Tracking: Tracking with a purpose


by Carolyn Fuhrer

A tracking dog needs to understand their job. We as trainers need to define the job. In other words, we need to really give a good detailed job description. What is it you want your dog to do?

A tracking dog must follow the basic path the tracklayer walked. A tracking dog cannot cut out entire “legs” of the track and get to the end as a Search and Rescue dog might do. They must follow track scent, not air scent in order to be successful. We as handlers must understand and teach the task. Tracking is not nose work and nose work is not tracking. Yes, both require scenting skills, but applied in a different way.

If a dog is successful at nose work by air scenting, they may resort to this technique if the “track” scent is difficult to find or contaminated, or the environmental conditions are difficult. Air scenting has paid off in the past, so they may default to this “successful” behavior when confronted with a problem. This is where training must be clear to the tracking dog. We do not want them to follow air scent. We want them to follow track scent. This is why letting a tracking dog fringe and wander on the track is not giving a clear job description of what the dog needs to do. A successful tracking dog must focus and then maintain their focus on the track scent. At the beginner level they must do this for 450-500 yards and make 3 to 5 turns (corners) along the way. So, our purpose in beginning tracking is to keep the dog on the actual track, discourage fringing and air scenting and make track scent valuable. Tracks should be designed so dogs are successful and are motivated to keep their heads down. In other words, following track scent pays very well.

Another common problem is distractions or “crittering” along the track. Dogs must be taught to ignore distractions and to follow the track. A “leave it” command is very necessary for a tracking dog. Sometimes it is even a safety issue. Teach “leave it” away from the track so you have this command on hand when you need it. There are many positive ways to teach “leave it” and it should be understood by all dogs. Telling your dog you must leave something is not a bad thing; it could even save their life. So teach “leave it.”

Another very important concept we must incorporate into our training program is reducing the help we give our dog on the track and creating a confident dog who will make correct decisions on the track. In the beginning stages we help a lot to get the dog to understand the job and be well rewarded for doing the job. We must gradually reduce our help and let the dog take over. This many times requires a great deal of patience and being quiet so as not to verbally push the dog. A relaxed body posture will help the dog realize there is no pressure, and it will allow the dog to work.

Make your training sessions meaningful. Before you go out and just lay a track, think about the purpose of the track and what aspect of tracking you are trying to teach.

Happy tracking!

Carolyn Fuhrer has earned over 90 AKC titles with her Golden Retrievers, including 2 Champion Tracker titles. Carolyn is the owner of North Star Dog Training School in Somerville, Maine. She has been teaching people to understand their dogs for over 25 years. You can contact her with questions, suggestions and ideas for her column by e-mailing


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