Feb 24, 2016

Hard Surface Tracking – Black Dog Journey

On a chilled autumn night, with a crinkling of the grass as I stepped, I found myself out of breath and running through a neighbourhood.  Shortly after the dawn of a new millennium, I had a little more youth in my step.  Despite my youthful vigour I felt strange running across lawns to brush up against homes, and hide in bizarre locations.  This was my introduction to the canine world of tracking.  To the uninitiated it may sound as though I was prowling homes, but I was merely laying a track for a patrol dog.  As exciting as this was, in my early exposure to the dog world, I wondered if dogs could conduct hard surface tracking.

The Black Dog Struts His Stuff

The Black Dog Struts His Stuff

From an early age, I was amazed at the fact dogs can track human scent.  While tracking is a combination of skill, science, art, and evolution, there’s something medieval about it.  It’s almost magical to watch a dog as he hooks into a track and pull like a demon straight out of Hell’s gate.

Thinking Outside The Realms Of Traditional Training

As I grew more exposed to the dog world, I wondered why patrol dogs only tracked on vegetative surfaces such as grass.  Asking an experienced dog handler why we only tracked in fields, forests, and along front lawns of homes,  I was told we were replicating the realistic paths that people actually travel.  Inherently skeptical, I questioned this.  In my experience, especially when individuals run from the authorities, “bad guys” flee in any direction possible.  It’s highly unlikely for a “bad guy” to stop and ponder the best way to leave human scent behind for a dog.  It’s more likely that a fleeing offender will run anywhere that presents a path to freedom…this includes running on roadways, sidewalks, lawns, alleys, over fences, escaping in stolen vehicles, hopping fences, and hiding in buildings.  If people run on every imaginable surface, it only makes sense to train for those conditions.

“To raise new questions, new possibilities, to regard old problems from a new angle, requires creative imagination and marks real advance in science.” – Albert Einstein.  While dog work isn’t advanced science, it certainly can be improved upon by thinking outside the realms of traditional training.IMG_0515

Tracking And Ability

Early in my dog career, I realized that not every dog has the ability to be an excellent tracker.  Having worked three German Shepherds in rapid succession, I quickly learned the difference between a substandard and truly talented dog.  My fourth dog, also known by his Black Dog alias, was in the truly talented range.  Every dog may live the world through their nose, but not every dog has the desire to track.

A combination of factors led to my passion for hard surface tracking.  My agency typically commenced patrol dog training in the summer, as lush fields of green grass are readily available.  For those new to this topic, dogs track a combination of ground disturbance and human scent.  Crushed grass, created by recent foot steps, creates a strong odour for dogs to follow.  I question if this method creates a dog that tracks more ground disturbance than human scent.  Since three of my dogs quickly washed from the talent pool, it’s easy to guess when I commenced training with my fourth…mid November in the dead of winter.  This led to the introduction of tracking on snow and ice covered surfaces.  For anyone who’s fallen on ice or packed snow, it’s a very hard surface.

Tracking is a mystery to some.  Television series such as CSI have shown dogs tracking through massive crowds to locate people and articles.  I’d love to have a magical dog like that…break out the rainbows and lucky leprechauns too.

While tracking may appear mysterious and magical, a little perspective is needed to how understand how this works.  A dog’s nose dominates not only his face but his brain.  A dog interprets the world through its nose in the same way people depend upon their sight.

Dogs and Scent

A dog’s brain is specialized in identifying scent.  In fact, the percentage of a dog’s brain devoted to scent is 40 times larger than that of a human.  To put this into perspective, a human has 5 million scent receptors…a German Shepherd has 225 million scent receptors.

Let’s simplify this even more.  Imagine a freshly cooked pizza pulled from the oven, loaded with pepperoni, salami, bacon, tomatoes, onions, olives, green pepper, sweet tomato sauce, italian spices, and dripping with mozzarella cheese.  It smells great, and as humans we smell a delicious meal pulled from the oven.  Our dogs, however, smell the individual ingredients.  They have the ability to smell the specific ingredients as their sense of smell is so great, or at least I assume so.  My dog has 220 million more scent receptors than I do, so he’s the true expert in scent.

Stumbling Upon Hard Surface Tracking

Some may know hard surface tracking as hydration intensified tracking.  While I respect the concept behind the name, let’s keep it simple and call this hard surface tracking.  Shortly after certification with the Black Dog, I searched for ways to improve upon tracking abilities.  I certainly didn’t have the answers as a junior dog handler, but was more than willing to seek answers from experts in the field.  I came across a training article by Steve White (a former handler and dog trainer out of Washington).  Steve White’s information propelled me down the passionate road of hard surface tracking.

In this exploratory phase, I was absolutely astounded to watch a hard surface tracking video linked to Steve White’s training article.  A black German Shepherd methodically tracked through a parking lot.  It wasn’t soon after that my black German Shepherd was methodically tracking through a parking lot.

It’s a simple process that junior and senior dogs can learn.  I caution, however, this process may be frustrating for a senior dog (and handler) with hundreds of tracking reps on vegetative surfaces.  We may as well call  training on vegetative surfaces boulevard tracking or chlorophyl detection as I like to call it…there aren’t too many “bad guys” who stick to boulevards while putting as much distance as possible between them and the police.  The newer the dog the easier it will be to master the concept of hard surface tracking.

Black Dog

Black Dog

As I learned from Steve White’s article, the introduction of hard surface tracking starts with a full water bottle that contains a pump, and a free parking lot.  The parking lot provides some advantages over tracking in a field.  The pavement is fairly consistent as a surface and is more sterile than a field or forest.  This ensures that one’s dog is truly following human scent…this becomes important when finding people is the goal of one’s occupation.

What Is Human Scent?

Knowing what a dog follows on a hard surface track is important to understanding how this skill is taught.  I’ll attempt to explain this without the inclusion of theories, breaking it down to the basics.  As human beings we constantly shed skin cells.  Since most of us lather up with soap, use deodorant, and other products, combined with our sweat, we leave a unique scent.  Think of the shedding of skin cells as similar to the tale of Hansel and Gretel.  The mischievous siblings may have left behind a trail a bread crumbs, but scent is just another version of these bread crumbs for our dogs to follow.

The simplest way to imagine scent, and where it may fall, is to spray a bottle of baby powder into the air.  Those of us who lived through the 80s are way too familiar with this stuff, as I recall a few friends who sprinkled it into their shoes everyday…a feeble attempt to copy some legendary Miami Vice characters.  In calm conditions, the powder will land in a relatively even pattern nearby.  Let’s throw in a few realistic environmental factors such as pavement, concrete, gravel, grass, dried mud, forests, wind, etc.  Imagine how the powder falls differently with each location.  In tall grass, and forests, the powder may cling high and low in wide and narrow patterns.  With hard surfaces, such as pavement, concrete, and gravel, the powder has few places to cling to.  Sure, it will land on the ground, but picture what will happen as soon as a vehicle drives by or a strong gust of wind blows in.  Imagine how the scent dissipates in each situation and you’ll gain a true understanding of how long the scent will last and how to realistically track in these situations.

Introduction of Hard Surface Tracking

The introduction of hard surface tracking is similar to the introduction of tracking on more lush surfaces.  While the same principals exist, hydration is a necessary component.  Hydration is where the large water bottle is introduced.  Years ago, in my experimental stage of hard surface tracking, I used a tiny water bottle that was purchased in the health and beauty section of a local drug store.  There are two issues with a small water sprayer, one includes the fact that tracks are extremely short and the more important issue is that I appeared to have just exited the short bus after using this sprayer.  Spend the extra money and purchase a large pump action water bottle that allows for various settings on the nozzle.

Why is water used during the introduction of hard surface tracking?  For the uninitiated, moisture levels (humidity) should be considered when tracking.  A high humidity level, with low winds, results in greater tracking conditions.  Do you see why some historically tracked on lush green surfaces?  It’s only natural to seek the easier route.  The water, used in hard surface tracking, provides an adhesive for the scent or falling skin cells.

If you’ve gone this far, and splurged ten bucks for a large water sprayer, you may as well spend the extra money for distilled or spring water.  Chlorinated water will kill off the bacterial portion of the scent.  If you collect water for your lawn or garden this will do as well.

I introduced hard surface tracking in the same fashion “chlorophyl” tracking is introduced, but there are a few different thoughts on this topic.  Some may use tiny treats, spaced at regular intervals, but I’ve always been a fan of using a dog’s inherent ball drive as a reward.  No method is better than the other if we arrive at the same goal successfully.IMG_0016

I had an assistant tease my dog with a kong.  For you non dog types, there was no peanut butter in the kong.  A great tracking dog will risk life and limb for his kong…this means that a strong ball drive must exist.  After a brief moment of teasing the dog with his kong, my assistant walked a straight line for approximately 50 meters while spraying a wide stream of water ahead.  Spraying a stream in front, while one walks along, ensures that scent will adhere to this path.  Remember the baby powder?  Imagine what will happen if it sticks to a fine stream of water, instead of a dusty parking lot.  The kong was hidden behind an electrical outlet or parking block to prevent the dog from running straight to his reward.

Aside from the introduction of water in the early stages, hard surface tracking is no different than teaching a dog to track on grass.  With the first few tracks, the dog is directed to the track by hand motions and voice commands.  By this I mean you may actually have to get down on your hands and knees to point to the track and its direction of travel.  Above all, remember to keep it playful and fun for the dog.  Acting dumb and animated will cause you to look silly but it’s fun for an animal that never really progresses past the intelligence of a toddler.

As repetitions increased, my assistant adjusted the spray to a fine mist.  At approximately 100 meters in track length, I introduced corners to the Black Dog’s tracks.  As the Black Dog mastered tracks on roads, parking lots, and sidewalks, I worked him in the same manner a fly fisherman casts a fishing line…back to that medieval feeling.  Eventually, the need for hydration was eliminated.  Does anyone need a garden sprayer?

I’ll share a few tips to ease your journey into the realm of hard surface tracking.  I only learned this through the trial and error of introducing hard surface tracking to the Black Dog and others.  Introduce the early tracks in a downwind direction (this means walk in the direction the wind is blowing).  A strong upwind track will force your dog’s head up…you don’t want this in the early stages.

While a real life track may occur under any condition, introduce this under ideal conditions.  This means that conditions closer to monsoons, blizzards, and hurricanes may cause a wee bit of frustration.DSC_0158

Appreciate that seasoned dogs, who’ve only tracked on grass, may take a while to learn that scent exists on pavement, concrete, gravel, etc.  Have you ever observed a dog bring his head up, on road crossings, in search of the next section of grass.  I experienced this with my fifth dog who was obtained from an unnamed federal agency that specializes in rural tracking.  Remember that seasoned grass trackers look for grass, so introduce hard surface tracking out of sight from these areas.  Years of bad repetitions lead to this behaviour, so have patience.

Scent pools along buildings and parking blocks.  Take advantage of this by introducing hard surface tracking along warehouse exteriors, on weekends and late at night when no one is around.

It takes time to master hard surface tracking.  I wasn’t completely satisfied with the Black Dog’s abilities until at least 100 hard surface tracks.

Life Lesson

“Confidence comes from discipline and training.” – Robert Kiyosaki.  Hard surface tracking is a fulfilling journey.  Anyone who’s worked a dog for a living can appreciate that dog work can be the most rewarding and frustrating occupation..this can happen on the same day.  The rewards definitely outweigh the frustrations, so stick with it.

For the more visual, please watch my video below.

In Blog


  1. Caito Junqueira Says: February 24, 2016 7:58 am

    Hello, Mac,

    This alrticle is so compelling. The subject of HARD SURFACE TRACKING is new to me, but i could not stop reading

    I was always amazed how dogs can smell well. A vet friend told me they can even form images in their minds the same way we do with our sight.

    Trainig a dog seems to be very interesting and rewarding.


  2. cristina Says: March 4, 2016 9:03 am

    great site . I had many things to learn :))) i have a chokolate labrador and i am struggling to teach him some things . Actually is very smart but also mum s boy and i would like some advice for a little discipline :))
    very useful information and once again good site :))

    • Shawn Says: March 10, 2016 10:04 am


      From my brief encounters with labs, they are smart and energetic. Most of them want to please you. I’m not entirely certain what you mean as to discipline. Does this mean you want you dog to return upon command, sit, heel, etc. With all training, timing is everything. A dog has a short attention span so it must be immediately rewarded for a positive action. The reward is different for each dog. With working dogs, the reward is praise, a ball, or biting a quarry. In the civilian world, people use food, clickers, etc. Praise has been my recommended form “good boy.”
      I actually have an article on training within my site.


      Thanks again,


  3. Charlotte Says: March 4, 2016 10:29 am

    I am a fan of dogs and am constantly amazed at how they can be trained to do all manner of things. You have so much interesting information here. For a novice like me I would consider hard surface training almost impossible, I admire people like yourself who spend so much time training dogs and have complete faith in their abilities.

    • Shawn Says: March 6, 2016 5:29 am

      Hi Charlotte,

      Thanks for the comment. A little bit of time, with dedication, can make one’s dog look fantastic.


  4. Roopesh Says: March 12, 2016 9:24 am

    Hello Shawn
    A marvellous lesson on Hard Surface tracking.

    I am a dog lover and have seen these guys do tracking on TV, as you mentioned with the likes of CSI, but was not really aware of the training and work that was really needed to do it in REAL life.

    You certainly have the experience and showed me what the process entailed. I too wondered to myself why is that a lot of tracking takes place in forests, grasses and fields and the answer you supplied us made a lot of sense.

    This also explains to me why German Shepherds are featured as trackers. Are they the most commonly used ones?

    It’s amazing that their scent capability is so developed to track human scent.

    You mentioned after 100tracks, a dog may be well enough trained for tracking. Just out of interest, how long does it take for them to get to this point?

    Thanks for an Excellent Read

    • Shawn Says: March 13, 2016 2:23 am

      Hi Roopesh,

      German Shepherds are used due to their temperament and ability to complete other tasks, but other breeds such as the Belgian Malinois are used. I’m partial to Germans Shepherds obviously. Reaching the 100 track mark all depends upon the weather and time you dedicate each day. With the early, short, tracks one can complete multiple tracks in a row. With longer tracks, the dog must rest longer. Imagine how tired you’d become if you inhaled excessively through your nose. Dogs become exhausted after lengthy tracks, so they must rest before completing another. It took me several months to reach the 100 mark, fitting it in between other tasks and work.


  5. Paul C Says: March 14, 2016 5:08 am

    This was an incredibly informative article about training dogs and far more! It also had a couple scary pictures! Haha. The information you have here is valuable and the break down of information was well done. I particularly liked the part about the human scent and how a dogs brain devotes 40% more brain power to scent than us! Very cool. Thanks for an entertaining post and I wish you much luck in the future Shawn!

  6. Angela Says: March 15, 2016 11:41 am

    what a unique and fascinating site you have here on dogs and their outstanding ability to track. At times it seemed that I was actually with you and the tracking dog going through the motions involved in tracking.
    You certainly have a love for your dogs and have a great understanding for the ability dogs can provide to us humans.
    Your site is full of valuable information and I will certainly pass it along to people I know that will benefit from it.

  7. Mimi-CU Says: March 15, 2016 3:25 pm

    I am thinking of getting a German Shepard a first dog for my son who is 13 years old. I have always admired this breed of dogs and I know they learn quickly and are very intelligent. Do you think this will make a good dog for a child his age.
    By the way, I LOVE your website (and your dog is beautiful). Tons of very useful information, great writing style. Kept me engaged and I learned a lot in a little while. Will definitely keep coming back for more. Good job!

    • Shawn Says: March 16, 2016 12:54 am

      The type of dog you bring home will certainly depend upon your life style. Realistically, my daughter isn’t much older than your son and she has difficulty looking after a rabbit. While my working dog is wired differently than the average house pet, he would have been labeled as uncontrollable in his younger years. He’s wired to work and please his master or pack leader. I agree with you regarding the intelligence of German Shepherds. They’re extremely intelligent, loyal, and learn quickly…almost to the point of skipping steps to achieve a goal. Keep in mind that a large breed dog requires patience, discipline, respect, and lots of exercise. With a German Shepherd living to 11 or twelve, it may actually become your dog. If I hadn’t been paid to work with dogs, I likely would have purchased a German Shepherd myself.

      Take care,


  8. Judy Says: May 16, 2016 9:02 pm

    Definitely want to learn hard surface tracking. Have been enjoying all of your writing. There are several that I couldn’t stop laughing, could completely relate to some of your stories.

    • Shawn MacGillivary Says: May 20, 2016 9:44 pm

      I appreciated the comment, and I’m game for hard surface tracking anytime. It only serves to make your dog a better tracker in all areas.


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