Trailing, often mistakenly used interchangably with tracking, is a skill taught to dogs in both search and rescue and law enforcement applications.
Trailing refers to a dog’s ability to follow an individual human scent from point A to point B. Trailing dogs have been used since at least the early 1900s to locate missing people, and currently are used in a variety of settings for this same reason.
In modern day America and around the globe, it is common to see a number of breeds being used in trailing specific deployments. Although many different types of dog can be trained to trail, certain breeds have historically been more commonly used. Breeds such as Labrador Retrievers, German Shepherds, Belgian Malinois and German Shorthaired as well as Wirehaired Pointers are some of these breeds.
While these breeds can make fantastic and reliable trailing dogs (as can any breed with the proper drive and training), some breeds are more naturally inclined to succeed at this task than others. When considering the optimal breed for trailing, however, there is no doubt that the Bloodhound stands out as the top dog when it comes to reliably working trails.
The qualities that make Bloodhounds excellent trailing dogs
The Bloodhound is an ancient breed, with records dating all the way back to somewhere around 700 A.D. in Belgium (although it is speculated that they may have developed much earlier). Although they have been used throughout history for tracking animal blood, the Bloodhound’s name actually derives from an expression meaning a hound of pure blood. Bloodhounds were originally bred to track deer and game; however, due to their unparalleled hunting capabilities, they were being used to track humans as early as the 16th century. By the 1800s, Bloodhounds were being used by law enforcement in Europe to locate fugitives.
Bloodhounds typically grow to between 23-27 inches and weigh between 80-110 pounds. While the size of these dogs is one thing that makes them appear so impressive, it does not contribute directly to their ability to trail as much as the rest of their structure. This being said, their size and strength does make them a powerful tool when navigating through difficult terrain is necessary.
The loose skin around the Bloodhound’s face works like a shield when their head is lowered to the ground, keeping them focused on the odor they are following. These facial folds also help trap odor molecules, which helps move odor towards their nose. The long ears of the hound often drag on the ground when they are hunting, or touch the vegetation below, which sweeps odor molecules up where they can be processed more thoroughly by the Bloodhound’s incredible olfactory system.
Although the Bloodhound’s physique is virtually tailor-made for following scent, perhaps the most impressive feature of the Bloodhound is their unparalleled scenting ability. Olfactory receptors are the cells inside of animal’s noses which interact with odor molecules in such a way where they can be effectively processed by the olfactory system. Humans have between 5 million and 6 million olfactory receptors. Most dogs possess between 115 million and 225 million olfactory receptors. Bloodhounds, comparatively, boast approximately 300 million olfactory receptors. This combination of factors makes them an incredible trailing dog.
Benefits of Bloodhounds for K9 handlers
In addition to their impressive collection of physical attributes, Bloodhounds are typically one of the easiest breeds to read when they are trailing. Anytime a dog is following a particular odor, they will show specific body language cues which indicate where the scent has gone. These body language cues are often referred to as “indications,” and are a highly valuable tool for handlers to further understand what is happening with the odor during a trail.
Effective K9 handlers can use these indications as communicative signals demonstrating which direction odor is moving, as well as when they are getting close to the subject. Although Bloodhounds still provide the same physical indications that other breeds do, they typically do so in a manner that is significantly more dramatic than many other breeds. This can make it very easy for a handler to be confident reading their dog when they are following a trail.
Bloodhounds are not typically sensitive to leash pressure and are not particularly handler focused – especially when working. Because of this, they will often pull through leash pressure when they are following a scent, and will not lose it if they become temporarily stalled. Unlike more sensitive breeds, this provides more room for error on the part of a handler while still enabling them to successfully find the person who they are looking for.
Since Bloodhounds tend not to be handler focused when working, they do not easily cue off of their handlers or look to their handlers for assistance if they ever become confused. Their extreme focus when smelling helps to ensure that they will maintain obedience to odor regardless of what their handler is doing.
While there are plenty of breeds that are capable of trailing, having a well-trained bloodhound available can be an incredible resource for any department. Regardless of how demanding the job, or difficult the environment, this breed is incredibly well-suited to successfully work intense odor problems.
While there are plenty of breeds that are capable of successfully trailing, having a Bloodhound on hand can be an incredible resource for any department.
Due to their size, stature, strength, work ethic, and unparalleled olfactory system, Bloodhounds can succeed in any trailing environment. They can power through dense woodland and vegetation in rural locations, or they can persevere with long trails and difficult odor problems in urban areas.