Tracking is a technique in which dogs are trained to locate things while in use by humans by using the object's scent, for a variety of purposes. Tracking has always been an essential skill for dogs to survive in the wild, through hunting and tracking down potential prey.
Physiological Mechanisms of Tracking
Primarily, dogs use their sense of smell, to find and follow a track. Dogs have a highly sensitive olfactory system superior to humans, and are able to discriminate between different humans' scents. Moreover, dogs are also able to use visual cues to follow a track.
Phases of tracking
There are three phases, which complete the process of tracking:
1. Searching Phase
- This is the phase in which dogs attempt to find a track. They move quickly, and take short, quick sniffs.
2. Deciding Phase
- Once the dog has found the track, they move more slowly and take longer sniffs to determine the direction of the track. This is usually the most difficult phase for the dog.
3. Tracking phase
- After determining the direction, dogs follow the track by sniffing at a uniform pace, and moving at a speed similar to that of the searching.
Factors influencing a dog’s tracking ability
There are several factors which influences a dog’s ability to track: Physiological features of the dog are a factor, including age and sex. As a dog ages, their olfactory acuity decreases and decreases their ability to track. Furthermore, male dogs have been found to be better at tracking than females, possibly due to sex differences in olfaction. Sniffing behaviour also influences olfaction, and therefore a dog’s ability to track. For example, a dog’s ability to sniff is higher when it is not panting due to fatigue – it is physically impossible for a dog to both pant and sniff at the same time and the mouth must be open or closed respectively. However, dogs trained to track during physically demanding activities may have adapted their behaviour by increasing sniffing frequency to maximize olfaction, and tracking. Also, different dog breeds have varying suitability to different tasks of tracking. For example, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives use Labrador Retrievers for their tracking purposes.
Besides the dog itself, there are other factors influencing tracking ability. A track’s age and cross-contamination of scents, the range of the dog from the trail, as well as the handler’s relationship with the tracking dog can all affect a dog’s tracking ability.
Uses of Tracking
There are several uses for tracking. Several examples include:
- Tracking in police work as Police dogs. Tracking tasks may include tracking down alive and dead individuals, recovering evidence from a crime scene, finding explosives, drugs, and in arson investigations.
- Tracking for search and rescuing as search and rescue dogs. Tracking dogs are used to find individuals trapped in avalanches or disaster zones.
- Tracking in hunting to recover animals shot down by hunters.
- Tracking as a dog sport, such as in tracking trials using scent trails.
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