Tracking Dogs- Part 1, by D.D.

I had read an article some time ago about tracking dogs, and I didn’t get to respond to it then. However, here is my experience. It’s not the dog you are trying to beat; it is the handler.

I have a lot of experience with tracking dogs. I used to guard the copper pipeline in Indonesia. The copper mine (also containing some gold) was on top of a mountain. Once the material was taken from the ground, it was mixed into a slurry and pumped miles through the jungle to the port. This pipeline was under constant attack. People would cut into the pipe, fill some buckets, and run off into the jungle. We would have to track them with dogs, in the hopes of arresting them. Usually it was the military or police doing the cutting, so there was plenty of incentive to get away.

I spoke to most of the dog handlers about how to get away if a person were being tracked. They were adamant that there was very little a person could do to cover their tracks or fool the dogs. We had people climbing trees and jumping from tree to tree in order to break the trail. Some would run through rivers, ponds, and swamps or even climb and descend cliff faces.

You also have to understand that when the authorities decide to put on a manhunt, you are not coming up against just dogs and handlers; you are coming up against entire departments. They won’t send a couple of guys and a dog into the woods after you. They will set up a command post that sends and receives constants updates, as professionals coordinate the search for you. They can put up helicopters with heat cameras. They will drive along roads or get ahead of you and/or send other teams from another direction. They can seal off huge areas and blanket it with searchers or just wait you out. Even if you could take off at high speed into an endless woods, you would eventually run out of supplies.

Many times when someone is on the run, they don’t even use dogs to find them. Almost all of them are caught and caught quickly. The dog tracking team is gravy. If they see that you have only one way to go or few options, they’ll just high-tail to those spots and send fast chase teams after you without a dog.

Understanding Dogs

These dogs are multi-thousand dollar pieces of equipment. All professionally-trained dogs are certified regularly on their ability to do what they are trained to do. All handlers are certified and trained on not only their ability to handle a dog but to handle specific dogs. Both the dog and the handler have training requirements, records, and certifications. Any department worth mentioning is going to have a well-maintained team. Just like any other equipment, these dogs will be regularly evaluated for serviceability.

Some are good at some things, and some are good at others. For instance, drug dogs range widely on their ability to find certain drugs. Some will be good at finding cocaine, while others excel at finding marijuana. If the authorities know what they are looking for or suspect something specific, they will pull out their heavy hitter for that specific thing. If a dog fails, they will use another.

Finding you is a game to the dog. They work for rewards, and that reward is usually a few minutes with a favorite toy. Just like any other trick, the dog is taught and rewarded for doing well. The dog is eager to please and is fairly simple minded in its pursuit of you.

It is not a relentless machine hunting you down. Think of a dog that enjoys playing fetch rather than the “Terminator”.

There are generally four kinds of law enforcement dogs: Attack (Bite), Drug, Bomb, and Tracking. Of course, there are many more specialties, such as agricultural, cadaver, money, et cetera. All of these dogs specialize in finding something.

Most dogs are single purpose, but you will occasionally find one that is cross trained. When dogs are cross trained, they are usually primarily trained in one of the nose-oriented jobs and then taught to be a bite dog. Cross-training is more likely to happen in departments with smaller budgets or K9 facilities.

Tracking dogs are very similar. Some dogs excel at finding people under different conditions. Some do better at finding people in the forest or jungle. Some are used to locating a scent, and others follow it. Some are slower and more reliable, while others are runners and will bolt in the direction of the scent trail and then reacquire it. You may come up against more than one kind of dog. For instance, they may use their sure-fire slow and steady dogs to negotiate difficult terrain or an area they think a runner is using counter-measures. They then may switch to fast dogs over terrain where there is limited choice of direction or to finally run someone down when they see him. You may get tracked by a tracking dog, and then upon seeing you they may release the bite dogs.

Tracking dogs can be of any breed. I’ve seen mixed-breed mutts taken from shelters and trained to sniff out one thing or another.

Bite Dogs

These are the dogs you will most likely encounter at the end of the chase. They are the ones most likely not to be on a leash when you do. They can be used to flush you out of a bush, attic, or any other hiding place. If the tracking dogs come to a stop and are going nuts barking at a bush, cave, et cetera, it’s the bite dog coming in after you. A bite dog is normally released when a target is in site and distinguishable to the dog by the handler.

Almost always the dog will latch onto you and hold you until the handler arrives. Bite dogs are trained to grab you in a specific way, usually by an arm or a leg. I saw one dog that was trained to grab a person by the ankle and rotate in circles until the handler got there. This caused the victim to fall down and be spun around. This is so that the victim cannot kick at the dog.

If available, or if they think there will be trouble, or if a dog is having a hard time, or you are attacking the dog, they will release another one or just shoot you (with a bullet or taser). No matter what you do, once a dog has been told to stop you, you are going to be seriously hindered as far as escaping any further. The handler and the rest of the team will be right on top of you, either way.

Bite Dog Training

There are several things that make up a good bite dog.

  1. Its ability to bite you, when commanded to do so, and where/how trained to do so.
  2. Its ability to firmly hold that bite as long as necessary.
  3. Its ability to reacquire a bite, if it loses it.
  4. Its ability to let go and back off when commanded to do so.

The following problems may occur:

Problems with #1– The dog bites without command. It may bite other officers, or the handler, or you. It may bite you in an “unauthorized” place, such as the crotch or throat.

Problems with #2– The dog bites but does not grip. This may cause the dog to repeatedly bite you over and over again, causing injury.

Problems with #3– Sometimes once a dog loses the bite, it will not bite again, which is bad for the officers.

Problems with #4– The biggest and most common failure (in my experience) is #4. With an aggressive breed and after a chase, the dog just will not let go. The handler constantly yells commands at the dog, and the dog doesn’t listen. This causes a rush of officers on the victim to pin him while the handler physically removes the dog from the person, sometimes injuring him at the same time. I’ve seen dogs bite officers at this point or rush back and bite the victim once he’s in handcuffs.

Most bite dogs are larger, aggressive breeds that have the body weight to seriously challenge a full-grown man. Once it has you by a leg or an arm, you are not lifting 150+ lbs and dragging it around, especially when it doesn’t want you to and is actively fighting you. Even if you could do this, you’re not going to be able to move fast enough to avoid the tracking team.

The Bloodhound

This dog is better at smelling things out, because of the shape of its head, ears, and posture. The of the way the dog is built, it has its head low to the ground and level. Its ears are out and actually catch and keep the scent in its face, keeping a kind of pocket around the face and nose of the dog. On top of this, it has a very powerful nose. In my experience an actual bloodhound is rare. They excel at smelling things, and any department that put money into a bloodhound will always train it to locate something. I’ve never seen a bite trained or cross trained blood hound.

One Comment

  1. Good article. I was a Vietnam Military Police sentry dog handler and have first hand experience in one of these kind of Attack dogs. Mine was the most aggressive of the bunch. Even I had to choke him out to get him off of the dummy. He was great at the obstacle course and we were part of the demonstration team that put on shows for the V.I.P’s and brass. He was part of the attack demo. also because of his aggressiveness and the fact that he would leap off of the ground at ten ft. out and hit the dummy chest high full speed, always knocking the aggressor down.

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