has a monthly newspaper column on dog related topics and is a former host of a live call in TV show on animals. She is a strong advocate for force free and humane training methods for all animals.
Jane has a degree in psychology and is certified as a dog trainer through the Certification Council of Professional Pet Dog Trainers and as a behaviour consultant through the International Association of Behavior Consultants and through the Association of Animal Behavior Professionals. These organizations require a minimum number of continuing education units be obtained to retain certification. She is also a professional member of The Pet Professional Guild, an organization committed to force free training of animals and the Association of Professional Dog Trainers. a professional organization of individual trainers who are committed to being better trainers through education.
Jane is the content creator of the online course Assessing and Interpreting Dog Behaviour, which is a course for law enforcement personnel who meet unfamiliar dogs in the course of their duties. She is the author of Perfect Puppy Parenting, a guide to raising a happy, confident, well-behaved dog.
Jane spent 17 years working for Customs Border Services and in joint teams with US Homeland Security and the RCMP. She spent a further 8 years working as an Animal Control Officer and Bylaw Enforcement Officer.
Jane lives on a small farm with dogs, sheep, donkeys, and chickens. The dogs each came from situations that prevented them from living in their original homes. The dogs range in size and age and with the dog training and behavioral work, whether it’s participating in the development of an online training course, working with a client’s dog or tracking a lost pet or animal.