Training

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3 min read

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How to Train Your Dog to Follow a Scent

Training

|

3 min read

|

1

Comments

How to Train Your Dog to Follow a Scent
Hard difficulty iconHard
Time icon4-6 Months
Work training category iconWork

Introduction

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.

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Defining Tasks

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.  

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Getting Started

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.

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The Hide and Seek Method

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Hide

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.

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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.

3

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.

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Reward success

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.

5

Change target

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

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Contain dog

Keep your dog in a crate or held by an assistant. Allow the dog to watch you lay down a scent and food trail.

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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.

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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.

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Reward

When your dog gets to the item, give him lots of praise and play with a toy or provide a high value treat.

5

Decrease food

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.

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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.

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Remove food

Repeat, but remove food trail and allow your dog to find the item following the scent trail.

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Make difficult

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

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Set trail

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.

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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.

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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.

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Reward

When your dog finds the item, give him a reward, a high value treat, or play with a toy.

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Remove food and flags

Repeat, gradually remove flags and food items. Reward your dog for finding the matched scent, ignore false attempts.

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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

Training Questions

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Training Questions and Answers

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Agathe

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Bloodhound

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Thousand and Three Years

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Question

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Can I train my dog to follow a scent at that age....? She’s already good to found things hide in the house but not to follow a trail just find the object/food right away...... I think it’s a bit old and it will be hard just to make sure I don’t do that for nothing and she will don’t guve a f***..

Aug. 29, 2020

Agathe's Owner

Expert avatar

Alisha Smith - Alisha S., Dog Trainer

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257 Dog owners recommended

Hi there! It's not impossible but may be a little more challenging. I am going to give you some very beginner tips on training this skill. Start Early in the Morning To teach scenting a track, you need some treats and a grassy area, such as a baseball field or park. Although hot dogs are not the most nutritious food, I find they work best, and you won’t over stuff your dog’s belly. Begin early; many people start by 6 a.m. before anyone has walked on the grass. Create a Treat Track Have your dog sit or lie down and stay. Take a couple of inch-long pieces of hot dog and use your shoe to mash them into the grass. Make sure to crush the grass under the hot dogs, which will release a grass scent. Then, with the hot dog residue on the bottom of your shoe, walk a straight line away from your dog. Every six or ten feet, drop a piece of hot dog. Stop after about 20 feet and drop one of your gloves or one of your dog’s toys; your dog needs to find something at the end of the track. Drop another piece of hot dog on top of the item. Command Your Dog to Find the Treats Go back to your dog and release him from his stay, encouraging him to smell the ground where the hot dogs were. Tell your dog “Find it!” and let him sniff. If he begins to follow the track, praise him quietly by saying, “Good dog!” and let him lead the way. Don’t be too enthusiastic or you may distract the dog from his sniffing. Also, don’t try to lead him; let your dog figure it out. At this point, your dog is following several scents: the trail of hot dogs, which helps motivate him, the crushed grass where you mashed the hot dogs and the crushed grass where you later stepped. Your dog is also following your individual scent, which he knows well because he smells your scent every day. But now your dog is learning to combine the scents, to follow them and to find the item at the end of the track. Start Increasing the Length of the Track When your dog successfully completes this trick, make another one by taking 10 steps to the side. If your dog is excited and having fun, you can do three or four short tracks per training session. As your dog improves over several sessions, make the track longer, add curves and corners, and drop several items along the way, but put the hot dog only on the one you want him to find. When making tracks longer or adding curves, use small pegs, stakes or flags to mark the track so you can tell if your dog is off track. Air scenting requires your dog to find someone by sniffing the scents wafting through the air instead of following a track. Most search-and-rescue dogs have both skills; they can follow a track, but if people walking over the track spoil it, they can also use their air-scenting skills. Please let me know if you have any additional questions. Thank you for writing in.

Aug. 30, 2020


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