Old Tracks. Can Our Dogs Really Do It?
The subject of aged trails seems to raise a lot of questions and debate about what dogs can or cannot accomplish when faced with trails that are older than a few hours.
For me, quoting absolute time frames for accuracy or reliability in tracking or trailing would be almost impossible due to the many different variables involved in running a track, so rather than try to win an argument on the finer points of this subject, I will just opt to share some of my personal deployment and training experience with older scent trails that I have attempted to work over the years in many different environments.
I will start by saying that I have 40+ years of operational and training experience in tracking and trailing work. During those years I have experimented extensively with trails of various ages in heat, cold, rain, humidity, shade, sun, hard surface, during the day and at night in both rural and urban environments. I have also been faced with numerous real deployments where I knew a trail was over 24 hours old and have given it my best shot with a seasoned dog. I personally never had much luck at following a trail this old with a dog alone, and without the assistance of expert visual trackers as back up to help me.
I have also traveled extensively with my trailing dogs and trained and deployed in some pretty harsh environments to include the Kenyan bush and have found the results I have gotten trying to run older tracks to be somewhat the same across the board. For me, this means that in rural areas, with a trail at about 12 to 15 hours I was starting to push the limits of my K9s tracking abilities. What I mean by this is that I could not, with any reliably or with any accuracy, run a track at this age without a visual tracker as back-up to help me. In urban areas, my results are much less impressive with successful trails being anywhere from 1 to 6 hours with any reliability or accuracy.
I have worked many hound dogs in my day, not only chasing men but hunting lion and bear as well. I have even worked man trailers in packs and off the lead, following along on horseback. I can honestly say during my 40-year career as a K9 handler and trainer even my best dogs, on or off-lead, were never able to actually fully complete a track that was 24+ hours old without assistance. Now I will say I have had a few good finds on searches where people had been missing for days, but these were always tracks where we could find a fresher foot track and start the dog from there. I have never had much luck at actually getting my dog to lock onto a track at the start of a search that was days old and in my own personal experience, 24 hours is certainly pushing it no matter what the conditions are.
One deployment, in particular, sticks out in my mind and taught me a lot about how conditions can change in a matter of minutes to work against the dog. Sometimes it doesn’t take much from mother nature to shut a really good working dog down on a track.
I was deployed on an escaped inmate that had headed for the hills in our local area. My neck of the woods is a high desert environment and usually a fairly dry climate. I remember working through the night following this guy for miles. He had a three-hour head start on us and it was rough country. As the sun came up and hit the eastern side of the mountain with hot rays shining on the bare rocky slope, the dog completely shut down within minutes, the scent trail just ended right then and there for the dog, although the trail itself—as near as we could figure, was only about three hours old at that point. We had to fall back on our visual tracking skills until we reached the north side of the slope and were able to get back to some vegetation and shade where the dog could again find the scent. I experienced this phenomenon numerous times throughout my career with tracks of varying ages in different types of terrain. Sometimes I could run parts of a trail that was hours old and sometimes I couldn't run any of it in what most people would consider fairly fresh or easy conditions. That’s just the way it rolls and I have learned to expect and accept this.
We have had over 700 trailing teams go through our training in 18+ years and not once have I seen a signal team be able to fully complete a 24+ hour track with any accuracy or reliability so you can see why I am a bit of a skeptic. What I have seen is a dog that finds a subject by area searching, not actual tracking, or a dog that wanders around the area long enough to run across a subject. This is not difficult for a dog to do when it gets close enough to a subject and the wind is in its favor. As a matter of fact, a dog's air-scenting abilities can be very helpful in locating subjects that are nearby. My dogs have found a few people that way when tracking conditions weren't ideal, but I like to call it what it is, an area search, not a track.
My 40+ years of experience whispers to me to remain very skeptical as to the validity of these claims but I will cautiously add that I do know a handful of handlers whom I think are credible that have had some very limited success on older trails and most of them will admit there may have been some luck involved. Maybe this is even you, but ask yourself this; Did I run a track or was it an area search? or maybe even your lucky day just heading in the correct direction. Can I do this with any accuracy or success in a blind test? Personally, I can’t—with any consistency, reliability or accuracy, do it with my own dogs, so until I actually see it successfully done with any accuracy by anyone else or am able to do it myself when challenged in a fair and impartial test, I will remain a skeptic. And yes, I have been told I was “a good for nothing trainer’’ and few other, more colorful unmentionables more than once for all my failed efforts, but I will still stick to what my years of professional experience have shown me my dogs are capable of until I actually see some reliable results.
So for those of you who want to experiment with this type of trail, I challenge you to test it out in your own environment under different conditions but do it because you really want to know what your dog's limits are, not because someone tells you your dog can or can’t do it. If you do decide to test your dog on older tracks, do us all a favor and conduct your tests in a fair and impartial way so there is no doubt about the results. Blind testing on tracks with some distance (1/2 mile or more) with a few directional changes is really the only way to make a fair assessment. Try testing in different environments and under different conditions and see what happens. I would go one step further and leave out the subject at the end of the track and instead, use a small amount of food or a toy at the end so air-scenting will not affect your results. I honestly hope you have better luck at working days old tracks than I did. Then maybe I can say I have seen it all but until then, I choose to remain skeptical.
Good luck and stay safe out there!
By, John Lutenberg