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Written by
Ed Frawley

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Training Police Tracking Dogs "Tracking Through Drive" vs. "Foot Step Tracking"

RCMP Information on our Level 1 Police Tracking Video

Information on our Level II III Police Tracking Video

Information on our video on How to Lay Tracks for a Police Service Dog

There are two different training styles being practiced in North America to train police tracking dogs. The first is called "Foot Step Tracking" (FST), and the second is called "Tracking Through Drive" (TTD). The vast majority of American police service dogs (99.9%) are trained in FST. This article will explain to the reader why I believe TTD is more productive. It will also explain why FST is so widely used in America.

Let me explain what FST is. This is the style of tracking used in the sport of Schutzhund, or in the WPO DPO Police Dog Certifications. This training is done using food that is dropped along a 400 to 800 yard track. There is usually a ball left at the end of the track that's used as an additional motivator. The dog is expected to track at a slow walk and stay within a couple of feet of the actual footsteps of the track layer. This is a very precise form of tracking but also a very slow method of tracking.

If you are a canine handler whose dog is trained in FST you already know that your "tracking find ratio" on actual suspects is less than 5%. Notice that I said "track find ratio" and not "area search find ratio." These are 2 different exercises. The difference is a track is done on line with the dog following the path that the suspect takes no matter what the wind direction. An area search, on the other hand, is usually done off leash and into the wind. The handler gets down wind of the suspect and works back into the wind until his dog picks up scent. At that point the dog works the scent cone which leads to the suspect. The dog should always be trained to track before it is trained in area searches. If there is an option to either track or do an area search, tracking is the preferred method to locate people.

If a K-9 officer and his FST partner arrives on scene just minutes after a suspect has escaped through a perimeter, the officer will never catch the bad guy by tracking unless the suspect goes to ground within 1,000 yards. FST tracking dogs simply cannot track fast enough to make up enough distance to catch someone that keeps moving.

It is also physically impossible to expect a foot step tracking dog to follow a 3 to 5 mile long track. This style of work takes too much concentration on the dogs part. The dogs begin to peter out at about 1,000 yards, long before they have traveled even a fraction of most rural tracks.

If you are a canine handler whose dog is trained in TTD you know that your overall find ratio on tracks is close to 50% and that if the suspect is loose in a rural area and stays rural your find ratio goes up over 90%. TTD is an entirely different training concept. In TTD the dog is allowed to follow its natural instincts and run along a track. The handler runs behind on leash.

The concept of TTD training is to expect the dog to over shoot the corners because he is moving with such speed. Even though a dog can smell scent for a long way past a corner(in many cases 50 to 100 yards past the corner) he is trained to give a "negative" when he is 20 feet past the corner.

A "negative" is an indication of track loss. The most common form of a negative takes place when the dog is running along with his nose to the ground and all of a sudden the nose comes up off the ground and the dog begins to circle.

When the handler sees the dog give a "negative," his job is to get the dog back on the track as quickly as possible. He can either circle the dog to cut the next leg of the track and continue on, or the handler can back up along the track to a point where the dog actually had scent and then help his dog locate the turn.

The motivator for TTD is the fact that from the very first day of training there is always a person at the end of the track. When a dog gets out of a squad and gets into his tracking harness he knows for sure there is someone out there for him to find. His motivator is the possibility of a fight at the end of the track.

Notice that I said "the possibility" of a fight. This does not mean that the dog is allowed to get a bite on every training track. It does mean that there will always be someone at the end of the track and occasionally that person will fight with the dog. This possibility of a fight is what keeps the tough dogs going when a lesser dog will tire and quit.

TTD was developed by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP). Since 1935 TTD is the only training method the RCMP has used at their Police Dog Training Center in Alberta. Over the past 18 months I have spent 3 1/2 weeks at their school filming TTD tracking. After producing three training videos on this subject I have become a convert. If a police department is serious about increasing the effectiveness of their canine unit, they need to learn TTD.

In 1993, on my first trip to Alberta, the instructors took me out and showed me a young dog in Level I training(there are three Levels to certify at before graduating) we followed a 5 KM unknown track in the country that was 45 minutes old. The dog tracked at a dead run. This dog has been at the school for about 6 weeks and had 54 training tracks. There were 5 or 6 road crossings., 4 articles, a dead end where the track layer doubled back and jumped off to one side and more corners than I could count. I was only able to keep up with the handler for the first third of the track. In 35 years of dog training I had never seen anything like this. I was an instant believer.

In 1994, on my second trip to Alberta I saw a number of dogs in Level III training follow 1 1/2 mile, 25 minute old, unknown tracks right through residential neighborhoods during the middle of the day. These tracks went down alleys where dogs were barking behind fences and the dog tracked right past them. I saw dogs flush cats, track right by garbage cans, ignore dog waste in the yards, and track through groups of kids playing in back yards. These dogs still had a month of training left before they certified out of Level III and graduated from the school. I could not believe it.

So while there is no question that TTD has a 58 year proven track record that produces 10 times the results that FST produces, TTD faces an uphill battle to become the accepted training style here in America. The main reason for this, is the police dog vendors that supply departments with handler training and dogs.

I have to say that before I went to Canada I was in the FST boat along with everyone else. I thought FST was the "only" way to train a police tracking dog. I took a 25 page outline on an FST tracking video with me to Alberta on my first trip and threw it in the garbage the night I saw the 5 KM track.

The problem vendors face is that they have traditionally supplied imported dogs with either Schutzhund style training or dogs with the Dutch KNPV training. Both of these dog sports have inherent flaws in them that result in the dogs not being able to deal with TTD.

To begin with, I believe that Schutzhund is a great dog sport, but it is FST. It is also not uncommon for Schutzhund trainers in Europe to "force track" their dogs. Force tracking takes the drive right out of a dog. Once force tracked, a dog will never be trained in TTD. At the very least the amount of restraint placed on a dog in Schutzhund or WPO tracking restricts the dog to the point where an inexperienced handler will probably not be able to train the dog in TTD. The RCMP has not been able to take a Schutzhund titled dog and retrain it in TTD.

KNPV, on the other hand, is a Dutch sport that does not have any tracking at all, but it does have an area search exercise in the woods. This creates another problem, a dog trained in building search and/or area search before it is trained to track will almost never be able to be trained in TTD. The RCMP has also never tracking certified a KNPV trained dog at their school.

So not only are service dog vendors faced with a learning process on this new style of tracking, they are also faced with coming up with a new source of dogs for departments that want to get involved in TTD. This is going to be difficult because this work takes an extraordinary dog. What works best is actually finding young dogs from all working bloodlines with no training but a lot of socializing. These dogs not only require good defensive drive (which can be difficult to spot at that young age), they also have to have a really strong prey drive, the kind of prey drive that we want to see in our narcotics dogs.

If a vendor wants to train dogs that will certify in Level III tracking, he must be prepared to put 100 to 120 tracks on a dog. This is an awful lot of time and work. I have a great deal of respect for a vendor that would put this kind of work into dogs that he sells. I will tell you one thing, departments are not going to be buying dogs for $7,000 and getting 8 weeks of handler training and a Level III certified dog. No vendor can afford to put that kind of work into a dog and then sell it for so little money. If they do, they will not be in business very long.

I believe we will begin to see a few vendors offering these dogs, but the price is going to be above the $10,000 range. I also think we will see departments going out and buying young selection tested dogs and doing the tracking (and maybe the training) themselves. The bottom line is that a young, untitled dog with no training is cheaper than a titled import. But a word of caution on selection testing: it is called "buyer beware." We are looking for extraordinary dogs. The RCMP goes through an average of three dogs for every handler that graduates from the school. Maybe this will be the subject of a future article.

What I think will happen in this country is the development of a few really good tracking teams at various departments in each state. These will be highly motivated teams with great dogs that will build their reputation through their find ratios. When something serious happens in other localities, these teams will be requested by neighboring departments.

This is the direction that tracking has taken in Europe. The basic patrol dog coming out of police dog school is trained in FST to pass a WPO, DPO, or PSP certification. When something really serious happens, they don't call for the basic dog, they have their special dogs that are called out. These are their super tracking dogs. In Canada, every RCMP dog (and there are only 110 of them) is a super tracking dog. It's not uncommon for an RCMP handler to have to drive 150 to 200 miles and then track and catch a felony suspect. It happens every day in Canada. With work, it could be happening here in the States.

After this article was written there was an article that appeared in Dog Sports Magazine that tried to justify foot step tracking. Trying to justify foot step tracking is foolish. My response to the article is as follows:

Police Dog Tracking Through Drive
A Response to a “Foot Step Tracker”

Over the years I have written a number of training articles, but my article on police tracking through drive (TTD) has produced more interest than all of the other articles combined. For the last two months I have been getting calls or letters on a daily basis. Every single contact has been a positive response from officers telling me it's about time someone tell them why the old foot step tracking (FST) does not work.

The one and only negative comment on this style of tracking came in the May issue of Dog Sports. Joe Laney tried to justify foot step tracking (FST) for police service dogs. As far as I am concerned it is very important that every young K-9 handler understands that there is no justification for FST in police service dogs. Joe is a nice guy but he is way off base here. I think the problem is that Joe only read my article and did not watch the three videos that I have produced with the RCMP on this subject. Joe has never been to Canada and seen the TTD in action and he just doesn't understand this new training system.

I am going to address Joe's arguments against TTD in an item by item fashion. I would like to do this in a fashion that I hope is not taken personally by Joe. It is certainly not meant that way.

To begin with Joe says that TTD is too fast for almost all cops. He says that "K-9 cops are physically not going to go out and run 5 miles behind their tracking dogs." I agree with Joe on this point. Most K-9 cops are out of shape and can not run long distances. But just because we have the wrong handler behind the dog does not mean that the training system is flawed.

To begin with, a FST tracking dog is never going to be able to follow a 5 mile track. In his article Joe admits that after 1,400 paces his own FST dog's temperature goes up to 106 degrees on warm days. So how could it ever track 5 miles? The answer is "it can't." But 5 miles with a TTD dog is not that big of a deal. The fact that a handler can't keep up with his dog is not the training systems fault. I am 47 years old and had knee surgery last year after an injury sustained while running behind my police dog. At this point I am not sure if I will ever recuperate to the point where I can continue this style of training. Just because I may not be physically able to keep up with my dog does not mean I should switch to FST. I am currently training a younger officer on my sheriff's department to run a dog. I will continue to work my drug dog and area search dog.

Joe's second point concerned officer safety with tracking at this speed. If I led someone to believe that a K-9 officer should run behind his dog on a swat call, it was a mistake and I did not mean to imply that. You would have to have a death wish to be so foolish. On the other hand 99% of the normal K-9 calls are not swat calls, in those cases you run.

In Canada the RCMP has dedicated ERT teams (Emergency Response Teams or Swat Teams). Many of their ERT teams will not go out without a dog. They have trained with K-9 and developed their own tactics to work together. The RCMP dogs are so good at article identification that they naturally point out booby traps. In reality, what is a booby trap if not an article left by the suspect?

In non-swat calls the K-9 officer needs to move quickly if he wants to make up distance and catch a suspect that's 15 or 20 minutes ahead of him on a track. Many times it's a good idea to take a back up officer with a long gun, but this needs to be an officer that can run and has had training with the dog team. He needs to understand the tactics of the dog team as it moves along the track. If the track turns out to be a long haul, its a simple fact that most backup officers can't keep up. They don't have the advantage of the dog pulling them along.

As fare as Joe's "Man Trackers" are concerned, we don't have any in Wisconsin or Minnesota. My feeling is a "Man Tracker" is a rare item. I don't have any experience with these people. I have heard about them but I know that the average police department or sheriff's department does not have access to "Man Trackers". Besides, when someone starts to claim that they can track better than a dog, I start to question the training of the dog.

The question of officer safety vs. speed has come up before. I have a couple of standard comments to people who are concerned with officer safety on normal police tracks. First - I ask them when are they an easier target - Running or Walking Slowly Behind Their Dog? Second, if the danger of a normal police track overly concerns you, it is time to get out of K-9.

I think the RCMP would be inclined to argue with Joe when he implies a lack of guns in Canada. Don't kid yourself, the bad guys in Canada have guns. Many use sawed off shot guns rather than pistols. If I had a choice I would take a hit from a pistol any day before a shot gun.

Joe made a comment on TTD dogs missing articles on a track because of the speed. Article training is something that needs to be done correctly. It makes no difference if its TTD or FST. If the training is done poorly a dog is going to miss articles in either style of training. You see this all the time on the TV show "Cops" where the dogs can't find a gun thrown in a back yard. I always laugh at this because a gun is the easiest article in the world to find. Guns stink like hell to a dog.

Article training is a very big part of the RCMP program. It goes way beyond just article indication on a track. Their dogs go through small article training (similar to KNPV work) and alley searches. In small article training the dog must indicate on items the size of buttons and bullets in a given area. In alley searches they have to indicate on articles laying next to garbage cans and up against back yard fences. They must learn to ignore dogs that are barking on the other side of the fence. While this training is done "off a track" it still improves a dogs indications "on the track." What I am trying to say here is that there is a lot more to article training than most K-9 Officers know. I am currently working on a training video for article indication.

In my Level One training video you will see a solid black dog tracking in an open wheat field. There is a 40 to 50 mile per hour wind blowing across the track. This is a young dog with less than 50 training tracks. It is following the track about 40 feet off to the side of the track (because of the cross wind). When it gets to an article it comes back to the actual track, indicates the article and then goes on. If you listened to FST trainers you would expect this dog to miss these articles. Dog's with the correct training don't miss articles if there is scent available.

Joe made a comment that in FST tracking, the dogs track with closed mouths so they can concentrate and in TTD they track with an open mouth. He also said that “if a dog’s mouth is open when it reaches a corner, it will likely miss the corner.” This is a widely held belief of SCHUTZHUND trainers and it is wrong.

Let me quickly explain the concept of corner training in TTD. Under the right conditions, a dog has the ability to smell a track 100 yards past a corner. In TTD training the dog is taught that even though he can still smell the track leg way past the turn it is unacceptable to go more that 20 or 30 feet past a turn before he gives a negative and starts to circle. This is the "KEY" to corner training. The dogs nose is sensitive enough to differentiate the declining level of scent. It's our job to teach the dog to indicate corners at 20 or 30 feet past a turn.

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