Of Misty Mornings & Tracking Dogs

Written by Deb Sunners


Before dawn, when the crisp chill of frost entices competitors and friends alike to remain bundled up in sleeping bags, the camp takes a breath and the Tracking Trial comes to life. Dogs bark and tails thump inside trailers or crates in readiness for what is to come. At the front gate, as the first warm glow of morning appears in the sky, the rest of the cohort begins to arrive.

As the two groups merge, the Trial Manager goes through the mandatory property and safety briefings and handlers have their gear approved by their Judge.

Stewards now usher the first tracklayers from camp to walk their pre-determined routes. They will follow the flags set out yesterday to mark where the scent line will be. Handlers due to go out later in the morning are queuing for hot beverages as the first competitors start.

Within half an hour, there are cheers as successful competitors start returning to camp. This is interspersed with the occasional self-admonishment... "I should have trusted my dog!”; or disbelief

"I can't believe he rolled in that”; or "she got the start and the finish okay, it was just the bit in between that went pear shaped!" There are lots of tales shared. The best are those where handler and dog were totally connected. All corners were taken on line, diversion tracks were ignored, articles well indicated and the tracklayer was found. No amount of chill, rain or early starts will ever dampen the thrill of doing an 'Excellent' track.


When all dogs have worked and breakfast is over, the Judges provide their precis of the morning's tracks. This overview of how the dog and handler team worked is greeted with applause and congratulations for the passes, while those not so successful are encouraged and supported. Everyone knows there are ups and downs in Tracking, and the ups are incredibly rewarding when they happen.

From the Judge and handler's point of view, the dog only has to follow the tracklayer's scent from start to finish, plus find the articles along the way. Only one person has walked this route. Changes of direction (turns/ corners) still have the same scent to follow. At the higher levels, diversion tracks are set. These are scent lines walked across the track by someone other than the tracklayer, as an exercise in discrimination for the dog. In theory, with what we know about a dog's olfactory system, the dog should have no problem following the correct scent. Just ask any handler whose dog has successfully followed an old practice track from days before.



From the dog's point of view, its job is to follow the tracklayer's scent from start to finish... but wait! A rabbit ran past this spot exactly 53.27 minutes ago, from right to left and into those bushes! I will investigate. Oh no, there are cows! What do I do, what do I do? I can smell an article! It's somewhere over on the right. Yes, there it is... QUAIL!  Oh boy, oh boy,there are quail... What? The Judge has called us off? But I haven't got to the quail yet!  Bummer.




On occasions handlers will fail their dogs. Every person who has ever dropped the tracking lead, or let go of the dog before attaching the lead securely to the harness, can clearly remember that moment of panic and despair as the dog leaves without them, only to do the perfect track. Unfortunately, without handler, that is a Fail. Handlers generally only do this once in their lifetime. More than that and their friends will never let them live it down.

Even when things are going well, it pays to expect the unexpected.

There have been occasions when a hot dog has taken an abrupt detour into an adjacent water hole to cool off. Before the handler can react, it is already shoulder deep in cool water and refusing to budge. Few handlers will wade into knee deep water and mud mid-track. Pulling on the lead risks drowning the animal, so there we have a Mexican standoff.


Generally, the Judge will give up first. Then it's up to handler and dog to debate the pros and cons of being covered in filthy, stinking mud for the rest of the day. Typically, the handler remains clean and dry and the dog comes out when it's ready.



Dogs that have attained their Tracking Champion Title then move into Track & Search. Here the first two levels are a transition from rural to urban work, although there are no fewer distractions.

That is, cattle and quail are now replaced by cats, scrub turkeys, barking dogs, vehicular traffic and humans - on bikes, skateboards, wanting to pat the working dog, walking into the hide as the dog approaches to ask what the tracklayer is doing and so on.

We never come away from a Trial without having observed at least one dog doing something that we consider truly amazing.

At the University of Queensland's St. Lucia campus where mid-level tracks are run, the dogs learn to contend with crowds of students in and around buildings. They negotiate stairs, the occasional corridor through buildings and boardwalks across the lakes. They can accurately detect a 3 - 4 hour old scent trail beneath heavy pedestrian traffic and wildlife contamination.

By the time they reach T&S tests 5 and beyond, each dog and handler pair is a working unit functioning as a team. Handlers have had time to learn how their dog works; how it indicates the line or articles; what signals it gives when on-track or off, etc. Dogs have learnt that every city block has at least a dozen cats. They also understand that they know more about scent than their handler!

The smart handler learns the latter fast.

We frequently see a dog working with head down, only to stick its nose in the air and immediately change direction (correcting itself). Or, the track layer may have walked a scent line down the left hand footpath, but when the dog starts some hours later,it clearly shows the scent to be on the right. Traffic and weather conditions change and swirl the scent. The breeze has carried it across to the other side of the road.





So we cannot rely on maps, or what our human logic is trying to tell us. The dogs know a whole lot more than we ever will.

Once dogs reach the highest levels, the T&S tests 9 and 10, they are following not only tracklayer scent from footsteps, but they are also following the motor vehicle that the tracklayer climbed into hours earlier for some 200m (with changes of direction around suburban streets) and successfully picking up the scent once more where the tracklayer alighted from that vehicle.

We never come away from a Trial without having observed at least one dog doing something that we consider truly amazing. To the dog it is perfectly natural.

The sport of Tracking is not like the other dog sports. There are no placegetters. Each dog works a unique track. It succeeds on its own merits and through the relationship it has with its handler. To understand how amazing these animals truly are, try tracking them, it's a lot of fun and very educational.

Clubs that offer Tracking (refer to the Clubs' list at the back of the Qld Dog World for contact details):

Photo credits: Supplied by Deb Sunners.

Article published in the Queensland Dog World, June 2016