New Online Course Teaches you to Crack the Code on Urban Tracking

Do you like puzzles? Are you someone who enjoys problem solving and trying to find innovative solutions to things? If you are a tracker and want to stretch your mind and challenge yourself in a practical way, you will love this new course on plotting and map making! It will make you a stronger tracking team to develop awareness of scent, flow and designing a great track.

My goal as a coach and instructor is to help you to improve your performance and inspire you to train for excellence, enjoyment and success! Please note that all unique ideas and training suggestions, content and photos are (c) Spiritdance Coaching & Tracking, Donna Brinkworth. 

The newest online tracking course at Spiritdance Tracking will guide you through urban tracking mysteries. The goal is to increase awareness and the ability to plot GOOD tracks and train well, to be ready for anything.

What can you look forward to? Work with me, a Professional Coach and CKC Tracking Judge, and most importantly a self-professed Geek about all things tracking!

  • Beginners – develop new skills and better habits by training in urban areas, read the environment and learn to handle and read your dog
  • Intermediate trackers – begin to design and run more challenging tracks, increasing your dog’s independence and problem solving, and gaining your own mental skills to cope with more difficult tracks
  • Experienced trackers – move into the area of ‘unconscious competence’ where your handling and body movements are like a well-rehearsed dance, freeing you up to experience heightened awareness of your dog’s sometimes vague cues on long, aged tracks. Train using secrets of Olympic athletes to have more focus, get into the zone and  have a sense of place, all while keeping track of direction and environmental challenges and opportunities.

The key to all of this is understanding how to train in urban environments – and at the core of this is scent understanding, and good plotting.

Urban plotting is like the Rubik’s Cube of tracking. I call coming up with a good urban track ‘cracking the code.

UTDX track LU
This is the final version of a UTDX track that was run successfully by a *new* Master Tracking Champion (Dawn Sanderson and her GSD “Adam” in Thunder Bay). I drafted at least three maps before arriving in town to plot, then walked the site with test organizer Karen Boyes to come up with a final track that I felt had the right mix of challenges and flow. What a thrill to see this team run it successfully to become the second MTCH team in Canada!

Plotting urban tracks is like a mystery game of staring at maps or driving in circles around a potential tracking site until a solution appears. Other great words offered by a thesaurus for ‘decoding’ are:

  • Figure out
  • Interpret
  • Untangle
  • Decypt
  • Make clear
  • Work out

This is exactly what we are doing when we plot urban tracks. Working in urban areas is complex, yet can be a better training experience for teams at all levels than working in an open field. Cracking the code means finding the flow; figuring out what scent is doing in urban settings – around buildings, landscaping, sidewalks and over streets and parking lots, and yes, along curbs!



In my seminars and online lessons, beginners work scent flow around buildings and through useful outdoor features such as fencing, boulders, concrete parking barriers or corridors.

These encourage dogs to move forward or turn as they work what I call ‘active scent.’ Understanding these basics is the beginning of your training to ‘see scent.’

From there we begin to string things together in sequences to achieve a number of training goals in urban areas. We also begin to arrange pieces together in various orders by degree of difficulty or by desired goals. When we do this, we are taking our first steps to design a track. Examples may include:

  • easy / hard / easy OR easy / easy / hard
  • start / problem / easy / end
  • sheltered start / turn around a building / pass the end of the building and go straight
  • start into the wind / turn on veg before a road / head into next parking lot for article
  • long straight leg covering multiple surfaces with multiple articles – start on veg, end on non veg

Aging is random according to conditions and goals. In the beginning we age tracks just enough to let residual scent blow away; UNLESS our goal is to use fresh scent to pull our dogs along edges and through scent pools to give them clarity and confidence.

Eventually we design long tracks and build endurance and problem-solving skills in our dogs. We build this in our own minds too, as so much of this kind of tracking requires spatial awareness and environmental and dog-reading observation skills.

These can only come when we are operating at a level of kinetic excellence with respect to handling and moving with our dogs. This of course means repetition and exposure for great habits to develop. Like any athlete we work on muscle memory and form, as well as on visualization and the ability to make snap-decisions based on instant information-gathering.

Ben manhol

A tracker operating at this level is in the zone. Being ‘visual’ we are more able to develop our skills in urban environments where we have more cues feeding our senses. And we all know that the toughest skills we require for tracking excellence are to read the environment and read our dogs. Urban tracking gives us these skills in spades.

Dogs may excel on lovely wet veg, but in an open field we lack the cues we need for our minds to be challenged and to grow. People say ‘my dog just pulls me along!” when they work on nice veg. Don’t get me wrong – I believe we build our foundations on veg – and what nicer veg can you find than irrigated green grass in urban areas? The difference between an open field and an urban space is that we can ‘see’ more of the results of what we plot, and our dogs show us more of the impacts of good and bad plotting.

Micah car
My young GSD Micah indicating that there is an article UNDER this car! I deliberately did this to teach her it can happen. I placed it under the front bumper, but the short car parked there left, and a bigger car moved in. You can’t predict urban environments!

BAD plotting is my biggest pet peeve. Plotting is NOT just a matter of walking here and there, thinking that it doesn’t matter because your dog will simply follow where you walked. That is ignorant, bad plotting, particularly in the training phase.

From early training through to your Masters Tracking title, you should focus on plotting, laying and running your own GOOD tracks. This is how you learn to read your dog, and read the environment. When you plot, you analyze and predict what will happen. You make the best use of the landscape to set your dog up for success – to nail turns, to solve problems and to move confidently forward in flow.

Last month I deliberately laid what I considered a very difficult track for my Tracking Champion and partner, 7-year-old Ben, a Border Collie. I tried to go against all of my ideas for good plotting, and aged it for 4.5 hours. Ben showed that he is up to the task of sticking with the primary track, problem solving and even ignoring some of the blatant scent traps I felt I set for him.

Even though I teach this and have tracked since 1989, I am always amazed by how our dogs can analyze and follow scent. But do they track like Ben, above, naturally? No! In this sport, we teach them, shape their behaviour, and work at clarity to communicate with them and seek their partnership to achieve OUR goals. Ben started out like any other pup, keen to use his nose, and happy for the time together. The ability he shows here developed over years of ongoing work together – keeping our skills sharp.

Understanding scent comes much easier in urban environments. As dogs are exposed to good tracks, they build skill and independence. Gradually encouraging them to solve problems – problems that YOU set up attempting to use your scent knowledge – gives them valuable experience. Laying these tracks yourself, you learn to read and observe your dog, plus you can step in and help when required, because struggling is not a way for any of us to learn – dogs included. Identifying problems is important as we can then address the gaps in our training to build up our partnership.

Experienced tracking dogs have acquired the skills to follow scent and solve problems. Experienced handlers have acquired the skills to read when their dog is on, or when it is working out a puzzle – even on a blind track or a test track.

So – tests. In CKC (or AKC) we design tests to challenge the skills of the dog – handler team. We also design tracks that provide the right amount of flow and an appropriate degree of difficulty to allow the team to demonstrate it’s ability to reach the end successfully. There are rules that involve location, math, ratios of veg to non-veg, aging, article placement, turns, angles and distances.

Ben UTDX last turn

People entering tests must understand these rules of the game. While we don’t always train to the rules – rather we train for good tracking – plotting test-style tracks also gives us the ability through repetition to get a feel for timing, spatial awareness, distance covered and the ‘feeling’ of a test track.

Believe me, dogs understand this too! We’ve all had dogs that know when the last, ‘precious’ leather article is coming up and build up speed and excitement. Or dogs that understand when they are lost along the way and go into their well-trained and determined search techniques to save our bacon.

While dogs should follow anywhere we have walked (because hey, a lost person doesn’t make nice 90-degree turns, and may parallel their own track or walk randomly down roads, right?) a good test track is designed and plotted so that it is passable and judgeable.

A judge uses their knowledge and scent expertise to plot tracks appropriate to the test level and attempts to avoid breaking rules, AND setting dogs up for a failure due to poor plotting design or setting a team off into an area where recovery is almost impossible.

We aren’t all aiming to be judges – but to excel in the sport – we should think about our knowledge and awareness of all of these things, to be as prepared as possible for every test level.

All of the above principles are at the core of my coaching programs for trackers at all levels, and will be more explained in my book! In the meantime I have decided that this is the course everyone requires for positive progress. No more random plotting without goals. No more wondering what your dog is doing and why! Look forward to growth and to mastering the puzzle – and cracking the code!

The new online course will focus on understanding scent, flow and how to use urban features constructively to train your dog, and yourself.


Course details:

Since December is a wonderful time to track, with snowman snow and time to spend with your dogs during the day, I will be starting this course in early December, then taking a pause over the holidays, resuming in January to catch up and keep going!

Participants will share areas they work in, and using Google Earth and Google Maps, we will analyze opportunities and identify scent traps and problem areas. Everyone will plot, analyze as a group, then run tracks – and share video to show the results.

2 hour online sessions will be held once a week on Tuesday evenings in December to get going, then every second week in the new year to give everyone time to get out. Winter tracking instruction will also be provided!

  • December 4, 11, 18
  • January 8, 22
  • February 5

Fee: $225 (less than $40 per session)

Maximum participants: 7 – classes are small for optimum attention and participation.
If enough people register, two sessions will be offered (a second one on Thursdays).

Deadline to register: Sunday, November 25

Registration link: 


I look forward to being your coach!





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