What is Tracking?
Tracking is not easily defined. All dogs can locate the source of an odor, for if they could not, they would not have been able to find their mother's teats to suckle on, and later on they would have not been able to find prey (food), dens, or mates. In the domesticated dog, humans define the process of tracking as that where the dog follows a specific trail of odor where it was laid on the ground surface. In other words, the dog must follow the exact pathway that the person (or animal) left as it moved within an area. This definition distinguishes tracking from trailing. In trailing, a dog need not follow the precise pathway the human (or animal) left as it moved; instead the dog should follow the scent left behind and that scent may be in the air or on the ground. In trailing, a dog does not have its nose down along the actual pathway, but instead may air scent and may simply follow an air trail to the individual's location. In trailing, the dog must be able to distinguish a particular odor wherever it may be (air or ground) amongst a variety of other odors so that it can follow that odor to its source. In tracking, however, the dog must be able to follow ground odor where that odor may be simply that of the individual (as would be the case on hard surfaces such as cement or asphalt) or where that odor may be a combination of both the individual's odor and that of crushed vegetation from where that individual placed his or her weight on plants.
Ultimately, tracking is a team sport. The dog does not need to be trained to follow odor -- he or she can do this naturally and with far greater precision than we humans can. We, the human part of the team, must effectively convey to the dog which odor we want them to follow and then must trust and believe our dog when he or she is committed to a track pathway. We must also learn the messages our dog gives us when encountering a change in direction of the pathway. We must also help organize the dog's search when they lose the track. Otherwise, we have to sit back and allow the dog to do his or her job -- in this sport, the dog is in control. Our role is to train ourselves to be able to read our dog's messages to us and to help, only when necessary, the dog solve scent problems along the way. We do both of these tasks by first teaching our dogs the "game" (what we want them to follow) and by then presenting the dog with many different tracking situations and problems so that the dog will learn how to solve whatever problems it encounters while tracking. Initially, we learn our dog's body language by observing our dogs along known and well marked tracks so that we can pick up the subtle cues the dog provides when it encounters corners, or has to follow odors down or up hills, or along forest edges. We train the dog to problem solve, but ultimately, we have to learn from our dogs what they are telling us. Therefore, you cannot force a dog to learn to track -- you must motivate the dog to want to track what you would like them to track with you on the other end of the leash.
The Resources in the drop down menu can help you learn more about the sport of tracking.