K9s following weeks-or-months-old tracks?
By, Linda Porter
One of the most common subjects that arise in our class is: How old of a track can a dog actually follow to a successful conclusion? Or sometimes we hear someone say: ”Hey, this handler I know ran a 3-month-old-track, can your dog do that?’ These questions have been debated for years among different K9 groups and it is our experience that a good percentage of these statements come from Bloodhound enthusiasts who insist on promoting the noble breed as some kind of super dog.
The Bloodhound’s olfactory abilities are not necessarily overly superior to non-hound breeds. The truth is, the biggest advantage the Bloodhound, or any hound
breed has over non-hound breeds, are hundreds of years of selective breeding for strong genetic track drive. Through the years, we have had the opportunity to work and train many different breeds, and in doing so, have observed that the hound's superior track drive, stature, and working speeds are what allow it to keep going for long periods of time on trails that are longer or older.
The question of how old is too old, (for any breed) however, still remains. Environmental conditions affect all trails. Your dog may be having difficulty because the scent is simply too weak, or is no longer available in some areas of the track. Just because you think the scent should still be there doesn’t always make it so. Observe your dog carefully on older trails. If its behavior indicates there is no scent to follow, then there probably isn't. Only your dog knows if the scent is actually present, so you need to trust your dog on this one. Too much encouragement from you may cause the dog to take anything that is available, including a long trot down a non-existent trail.
This brings me to the next problem with trying to follow tracks that no longer exist. Many of the teams we have observed that make these claims don’t know how to read or recognize good working behaviors in their dogs. We have seen many handlers fooled by a dog just taking them for a walk in what happens to be the correct direction. Another possibility is that the dog has picked up someone else’s scent along the way and is following a fresh scent, rather than the month-old track the handler thinks the dog is following.
If you’re interested in reading some information on the tracking dogs’ ability to follow old trails, I would recommend a book written by Gerritsen and Haak titled, K9 Professional Tracking. In the book, the author discusses track age limits after observing multiple breeds in rural and urban environments. In Tracy Bowling’s book, Police K9 Tracking, perhaps he says it best: “One has to ask: how is it possible for a dog that tracks humans to successfully follow a human trail that is days or weeks old when a proven and experienced hunting hound cannot locate and follow the track of a five-hundred-pound bear or a two-hundred-pound deer on a track of that age.” Bowling also points out “One also would be compelled to make other assumptions when evaluating the validity of claims of success on tracks that are weeks or months old. If a human-tracking dog can successfully follow a track that is weeks or months old, then fresh tracks of one to two hours old should never be difficult or unsuccessful for such dogs.”
Can you, as a handler, claim that you have never lost a fleeing suspect or been unsuccessful in locating a child that has only been missing for a few hours? Now, we will admit we do know a handful very capable and credible K9 teams who have had success in following tracks that are two and three days old, (Success meaning they found some kind of evidence along the way, or a person at the end to confirm the trail), but they will be the first to admit, the success rate on tracks this old is, by no means consistent.
If you insist on trying to train on tracks that are weeks old, then at the very least, be vigilant and objective about proofing your dog on blind trails with enough directional changes to fairly evaluate whether or not the dog was actually able to stay with the original track-line. This will give you a good idea whether or not your dog is really able to follow the trail.
Whenever someone tells us his or her dog has followed a track that is weeks, months or even years old, our common sense, experience, observations, testing and years of real tracking deployments forces us to remain skeptical of the truth in these claims. We can honestly say in all our years of training and working tracking and trailing dogs, we have never seen a dog that had the ability to follow a track that was weeks or months old.
When we choose to engage in questionable trailing practices such as attempting to follow weeks-or-months-old tracks, our creditability is always at stake. As trainers and handlers, every time we deploy, train or pass on information to others who are trying to learn, we have a responsibility to make sure the methods we are sharing are reliable, tested, and have proven results. We all need to be cautious about basing our training or opinions on the seemingly far-fetched claims of others. It is our obligation to base our tracking and trailing practices on our own observations, training experience and common sense. We challenge you all as handlers and trainers to thoroughly scrutinize and investigate claims that sound “too good to be true,” or what our common sense tells us is not possible before jumping into a training or deployment practice that may just ruin your credibility.
Stay real out there!