Posted on: May 20th, 2013 by Gary Roe No Comments

By Kathy Diamond Davis
Author and Trainer


Tracking, American Kennel Club-style, was originally part of the Utility obedience class and is still closely affiliated with obedience events. Obedience has a stated purpose of demonstrating the usefulness of purebred dogs to humans. The Utility title points to a test that has to include nose work. Through the years that has evolved into a scent discrimination test that can be set up in the same ring on the same day as the other elements of the obedience test.

Tracking tests now lead to titles independent of obedience titles, so that a dog with a TD, TDX or VST (Tracking Dog, Tracking Dog Excellent or Variable Surface Tracking) title need not have any obedience titles. But the purpose of demonstrating usefulness shines as brightly as ever in the words from AKC:

“The purpose of a tracking test is to demonstrate the dog’s ability to recognize and follow human scent, a skill that is useful in the service of mankind.”

Further, the spirit of tracking comes through in these words:

“Tracking, by nature, is a vigorous, noncompetitive outdoor sport. Tracking tests demonstrate the willingness and enjoyment of the dog in its work, and should always represent the best in sportsmanship and camaraderie by the people involved.”

This special atmosphere happens because each tracking title is awarded on the basis of a qualifying performance in a tracking test, independent of how any other dog-handler team does at that test. Teams are not ranked or awarded placements. Everyone at the test can earn the title that day, if everyone passes. Someone else’s success doesn’t hurt your chances in the slightest. As a result, cheers for other participants are heartfelt and enthusiastic.

The noncompetitive nature of tracking is ideal for a sport that sparks many people to go into search and rescue or other scent work with dogs. In a real search it takes everyone working cooperatively in order to cover the territory as thoroughly and quickly as possible. Tracking and searching are exhausting tasks for dogs, making efficient use of the precious canine resource imperative. Everything that builds esprit de corps among the handlers can save lives, so the AKC is to be applauded for keeping the sport of tracking cooperative rather than competitive.

It takes a great deal of work to set up and run a tracking event. The resources to provide tracking tests for all the handlers who want to enter are overstretched, so a system of drawing for places has been established. When the deadline for entries arrives, a drawing is scheduled. The drawing selects entrants and alternates who can run in place of any entrants who can’t make it when test day arrives. Most entrants have to travel to tests, sometimes considerable distances.

Another drawing is held the morning of the test, to determine running order. No one can predict exactly what the weather will do to scent conditions, or if something unexpected might happen on one track or other. A drawing helps make everyone feel there was no favoritism.

The morning drawing is also usually when alternates find out if they’ll get into the test after all—though the unexpected can happen later and provide them still another chance. AKC encourages clubs to lay an extra track in case something goes wrong on one of the scheduled tracks. If that track is not needed, it can be used to provide an opening for an alternate.

Tracking Dog Test

Entering a TD test requires certification in the form of a regular tracking test by appointment with a qualified judge. When the dog passes this test, the judge provides four signed verifications that can be used within 12 months, allowing the dog four attempts at a TD title. If the dog does not earn the title within that time, the certification test must be repeated in order to enter further TD tests.

The TD test calls for the dog to successfully work a track that includes the following characteristics:

1. Length of 440 to 500 yards

2. Each “leg” (straight line of the course that runs between turns) to be at least 50 yards long

3. Dog started on the track between 30 minutes and 2 hours after the time the tracklayer started walking the track

4. A total of three to five turns, at least two of them to be a left and a right 90-degree turn, and no turns more acute (tighter) than 90 degrees

5. A start flag, a second flag 30 yards farther on the track, and the first turn to be not closer than 30 yards to the second flag

6. All parts of the track to be at least 50 yards from other parts of the same or other tracks

7. No changes of ground cover, bodies of water or paved roads to be crossed, though the track may cross sidewalks and jogging paths not wider than about 6 feet

8. One article is placed at the start for the handler to use in giving the dog the scent if desired, and a wallet or glove is placed at the end that the dog must indicate

The TD test is designed to demonstrate the dog’s ability to track a person on moderate terrain and to find an article that person drops at the end of the track.

Tracking Dog Excellent

To enter the TDX test, the dog must have a TD title. As with the TD and VST tests, a dog may enter TDX tests after having earned the title, but dogs who have not yet earned the title are given first chance at the openings in a test.

The characteristics of a TDX test are much tougher than those of the TD test, and include:

1. Track length to be 800 to 1000 yards (a mile is 1760 yards)

2. Each leg of the track to be at least 50 yards long and no part within 50 yards of any other part of the track or any other track

3. Track aged 3 to 5 hours from the time the tracklayer starts walking it until the dog and handler start working

4. Turns to total five to seven, using both right and left 90-degree turns (at least three altogether), some other turns allowed to be greater than 90 degrees, and no extremely acute turns

5. Two cross tracks formed by two people walking side-by-side about 4 feet apart at a 90-degree angle across the track, starting between 75 and 110 minutes after the tracklayer started walking

6. At least two obstacles (can be variations of terrain and cover, natural obstacles or man-made obstacles), separated from articles and cross tracks, that will test the dog’s ability to handle changing scent, to scent while negotiating physical obstacles and/or to continue under difficult and varied handling conditions

7. Four personal articles, all different, one at the start to give the dog the scent if the handler chooses, and the other three on the track for the dog to indicate

8. One start flag with no indication of the direction the track begins, except that it is to be no tighter than a 90 degree angle from the direction the judges have the handler use to approach the flag

The TDX test differs from the TD test in that it is designed to show the dog’s scenting ability as well as “stamina, perseverance and courage.” This test can be physically demanding, more than some handlers and some breeds of dogs can realistically manage.

Variable Surface Tracking

The VST test is designed to be physically maneuverable by all AKC breeds and human handlers of all ages. No physical obstacles such as those included in the TDX test are used in the VST. You won’t find yourself helping your dog while climbing a fence, scaling a wall or wriggling through strands of barbed wire. Here it will be the scent task that presents the challenge—a big challenge. The test includes the following elements:

1. Length of 600 to 800 yards

2. The track starts on vegetation and consists of 1/3 to 2/3 vegetation surface with the 1/3 to 2/3 of the remaining track to include a minimum of two other types of surfaces that are devoid of vegetation: concrete, asphalt, gravel, sand, hard pan, mulch, etc.

3. Each leg of the track at least 30 yards in length, 30 yards from any other part of the track and 50 yards from any part of another track

4. Aged 3 to 5 hours

5. Three or more 90-degree turns, 4 to 8 turns in all, and one of the 90 degree turns to be at least 30 yards from any vegetation

6. All tracks to use buildings and other structures to present the dog with diverse scent problems to solve due to the diffusion of scent the structures cause

7. Articles to be one of leather, one plastic, one metal and one fabric, all between 2” x 4” and 5” x 5”

8. While the handler is allowed to follow no closer than 20 feet behind the dog on a TD or TDX test, this distance becomes 10 feet on a VST test

9. Judges may post a person at a carefully measured distance and position in relation to the track to warn of problems and temporarily stop the dog and handler until it’s safe to continue (in case of on-coming traffic or other hazards)

10. Judges are to be especially aware of surface temperature and any chemicals used that could endanger the dog, postponing or if necessary canceling a test to protect a dog from harm

11. Because there must be at least three different surfaces for a VST test, it cannot be done on a snow-covered area

Variable surface tracking can be called somewhat experimental. In this test, it is possible on some days the scent will actually not be workable. We can be pretty sure that some dog could work the scent problem of a TD or a TDX track, even if the dog on a particular track on a particular day can’t manage it. We can’t be so sure on a VST track. It is designed to test the limits of not only this dog’s ability, but of canine ability. It’s an adventure.

The Fourth Title

A conformation show championship title requires defeating other dogs in competition. In the noncompetitive spirit of tracking, the Champion Tracker Title Certificate is awarded to each dog who has earned the TD, and TDX and VST titles. This dog’s registered name can then be preceded by CT, for Champion Tracker.

Though the champion title requires all three of the other titles, handlers can choose to stop with a TD and a TDX, or a TD and a VST. Either of these represents a truly skilled team that has demonstrated the ability to meet a real challenge and see it through.


A careful reading of the tracking regulations reveals some of the unexpected things that can happen in the real world of a tracking test, with rules designed to help judges arrive at fair decisions:

1. If the limit for entries is not reached in one category at a combined TD, TDX and/or VST test and entries exceed the limit in another category, the extra tracks can be changed to the other category.

2. Specialty clubs can choose to open their tracking tests to all breeds, with four drawings held to give dogs of their breed precedence and dogs without the title precedence over those who have already earned the title.

3. When someone is chosen by drawing for the test and then an alternate actually runs in that slot instead, the original entrant’s entry fee and certification is returned.

4. Judges are not to vary tracking tests to fit their own ideas. Handlers are to be able to expect that the test will follow the written regulations.

5. Tracks are plotted the day before a test, and for TD and TDX tests are marked with flags. People who are entered in the test are not permitted to be on the field the day tracks are plotted.

6. Female dogs in season can participate, if the handler gives proper notification and the dog is run last. She is to be kept off the tracking field until just before time for her to run her track. A handler who violates this rule will be asked to leave and will forfeit any awards. If it happens at a second test, the AKC may take action.

7. Once the drawing for running order of tracks has been held, numbers can be exchanged between handlers only under unusual circumstances, by approval of the judges, and with a full report to the AKC.

8. It is not encouraged, but if necessary it is allowed for a person entered in one test to act as tracklayer in another test.

9. The tracklayer is to notify the judges of any error made in the laying of a track. It is then up to the judges to decide whether or not the track can be used as a fair test. The judges have the authority to retest dog and handler on another track.

10. Spectators can be brought up onto a portion of the track that dog and handler have completed, in order to have a view of the tracking in progress. This and any other activity on the tracking field is to be managed so as not to present undue distraction to the working dog. The judges will decide when a distraction warrants invalidating a track.

11. With judge approval, the handler may restart the dog between the first two flags on the TD test, one time. Restarts are not allowed on the other tests.

12. Handlers are allowed to praise and pet dogs after articles are found, carry and give ice or plain water as needed, and drop the leash briefly to untangle it. Handlers are not allowed to carry food, toys, or other motivational items on the track, nor are they allowed to toss the found article for the dog or throw it on the ground (that may be considered a restart).

13. A dog that eliminates in the area while running the track will not be failed (the exercise of tracking can bring on this urge naturally), provided the dog doesn’t stop so long as to constitute no longer working the track.

14. If a judge is injured or unable to continue, the test secretary and the tracking committee will select a knowledgeable person to work with the other judge and complete the test.

15. The handler must present all the required found articles to the judges in order to pass the test, except that if the dog can’t find an article with an active search and the judges can’t find it either; the dog is given credit for finding it.

16. The dog can wear a protective coat, but the judges must witness the harness and coat being put on the dog.

17. A handler guiding a dog calls for calling the handler off the track and failing the dog. Whether or not an action constitutes guiding the dog is up to the discretion of the judges.

18. Handlers, spectators and judges should be prepared with clothing for inclement weather. Few weather conditions will cause the plotting or testing day of a tracking test to be changed. Searches often have to be done in bad weather.

19. Tracking judges have to be physically fit, and no judge should accept an assignment with the plan that the other judge will do most of the physical work.

20. Everyone involved in a variable surface tracking test is urged to behave circumspectly and leave the premises in good condition to maintain the public relations needed to continue obtaining the use of the facilities for future tests.

21. Judges need to follow dog and handler at a distance that allows accurate judging while not interfering with their work or tipping off the handler to which direction the track does not go. The tracklayer, too, needs to be close enough to help the judges if need be, but out of the way.

Benefits of Tracking

Tracking builds a rapport between you and your dog that goes beyond words. You can’t smell what the dog can, so you have to learn to trust your dog if you are to earn a tracking title together. At the same time, the dog can’t do the task without you. Neither of you is “boss” in tracking. It’s a true partnership. It takes your relationship with your dog and your understanding of dogs to a whole new level.

Tracking has increased human understanding about the workings and limits of a dog’s nose. This knowledge is leading to more and more opportunities for dogs to serve humans and have good lives doing it. With the beginning of variable surface tracking tests in 1995, the frontier of exploring dog nose work continued forward.

You don’t have to be a scientist or professional dog trainer to learn scent work with dogs, thanks to the accessibility of AKC tracking events. Look up your local dog clubs through the AKC website at and go out as a spectator. Volunteer to help as tracklayer and experience tracking along with exercise and wonderful camaraderie. You’ll learn to dress for whatever the weather can throw at you, and you’ll enjoy the out-of-doors in a way too few of us get to do these days.

Most dogs are capable of passing a TD test with a motivated handler. You can start your puppy tracking right away, or track with an older dog still fit enough to enjoy the exercise. If your dog turns out to be one of the many who love to track, you’ll be hooked for life!

Date Published: 10/17/2005 10:59:00 AM
Date Revised: 10/17/2005


Copyright Kathy Diamond Davis, author, Therapy Dogs: Training Your Dog To Reach Others.

The work was originally published by the Veterinary Information Network (VIN) and is republished with VIN permission.

Kathy Diamond Davis, author, “Therapy Dogs: Training Your Dog To Reach Others,” and the free Canine Behavior Series at