Brookings County K9 Search and Rescue
Brookings County K9
Search and Rescue
Brookings, South Dakota
Articles by Deborah Palman
Handling a tracking or trailing dog is, in my opinion, the hardest K9 discipline to learn if you want
to do it well. The handler must be able to "read" their dog in order to know when he is "on" track
and when he is off. This takes thousands of practice hours behind the dog, learning how your dog
responds under many different conditions.
Tracking dogs basically follow the subject's footsteps. They are oriented to the mixture of human
scent and ground disturbance where they walked.
Trailing dogs are oriented to the cells that have fallen to the ground along the subject's route.
This dog may work some distance from the actual trail due to wind conditions.
Both Tracking and Trailing dogs are worked in harness with a 15 foot lead. Buy a harness that
has a “Y” front. Harnesses that have a strap going straight across the dog’s chest tend to choke
the dog. The “Y” harness allows your dog to lean into the harness and pull. Having the front “Y”
padded will be more comfortable for your dog.
You will also need a 15 foot line or lead, either leather or ASAT (all season, all terrain) which is a
synthetic leather and easier to care for than leather. Nylon leads can burn your hands when
working your dog.
There are two basic ways to train a dog to track. Foot Step Tracking (FST) and Tracking Thru
Drive (TTD). While many dogs are still trained only using FST training methods, many trainers are
switching over to TTD training. TTD requires the dog to run the track (mostly with his head up)
and his handler running to keep up with him.
I recommend a mixture of both FST and TTD when training a tracking dog. Doing runaways (TTD)
at the very beginning builds drive. I then add components of FST to teach the dog to work the
track with his nose down and stay focused on the track, eventually doing mostly FST training with
a few TTD runaways thrown in occasionally to keep it fun for the dog.
The people who lay tracks for you are actually training your dog. Be sure they can follow
directions and lay tracks exactly where you want them. They should be willing to hide for long
periods and ready to treat or play with your dog the second he reaches them. Treats are always
given by hand. They should speak in high pitched tones when praising them. They should love
dogs and not mind being licked, slobbered, or jumped on. The more excited they are, the more
your dog will enjoy finding people. If your track layer does not meet these needs, find another one.
You should follow the same routine every time you start your dog. A good routine would be to
hook up your dog and walk him in a different area to allow him to potty and get used to the scents
in the area. Talk quietly to your dog. About 5 feet from the scent article harness up your dog and
walk him up to the scent article. Give him the command as soon as his nose touches the scent
article, then BE QUIET. Let the lead out to let your dog work the start area but STAND YOUR
GROUND until the dog takes off on the right track then step out after him.
Before You Start Training
1. Don’t be in a rush when tracking. Give your dog time to work.
2. Don’t get frustrated. Your frustration travels straight down the line to your dog. Relax and enjoy
watching your dog work.
3. When you first start training with your dog, you should know exactly where the track is. You
can mark the trail with landscape flags approximately every three feet. I have also used large
metal washers with a bit of flagging tape tied on each one. The track layer throws down a
washer approximately every three feet, which then can be picked up with a long handled
magnet afterwards. I also encourage laying tracks in light snow. Each footprint captures scent
very well and the handler can easily see if his dog is on track or not.
4. Avoid leading your dog or directing the line over to the track. Avoid cueing your dog either
consciously or subconsciously. Dogs are masters at reading your body language. Your dog
will learn to follow you instead of following the track with his nose.
5. As the dog moves forward on the track, move forward with him. When he stops, you stop. Only
move forward when he has his nose down on the track. If he moves off the track; stop where
you are. Keep the lead slightly taut. Do not move your feet until his nose is on the track and
the dog moves forward. Don’t say anything. He will quickly find out that he can only move if he
follows scent. When he moves out on the track again with his nose down give him a quiet
6. Watch your lead handling. Keep the line slightly taut. Let the lead slide out when the dog
quickens his pace and gently pull in the line when the dog slows up. Never jerk or pull sharply
on the line when tracking. This is a correction, and if the dog was doing his job and you
accidentally correct him, he is going to wonder what he did wrong.
7. Let the line all the way out. Give your dog room to work. Walk straight behind your dog (not at
an angle). If your dog is tracking in a ditch, get down there with him.
8. Let the line or lead drag behind you if necessary. When looping up the excess line, it can get
tangled and knot up when you try to let the line out again. Trying to get a knot out when on the
track may jerk the line which translates as a correction by your dog.
9. When your dog turns around a tree, do not follow him around the tree. Instead grab the line as
it comes around the tree.
10. If your dog suddenly turns back on the trail, lift the line into the air with one hand and reel it
with the other hand. If it drags on the ground, your dog’s legs may get tangled in the line.
11. When watching an experienced handler, watch how they handle the line.
12. Even dogs have bad days. If your dog is not focused or working the way he should, stop
tracking, remove his harness and walk him quietly back to the vehicle. DO NOT say anything
and DO NOT punish him. They will learn the big party only comes when they work. Let him
rest 30 minutes or more and then try another track. You can also have the track layer run off
and take the dog back to the vehicle. The dog is left thinking his favorite track layer is still out
there somewhere. We bring the dog out again later, give him the track layers scent article and
the dog is off on the track like a shot.
Do not always start your dog facing the direction of the track. Bring him in from the side or stand
on the track and start him, he will have to turn completely around to start the track. You do not
want to condition your dog to always go forward when starting a track. When you start working
Blind Tracks, your dog will need to determine the Direction of Travel.
When your dog finds his subject, there must be a BIG party. You, the subject, and anyone else
there, gives the dog lots of treats, playing with their favorite toy and praise. Get excited! The
bigger the party, the better the dog learns that finding people is the best thing in the world. Find
out what really excites your dog. Is it treats or a special toy? Then only use those treats or special
toy just for SAR practice or work. Dogs don’t track people just because they love them or just
because you ask them to. They do it for the big paycheck and party at the end of every track!
In the beginning, all you may need is a notebook. Write down how long the track was, who the
track layer was, date, time, weather etc. More importantly write down what your dog looks like and
how he acts when he is in scent. Meticulous records are important to keep from a legal standpoint,
but also necessary for you to track how your dog is doing and what needs to be improved or
Scent articles should be treated
carefully. You (nor anyone else)
should touch a person’s scent
article. If it needs to be picked up,
invert a plastic baggie over your
hand, pick it up and zip it shut.
NEVER take a scent article with you
on the track. Dogs can smell through
plastic and it should never be placed
in your pocket. Wind can blow scent
out and confuse your tracking dog.
You do not need take it with you just
in case you need to re-scent your
dog. The dog has the scent locked
in when he initially smells the scent
article. He does not need to be
reminded of the scent. The only time
you may have to re-scent is on a
long track and you have to stop and
give the dog a break. Re-scent when
you restart. Have someone pick up
the scent article at the starting point
and keep it in their vehicle. You can
radio them if it is needed again.
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