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During walks with my Golden Retriever, I quickly noticed he spends a large portion of his time with his nose to the ground, seemingly tracking various scents. He often looks like a bloodhound. So many people have commented on those walks that he would do well in tracking and scent work.
Are Golden Retrievers Good Tracking Dogs?
Very often, when pet owners think of Golden Retrievers in a service capacity, they usually think of a guide or service dog. However, most people think of a bloodhound when it comes to tracking. They rarely think of Golden Retrievers as well suited to tracking activities. That assumption would be wrong.
As a whole, Golden Retrievers make excellent tracking dogs. The breed’s keen sense of smell, combined with its high intelligence, obedience, and trainability, makes them a popular choice for scent work and tracking. Golden Retrievers are often trained in search and rescue for tracking lost people using scent.
Yes, the Golden Retriever is a fine tracker. In the next section, we’ll learn in detail what makes the Golden Retriever such a good tracking dog. I’ll also discuss the difference between nosework and tracking (spoiler: they’re not the same thing).
I’ll also provide resources on where your Golden Retriever can learn to track, including tracking clubs close to you and how you can go about teaching your Golden Retriever to track.
What Makes a Golden Retriever a Good Tracking Dog?
Not all dogs make good tracking dogs. Just like not all dogs make good guard dogs. Certain traits lend themselves exceptionally well to tracking objects and people, while others do not.
Speaking of guard dogs, if you want to learn why Golden Retrievers do not make good guard dogs, then check out this article here:
Traits that lend themselves well to tracking include:
- Great sense of smell
- Personality or temperament
- Suited to both the indoors and the outdoors
Let’s look at each of these traits in relation to the Golden Retriever.
Sense of Smell
Number one on the list with good reason is an excellent sense of smell. After all, tracking and scent work (sense of smell) go hand-hand.
And yes, Golden Retrievers have a great sense of smell. Golden Retrievers are often ranked in the top 10 dogs with the best sense of smell.
While a dog’s sense of smell is a must for tracking, there are other traits a dog must possess for it to be a well-rounded, expert tracker. Those traits are discussed below.
Obedience is essential in tracking because the dog must be focused and listen well. A dog that is easily distracted and does not listen to its owner or handler would not be particularly well suited to locating objects or people.
Golden Retrievers excel in obedience. According to canine researcher Stanely Cohen, Golden Retrievers rank in the top tier of obedience with a 95% obedience level. Meaning that the Golden Retriever will obey commands once learned 95% of the time.
Tracking is a skill, and skill acquisition in dogs is directly correlated to intelligence. Meaning more intelligent dogs learn faster and can learn more commands.
The Golden Retriever ranks in the top tier of dog intelligence and fourth overall, just behind the Border Collie, Poodle, German Shepherd.
Golden Retrievers have intelligence in abundance and typically have little issues learning the skills associated with tracking.
While intelligence and obedience are critical factors in highly trainable dogs, a dog’s ability to learn commands and skills goes beyond that.
Each breed has unique characteristics that make it more easily trainable than others – traits such as personality (discussed below), instinctual drives, and whether a dog was bred to work with people or work more independently.
As discussed previously, Golden Retrievers are among the most intelligent and obedient dogs. Golden Retrievers were bred to assist sportspeople in hunting and fieldwork – activities requiring a dog to focus on and retrieve objects while listening and working cooperatively with its owner.
Tracking is a learned skill that requires a dog to seek out an object or person by using that object or person’s scent. It’s a skill that involves trainability, obedience, intelligence, focus, and patience – traits that the Golden Retriever breed possesses in abundance.
If you’re interested in why Golden Retrievers are one of the easiest dogs to train, then check out this article that I wrote on that very topic:
However, another trait is critical to learning to track: a dog’s personality and temperament.
Personality and Temperament
As we discussed earlier, tracking is a skill that must be learned, and some dogs pick up things faster than others. In addition, personality traits that lend themselves well to tracking objects include a dog that is eager to please and enjoys playing and working cooperatively with its owner and others.
Golden Retrievers are a stable, friendly breed that is eager to please and enjoy playing. Playing is essential because tracking is often best learned as a game or something the dog views as fun.
And wanting to work with its owners and please them makes for a dog that is very invested in learning the game of finding that object or person.
Suited to Both the Indoors and the Outdoors
Tracking activities might occur indoors or outdoors. For example, a lost person might need to be tracked in the snow or under some rubble located inside. The Golden Retriever is adaptable to both situations, indoors and outdoors.
Bred as a sporting dog to retrieve downed waterfowl, the Golden Retriever is at home outdoors and in the water. The Golden Retriever’s double coat ensures it not only can tolerate cooler temperatures outdoors, but its water repellent inner coat makes it well adapted to the water.
And the Golden Retriever is equally comfortable and content in an indoor setting. Most families with Golden Retrievers will attest to that.
Hold up. While Golden Retrievers are well suited to outdoor activities, they do better when they live indoors with their human family. If you want to know why that is, then check that article out here:
So, we’ve discussed some traits that make the Golden Retriever an excellent candidate for a tracking dog.
Are Nosework and Tracking the Same?
One aspect of tracking that I was curious about was the difference between nosework (detecting scents) and tracking. While they seemed to overlap, I was unsure if nosework and tracking were the same things.
Nosework and tracking are different canine sporting activities. Although they both use scent, tracking involves locating an object or person and is the sports version of search and rescue. In contrast, nosework involves detecting target odors and is the competitive version of police and security screening.
Both nosework and tracking are competitive sports activities designed to test the skills used in their respective professional fields.
So, for example, tracking would be one skill used by dogs in the professional application of search and rescue operations, such as locating a lost child in the woods. Likewise, nosework is a skill used in professional detection services, such as police agencies using dogs to find narcotics within luggage at airports or on people.
K9 Nosework is the sport created and sanctioned by the National Association of Canine Scent Work (NACSW).
While tracking does not have competitive sporting events per se, they do have non-competitive events that employ judging and testing. In addition, as we’ll see in the next section, tracking has dedicated clubs, testing, and competitions.
Next, how to get started teaching your Golden Retriever to track is discussed.
How Do I Teach My Golden Retriever to Track?
To teach your Golden Retriever to track, you have two options.
Option one is to teach tracking yourself.
Option two is to join a recognized tracking club. These clubs often will have workshops that teach tracking so you and your dog can learn and develop tracking skills in a group setting.
Those who join a tracking club often wish to test their dogs and participate in non-competitive events. However, some join just because it is an enjoyable activity for them and their dogs.
Tracking clubs usually hold a variety of field and urban tracking tests, fun and sanction matches, seminars, and workshops.
In the United States, the American Kennel Club provides information on getting started and various tracking clubs in your area: Tracking Getting Started and Tracking Clubs.
In Canada, you can find the Canadian Kennel Club (CKC) tracking events through CanuckDogs.com. In addition, CKC rules and regulations, entry forms, and the tracking test guidebook can be found at Tracking Tests.
Tracking clubs in Canada can be found by searching CKC Recognized Clubs.
Should the AKC or CKC clubs not offer tracking instruction, they should be able to direct you to a club that does. Or do a quick internet search in your area for “dog tracking classes.”
If you cannot find an organization that teaches tracking, you have the option of doing it yourself.
Tracking comes to dogs naturally, so they should catch on fast.
The simplified “first step” version for teaching a dog to track includes the following steps:
- First, you’ll need to leash your Golden Retriever and put it into a “sit or stay.” Alternately, you can tether the dog to something or use a second person to hold the dog in a sit.
- Show the dog a toy or treat and allow the dog to smell it, then walk a few yards away.
- Next, put the toy or treat on the ground where the dog can see it and walk back to your dog. Some people will mark the spot with a flag or some object. Marking allows for measuring distance so you can increase how far to put the treat or toy as the dog progresses.
- Take control of the leash and while pointing at the toy or treat, use a tracking command. The tracking command can be a word or phrase such as search, seek, find it, or whatever you prefer.
- If your Golden Retriever goes to the object without hesitation, you can release the leash. Reward the dog for a job well done.
- Slowly and progressively increase distance. Once your dog is proficient at finding the object, you can begin hiding it.
The video below summarizes the steps above. You can witness a puppy being trained to track its first scent. Keys in the video: progress slowly, keep it positive, and have fun.
Once you have the basics down and you want to further your tracking, I suggest utilizing option two and joining a club.