• Audrey Estep

Tracking: Strategies for Hard Surface Tracking: By Audrey Estep: Owner of North Mountain Kennels

Updated: Oct 8, 2019

Originally printed in the June/July 2018 'K-9 Cop Magazine'

Training for hard surface tracking shouldn’t be viewed as a daunting task. If the foundation of tracking/ trailing is already established for rural settings, transitioning to hard surface trailing will not cause the handler to run back to the hills. Follow these key points of planning and you will find success.

Plan Ahead

Before you even begin to set out and start training with your k9 it is very important to plan ahead. You can’t plan for every unexpected event that may occur, but you can certainly minimize it through augmented timing. This is the strategic planning before ever entering the training area down to the last detail. For beginner handlers, this is a critical part in your ability to adjust quickly and accordingly not only to environmental challenges but as well as visible behavior changes in the canine.

We have all been there before, you’re at the end of a 30 ft lead and before you know it; the scenery is just blowing by you and your left unprepared like the blind following the blind. So, to be consistently successful, take the time to drive through the training area, note difficulties in the terrain, trouble spots and predictions as to not only what your canine will do but in turn what you will do to correct the canine if A, B, or C occur. Our fundamental objective is for both canine and handler to react automatically given similar circumstances in all preceding training events.

Single Focus

If asphalt tracking is a new task required for the canine to learn it is imperative for the canine to be removed from all other training. The objective is to focus singularly on one task. We call this single focus. When training a new learned pattern, a handler should understand that a canine has a threshold for its learning ability just as humans do.

For example, in an agility lesson you may focus strictly on weave polls for 1 week, a circus dog may only jump through fire hoops or an obedience lesson may consist of only down stays. If you’re teaching hard surface tracking, then week 1 of your training will focus on road crossings. The training regimen looks like this: 2-week single focus on asphalt followed by 1 week of rural work, agility etc. Do not prolong the focus beyond 2 weeks without a 1-week break. If you rush your training your end results will suffer. Build a strong foundation and you have will positive results for a lifetime.

Phase I, II, III

Training hard surfaces comes in three phases.

Phase I should be initiating the road cross. Phase 1 is single focus training on road crossings only. The initial road cross should be a single lane road with vegetation on both sides. Utilizing a roadside where a ditch is present is helpful because of the scent behavior when shade is present. Use every possible means to set your dog up for success. This means making your initial phase of training easy. Phase 1 should last for 2 weeks and followed by 1 week off. This week off is called a relief stage. This allows the dog to digest mentally the training he is undergoing-crossing roads. After the 1-week relief stage Phase 11 is introduced.

The canine should only run two tracks per day and one day off a week during phase 1.

Phase II encompasses larger expanses of hard surface tracking like parking lots, intersections and four lane roads. During the off weeks of training, the reward being used for tracking is still present, but the ultimate value is issued while tracking and will not be maximized in any other realm of training during the off week. Point to Point training is the focus of Phase 11. When laying tracks on large surfaces like parking lots it is helpful to lay a zig zag pattern meaning grass to asphalt to grass to asphalt and so on. The handler should move quickly from point to point instructing the canine to check the vegetation for human scent. The handler is putting the large expanse of asphalt into an environmental context for the canine. On future tracks the canine will gain confidence that scent does exist and where there is vegetation the canine will learn to seek out those areas where vegetation lay and check it for scent where air scent may or may not be present.

Phase III brings the enthusiasm back if any was lost from phases I and II. These two weeks we incorporate sight run tracks. After running your first sight run track the handler should be able to read the canine’s ability to adapt quickly to visual stimulus then to olfactory read. If the handler doesn’t feel the olfactory switch is occurring at the right time, then the handler should back up to phase 11. Please note, that no more than one sight run track should be run without backing up to phase I or II.

Value and Reward

Let’s talk about value and reward system. I can never say too much about the long-lasting impression on the memory of a canine when it comes to the value of the reward. When I speak about memory, I have to discuss dopamine. You may have heard about it, we humans have it too! It’s a neurotransmitter whose function is to trigger the anticipation of pleasure and reward. It is so important because the release of dopamine cannot be controlled it happens automatically and will continue the release until the reward is taken away. Thus, the longer the reward is retained by the canine the longer lasting the memory of the event that led to the reward will be forced upon the brain. This is where many trainers will fail or cheat their canine by taking the reward away too soon whether it be for time constraints or just not knowing any better. You’ve been informed already about augmented timing; this includes the time it takes to properly reward your dog as well.

Point to Point

Training point to point comes into play when we are initially teaching the canine to cross hard surfaces. It is always best to start with single lane roads and work your way up to double lane, intersections and finally large expanses of hard surfaces like a parking lot. Setting up your canine for success yields a positive outcome for future more difficult tracks. Beginning with single lane roads allows the handler to kick the vegetation across the roadway. Which should encourage the dog to check for diaminobutane. The ball should be placed just slightly hidden mere feet off the opposite side of the road allowing enough scent to escape for olfactory detection from the road. Once across the road the canine will switch to visual just inches from the ball.

It is important to note that a canine will use both visual and olfactory abilities. As trainers, we want to maximize the nasal and minimize the visual use. We cannot expect a canine to completely ignore its use of eyesight. For trainers teaching hard surface tracking, where there is available ground scent, it should be utilized by laying heavy human scent for the canine to read via nasal detection. This can be achieved by laying an article of clothing out flat as opposed to in a ball. This will allow maximum scent exposure. Shoes are often overlooked as an article for use, but our feet actually expel a huge amount of scent.

By laying heavy ground scent in the initial process of training, the canine not only recalls from previously stored memory that ground scent leads to a reward he will also put the visual environment into context and recall how to process the hard surface using both vision and nasal acuity. Eventually the canine will work across greater distances of hard surfaces.

The canine should be able to learn the following 3 tasks.

1. The canine needs to be encouraged to distinguish that if he crosses the surface, there will be scent on the other side.

2. Canine perceives that scent sources can be exposed along the way to the other side of the hard surface where vegetation exists.

3. The canine will learn that human scent will waft around in pools, in conjunction with 1 and 2.

Problem solving

What happens when your canine losses motivation?

What typically happens when your canine loses its motivation is that tracking has lost its fun. Fundamentally, the first rule of training a canine in any realm is the dog must have fun. A canine can lose its enthusiasm for the game simply because of the handler’s lack of a strong reward value system. The issuing of praise both physical and verbal must be substantial and devotes a ton of energy from the handler. As previously mentioned, every handler needs to plan ahead and allow the time for the proper reward. Some dogs need more energy from a handler and other dogs not so much. A handler tuned into his dog will find the balance for the appropriate energy level needed to provide the dog. Which inevitably leaves a long-lasting positive effect on the memory.

Site Run Tracks (Situational Implementation of Tactical Escape)

Site run tracks are an extremely fun way for the canine to renew the fun of the game. In a site run track you allow the canine to see the decoy or handler take off on the track. For a canine that apprehends, the decoy will agitate the canine usually with a whip, ball or even a visual of the bite sleeve is enough to trigger the dogs’ anticipation of the reward. The handler should set up the scenario where a building is present and instruct the decoy to run around the corner, pause to expel air scent. The decoy should then walk to the end of the track and be certain to leave heavy ground scent via article of clothing or kicking in vegetation and then hide and wait. The distance of this track is very short 5-25 yards.

When the handler and dog begin the pursuit, the canine will go visual because he saw the decoy flee. What the canine will learn here is that he must drop his head and use his nose to get to the reward. The canine like any mammal will distribute energy to the easiest sensory for detection. At first it is the eyes, then he must switch to nasal and then finally upon detection his eyes again.

Integrating site run tracks allows the canine a full range of abilities from ground scent tracking to air scenting. Running 5 tracks in 3 days both site run and normal will help reengage the excitement that was lost. The tracks must be short and the value at a maximum.

There is one critical rule when utilizing site run tracks. To limit the visual memory of chase and capture upon the dog, never run more than one sight run without stepping back to phase 1 and 11. As we want the focus to be on ground scent availability.


Keeping a working dog working requires a different set of rules than that of a companion dog. To ensure your dog doesn’t lack its focus and drive you should keep your canines’ stimulation from game playing, exercise and affection at a minimum. When you pull your dog out to work, he should be roaring to go. Allowing your dog to expel energy on a ball if the ball is his reward system away from the training area (at home, in his kennel) will lessen its value on tracks. Withholding the ball until he earns it maintains a strong reward value system.

The same applies with affection. Affection and essentially everything the dog needs for survival on a primitive level is earned. Affection is not issued unless the canine has done something worthy to earn it. Simple in theory but difficult to practice for many. The effect we are trying to create is that we want all of the dogs’ focus and energy put into what we are training. The dog should have pent up energy, so it has something to work toward. Be consistent with your training and reward system and your canine will quickly learn it does not get rewarded unless it has performed correctly.

Visual Canine

Does your canine have a propensity to go visual? Some breeds like the Malinois are notorious to go visual more often than other breeds. The canine cannot be instructed to go nasal and disobey its natural biology, which is to use all of its senses in partnership with one another. What we want to do as trainers and handlers is to revalue the ground and ball as the reward. You cannot expect to advance your canine to more difficult tracks without ever backing up a step or two and reinstating the fundamentals. This can be said for any scope of training not solely tracking.

One way to revalue the ground scent is to heavily kick in vegetation. Run your tracks on short grass. High grass will trap scent on the tips of the grass not allowing your dog to drop its head. Using a variation of articles along the track will also help to expel large scent pools on the ground too. Shoes and socks are great as the feet release an extreme amount of diamenopentane maximizing ground scent exposure.

Another means by which canines go visual is that handler and decoy have not planned appropriately. The decoy must be hidden. If the canine can see the decoy at 50 yards out, then the decoy has failed his job.

For the handler laying his own tracks, the handler should assure that the ball is well hidden.

Often, many problems arise due to lack of planning. Thus, it is crucial to plan ahead and react with acute timing to ensure the proper response from the canine. If you’re out there training alone and don’t have the resources available to pick up a phone and call an expert, try to remember a few things spoken of here. If your dog is having trouble progressing, then you need to back up a phase or even two. Backing up does not mean starting over. It only means your foundation was a little rocky and you need to strengthen it by reinforcing the basics of ground scent. Issuing a strong and heavy reward system is critical. Keep it fun, keep it consistent and keep it maximized at length for long-term memory absorption.


American Society of Canine Trainers Canidology 310 Supplemental Handout.

London Hanover University Supplemental Handout Cani 310 Asphalt Tracking.

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