Visual & Scent Trackers

The subject of canine trackers vs. visual trackers came up again a couple days ago. Once again the conversation developed as an either-or proposition (more specifically, it was a why do we need that when we have this conversation).

I have to tell you, I'm tired of the litany of reasons why an agency with canine handlers can do without trackers. To be fair, however, I've also lost interest in trackers complaining about dog handlers. In particular I've had enough of the seeming competition between visual trackers and tracking dog handlers, as though the two were mutually incompatible and you had to have just one or the other.

Can't we all just get along?

The fact of the matter is, there is not just a place for both; there is a need for both. No trained visual tracker will ever replace even an adequate canine-handler team, to say nothing of a good team. However, the intelligence- and evidence-gathering capabilities of a visual tracker alone argue for trackers in a good department, to say nothing of their tactical value. A tracker, like a dog team, is a force multiplier, just with different limitations. Specialist or just a track-aware patrolman, a law enforcement tracker can do things no dog can do, and no matter how good his nose is.

An example: a couple of weeks ago, one of my handlers, who works for an otherwise fairly progressive midwest agency, asked if he needed to respond to a call for service regarding someone shooting at vehicles on the highway with a pellet gun. No need, he was advised. We found the location where the shooter was overlooking the highway and we've got a canine on track.

That was a good thing, as far as it went, especially if the dog caught the officers up to the suspect. However, the dog probably wouldn't be able to tell officers the suspect's height for instance, or whether he was right- or left-handed, nor would have been able to identify and articulate the suspect's individual wear characteristics for later comparison. (Even if the dog could do those things, he probably wouldn't be able to testify about any of it in a court of law.)

If there was a visual tracker present - a good tracker with the ability to interpret tracks and action indicators - he could gather such evidence. Better yet, if the dog handler or the handler's cover officer(s) were trackers because it could all be handled synergistically. Ultimately, that's the best case scenario - a combination of the two. Dogs are phenomenal resources on an active track, but they can be distracted, they come off scent and they can't work together as a team efficiently. The capabilities of a team of visual trackers working effectively together cannot be understated, but they have limitations easily overcome by leveraging the capabilities of a good dog team. A dog cannot age a track and is not going to be effective for even a few hours, however a good canine can probably put pursuing officers on track in a fraction of the time necessary for a tracker to identify the correct spoor at the initial commencement point. This combination of advantages is one that can be continuously utilized during a follow-up as long as the dog is still capable of working the correct scent.

Tracker and dog-handler working together is supremely effective. Tracker and track-trained dog-handler is even better provided they have trained together. Putting a dog into a tracking formation is not so simple as putting the guy with the leash in his hand out in front of the team. As with any tactic or skill set, team members and handlers alike must prepare for the difficulties inherent to working together in an arduous and potentially life-threatening environment before they will be best able to capitalize upon the advantages.