by Trish Wright


Eli and I began our tracking career late last summer. My friend Val told me about a Tracking Trial that was going to be held nearby in early October and asked if I wanted to join in the fun and begin to train Eli. I was apprehensive at first because I didn’t know much about tracking. I assumed that I needed Eli to be more OBEDIENT then he is known to be- Eli likes to do his own thing some times…wink wink. “Not to worry,” she said, so I agreed to give it a shot. Besides, Eli needed a job and maybe this would teach him a little more self-control 

What is Tracking? 

Tracking is following the scent trail left by a human being (or other animal) that has passed along a certain route. A dog tracks when he follows that scent and is one of the many useful things dogs can do to help humans. Hounds track game, rescue dogs track lost children, police dogs track suspects, and well-trained pets can find lost items. Many dog owners, including myself, are involved in tracking with their dogs for fun, or as a sport to earn titles; perhaps to do both. Picture on the left: Vicky Hall and Pioneer's Wylie v. Krugerrand RN CD, Photo by Tom Jaskiewicz

Did you know that dogs' senses are generally much more heightened than ours. Because of this, dogs have been able to help us for centuries. 

Sight Dogs can see far better than humans can. They have heightened peripheral vision, and excellent night vision as well. Interestingly, dogs can sense movement much better than humans, but we see stationary objects clearer than they do. This is a piece of dog heritage still at work—since dogs only hunt things that moved, they had no need for good stationary eyesight. 

Hearing Dogs hear better than humans at both a lower volume and a higher frequency. Sometimes dogs hear sounds at such a high frequency that humans cannot even hear them at all. Again, this heightened sense of hearing helps dog with tracking and hunting down prey. 

Smell The sense of smell is a dog's most highly developed sense. Their wet noses dissolve the scent molecules and help them detect smells that we, as humans, cannot recognize. Many dog experts believe that the canine sense of smell helps dogs ``talk" to each other and help define their relationship. Dogs use their olfactory senses to interpret other dog's pheromones (external chemical messengers) and learn important information regarding gender and receptivity to mating. 

Mary Alice Eschweiler and CH Shepherdspatch Hercules TD, photo by Tom Jaskiewicz 



How did we start?

Eli already had a drafting harness, so that was a bonus and we had plenty of old leather gloves lying about that we could use. Val loaned me her 30 foot leash , and she also had flags to mark our tracks. Last but not least, we had our pouch full of bait and always brought along water for the dogs to drink. Tracking could be hard work! I got on the internet and read some various articles on tracking to give me a basic understanding of what Eli and I would be doing. 

Eli and I started out very slowly. He needed to understand what the term “Find it” meant so for the first little while we concentrated on learning that concept. I took and old plastic tub and turned it upside down on the lawn. I got myself plenty of bate for our game and then put Eli on a sit stay about 4 or 5 feet from the bucket. I walked to the bucket, turned around so he could see me and placed the treat on the bucket. I returned to Eli and told him to “Find it” in an excited voice. Eli went to the bucket and retrieved his treat with me following behind him. I praised him lavishly. “Good boy, you found it!” We repeated that game over and over again until I was confident he understood what Find it meant. 

Next, I added length to the game and started to lay a bit of a track for him, but this time I ditched the bucket and substituted it for a leather glove. I put Eli on a sit stay and stomped on one spot in front of him for a few seconds. That would be the scent pad he would sniff and pick up the scent he would follow. Then I walked a few feet and dropped some cheese along the track. I walked a few more feet and dropped some more bait. Finally, at the end of the track, which wasn’t more than 15 or 20 feet to start, I loaded up the glove with bait and dropped it on the grass. I made sure this time that he did not see where I dropped the glove and walked past the glove a bit, then turned around and walked back on the same track I just laid. That is what they call a double track.- laying a track and then walking back over it. When I returned to my tracking dog in training, I put the leash on him and walked him up to the scent pad. I pointed down to the scent pad and repeated the term “Find it” to Eli a few times. His head automatically went down to see what I had pointed at and sniffed the scent. At first he was a little slow to get going to I walked ahead of him a bit to lead him into the track. His head was down sniffing the ground and I would praise him when he was following along the track- “Good boy, Eli. Find it” As Eli moved along the track he found pieces of bait and each time he was encouraged and praised for his good work. Finally, Eli came upon the glove and spent a few moments trying to get at the treat inside. Again, I praised him, patted and played with him, and grabbed the glove to toss and make a game of it. 

We practiced little exercises and games like this for a few weeks. We would spice things up every now and then. Sometimes I laid short little tracks; sometimes I laid the tracks a bit longer. Sometimes he got cheese as a baiting treat, sometimes it was leftover pork chops or ham, and sometimes it was cheerios. Sometimes, we would play hide n’ seek with the girls. Eli and I would remain at a sit stay and the girls would run and hide from us. I would count to 50 and then I would give the command to “Find it.” Off we went and had a ball trying to find the girls. They would squeal and giggle when he found them and they always had a treat for him. 

Eli was doing a great job and he graduated quite quickly to more intense tracking; partially because I knew he was ready and partially because the trials were a few weeks away and we had no other choice. We moved the tracking to hayfields close by where the dogs would have an assortment of scents to work with and challenge their senses. 

Picture on the left:Stephanie Biksacky and Brighteye Wilanie Rosette CD Photo by Tom Jaskiewicz

Sally, another friend who has a Golden Retriever, Val and I started out with the very basic of tracks. We didn’t want to over do it with the dogs and have them lose interest or get discouraged. We were committed to making it as fun for the dogs and ourselves as possible. We tracked twice a week to start. Basically, for the first few weeks we laid small, straight tracks and the nice thing about it was that we each got to lay tracks for each other now instead of me laying a track for Eli with my scent-now he was getting a new scent he hadn’t been used to smelling. 

When we laid the tracks we planted a starting flag along the edge of a field and stomped on a two-foot square by the flag to lay our scent and mark the beginning of the track. We walked a few paces, dropped some bait, and then continued to walk a few more paces, dropping bait as we went along. We planted another flag in the ground about 30 to 50 feet from our starting flag to mark the initial direction of the track. Basically, we did the same thing as Eli and I had been practicing in the back yard, only now it was on a grander scale and a bigger playing field. 

Below are some sample tracks that you can lay for your dog. 

Eli took to tracking like a duck to water, like fleas on a dog, like flies on ….ah…garbage. Yes…garbage. Work? I had never seen Eli so excited, interested, and attentive to anything before. I think he was even more excited about tracking then the cute little bitch he bred last summer. To be honest, we both got hooked and there was no turning back now. We were going to train hard for a Tracking title. 

We spent the next few weeks building on the basics and adding more to our tracking routine. We moved to bigger fields and laid longer tracks. We added corners and we began using less bait. We went from laying double tracks to single tracks. We went from not aging our tracks to letting them sit for sometimes up to 60 minutes before we started. We tracked in different types of terrains and in different weather conditions. Throughout it all Eli did fantastic and was always focused on his job. I never worried and was very confident he as leading me in the right direction. I put my trust in his sense of smell and he never let me down. The time for the trial was near and I knew we were ready. So were the other dogs we trained with. 

A few days before the trial, Eli developed a lump over his left eye. He had had some type of allergic reaction the previous spring and we thought he was suffering from the same thing. It certainly looked the same at first and I didn’t worry all that much about it. I consulted the vet who eased my fears and sent us home with a pat on the head and a “Let me know if the swelling doesn’t ease in a day or two.” Eli still had tons of energy, was eating fine and was eager to track so we continued to practice for our trial that was to be held on that coming Sunday. 

Picture on the right: Lois Leidahl-Marsh and CH Swissmyth Balder the Beloved CD TD  Photo by Tom Jaskiewicz

Saturday morning, Val, Sally and I loaded up the dogs and headed for a nearby field for the last track before the trial. We each laid a track and let it age almost an hour. The weather was overcast and had a strong wind. We knew the wind would be blowing the dogs off the track a bit, but we also knew the dogs were smart enough to find their way. It wasn’t long after the tracks were laid that the weather shifted and the heavens got heavier and darker. Still we persevered. Val and Spot went first and did a great job. No rain. Sal and Nikki went next and did well, too. The skies started to sprinkle and the winds got stronger but still Nikki found her leather glove. By the time Sal and Nikki finished the heavens began to open. But the track for Eli was laid, he knew what he was there for and I knew I couldn’t disappoint him by throwing in the towel. I opened up the truck to get Eli’s harness on and noticed his eye looked droopy. The lump was the same size but I thought it might have been the way he was holding his head. I took him out of the truck, inspected his face but other than the droop, he was fine. I wasn’t sure what to do but decided that since it was a fairly short track that we would continue. He knew what he was there for and I didn’t want to end this on a sad note of quitting. I took him out to the starting flag, promising the whole time I would call the vet when we got home. 

We walked up to the starting flag and I pointed to the scent pad. Eli put his head down to pick up the scent. “Okay Eli, find it!” I told him. Eli started tracking, his tail wagging. The wind felt like hurricane force, and the rain was pelting us head on by that time. In a matter of minutes I was drenched and I remember Eli looking up at me and turning his head away from the track. The rain was beating right in his face. I thought very hard about calling him off the track but I didn’t. We kept going but I didn’t think Eli was responding as he normally had. He kept walking but his head was up in the air. His nose was rarely to the ground. I looked to Val, who laid the track, for any signs of sympathy and encouragement that he was on track. The rain kept falling, the wind kept beating, my dog kept moving and I followed. I praised him and encouraged him to find it. And then BOOM….there was the leather wallet Val had left and a soggy piece of cheese to reward his effort. Good boy, Eli. What a trooper…what a puffy eye. 

I quickly loaded up Eli and my soaked bones into the truck and headed for home. I called the vet from my cell phone on the way and told them to expect me in 20 minutes. They were waiting and the prognosis was not good. Eli had a abscess and it was about to rupture…he needed to have it drained that afternoon. I knew that his tracking test the next day would be out of the question with tubes to drain the abscess coming out of his head. My heart ached for him having to have this abscess drained and for missing his golden moment on the field.

Judges at the BMDCA 2005 Specialty Tracking Test

Photo by Tom Jaskiewicz




I pulled Eli from the trials. Word traveled quickly amongst my friends and many people called to see how Eli was and cheer me up. I remember Val calling and expressing her disappointment for us. What she had seen that day with Eli impressed her. She had noticed that because the weather was so bad, the track was very aged, and the scent probably very faint by the time Eli worked it, that he had overcome the conditions. He was tracking in the air and not on the ground that day. That explained why his head was up the whole time we worked. And I thought he was just lost and couldn’t get the scent of the track. I knew that Eli was a good tracker and Val’s observation just carved that idea in stone for me. It made the fact that we missed the trail even that much harder to get over, too. 

Eli recovered completely. He looked like a freak with the tubes in his head and the girls wouldn’t even look at him for the first few days. His hair took a few months to grow back but he loved the extra attention he got- as if he doesn’t get enough already! The girls began to feel sorry for him a few days after his operation so he felt much better when the girls began to love him up again. We put away the tracking gear for the season and I promised Eli that we would try again this year. 

Val and Spot missed their trial. Spot got whiff of a fox or something and off the track he went but Sal and Nikki tracked with perfection. I was so happy for them. It was all bitter sweet. What’s that famous saying…if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. We’re looking forward to trying again in the weeks ahead and seeing how much we remember about tracking. 

References and Good Reading: 

Tracking From the Ground Up by Sandy Ganz and Susan Boyd (Show-Me Publications). An easy-to-use resource. Perfect for the beginning tracker. 

Enthusiastic Tracking, The Step-by-step Training Manual by William R. Sanders. Presents a structured and thorough motivational training method that prepares the dog and handler for the TD & TDX tests. 

Working Dogs:  A great site for books on a variety of topics including Training and Behavior, Health and Diet.