How to Train Your Dog to Track Humans

How to Train Your Dog to Track Humans
Medium difficulty iconMedium
Time icon3-6 Months
Work training category iconWork

Introduction

Your pup has a wonderfully sensitive nose that can smell things such as human scent and then follow it to its source. What you may not realize, is that your pup has been using his nose to track since the day he was born. How, you ask? When your pup was born, his eyes were closed, yet he still had to find his way to his mother in order to nurse. To do this, he used his sense of smell to locate his mother. The goal of this training is to take this natural skill, refine it, and teach your pup to use it for a particular purpose.

The early you start training your pup the better, but you can also teach this skill to older dogs. However, training older dogs can be more challenging and take longer. You can train your pup to track humans over grass, snow, and on hard surfaces such as tarmac or concrete. 

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Defining Tasks

The task is a little different than most types of tracking in that you are going to be asking your pup to track humans. Unlike animals whose scents are very similar by species, humans all seem--at least to us-- to have extremely different smells. However, no matter how you look at it, training a dog to use his nose to track humans is really not that different than teaching him to track any other form of game. A well-trained dog can track humans via the trail they leave on the ground and by sniffing the air.

Once you teach your pup how to track by scent, you will be able to give him an item from the person to be tracked and he should have no problem tracking them down. However, just as you have probably seen on TV, your pup can only track via air or ground. If his quarry goes into water, your pup will not be able to track them anymore. 

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Getting Started

You can teach most dogs to track, though some breeds are much better at it than others. When it comes to age, the earlier you can start training your pup to track the easier it will be for him to master this skill. However, there are a few supplies you need to gather, including:

  • Treats
  • A leash
  • A harness
  • A spray bottle
  • Several small flags
  • Some distilled water
  • Hot dogs

The key to this training is understanding that while your dog may be a natural sniffer, he still needs to be taught how to use that big snout to track down your quarry, which in this case just happens to be humans. Be patient, be consistent,  practice frequently, and keep practicing even after he seems to have mastered the skill. Remember, practice makes perfect. 

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The Hotdog Method

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1

Gather your training supplies

For this, you will need a few packages of cheap hot dogs, shoes you can use for training that you don't mind getting hot dog squished on the soles of, treats, and a large yard or field to work in.

2

Get an early start

The best time to start training your dog to track is early in the morning when the grass is clear of other human smells. Tie your pup so he cannot follow you. Take two chunks of hot dog (about 1 inch long) and smash them into the ground, one piece per foot. Not only does this release the scent of the grass, but it smears the smell of the hot dogs on your feet.

3

Turn and walk away

Turn and walk away from the spot, using the smell of the hot dogs and grass and your feet to create a trail. As you walk along, drop a small piece of hot dog every 6 to 10 feet. After your trail is about 20 to 30 feet long, place one of your gloves or a hat on the ground and place a treat on top of it.

4

Release the hound

Go back to the starting point and release your pup. Take him over to the starting area and encourage him to sniff at the ground where you smashed the hot dogs. Give him a "find it" command as he sniffs around. If he starts following the trail on his own, quietly praise him with a " good boy!" and let him lead you down the trail. Repeat this until your pup will automatically start searching for your scent each time you create a new trail. By now he is tracking the combined smell of the crushed grass, the smell of the hot dogs, and the crushed grass you were stepping on later.

5

Mix it up

Once your pup can track you on straight tracks, time to start mixing it up by making sharp turns, doubling back on yourself and trying to confuse him. As he masters his abilities, try having other people create starting points and trails without hot dogs. Give your pup time to "acquire" the scent of your assistant and then watch him track your friend to a hiding place.

The Spray Bottle Method

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Create a bottle of your scent

This is the fun part, you need an article of clothing that contains a heavy concentration of your sweat. Try your gym clothes or a pair of work socks you have been wearing for several days so they are really stinky. Soak the item in a bowl filled with distilled water (distilled water has no odors, whereas tap water has plenty to confuse your pup) for a few days and then put this "disgusting" water in the spray bottle and label it clearly for everyone else.

2

Get ready to go outside

Grab your rubber boots, spray bottle, treats, leash, some flags, and leave your dog inside or in a crate if you had to go somewhere else besides your backyard for training. One little trick, get your pup excited and ready to go tracking by asking him in an excited voice "are you ready to go tracking?" over and over again, getting him all riled up.

3

Mark your starting point

Go out to an area of grass where no one else has been walking so far today, put your boots on and spray the soles and uppers with your special blend. Scuff your way around a 4-foot by 4-foot patch of grass, making sure to get spread your scent thoroughly in the grass. You may want to respray and go over the area a second time at first. While you are walking around, drop chunks of hot dog or puppy treats all over the place. Use flags to mark the corners so you know where they are.

4

Bring on the dog

Bring your dog over to the patch on his leash and tell him to "find it" while he sniffs around and finds the treats you left for him. Each time he moves towards the next treat, quietly praise him, if he seems to be a bit confused, try helping him at first by pointing out the treats.

5

Happy trails to you

Once he has mastered finding the treats in the scent patch, you can start using the same method to mark trails, making them longer and longer until he can track you easily. Try having other people make trails and give you a piece of clothing for your dog to sniff. He should automatically be able to follow that scent just like he does yours. The more practice, the better he will become at tracking humans.

The Clothing Method

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Have a good sniff

Give your dog an article of your clothing such as your... ugh, dare I say it... underwear, or old stinky socks to play with, sleep with, chew on, for a few days. This is to give him plenty of time to get used to the scent so that he can recognize it anywhere.

2

Play a little hide and seek

Place your pup in a room with the door closed. Take the item of clothing and hide it in plain sight for your pup to find. Now release your dog and tell him to go "find it". The first few times you may have to guide him to give him the idea. As he gets better at finding the easy to see item, start hiding it out of sight so that he has to use his nose to track down item by scent alone.

3

Outdoor training

If necessary, use a different item of clothing with a fresher dose of your scent. Go outside without your pup and use the clothing item to create a trail by dragging it along the ground and then leaving it at the end for your pup to find. Walk back down the trail you just made to avoid creating a second trail.

4

Let your pup out

Let your pup come out and give him the "find it" command. He should start looking for your scent at this point and take off down the trail, following it to the end where you left the item of clothing. Each time he does this reward him with a treat and praise.

5

Work in progress

Keep repeating this training making the trails harder to find each time until he can follow your trail virtually anywhere. Start working with other people until you can give your pup an item of clothing and he can successfully track them down anywhere.

By PB Getz

Published: 11/30/2017, edited: 01/08/2021

Training Questions

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Training Questions and Answers

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Cain

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Belgian Malinois

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6 Months

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Question

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I’d like my dog to respond purely to the word in the command, and not the tone or pitch I use when I say it. For example, I’d like to be able to use my release word “okay” and not say “pickle” with the same effect- him jumping up and going about his day. Is this possible? If so, how?

May 22, 2022

Cain's Owner

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Caitlin Crittenden - Dog Trainer

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Hello Layla, First, you start teaching the command normally, with the tone or voice and word you plan to use. Once pup has learned that well and can obey around a few distractions, then practice that command in different tones of voice, gently correcting if pup doesn't obey (like reeling pup in with a long leash when you say come if pup doesn't come when you say it in a different tone for example), and rewarding when pup obeys the word regardless of tone. You will also practice saying other words in different tones and only rewarding pup for obeying the correct word instead of a similar sounding word. All of this comes down to intentionally practicing making the word sound different and using similar inflections for different commands and only rewarding correct responses, so pup start to notice the differences. Best of luck training, Caitlin Crittenden

May 23, 2022

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Boomer

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Labrador Retriever

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4 Years

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Question

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Hi, this is my Boomer boy. He is a psychiatric service dog for anxiety and panic alert/response. He is owner trained (by me obviously) and has done very well with all of his tasks; 12/10 a very good boy. He's been with me for 3 years now. I would really like to teach him to get help. I have tried looking around online and on youtube for anyone that can explain how to teach "get help" but have come up with nothing. Learning this task would benefit the both of us; If I am having an episode and Boomer cannot bring me out of it, he needs to find someone as the episode could worsen into something much bigger (i.e. harming myself somehow, passing out, getting lost, etc.). I really need to teach him this as he is about to start accompanying me to work now that I have the accommodation, so he needs to find a coworker or someone if I have a disassociated headspace. I also am very allergic to marijuanna (I know, but its diagnosed) and unfortunately in my job I have to be around a lot of customers who reek of pot. I would like to train him to be able to detect the smell on someone before they're within range of me and be able to pull me away from their direction so I don't have an episode. I will gladly appreciate any help you may be able to give me.

May 6, 2021

Boomer's Owner

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Caitlin Crittenden - Dog Trainer

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Hello Angel, You will need some volunteers to train this. With someone in the same room as you, tell pup to "Get Help" or whatever cue you want to use and direct pup toward the other person. If pup doesn't go, the person should coax pup over, then give a treat when pup arrives. As pup improves and can go to the other person without extra encouragement from either of you when you say Get Help, start increasing the distance between you and that person pup has to go to. Work up to pup being able to go to the from a couple of hundred feet away, adding one foot at a time to repetitions. You can use a long leash or a friend's fenced area to practice (you also want to work up to somewhere pup isn't as familiar with - like another person's yard and not just your own once you have gotten really far from the other person in practice). When pup can get the other person from far away, recruit a different friend and start the training process over again with the person in the same room at first. (it should go quicker this time though since pup has the basic idea, but will still need to be restarted). When pup can get that person from a couple hundred feet away, then do the same thing with at least 20 more people so pup learns how to go to anyone. When pup can do it with a variety of people, when you give the get help cue, act like you are falling or doing one of your other dissociated actions pup has learned to detect (you can also pretend to fall/pretend start the initial training with the acting out and verbal cue earlier in the training process too, while saying "Get Help"). Practice with the pretend episode and the cue until pup does well with that, then act out an episode and wait seven seconds before cueing "Get Help" to see if pup will get help when you just act out an episode, before you command them verbally to get help. Practice this until pup is consistently going for help just when you fall without needing the additional cue after. You will also need to teach pup how to lead the person back to you, which will start with the person giving pup your “Go Find” cue you are currently using, but adding your name to that, so it’s “Go Find Angel or Your Owner”. If those who don’t know you will be likely to be brought back to you, I would teach “Where is your owner” since many people instinctively say that. Practicing this the same way you taught pup to go to another person, but with pup coming to you, until pup is consistent, then waiting seven seconds before giving pup the cue to go to you, to see if pup will lead them there on their own. When pup gets to the person they are going for help to - that person should give pup a treat each time, and when pup leads the person back to you, you or the other person should give pup an additional treat. For the marijuanna training, that will need to be taught using scent detection with teaching pup to alert when they smell that, and not to alert when they smell another similar looking scented object. Because this involves directly working with that scent, I would actually pursue a trainer's help, who has experience with teaching scent detection for service work, so that that person can train pup on the scent without you having to interact with it. If you look into how peanut allergy or gluten with celiac is taught with scent detection, the training is the same, the difference being that after pup is trained with a solid sample, the person will then need to practice with an aerated sample a bit too (and pup bathed before being returned to you). This will require your helper to have medical access to marijuanna for training purposes, unless you live somewhere that that's not required, which may be the case from your description. Best of luck training, Caitlin Crittenden

May 6, 2021


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