To understand the conflict between the two methods one must examine their origins. The title of “tracking” comes from the visual art of locating sign or spoor of a subject through visual means and following them to a logical conclusion. Tracking was later used by early K9 pioneers as a simple term to identify a complex caned behavior while working for man. Tracking is a easy way to describe what we see occurring when a dog chases a human or other prey animal via scent.
Early handlers took their belief system and adapted them to a series of training regimens that currently define the status of many modern police “tracking” programs even though our current understanding of scent theory has evolved exponentially.
There are many variations on the same theme of “tracking” but ultimately they all have a similar philosophy: The dog’s nose in the tracks made by a human on a soft surface. Once the paradigm shifts to that of a hard surface, such as any street in any modern urban jungle, the ability of the police K9 to follow now invisible footsteps is almost erased. This is not because of the breed or the dog’s ability but rather the nature of the training the K9 has been subjected to.
The theory behind tracking is generally twofold: 1) the footstep caused ground disturbance is the odor that the dogs follow and/ or 2) that the footsteps are the location human odor is most concentrated. It is easy to see why many early trainers felt this way. They trained on nothing but soft surfaces in relatively fresh conditions thus perception was reality; the dog’s nose hovered close to the actual track of the human. Consequently, training regimens were created to subscribe to the training philosophy. If the dog’s nose strayed from the prescribed height above the track, the dog’s nose was promptly forced back into it without ever examining the reasons for the behavior change to begin with. It was automatically presumed that the dog was outside of odor. Many people believe that the dog must be within inches of the track to actually smell the odor. I believe this perception came from our own scent limited world and false rationalization. Nothing could be further from the truth as simple tests have proven time and again that most dogs can detect odor from a fixed location from an incredible variety of distances from inches to yards and more. One must simply ponder this one question: If it is proven that a dog can detect odor from either ground disturbance or the human that created it from more than mere inches of the physical track, why must a dog’s nose be forced into said track? I equate forcing a dog to smell his own feces when it soils the carpet of the house; it is bad practice.
Let us now examine what happens to human scent when the paradigm shifts. Step from the freshly plowed field of the corn farmer to his gravel road right next door. If we are lucky enough to see the track from the onset and, furthermore, to detect the feint changes of rock discoloration from the rocks’ once sun warmed face to it now darkened earthly bottom, then, perhaps, we might be able to determine the track and direction of travel of the human who tread there. Better yet, change the farmer’s gravel road to the highway beside it. The track disappears and it is now impossible to place the dog’s nose into it. And, with that being said, the hard surface trail rarely pans out for the average police K9; that is a shame.
Trailing, though a relatively modern term, actually has it’s roots in English and early American history when bloodhounds were used to hunt criminals, and in the case of our original colonies, marauding native American tribes in conflict with early settlers. The hounds were “scented” on a particular human odor and allowed the freedom to follow that scent wherever it might have led. The history for this can actually be found in original want ads for the period of colonists looking for bloodhounds.
Trailing is a descriptive word for the art of allowing a dog to follow human scent wherever human scent might be, on the ground or in the air. It can also be taken one step further by adding scent discrimination to the equation. Each and every animal, human or otherwise, produces a distinctive odor based on species and other sub-determining factors such as infirmity, relative age, sex, and certain individual identifying traits. The amount of odor produced is dependant upon several primary factors, mental condition such as fear or anger, exertion, and relative health issues. Frankly, some people simply smell more than others to our dogs. The more they smell the better!
Unlike tracking, a trailing dog is allowed more freedom of movement and, importantly, a certain amount of independence. Independence in a police dog is normally considered an oxymoron, however, it is crucial to understand that scent is the dogs’ world and there is a very good possibility that they might have a better grasp on locating it then we humans do. Our job as handlers is to simply interpret their actions and hang on accordingly. This does not mean that the dog is allowed to go about its business in any fashion it sees fit, rather it is a partnership based on mutual understanding of limitations and individual ability.