Train Your Tracking Dog – Part 1, by Dogdancer

January 2017, about 3:30 a.m. on a moonless sub-freezing night – and I sure didn’t want to get out of a warm cozy bed. The nervous tapping of the inside-dog’s nails on the floor echoed as he paced around the dark bedroom. Something was bothering him. When I listened, I could hear the distant sound of the outside-dog’s repeating slow bark – the same alert he gave whenever Granny stepped out of her house.

Granny, 84, lived in a home situated over a small rise about 500 feet from our house, deep in the rural Ozark Mountains. Elderly, forgetful, hard-of-hearing, arthritic, and independent, she lived by the sun – up at dawn, and tucked into bed at sunset.   The outside-dog, a thick-coated Collie, had assigned himself a single job: barking in a leisurely manner whenever Granny opened her front door. That’s what he was doing now. Surely, Granny wouldn’t go outside in the middle of the night in this weather!

I dressed slowly, grumbling. I bundled up in a heavy jacket, hat, and warm boots. The inside dog watched and waited, knowing he was going to get a jaunt outside. This dog was new to us – somebody had dumped him on our rural roadway about a month before. He arrived starving and bewildered. We already had several dogs, and didn’t need another one, especially a big, solid black Pitbull x Labrador Retriever x Something Else mix.

But this well-mannered dog was different from the usual drop-offs – someone had obviously spent a lot of time and effort training him. He sat, lay down, and came to us on command. He walked on leash without pulling. He loaded readily into the back of our pickup, and would hop into the cab when invited. He rode in cars and trucks quietly, curled up in the back seat. He would fetch a thrown ball, and bring it right back. He didn’t chase livestock, but tried hard to help move cattle through the corral. He had a loud menacing bark. We couldn’t figure out why anyone would get rid of a dog with so much going for him. We decided to see if we could find him a home – and named him Worthless because that’s what he was to us. Little did we imagine how valuable he would become!

I grabbed a spotlight and started the hike up the hill, Worthless running and sniffing in this unusual nighttime excursion. As my husband and I crested the rise, I was shocked to see Granny’s home’s lights all on, shining like beacons in the gloom. When we got to her front door, it was partially open. After a thorough search, my worst fear was realized – she wasn’t there. Her coat and hat were still there. She had gone out in sub-freezing weather in her house clothes or pajamas.

I stood on her porch, flashlight glinting off frozen foliage, seeing no movement or signs of where she might have gone. The beam barely penetrated the thick woods beside and behind Granny’s house. The dense underbrush and thick layer of dry oak leaves obscured the ground. We had over 100 acres of field and forest around us – she could have been anywhere. My mouth went dry; it was hard to swallow. For an instant, I wished I still had a good search dog.

The yard light from our house winked over the rise. I guessed she might have headed toward the lone visible illumination, which would have taken her through a dangerous maze of shop equipment and tractor parts. She could have fallen in the dark and knocked her head on something hard or sharp – the horrible possibilities played through my mind. I started up the rise toward our house, panning the flashlight in all directions and hoping to see movement.

To my right, Worthless stopped his sniffing and cheerful bounding. Suddenly, he growled a deep ominous sound. Then, baying fiercely, he dashed off into the darkness around the side of the house. I heard him crashing into the underbrush and crackling leaves on the slope behind Granny’s house – then, dead silence.

I hurried around the house, climbing through a maze of brambles. The flashlight illuminated Worthless down a slope in deep woods. He was hopping playfully, wagging his tail. Then, up from the fluffy leaf litter on the forest floor, a thin bare arm rose, trying to fend off the happy dog.

I rushed to her side and told Worthless to sit, keeping him out of the way. Granny was dressed in a short sleeved shirt and thin pants, quite chilled, but unhurt except for a few scratches from the brambles. She insisted on standing up by herself, and walked unsteadily back to her house, my coat slung around her shoulders. Back in the warmth, she explained that she’d gone out for a cup of coffee (!), got turned around and couldn’t find her way back. My husband and I got her warmed up, made her that coffee, tended her scratches, and finally got her back into bed.

Worthless followed us back over the rise to our home. He was probably surprised when I cut a big hunk of steak for him. He ate it with doggy satisfaction.


I was part of a canine search team in rural Missouri for years, until I married and moved outside their region. Our small group of volunteers owned and trained dogs with one goal in mind: being able to find lost people. Our confidential searches included hunting for elderly folks who had “gone missing”, tracking campers and kids who had walked into the extensive national forestland and couldn’t find their way out, and even seeking possible survivors beneath the remains of Joplin, Missouri, in 2011 when an EF5 tornado blenderized a six-mile-long portion of the city.

There were many breeds of dogs involved – German Shepherds, Belgian Malinois, Czech Shepherds, Labrador Retrievers, Bloodhounds, and assorted mixed breeds. I worked with my own Collies. Other teams had members who favored Dutch Shepherds, Australian Shepherds, Border Collies, terrier crosses. A few teams worked exclusively with German Shepherds.


There wasn’t any breed that outperformed all others, even though some trainers had their own set-in-concrete preferences.   I found over the years that individual dogs within all breeds and mixes have the energy, desire, and scenting skills to learn to search and find someone or something. You just have to be able to communicate the idea to the dog, and make sure the dog “gets paid” at the end.

Search dogs differ from dogs trained in property protection, or law enforcement “bite” dogs, or those taught to sniff out drugs or contraband. In fact, the ideal search dog is generally well-socialized and enjoys people, learns quickly, is energetic, but calm and steady in temperament. Most search dogs are medium to large size, but that doesn’t mean a smaller dog couldn’t qualify. Smaller dogs are better at getting into cramped spaces and narrow culverts than big ones are, but it’s harder for them to cover long distances.

It is possible that you may have a potential search dog laying at your feet right now as you read this. The balance of this article will get you acquainted with the training process, the behavior of dogs as they search, and give you an outline on how to turn your Fido into a really valuable team member – one who can hunt up missing family and friends even during a TEOTWAWKI crisis.


We humans don’t really know the intricacies of the dog’s world, or how their scenting ability colors their perceptions. Their environment must be rich with evocative odors that we simply don’t notice. Even so, we can harness this ability with training and rewards. The average dog’s sense of smell is so remarkable, that with training it can locate long-overgrown graves, identify where a body lies dozens of feet deep under water, and even track one person down a busy city sidewalk.

Dogs inhale minute particles, molecules, of scent from anything a person has bodily contact with. Your shoes leave a scent trail as you walk through a park, for example. The very air around you is laden with your scent. Dogs follow a scent on the ground with their head and nose down near the odors. Dogs also can pick up smells in the air. You’ll see an “air scenting” dog lift its head up and sniff, sometimes opening and closing its mouth as the scent molecules move through the dog’s sinuses and scent organs. This is much like we humans do when we walk past a donut shop, and catch the air scent of something yummy baking.

Scent molecules trod into the grass or ground tend to be relatively stable, clinging to vegetation and underbrush. In perfect conditions, they can last for days or even weeks. Scent molecules wafted through the air are carried on the breeze – just like the fragrance of that donut shop drifts over an entire neighborhood – and may lead the dog away from a target as it follows the scent on the wind.

Weather can affect the spread of scent, and the dog’s willingness to track someone, too. A hot muggy day diffuses and puddles scent, and dogs want to lie in the shade. A cold dry day can make scents harder for a dog to find. Windy days make air scenting nearly impossible, except in a very general way – ground scenting dogs do a little better in these circumstances. Hot ground, such as you might find in a sunny glade in a forest, can make the scent rise up with heated air in one spot – the dog might lose the scent or be led in a false direction. Rain diffuses or washes scents away entirely. Dogs can follow a trail across a river or pond, picking up the scent again as the trail returns to dry ground. However, a good search dog also can taste water, lap at it, and apparently pick up scent molecules from that as well.


There are many approaches and concepts utilized by professional trainers. The end goal of all of them is to produce a dog that, on command, uses its sensitive nose to follow scent molecules that a passing person has deposited on the ground, on vegetation, on objects, and even in the air.

First of all, basic obedience. Your dog should be able to sit, stay, come, and lay down on command, walk on a leash, and understand “no”. There are many programs, schools and even YouTube videos on how to train these simple skills.

Know what the dog will work for. A dog does not work because it is selflessly humanitarian like the television dog Lassie. Dogs search because they get something, that is “get paid”, for their efforts. So, the first thing you need to understand is what your dog is willing to work for – a special food treat? Some roughhousing? Chasing or tugging on a favorite toy? Find this out by testing each option. Many dogs are seriously addicted to chasing and retrieving a ball or other object – that’s what they will work for. Other dogs couldn’t care less about toys, but will do anything you ask for a piece of a hotdog. What does your dog like best?

Find out how hard your dog will work. Make a game for your dog – put his food treat on the 3rd or 4th rung of a secure ladder, or under a pillow, or behind a partially closed door. Make sure the dog sits at a distance and can see you place the treat there. Return to the dog, and tell him “Find it!” or “Find cookie!” or whatever word you use for his treat. You may need to walk him over to the treat the first couple times, until he understands this new game. A dog who has aptitude to search should get the idea after a few tries. (Some dogs never do – if your dog just doesn’t get it, he may not be cut out for searching.)

After each session, give the dog his “pay check” – that special toy, chasing a ball, whatever, for about 4-5 minutes. Always put the pay check away before the dog tires of it. See? Searching is fun!

Teach the dog to follow a scent.   This is multi-step training, and is best done with one or two friends’ assistance on acreage. Enlist a friend who is not around this place much, and not a family member who is always around. The reason is that family members probably have left fresh scent trails everywhere that can confuse a dog who is just learning this skill. The friend who visits occasionally has not left trails.

(To be continued tomorrow, in Part 2.)


  1. Thank you for assisting in the May 22nd 2011 tornado in Joplin. I was a college student at Ozark Christian College at the time and my apartment was destroyed. I was the search dog then, digging through it for my friends. I found out they were unharmed and was reunited with them that night… but man! It would have been great to have a search dog.

    It’s always great when I get to meet someone who assisted and thank them. Thank you!

  2. What a great article! So useful and informative! All kinds of dogs can be search dogs, but the owner must be willing to work with them, and receive competant training. If you are looking for a way to assist your community and get some exercise, then volunteer at your local search and rescue.

  3. This article was not only informative; it was interesting and fun to read. Like people, dogs have differing abilities and talents. Searching, protecting, comforting–they do it all.

    Some PC moral must be inserted. Calling this wonderful dog “Worthless” is hurting his self-esteem. He’ll soon feel inferior to the other dogs. He may also feel unloved. This could end in tragedy; you might have a kennel shooting. I’m sure he’d feel better about himself if you called him “Irreplaceable”. Group therapy may be useful.

    Looking forward to Part 2.

Comments are closed.