By Debra Palman

In Maine, tracking and evidence recovery constitute the most frequent use of K-9s. K-9s in rural areas are rarely called upon to do building searches and physically apprehend criminals, but are often called to locate suspects, lost persons and reconstruct crime scenes. In Warden Service, we use our dogs often while on general patrol to locate fishermen and hunters, find where trappers are setting traps and generally use them to tell us where people have gone and what they are doing in the woods. K-9s also easily track marijuana growers to remote gardens and burglars from crime scenes. Often the suspect himself is not apprehended on these older tracks, but the K-9s work provides valuable information which can be used at a later date. Rural K-9s should be used as investigative tools as much as they should be used to respond to calls for service such as tracking fleeing suspects and lost persons.

Succeeding at tracking with a police K-9 in rural areas is simply a matter of being prepared for the conditions you will encounter. However, being prepared for working in remote or rural areas where little help is available means a great deal of training and preparation for the handler and K-9.

First of all, the dog must have a solid foundation in tracking training and be prepared to handle long tracks and old tracks because response times in rural areas are usually measured in hours, not minutes. Because of long response times, contamination at the start of the track is often a problem because other officers, friends, family members, or victims of crime have a long time to be around the scene and contaminate it.

If a young child is lost, no one is going to wait three hours for a tracking dog to arrive, and no K-9 handler should expect them to. Since the family will have already looked for at least an hour before they call for help, a K-9 team needs to train for and be prepared to handle contamination, especially at search and rescue scenes.

One advantage of rural areas is that once the K-9 team has cleared the contaminated area, the track is often relatively clean and can be picked up or followed readily. I teach teams to handle contamination by teaching them to start from a scent article or vehicle, and/or to circle and work in the area until the dog picks up what seems to be the correct track. With a little planning and forethought about what has happened at the scene and the characteristics of the scene, the handler can use a K-9 in the most efficient manner possible.

Another method of dealing with contamination has to do with dog experience - the more real life experience the dog (and handler) has, the more he learns to recognize which human scent is the one that is different from the others; that is, the fear scent of the criminal, the scent of a lost child versus all the adults searching for it, etc.

Dogs can learn to look for the person who is missing or different from those who are at the scene, and/or work the outside of the contaminated area until they locate a scent which leaves the area. Im not sure how dogs accomplish this, but I know that again and again an experienced and well-trained dog with a handler who is willing to trust his dog can work miracles. Often it is just a matter of trying and being persistent.

Basic Tracking Training

A good tracking dog has to work with concentration and confidence. How the dog is trained has a profound effect on how he works. There are some natural tracking dogs who are born with the genetic predisposition to track well, and any reasonably good tracking program will teach them to track. However, I would prefer not to take chances with any dog and lay a solid foundation in tracking which gives the dog the tools to successfully complete tracks and locate evidence on them. I do this in steps which are eventually combined to produce a finished product.

The first step and major goal is to teach the dog to search for ground scent and the track in a slow, deliberate, and careful manner. If this is done as the dogs tracking foundation, then when the dog looses the track he will calm down and search carefully with his nose on the ground rather than becoming frustrated and frantic. When the dog searches too fast, he moves too fast to pick the scent up again, he uses up valuable energy and eventually burns out. I have seen some dogs who have tremendous drive to track really loose it and become almost hysterical, breaking into wild running instead of calming down and searching deliberately and carefully.

I prefer to teach this deliberate tracking style using food on soft dirt or sand. The dog has to have food drive to use food, or another ground level motivator must be used. I prefer dirt because it is a harder surface for dogs to track on than grass, and the dog has to work harder and closer to the ground at the very start of tracking training. If dirt is not available, mowed grass, as short as possible, should be used. Make sure, however, that you mix in some soft gravel, dirt or sand as part of the process, or the dog will be lost on these surfaces.

Conversely, dogs worked on dirt also need to do some short grass tracking before they graduate to practical tracks. Long grass, brush or woods create and trap a lot of scent for the dog to follow so he doesnt have to work very carefully or work very hard, and he will become frustrated on hard surfaces later on because he has become used to easy scenting conditions.

With this system the dog is worked on short tracks with a piece of food in every footstep with absolutely no influence from the handler. That means no lead tension except to keep the dog from going more than 5 or 6 feet from the track, and then the dog is just stopped from going any further, not pulled back or guided back to the track. If the dog looses the track, he is only allowed to search on his own and find the food again. The handler does not help. If the dog does not want to search, the motivator that is being used on the track is not strong enough.

I feel it is absolutely essential that during ALL TRACKING TRAINING the handler does not help the dog once the track begins. When the team is on a real track, the handler has to rely on his dog, and if the dog has learned to read the handlers intentions or to look for help from the handler, the team will be unsuccessful because the handler will not know where the track is. Therefore, the training help for the dog is always in the laying of the track. The handler or trainer has to ensure that the track is laid so that it teaches what is needed by having the dog solve the problem on his own and gain his reward(s) or motivator(s). If the dog does not succeed, then the track was too hard or incorrectly laid. Dont help the dog to finish a track he is unable to finish on his own. You are just wearing him out and overworking him. The training time is not wasted because you have learned what the dogs limitations are. Next time lay the track so the dog is successful.

The reason I like food in the beginning as a reward is that it teaches the dog to check each footstep and slow down and concentrate. A single toy at the end of a track will teach the dog to use his nose to find the toy, but he may also learn to rush through or skip over parts of the track to get to the toy. The same problem can be created by using a person as an end reward.

End rewards can be used if the tracks are very carefully laid with attention to the wind and the dog has natural tracking ability. Multiple toys or a food drag with other ground placed rewards along the track can be used in place of food. If the dog does well and enjoys articles, they can be used, but be sure to give the dog a reward he enjoys for each of the articles so they remain motivators.

Once the dog is tracking consistently, slowly and carefully with very little lead tension for gently curving tracks of 100 yards on short grass or dirt, it probably has a sufficient foundation to move on to more practical police type work. The handler should avoid correcting the dog on the track. If the dog stops tracking, then something (such as a distraction) has overcome the dogs motivation, and more motivation may be needed, or the dog worked on easier tracks. Be aware that it is very easy to overwork a dog in tracking. If distractions pull the dog off the track, the handler can wait until they pass, or take the dog up to them to satisfy his curiosity and then take the dog back to the area of the track to see if he will start tracking again. If the dog is motivated and the training track properly laid within the dogs ability, distractions should cause only temporary problems.

The dog should never be corrected on the track for failing to track or for looking at distractions. The danger of correcting the dog on the track is that the dog could associate the correction with the act of tracking and become very confused about what he is supposed to be doing.

Corrections may cause the dog to become very conscious of what signals or approval the handler is giving and track according to what he feels the handler wants. Again, when the handler does not know where the track is, the dog will become lost without the handlers help.

Articles or Evidence

A slow and careful pace is produced by ground based motivators like food or articles which are spaced out along the track with frequency. During the foundation phase of training I add articles to the track. Even if a dog does a good free article search, often the dog will skip over articles when they are put on the track if he is really into tracking and does not recognize what to do with an article in this context. The end reward on the track or just the joy of tracking can over come the dogs desire to indicate the articles.

To solve this problem, the reward for finding and indicating the articles must be increased so it is equal or greater than the end reward, and the finding of the articles made easier so the dog cant miss them (make them bigger and/or place food on them). Maintaining article indications requires work on articles and rewards for finding them on all the training tracks the K-9 runs. Dont skip this detail if you want to maintain it.

I feel that article or evidence indications are vital to rural tracking work. Response times in rural areas are so great that usually the suspect is long gone and the only result of a track is the evidence found on it. More than one case has been solved with a set of car keys found or hidden evidence located. Evidence needs to be found on the first track through the area for continuity and also to confirm in the officers minds that the K-9 is on the right track. Evidence also gives the handler information about the person he is tracking. If the track is a long one run in thick brush or at night, the chances of going back through the area to do an article search later on is slim. Believe me, Ive learned this the hard way.

In an extensive search involving many people and much planning, a piece of evidence which confirms that the K-9 team is tracking the right person can cut the search area in half and allow planners to reallocate their resources. A direction of travel can be vital information whether or not the team locates the victim or suspect being tracked.

Practical and Advanced Work

I like to teach the dog to find and indicate people separate from the ground based tracking fundamentals. This indication depends on what the handler and department needs. In most rural environments, the dog is taught a “friendly find” alert with the option of an aggressive alert if the handler wishes to command the dog to do so. To teach friendly find, the person hiding shows the dog his favorite toy or motivator (for with bloodhounds it is usually food) and runs away a very short distance to hide. The dog can use his eyes or nose to find the person. When the dog finds him, the person holds the toy or food in plain sight but out of reach. Most older dogs have already developed a begging behavior by this time and will sit in front of the person, jump on them or sit and bark.

The more obvious the behavior, the better. Whatever the dog does, the handler should note it and the hider rewards the dog for the behavior. The handler can teach a specific behavior if he wishes, but I have found that the dog usually reverts back to what his natural preference is. Again, the dog does best what he discovers on his own to do. With multiple repetitions of this exercise separate from tracks and at the end of tracks once the dog has the idea, the person hiding withholds the reward and asks for more persistent behaviors from the dog, and also asks for them while standing, sitting, lying down and walking away from the dog.

Other find options would be a hold and bark or a bite. No matter what the option is, the dog has to be taught to go right to the person and solicit a reward from the person or make some kind of contact with them. Otherwise, on some track in the middle of the night, the dog is likely to get close enough to the suspect in the dense brush to know where he is by scent and then walk away, and never tell the handler where the suspect is. This has happened to several Maine K-9 teams whose dogs were not taught an end indication. The end indication is also extremely useful when identifying the track layer or suspect when they are alone or in a group of people at the end of a track. The dog has the ability to tell you this is the one if you train for it. The end indication process should also provide the motivation and reward for the dog to find and locate a person.

With a good foundation of carefully searching for ground scent, a good number of articles to provide intermediate rewards on the track, and the desire to find a person at the end, the trainer or handler now has the tools he needs to start more complex and realistic tracks. Tracks should be laid in varying terrain, start short and progress to longer and start at an age the dog can handle and progress to older tracks.

Most handlers underestimate the ages their dogs can handle, but track scent is very weather dependent, and dogs tire very quickly while tracking if the weather is warm. Studies have shown that dogs use a great deal of energy while tracking because they have to sniff and draw air into their noses. The harder the track, the more energy they use. What seems to us to be a fast walk on track is the equivalent of a canter to a dog when he really has to work, so he will heat up and tire much quicker than we will on track. When training, just remember that the dog must succeed without the handlers help to learn. Training tracks need to be designed so the dog completes them, or at least with many articles which will serve as resting places and intermediate rewards in case the dog cannot complete the track and gain his end reward. Also, always change only one variable on the track at a time. Variables would include weather, length, age, complexity, distractions, contamination, etc. Dont do many long, hard tracks which wear the dog out and continuously take him to the point of exhaustion.

Train like a marathon runner - train on shorter, motivational tracks with an occasional long run to build up stamina, and save the long run for the day of the race. The dog needs to be built up mentally, not worn down by hard work. As part of practical tracking, the dog should be taught to stop, lay down and rest on command, preferably right on the track without returning to the handler. The handler should recognize when the dog is tiring and stop BEFORE the dog looses its ability to track. This usually comes when the dog is panting heavily, so the handler needs to stop and rest the dog before the dogs tongue is really hanging out. This also comes in handy when the handler tires, looses his hat on a tree, has to use the radio, or has to hold the K-9 up so his back up officers can keep pace. It is a necessity on tactical tracks.

Resting the dog should be done on any long tracks, training or real. Once the dog looses the track, it is much more difficult to pick it up. The only exception to resting the dog would be if a replacement K-9 tracking team was available. In really hot weather, the handler has to realize that a motivated tracking dog can die of heat stroke or exhaustion while working if the handler does not stop the dog in time.

During training, dogs and handlers also need to experience backtracks, circles and large scent pools. It is easiest for us to train and lay tracks by telling track layers to go from point A to B to C, etc., but that sets up a single line track and dog behaviors which are not realistic. Ive known several handlers (including myself), who assumed the dog had lost the scent and pulled their dogs off the track when the dog started circling in an area where there were backtracks, circles or a scent pool (where the track layer spent a lot of time). In these areas the dog has to circle to determine where the track layer is or has left the area of scent concentration.

Handlers who have always practiced on single line tracks dont see this behavior in their dog unless it has lost the track. In murderously thick cover during the early hours of the morning, it is easy to assume your dog has lost the track when he drags you around the same bunch of blown down spruce-fir for the third time, and you are being beat to death by the brush. Chances are good the victim or suspect is right there in the area and has been there long enough to produce a large scent pool in the still night air, and your dog is just trying to puzzle it out. As long as the dog works, stay with him. Hes the boss in tracking.

Teaching the dog to handle contamination and scent discriminate takes
some careful planning when laying tracks. Do not have the same track layer lay tracks in areas where he has been before. Be careful that the track layer does not leave blown scent or a return track which may interfere with the track the dog is running. Use the same track layer for the same dog if doing multiple tracks during the same day. This will keep the dog from thinking that he should switch scents.

The handler must be understanding when it comes to scent and let the dog go even if he thinks the dog is wrong. Once the dog starts working realistic tracks, the handler should not expect him to hit every footprint, but to use every scent available and all his natural abilities to follow the track. If the body scent of the track layer has blown, the dog may do his best tracking somewhere besides the foot steps. He may air scent to the track layer. The true practical tracking dog can work hard and concentrate on the foot steps when he has to, but he also has to be able to use his head and short cut or take advantage of other track scents. Tracks should be set up where someone besides the track layer stands on the track a short distance from the end of the track and the track layer. The dog must be allowed to track up to or run to this person. Hopefully the dog will check the person and then continue tracking. If the dog makes an error and tries to solicit a reward from the contaminating person, the person just ignores the dog and turns their back on the dog.

Those handlers who have trained their dogs to bite at the end are on their own here when trying to teach this aspect - perhaps you could use someone your dog knows very well and would not think of biting. The handler should avoid helping the dog. Eventually the dog will look for something else to do because the person is not producing the reward. Eventually the dog will discover the original track and track on to the correct track layer at the end and receive his reward. Again, when thinking up training problems, use common sense and set the problem up so the dog can solve it on his own.

Handling the Real Thing

Now that the dog is trained to follow difficult tracks and the handler trusts him and knows when to stop and rest, the handler needs to do the final steps to prepare for successful long distance rural or remote-tracking. First of all, the handler must have training in land navigation-map and compass and/or GPS use. On a long track it is easy to get lost, not to mention be unable to tell the search command or back up officers where you are. It is definitely preferable to have a back up officer trained in navigation to take care of this detail, but that is a luxury for many K-9 officers, and the handler must be able to rely on himself if needed.

Needed along with navigation are basic survival skills for the particular environment and weather conditions the K-9 team encounters in their area. It is easy to bail out and start working without paying close attention to what may happen over time, but the handlers failure to provide for his own safety and comfort will end the track long before the dog does. Both the handler and dog must maintain good health and good to excellent physical fitness, or they will not go very far. Back up officers also have to be in good shape, or they will be more of a liability than a help. At search and rescue scenes, if no fit conservation officer or forester is available who is familiar with the area, often a local skilled woodsman who is familiar with the area, physically fit and properly equipped is a great asset. They usually are more familiar with the area than anyone else.


Handlers can save much of their dogs energy by giving some thought to the situation and where they want to start their dog. If the scene is contaminated, but only contaminated in a limited area, it makes sense to try to circle the contaminated area and pick up the track which leaves it rather than burn the dog out working the contaminated area. An exception to this would be when fear scent is involved and the dog will pick that scent out automatically. In other cases, the handler may be able to eliminate certain areas, such as an area where no one saw the suspect run and would have seen him if he went through there, or an area where a lost person could not have become lost.

One spring we searched for two lost teenagers who left from a camp near a lake. They started by walking down a road near the camp. On one side of the road was a small strip of land between the road and the water where logic told us they could not be lost. The most efficient use of a tracking dog would have been to work on the side of the road which bordered the large tract of woods with no roads where the teens were most likely to be lost. This is just where they were eventually found by an air - scent search and rescue dog team working in from the outer perimeter of the search area.

Also, dont be afraid to ask for more help. Have adequate backup officers, an adequate perimeter, and call for other K-9 teams to replace you if it looks like the track will be too long for one team to handle. Call in additional resources at search and rescue scenes if it looks like you and your K-9 are not going to be able to solve the problem. A good bloodhound team may do better at sorting out contamination, and qualified, volunteer air scent search and rescue dog teams are the best resource to call when tracking dogs fail or the K-9 officers involved run out of overtime, energy or other departmental resources.

Try to anticipate your needs on the track. Remember that most of the officers helping you dont have any idea what you will need during your track. If you know you will need more water, new flashlight batteries or other supplies, try to pick them up at the next road crossing or have another person meet you on the track. Keep in touch with search planners and make suggestions about the deployment of other units based on what you are finding on the track. In rural areas the units responding are usually not used to working closely together with K-9s like the members of a single large department might be, so the perimeter units often just wait around and do nothing to wait and see what the K-9 team comes up with. In this case the K-9 handler tends to be in charge whether he wants to be or not. Try to be proactive and get the perimeter units deployed so they are of use to you and not just sitting around waiting for something to happen. When tracking in a tactical situation, make sure you, your dog and back up officers are trained to track in a tactical mode. Tactical tracking can be extremely effective if done properly, and very dangerous to the K-9 team if not.


Since tracking in rural or remote areas can take the K-9 team a long way from their vehicle and other forms of transportation, the handler must carry all the equipment he needs with him. Besides the proper clothing needed to work outdoors for long periods of time, the handler must try to provide for what might happen. The closest I came to serious hypothermia was when I searched for a lost, older fisherman on a June night when the brush was soaked with dew and the temperatures in the high 40s. The sky was clear and the stars bright, with no rain predicted. I did not take my rain gear and was soon soaked to the skin from my armpits down. I knew I could get through the night as long as I kept moving, so of course, we found the fisherman and he was so exhausted he couldnt walk out. In this case, a few matches and a dry fishing regulations book allowed us to start what was almost a life saving fire for me and the fisherman. Without the fire, we both would have been in very poor shape when help arrived several hours later. As it was, it took me two days to recover from the chilling I received. Ive also had to quit tracks for lack of flashlight and radio batteries, so I carry plenty of them.

The lack of comfort or the proper equipment will have a profound effect on the handlers attitude towards the track and interfere with his ability to make decisions. When the handler is uncomfortable for some reason, he will tend to doubt the dog when he should not. Dont let your failure to provide for you and your dog ruin your dogs ability to finish the track. The following is a list of equipment I highly recommend for long distance tracking:

1. Water for the dog and you and a fold up bowl for the dog.
2. Map and compass.
3. Radio and spare batteries.
4. Flashlight, spare batteries and bulbs, and possibly a back up flashlight. Head lamps are nice for search and rescue work.
5. Consider a bell and orange vest on the dog for search and rescue work, and a cyalume (cold light) stick for criminal work.
6. Bug repellent for you and the dog when needed.
7. The proper or extra clothing to take on the track. Consider the predicted weather for the next eight hours.
8. Fire building materials.
9. An elementary first aid kit for you and the dog.
10. Leatherman or similar multi-tool for repairs and pulling porcupine quills.
11. Surveyors flagging to mark areas you need to return to, such as when you find evidence or loose the track.
12. Evidence bags or envelopes for evidence picked up on the track.
13. Other survival equipment needed for the environment you work in.
14. A comfortable pack to carry all of the above with an internal frame so it does not hang up in the brush during the track.

This equipment should be kept in one ready bag or backpack so you dont forget a crucial piece of equipment in the rush of trying to get started. You could also make yourself a checklist and keep it handy. Last of all, now that you have done all this training and acquired this knowledge and equipment, psychologically commit yourself to trust the dog and to do what it takes to complete the track or search. The dog is trained and ready to go if you will let him and support his efforts.

TRUST THE DOG, use him efficiently, take care of him and yourself and, with enough hard work, HE WILL LEAD YOU to your suspect or victim.

Debra Palman from the Maine Warden Service wrote a column on Rural Tracking which was printed in the September 1996 issue of the Canine Courier.
This article was reprinted with the permission of the United States Police Canine Association

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