How to Teach a Dog to Track

Search-and-rescue dogs perform a specialized form of tracking.
search dog image by Jim Parkin from

Tracking is a natural skill possessed by all dogs. Dogs that are trained to track people or animals are taught how to focus their skill and attention to complete a specific task. You can start teaching your dog to track with a minimal investment, although as you and your dog advance in skill and complexity, you’ll want or need more specialized equipment. Even if you don’t want to train your dog for a professional tracking career or for tracking trials, the exercise and time together will benefit both you and your dog.

Choosing Your Equipment and Location

Step 1

Select your dog’s harness. It must not restrict the dog’s movement in any way; that is, your dog should have plenty of room to swing her front legs forward and backward or to crouch as needed. The harness must have a “D” ring between your dog’s shoulder blades, not at the front, at the back of the neck or between its legs. Leather is the preferred material for tracking harnesses, but fabric webbing is acceptable. Your dog should not be able to slip out of her harness, but it should not be so tight that it rubs against her as she walks what could be significant distances.

Step 2

Select your dog’s tracking line. It should be 40 feet long and made of leather or fabric webbing. According to Tracking Test Judge emeritus Carolyn Krause, a line made of parachute cord is appropriate for tracking with toy dogs or with puppies from larger breeds. A 6-foot training leash can be used for early tracking training, such as scent introduction and straight-line tracking.

Step 3

Select your tracking flags. According to Krause, locator flags sold in contractor or supply stores are suitable for tracking training. If you have a selection of colors, choose one that you will personally find visible from a distance, even in a mist or dim early morning light. If only white flags are available, select a highly visible reflective tape with which to mark the flags.

Step 4

Select your articles, items that your dog will find along and at the end of the track. Many dogs learn to track using a wallet that will be dropped along the track and a glove that will be dropped at the end of the track, since those articles are common to American Kennel Club tracking tests. If you’re training your dog just for fun, feel free to use whatever might interest your dog, such as a toy.

Step 5

Select your field. In some areas, the selection might be limited to a public park or school yard. If it is possible to use a rural field or pasture, try to select a field relatively free of water or other obstructions. Remember to ask permission before using any field. It is polite and it may protect you and your dog from any potential dangers that might exist in that field, such as a bull or buried electrical cables.

Familiarizing the Dog to Scent

Step 1

Choose a flat piece of ground that is not in a common walkway. Mark this area with one of your tracking flags.

Step 2

Using your feet, scuff a small grassy area approximately 2 feet by 2 feet around the flag. Scatter a handful of small food treats in this area.

Step 3

Immediately direct your dog to the scuffed area, but do not step inside it again. Allow her to find all of the food you’ve dropped. Add more food if she seems to be using her nose a good bit. Repeat the process several times, using different areas each time.

Laying the First Track

Step 1

Create a smaller “box” around the starting flag by wiping your feet a couple of times. Drop a couple of pieces of food near the flag.

Step 2

Walk forward approximately 5 to 10 feet, scuffing your feet in each step. Set a second flag at the end of the track.

Step 3

Drop your glove at the end of the track. Place several treats on the glove or in the cuff of the glove.

Step 4

Return to the first flags, placing your feet inside your previous footprints, if possible. Drop a treat in each returning footstep.

Step 5

Direct your dog to the track and allow her to find the treats you have laid. As she steps out along the track, tell her to “go find” or an alternate command of your preference. Walk behind your dog or at her side as she moves toward the track.

Step 6

When your dog reaches the end of the track, allow her to sniff the article. Have her lie down or sit when she finds it. This action will be her indication that she has found the article at the end of a successful track.

Increasing Track Length and Difficulty

Step 1

Add length to your dog’s track, approximately 5 to 10 feet at a time. Set an additional flag each time you lay additional footage.

Step 2

Add turns to your track. American Kennel Club tracking tests define a turn to be “an abrupt change in direction of the track not less than 90 degrees,” so many people start by training their dogs to make right-angle turns. Tracks may, by the AKC definition, have wider turns but none that are narrower than 90 degrees.

Step 3

Add “age” to the track. In their earliest training, dogs are allowed to follow a track immediately after it is laid. As your dog grows in skill and experience, you should wait longer and longer for her to begin tracking. Waiting causes the scent to cool and to drop to the ground instead of lingering in the air.

Step 4

Add articles to the track. Higher-level tracking tests require your dog to find more than one article. Use everyday items, such as keys or clothing articles, for the dog to find.

Step 5

Remove your flags. Dogs are not permitted to use flags as visual cues during tracking tests, although those dogs participating in novice level tracks are permitted the beginning flag and a directional flag. As you initially lay your track, set your flags and map your course, noting the number of footsteps you take and marking landmarks as you map. Retrace your track, removing all but the first two flags as you do.


  • Never leave your flags set up in a field without telling the owner. Doing so can result in your flags being run over by mowing or harvesting equipment, which may cause damage to the equipment or harm to the person operating it.

  • Always leave a gate as you found it, whether open or closed.


  • If locator flags are unavailable, use stakes with reflective tape tied around them to mark your track.

  • You can use an area in your yard to introduce your dog to scent and nose work, if you wish.

  • Try to lay early tracks into the wind, so that the scent blows back toward your dog.

  • Dropping food in your footsteps will encourage your dog to keep her nose to the ground. Doing so will help prevent your dog from relying on “air scenting” instead of following the track laid on the ground.

  • When you first remove your flags from your track, you may need to allow your dog to immediately begin tracking. She should progress more quickly to aged tracks than she did initially.

  • AKC tracking tests require that the handler remain 20 feet behind his or her dog. Tie a knot in your lead at the 20-foot mark, to aid you in determining this distance in the field. Krause suggests marking this knot with surveyors tape or brightly colored masking tape to make it more visible.

Items You Will Need

  • 1 Nonrestrictive harness (leather or fabric)
  • 1 40-foot tracking line (leash)
  • Soft, bite-sized treats (large quantities)
  • 25 to 30 Tracking flags
  • 1 Leather or fabric gardening glove
  • 1 Leather or fabric wallet
  • Graph paper
  • Pen or pencil
  • Plastic bags and paper towels to clean up after your dog
  • 1 Large field



Photo Credits