Scent Tracking as Part of Your ABC

Ellie working her way through the scent track
Ellie working her way through the scent track

When consulting on canine behavior problems, you will be looking at your ABCs – Antecedent – Behaviour – Consequence – as part of your functional assessment.

The immediate antecedents, such as direct environment, setting the dog off doing something the owner is not happy with, are often fairly easy to spot, although sometimes challenging to address. There are excellent protocols developed for that, such as BAT (Behaviour Adjustment Training, developed by Grisha Stewart), LAT (Look at That Training, developed by Leslie McDevitt, author of the book Control Unleashed) and Reactive aggressive dog training (developed by Emma Parsons, author of the book Click to Calm) for example, as well as variations and combinations of the above.

However, the distant antecedents can sometimes be a little more challenging to figure out and they may have at least as much influence on the unwanted behaviour in question as any immediate antecedent has.

What can a distant antecedent be? It can be breed traits, it can be early experiences in the dogs life and it can be accidental practice of the unwanted behaviour in slightly other forms than what the owner has called you for. I will develop that further in another blog.

Scent tracking comes in as trying to address distant antecedents such as lack of stimulation, lack of perceived bonding between the owner and dog, lack of calm, concentrated work. It taps in to something which is natural for the dog to do and I have yet not met a dog who doesn’t enjoy doing it. Any dog can do it and the results are often remarkable. The owner, once taught how to do it, enjoys it and often becomes very proud over their dog who is so talented.

Scent tracking is a natural way of stimulating a dog and it leads to generally calmer, more concentrated behaviour as well as, from the feedback I have had, it increases the bond between the owner and the dog.

A short introduction into how to teach scent tracking. 

tracking diagram2

Material needed:

–   Harness (non force)

–   Leash/ long leash

–   Small container with lid, which you put treats in.

–   Two people (unless you are in an area where you can tie your dog up safely)

  • Non busy grass or forest area (not hard surface to start with).
  • Wind coming from behind you, i.e walk in the direction of the wind
  1. Put harness and leash on the dog, if he/she is not already wearing it
  2. Put treats in the little container, put lid on
  3. Leave dog with helper
  4. Walk in the direction of the wind
  5. Count 30 steps
  6. Stop, put little container exactly in front of your feet
  7. Step over container – CONTINUE 10 more steps straight forward
  8. Make a large u-turn, keep a distance from the original track (approximately 30 meters /35 yards)
  9. Go back to dog, take him/her a few steps into track and just wait.
  10. When the dog is taking up the track, praise with a very subtle voice and follow the dog
  11. If the dog goes wrong, just wait until he/she has found the track again, same as 10.
  12. When the dog has found the container, open it, feed the treats, praise, play and have fun!
  13. Leave by keeping away from any track to avoid back tracking or tracking without a reward, just play and have fun with the dog
  14. Teach all these steps to the owner so it can be done without you (the trainer/ behaviour consultant) being present

Best of luck! If you have further questions regarding this or how to plan your scent tracking training sessions, you can contact me via the comments section.



About Ewa Highland

Ewa gained her foundational 5 year long education from the Working Dog Club in Sweden, where she also worked with temperament tests and ran courses from Puppy all through to Competition level. After moving to the UK 2006, she gained her Certificate of Higher Education in Animal Behaviour and Animal Welfare from Anglian Ruskin University, as well as Clicker education from Kay Laurence/ Helen Philips (CAP 1 & 2). She has studied the Living and Learning with Animals (LLA) as well as Functional Assessment and Intervention Design (FAID) for Dr Susan Friedman. Ewa is constantly on the learning journey, following science within Animal Cognition and Training as well as human psychology. Ewa takes a special interest in an Applied Behavioural Analysis approach towards animal training and problem solving, however she is never ruling out Ethological perspectives as a foundational understanding for any animals function. Ewa has competed in Working Trials, Competitive Obedience and Conformation Showing. Ewa regularly sees clients for Behavioural Consultations as well as general training. Ewa also gives top level Grooming courses for the interested Schnauzer owner as well as show handling courses. She has produced two DVD's which are selling world wide - Puppy training and Home care and Miniature Schnauzer Grooming. Ewa lives with her husband Andrew, 10 dogs and 3 horses in Sussex, England, UK.


  1. In steps 9-11, does the dog track the owner’s scent or is the dog supposed to be picking up the scent of the treats? I work with many dogs (including my own) that wouldn’t follow a person’s tracks, especially a known person who is also walking beside them. If my dog didn’t follow the track, and I stopped to wait for her to do so, she would find something else to do, such as sniff for other animals to track. My thought is to start with a much shorter distance, as 30 feet seems far. Thoughts or advice? Thanks!

    1. Hi Joyce,
      Thank you for your valid comments and questions. The answer to your question is that in step 9 and 10 the dog is scenting the crushed vegetation, i.e not the treats and not the person. They do do not, as we know of today, necessarily pick up the scent of a specific person. Therefore, the same person whom have put the track down, can walk behind the dog, without confusing them.
      Try it out and just wait for your dog to figure it out. If your dog goes to the side or gets a little confused, just wait.
      30 steps is in fact quite short. It has to be a little bit of a distance for the track to set, i.e. for the dog do get familiar with it and follow it. I would not advice to go much shorter anyhow.
      You’ll see that very soon you can extend it much further and you will also be able to leave it for a little while until you go back and take the track. You’ll be able to put in angles and more containers along the way with food in. Make sure you make a real fuzz of the dog every time they find the container, make the container important and feed them from it every time they have found one.
      In the beginning you will most likely take the smallest of hints from the dog that the container is there. The more fuzz you make around it, the quicker the dog will understand that the exercise is to track to something specific, in this case a little closed container with food in.
      We can then exchange these for little articles of our choice, which we reward with food from our pocket for.
      Where are you based? If in the UK or willing to travel to the UK, you are very welcome to participate in workshops in this subject. They are great fun!
      All the very best and have fun tracking!

  2. Thank you for this! I teach Find It to each dog/owner I work with and have found it to be a wonderfully fulfilling natural activity for overstimulated, fearful and reactive dogs to engage in. Scent gathering during leash walks also seems helpful as it allows a dog to use a large portion of their brain in a focused activity rather than let the amygdala hijack the limbic system and launch the dog into an arousal cascade during neighborhood walks where multiple triggers abound. Well done.

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