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Well known for their ability to perform incredible work both professionally and for fun, German Shepherds are one of the most popular breeds when it comes to filling a need. These hard-working and steadfast dogs are incredibly intelligent, loyal, and are always willing to do what it takes to get the job done. In many positions, this includes things like protection, guidance, guarding, and tracking.
Tracking, in particular, takes some dedication to the work, as there are constant distractions in the typical field scenario. Other animals, traffic, people, and a countless amount of other scents are always bombarding a tracking dog as he follows his trail, though a good worker will ignore these distractions and continue until he catches his quarry. Whether it be a person, an object, or a substance, teaching your German Shepherd to track is no easy feat.
Tracking training generally begins fairly early on, especially for dogs who will go on to work for official forces such as the police or the military. However, if you’re choosing to train your German shepherd for personal use or other purposes, training can begin whenever you’re ready for it to and should take about three to six months, depending on how quick your dog picks up on each step of the training itself.
There are multiple methods for helping your German Shepherd understand the steps of a good tracking procedure, and all are very involved. Be ready to be present and to go the extra step in helping your dog get familiar with the ins and outs of the work you want him to perform. Consider getting the rest of your household involved as well, if possible. The more people to support your working shepherd in his tasks, the better.
German Shepherds are incredibly motivated dogs, though they still need a level of reinforcement. You’ll want to take some tasty treats to use for rewards, while also gathering a few of your dog’s favorite toys to use as training tools. The more attached he is to them, the more likely he will seek them out fairly quickly. Besides these things, you’ll also want to enlist the help of a few volunteers to assist with your training sessions so you can be free to hide objects without being followed by your dog.
The Hide and Seek Method
Use a helper
Have a friend or family member stay with your dog to keep him from running after you too soon.
Run and hide
Hide somewhere close by and easy to find.
Have a reward ready
Have a treat in your hand that is scent-heavy in order to entice your German Shepherd to come your way. Call him by his name or whistle to get his attention.
Release the hound
Have your helper release your dog so he can come and find you.
Reward for seeking
Offer the treat and plenty of verbal praise and affection once your dog finds you. This should be seen as the ultimate prize in the world’s most fun game. You want him to enjoy finding people and objects as much as possible so make the rewards irresistible.
Make it difficult
As you practice this, begin to hide in harder and harder to find places. Practice often in a variety of environments, both indoor and outdoor, when possible.
The Find the Toy Method
Show your dog a favorite toy
Use one of your dog’s favorite toys to get her attention. Wave it in front of her face and let her smell it. Get her excited!
Hide the toy nearby
Find an easy place to put the toy such as in the middle of another room, underneath an obvious blanket, or around the corner in the hallway.
Let your dog find it
Tell your dog to ‘find it’ and allow her to go and look for the toy. When she finds it, jump up and down and celebrate!
Short play time
Play with your dog and the toy for a little while as a reward. Weave in the work with the play and she will learn to enjoy the task itself.
Get progressively harder
Hide the toy in many different places as you go. Use other objects indoors and outdoors to place it in, behind, or around. Make it a challenge for your dog and remember to always reward once she finds it!
The Follow the Trail Method
Put a scent on your shoe
Use a food that is mushy and very smelly to rub on the bottom of your shoe. A hot dog is a good choice, but you can use other dog-safe foods. This will make your trail scent very obvious to him.
Walk a few yards away with your dog’s toy in hand. Find a place to put the toy where it can be partially hidden.
Hide the toy and walk back
Since you’ll be teaching your dog to rely on scent, don’t make the toy’s location very obvious. Hide it in tall grass, behind a tree, or somewhere else that may be partially obstructed. Walk back to your dog after hiding it.
Use a command
Use a verbal command such as ‘find it’ to let your German shepherd go and look for the toy. Because your shoes had the scent of food, he will likely have no trouble following it until he reaches the toy itself.
Follow behind and reward
Keep in step behind your dog to ensure he doesn’t get off the path too far. Gently redirect when necessary using a leash or his collar. Once he locates the toy, reward him with either play time or plenty of yummy treats.
Ramp up the difficulty
Once your dog becomes proficient at locating things a few yards away, start adding distance and stop using food to mark your shoes. Do this gradually to help your German shepherd gain confidence in searching for the toy or person he’s looking for.
By TJ Trevino
Published: 04/13/2018, edited: 01/08/2021