Police K9 Odin and I were patrolling the north end of Seattle when we heard a Queen Anne area patrol unit broadcast he was
chasing a stolen car. I was a long distance away but was the only K9 unit available. I had to drive hard with
emergency lights and siren to get into a position to help. Try as I might, we were still a short distance away when
they dumped the vehicle in a park and ran on foot. The patrol officers did not give direct foot pursuit, knowing
a K9 unit was on the way; rather they chose to cordon off the area to contain the running thieves.
On the way Odinís excitement mounted. He knew this kind of driving and the siren led to an application for him
and he was ready to go. He left no doubt in my mind that he knew what was going on by coming half way into the
front of the car while whining and looking to and fro for the escaping bad guys.
When I arrived on the scene of the dumped stolen car, I got Odin out of the patrol car and took him to the stolen
car. I placed him on the spot where the patrol officers had last seen the running thieves and commanded him
to track. At that point I observed him running around the area "head high" -- obviously using his eyes to search for the
suspects. I recalled him, thinking that the patrol officers were mistaken and that Odin never had a scent to
follow. This time I took him to the stolen car and placed him on the ground just outside the driverís door and
again commanded him to track. And again he ran around head high visually searching for the suspects. At this time
I pushed him across the park hoping that he would pick up the scent and settle into his usual job of methodical
and excellent tracking. It did not happen. I was embarrassed and frustrated and wanted to imbed my boot into
Odinís hind end. The patrol officers had refrained from searching on their own and set up containment. Now
their eyes were burning holes through Odin and me. We were getting nowhere. My embarrassment and frustration
grew as the officers watched us flounder. Odin had a good reputation for making difficult cases, and now we
could not make an easy fresh track where ideal tracking conditions existed.
Odin did not seem to know why he was there, although he was actively and energetically searching. Then it
dawned on me: there was a hole in our training and experience. The pursuit driving almost always ended with a
direct pursuit of a running man. Odin had been primed to look for the running man. Odin had not forgotten how
to track but I had inadvertently told him to look for a running man. Odin was in the wrong frame of mind.
I returned to my patrol vehicle and Odin and I went for a short and calm drive and then returned to the scene
of the stolen car. Then I took Odin from the car and put his tracking harness on and walked him to the stolen
vehicle. I put Odin down on the front seat, giving him an opportunity to suck up some of the suspectís scent.
Then I commanded him to track. This time he went nose down and meticulously worked his way through the park and
into a paved alley that led away from the park through a residential area. Near the end of the two-block long
alley, Odin went onto the back porch of a home and indicated strongly on the rear door. At that time there was
no one in the house, but later investigation revealed that the thieves had entered the home and obtained a ride
from the area. Had we tracked correctly the first time and not twenty minutes later, we may have made the arrest.
After this incident I began to follow a distinct pattern of events just prior to tracking. I have come to call
it a starting ritual. Its purpose is to better place the dog into the correct frame of mind for the behavior
I want him to practice. It was designed as a helpful aid -- a way to get the right juices flowing at the right time.
Many handlers scoffed at the idea and refused to practice the starting ritual. In their day-to-day
application of their dogs, they did not see a need to take the extra time. And I will freely concede that
in most instances it will not make a difference. The average experienced dog will know what to do most every
time. The starting ritual is designed to prevent those few instances where the dog will miss a cue and fail
where he may have succeeded. At the end of a year it may only mean one or two additional finds, but those are finds
that otherwise would not exist.
This was my starting ritual: If I knew I was nearing a tracking situation I would start prior to arriving at
the crime scene to ask the dog if he wanted to seek -- this being my command to track. This would be done in
a calm manner so as to excite the dog without making him so hectic as to cause trouble. Once at the scene and
having determined the necessary facts, I would make a distinct point of putting the dogís tracking harness on him.
Not only does the harness prompt the dog into tracking behaviors (correct frame of mind) as we approach the
track, it continues to remind the dog what he is doing while he tracks. It also lessens the effect of external
and internal distractions. Next, at the starting place, I place the dog in a down position facing the direction
the witness(es) tell me the track will go. This sets up the dog for success, and makes the start of the
track go more smoothly. I believe a major element of a successful track is getting off to a good start. The
next element is to start the dog on-lead, whether or not I intend to track off-lead, and restrain him from
mistakes borne of over-exuberance. If I intend to track off-lead, I wait to remove the lead until the dog
settles into the track. In the beginning this may frustrate a dog who is oriented toward trailing. However, with experience, he will
learn to tolerate the restraint and be better for it.
This brings us to another closely related subject that I would like to briefly discuss. Ultimately, in all but
rural areas, I prefer an off-lead trailing dog as the most efficient for catching crooks who have fled the scene.
However, I believe the trailing dog only reaches maximum efficiency if he has been taught to track footstep to footstep. This lays a foundation upon which
to bolster his training and upon which he can rely when the trailing evidence becomes scarce.
Like the starting ritual, it may only make the difference occasionally -- but it does make a difference. These are
two different edges you can add to your repertoire.