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Be it a small game animal or lost hikers, people have found dogs a valuable tool to follow a scent and lead them to a target. Not only can a dog following a scent perform useful, even life-saving work, but this ability in dogs has become a sport, where dogs compete in tracking events similar to agility events. The difference is that while handlers direct agility tasks, in tracking, the dog is the leader, and the people are the followers. A dog's sense of smell is many thousands of times more powerful than ours. While we have approximately 6 million olfactory sensors, dogs have 300 million! Dogs also have an area of their brain devoted to processing the sense of smell 40 times greater than ours. You can harness this amazing sensing ability to perform tasks such as finding people, game, or substances, to perform work, or teach your dog to follow a scent for fun or as part of a sporting event.
All dogs track scent, even without training. You will notice your dog on your walks with his nose to the ground or in the air, sniffing away, zigging and zagging back and forth, following his nose. But training your dog to follow a scent, to perform a task, requires some training and direction on your part. The key to following a scent as a useful behavior lies in teaching your dog to be focused on one scent and follow it to its conclusion. This means ignoring other competing scents and following the scent trail over various terrain, for a significant distance. This is useful in tracking game, locating people, or participating in sanctioned competitions, where dogs follow a scent while on a 30-foot lead with a harness and follow a scent trail from 440 to 800 yards long. Some dogs follow scent trails with their nose to the ground, others catch scent in the air, and may vary their distance from the trail itself. In competition, as long a the dog stays within 30 yards of the trail and is on task, he is considered to be following the scent. Following a scent trail can be done indoors or outdoors, and it is easy to make this into a fun game for your dog. Even young puppies can be started learning how to follow a scent trail, although their focus may be limited and focusing on longer more complex trials will need to wait until the dog is a little more mature, around 1 to 3 years of age.
Any dog breed can learn to and perform following a scent, however, some breeds particularly excel at this activity, including hunting dogs and especially hounds. You will need a long lead and a harness for your dog. Training will involve the use of a toy and treats, to act both as targets and to provide positive reinforcement. When you are training your dog to follow a scent trail, remember that there are all kinds of factors that affect a scent trail including temperature, air movement, and the surface tracing is taking place on. When conducting more advanced training you will want to expose your dog to a variety of weather conditions and terrain in order to hone his scent tracing skills.
The Hide and Seek Method
Start with a young dog or puppy that is highly motivated to know your location. Young dogs are always looking for their pack leader. Have someone hold your young dog on a leash. Talk excitedly to your dog while you go and hide behind a tree, bush or piece of furniture. Let the puppy see you hide.
Let dog seek
Command your puppy to “Find Me” . Have your assistant take the puppy off the lead or follow him on a long lead. The puppy will run to you, mostly using his sense of sight, as he saw where you hid. This establishes the game. When your puppy finds you, reward him with praise and play with a toy.
Increase difficulty & require scent
Make the game harder. Increase the distance you hide from him and the complexity of the hiding spots; do not let the dog see where you are hiding. Let the dog search and use his sense of smell to guide him.
When your dog finds you, reward him with play and attention, ignore your dog when he's off track. Do not punish or interfere with him.
Switch up the target. Start substituting yourself for another person, or create a scent trail by dragging a scented object and then hiding it. Reward your dog for finding the new target while you are the handler.
The Pair Scent With Food Method
Keep your dog in a crate or held by an assistant. Allow the dog to watch you lay down a scent and food trail.
Lay trail with food
Use a sock or a glove, or an item that has some scent, to follow. Drag the item to create a scent trail and hide the item a short distance away with a simple straight trail. Along the scent trail, place small bits of food leading to the item.
Let dog follow trail
Bring in your dog on a loose lead and let him follow the food/scent trail to the item. He is following the food, but also getting a nose full of the scent trail.
When your dog gets to the item, give him lots of praise and play with a toy or provide a high value treat.
Gradually use less food so the dog has to follow the scent trail between the food items. Allow your dog to locate the hidden item. Reward successful attempts and ignore unsuccessful tries.
Remove sight aid
Do not allow the dog to see you lay the trail, and hide the item. Give your dog the “find it” command and let him locate the hidden item, relying on scent not sight.
Repeat, but remove food trail and allow your dog to find the item following the scent trail.
Make your trail complex and use varying terrain and longer distances until your dog becomes proficient at following the scent trail alone with no visual cues or food.
The Match A Scent Method
Lay down a scent trail, and hide a scented item. Mark trail with flags, similar to the ones used to mark utility lines. Also, intersperse food items to act as a reward for staying on course.
Provide match scent
Bring in your dog, with a harness, to the beginning of the scent trail, and hook on a long tracking line. Provide him with an identically scented item for your dog to smell. These can be stored in a plastic bag to help retain sample scent. Let your dog get a good nose full.
Let dog follow trail
Command your dog to find it, let him move out on the line. As your dog follows the scent trail, he will be guided by the flags and rewarded periodically with food items. You will know he is on track if he is following the flags.
When your dog finds the item, give him a reward, a high value treat, or play with a toy.
Remove food and flags
Repeat, gradually remove flags and food items. Reward your dog for finding the matched scent, ignore false attempts.
Vary and increase difficulty
Make the trail more complex, vary scents, increase distance, make hiding more difficult, and introduce different conditions. Continue to reward with food and play for successful finds.
By Laurie Haggart
Published: 10/12/2017, edited: 01/08/2021