Mantrailing or person tracking is a dog sport that is not well-known in Europe yet but is widely popular in the field of service dogs worldwide. Its basis – searching for missing or escaped individuals with the help of dogs – has a long history. I’m not revealing any big secret by saying that dogs are more suitable than any instrument for successfully locating people, even based on tracks that may be several days old. In the animal kingdom, their unique cooperative skills and trainability, along with their excellent sense of smell, make this possible.
Mantrailing fundamentally differs from “classic” tracking.
The latter is part of IPO trials, where dogs are taught and expected to follow ground disturbances and scent tracks left on the ground with precision. In contrast, mantrailing is based on the fact that every person emits a unique scent over their entire body. So the tracks remain not only on the ground but also in the air. This is particularly significant when there are no ground disturbances. (This often occurs in urban, paved environments. Or when the person fled in a vehicle or water.. In such cases, classic tracking faces extreme difficulties and may even fail.)
Classic Tracking vs. Mantrailing
In classic tracking, the dog works with its nose close to the ground, following the track precisely and alerting to any potential discarded objects along the way. In mantrailing, on the other hand, dogs follow the scent with their noses held high, using air scent. May deviate several meters from the searched person’s path due to air movement. This method covers more ground and is faster.
This search method actually aligns more with a dog’s natural search behavior, as the hunting method of wolf packs also relies on air scenting. These two methods differ fundamentally in their execution and training techniques, so, as English and American experiences also support, training a dog for both methods reduces their effectiveness. Therefore, specialization is common among service dogs. (However, these search methods are not necessarily competitive with each other. One method may be more effective in one situation, while the other is better in another. For example, in the English police force, they often bring two dogs to the scene and decide which method to use based on the circumstances.)
A great way to tire your dog out
In addition to its practical benefits, mantrailing offers a sporting opportunity for both the dog and the owner. It’s an excellent way to physically and mentally exhaust the dog and provide an outlet for their energy through joint action with the owner.
Based on service experience, scent hounds, hunting dogs, and long-legged hounds are the most suitable for mantrailing. While German Shepherds and Malinois are more suitable for classic tracking. However, on a hobby level, practically any dog with appropriate fitness can participate in the sport. Good fitness is essential for the owner as well because, following adequate preparation, they may need to cover 10-20 kilometers in one session, following the dog’s pace. Overall, it can be said that a physically active owner and a dog who loves nature and adventure, and doesn’t shy away from a few thorny bushes or a water crossing, are needed for success.
Mantrailing is not a typical team sport, but you definitely need a helper from the very beginning. (They will release the dog to search for us and later play the role of the missing person.) It’s advisable to choose patient and tolerant people as helpers because, at higher levels, you may have to wait for hours at the hiding spot.
For beginners, a 5-10 meter tracking leash and harness are necessary. The good tracking harness is comfortable and doesn’t hinder the dog’s movement. The harness also has another significant role. It “turns on” the dog and releases it from leash discipline, preventing unintentional pulls and frustration in the dog. Later on, you may need a mobile phone or GPS navigation (for possible contact with the “missing” person), a headlamp, drinking water, and a visibility vest.
Training and Initial Steps in Mantrailing
In this activity, it’s fundamental to trust your dog from the very beginning because the trail it follows is imperceptible to us. Moreover, the wind can carry the scent over long distances, so the dog may follow the trail in seemingly “impossible” places.
Training the dog is always done with positive reinforcement!
Motivation in the beginning can come from finding the owner or another familiar person, finding a toy or food with the missing person. For many dogs, the act of searching itself is rewarding, as Beagle or Coonhound owners can attest. Teaching other related tasks (such as signaling when they find the missing person through sitting, lying down, barking, or scent collection) is done using clicker training or other positive reinforcement methods.
The way the trail is laid is different from the traditional method; visible ground disturbances are not left behind. At lower levels, the searched person follows a predetermined path. Above a certain level, it’s not advisable for the dog handler to know the hiding place or the direction of movement of the searched person, as this could unintentionally influence the dog.
For dogs without prior training in activities like IPO (International Prüfungs-Ordnung) or those not specifically trained for search purposes, the training begins with the search for the owner. Initially, the dog sees where the owner is heading, but then no longer does, or only for a short distance. They can see where the owner is leaving, but afterward, they must rely on their nose. At this stage, the dog works without a leash over shorter distances. In the beginning, it’s essential to minimize distracting factors and create a situation where the dog uses its nose. It is important that the dog cannot see the owner. The owner should only make a sound if absolutely necessary.
Then, the training progresses with familiarization and searching for strangers and teaching scent collection. Additionally, it involves introducing distractions deliberately and gradually. (Longer tracks, time gaps, a richly distracting environment, other people, animals, overlapping tracks, wind, changes in temperature, and humidity). Only one criterion changes at a time, so for example, when searching for a stranger, we initially reduce previously introduced distractions. In the beginning, the scent sample worn by the searched person should be for at least half a day or a full day. When teaching signaling, it helps if the searched person truly hides. At the end of a track, the dog has more difficulty indicating a person who is behaving naturally. There is no teaching of object indication in mantrailing.
If the dog makes a mistake, the search should be restarted from a known, correct starting point, encouraging the dog and avoiding negative effects.
Overall, mantrailing is a complex activity that effectively taps into a dog’s natural instincts, but it also requires well-structured training and a significant amount of trust in the dog. It is varied and exciting but demands dedication and perseverance.
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