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Watch the 2018 AKC National Tracking Invitational highlights on December 8 & 9 on AKC.TV, with showings at noon, 3, 6, and 9 p.m. ET.

Chances are, the only time you notice your dog’s nose is when she uses it to deliver a poke — a cold, clammy reminder that a walk is needed or mealtime has been unacceptably delayed.

But for thousands of years, a dog’s nose has been nothing short of indispensable, helping hunters track game, law enforcement find fugitives, and rescue workers locate missing or trapped victims. Dogs, after all, are super-sniffers. With 50 times more olfactory receptors than humans (giving them a kind of three-dimensional view of odor) they can sniff out everything from contraband to cancer.

Harrier walking and sniffing in grass on leash
A Harrier sniffs the grass while participating in tracking.

What is Tracking?

While some breeds have been developed for even greater scenting ability — think of the man-trailing Bloodhound, or the Lagotto Romagnolo, used in Italy to find truffles that are as valuable as they are delicious — every canine has the ability follow his nose. And in AKC Tracking trials, dogs do just that, traversing wildlife-filled fields and car-dotted parking lots to find and alert to special scent articles.

Tracking trials are surprisingly popular, often requiring a lottery to determine which dogs and handlers will have a chance to compete. And the culmination of these competitions is the AKC National Tracking Invitational, which was held this October at an arboretum in Clermont, Kentucky. If you missed this event, you could watch the highlights on December 8 and 9 on AKC.TV, with showings at noon, 3, 6, and 9 p.m. ET.

Hundreds of qualified tracking dogs were invited to participate in the Invitational, with the most popular breeds being Belgian Tervurens, Border Collies, German Shepherd Dogs, Golden Retrievers, Labrador Retrievers, and Rottweilers. There were also a few perhaps unexpected qualifiers, including a Maltese and a Lakeland Terrier. But in the end, only a dozen dogs were selected to compete, each working a different track.

What Should I Know While Watching?

Unlike fast-paced canine sports like agility, where it’s easy to recognize a dog’s momentum, tracking is a far more subtle endeavor. Local weather conditions, including temperature and moisture, can greatly impact a dog’s ability to follow the trail. In the case of the Invitational, this was set two to four hours in advance (one of the track layers confides humorously that she didn’t shower that morning, all in an effort to leave more scent behind.)

The hotter and drier the conditions, the more difficult it is for a dog’s nose to take up and process the scent particles.

A German Shepherd Dog competes in tracking competition.

Incorporating about a half-dozen turns, the 600- to 800-foot tracks at the Invitational cover different terrain, including gravel and grass. A dog has to rely solely on what his nose is telling him as he searches for the various dropped articles, which are made of cloth, plastic, metal, and leather.

And, that, perhaps, is the hardest part for both handlers and viewers — learning to trust the dog at the end of that very long lead. Giving the dog time to process the sensory information he is getting — basically, letting his brain catch up to what his nose is telling him — is the key to success. Meanwhile, following the dog’s movements as he works the trail speaks volumes about how scent falls, and how dogs detect it.

Tracking is a sport that dogs are not only naturally hard-wired to do but one that they love, too. If watching the Invitational gets you curious about this relaxing, rewarding, outdoor sport, you can find information here.