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On the Right Track for Fun

Dogs use their sense of smell for tracking, a skill that makes them popular, say, in police work for finding suspects and recovering evidence or in hunting for locating a hunter’s downed game.

But tracking is also a fun noncompetitive outdoor sport for all breeds of dogs as well as purebreds. It demonstrates and tests the dog’s ability to recognize and follow human scent—which can be exciting and rewarding when you’re on the end of your pup’s lead line.

My club, the Palo Alto Foothills Tracking Association, or PAFTA, is a small but enthusiastic group dedicated to dog tracking, and the club schedules regular events under American Kennel Club auspices. We also have seminars and workshops on tracking.

The AKC awards titles for tracking excellence, with dogs earning the following as they successfully complete field tests: Tracking Dog (TD), Tracking Dog Urban (TDU) Tracking Dog Excellent (TDX), and Variable Surface Tracking (VST) tests. The dog wears a harness attached to a 20-foot to 40-foot long line, and the handler must read from the dog’s behavior where the track goes.

Dogs at any age can be trained to earn an AKC title, but puppies are great—and they are so much fun to watch. After all, who is always hungry a full of energy? A puppy, of course.

To start a dog in tracking, a handler puts down a sliver of hot dog, string cheese, or something equally delicious in each step he takes. At first, the handler just goes 10 to 12 steps on the track. This strategy puts the dog’s nose right to the ground with the dog—and the hungrier the dog the better, by the way—surging forward, checking each step for food. At the end of the tasty trail is a sock or glove. Once the dog touches it with his or her nose, it’s party time with more food as a reward.

The reward teaches the dog he is in charge, and he gains confidence on each track. Steps are increased if dog is focused. So with a successful track of 10 to 18 steps under their belts, the team can extend the number of steps for the next track, to perhaps 25 steps—farther but not that much farther. Continue to do the same for subsequent tracks. If the dog’s is nose-down, the handler can use less food in the steps. Ultimately, the goal is to have, finally, only one piece of food per track. The dog learns that the end is the best: When he gets that glove, he gets the food reward, hooray! Food is the motivator.

It’s great exercise for the handler, and believe it or not, it’s not all that time consuming. In a short time, the tracks get longer and longer, and the handler increases the complexity of the track, adding turns. Soon enough, your sniffing pooch will be a tracking like a pro, and she’ll outgrow the short grass of city parks and have the confidence for a move to more rustic places such as county parks or open spaces. For an AKC tracking title, the track is “aged” from 30 minutes up to two hours, and the length of a track should be 440 to 500 yards.

A handler can do this alone or have a partner. I started in this sport in 1981 with my golden retriever puppy, and I still love it. I am now training my 6-month-old golden puppy that is tired at the end of three tracks. This girl is so proud of herself when she finds the glove. Then she comes home and naps for hours.

It is simply fascinating to me how the dogs learn to pick up the scent, and I’ve learned something new with each dog I’ve trained. For instance, some dogs follow on the track exactly in the footsteps I laid, while others quarter a track. The wind plays a big factor in that dogs are more nose-down with the wind from behind and nose-up if the wind is blowing in their faces.

Another beautiful thing is that there is minimal number of accoutrements required for this sport. The equipment needed is a simple harness for the dog and a line of 40 feet plus any old sock or two and glove, water, and those supper-yummy treats for the dog. At test time, one has to be 20 feet in back of the dog, but at a corner the handler must let the dog check out which way the track goes. Here is where the 40 feet of line comes into play. As a handler, the requirements are patience and time.

I often set a track and go off to do errands as the time increases. Something to remember is you may return and your article may be missing, so carry an extra glove or sock or item on you. Always know where your track goes. Handlers can use flags, tape, and clothespins as markers, but be sure to pick up these up at the end of tracking.

Above all, have fun. That’s what this sport is about.

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Mary Ann Graziano is a founding member of Palo Alto Foothills Tracking Association, or PAFTA, a local tracking club established in 1983 Learn more about the club by visiting the website,

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Main article photo by: Tracking dog photo courtesy of Milwaukee VA Medical Center; dog team courtesy of PAFTA