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How to Train a German Shepherd to Find Things: Full Guide

The German Shepherd breed derived its name from the task they were specialized for – shepherding livestock. But the modern dog has high utility and possesses many other qualities, such as being able to find things and successfully track. Whether you want your dog to find your lost keys, train him to be a working dog, or even tracking wounded deer, how exactly do you train a German Shepherd to find things?

To train a German Shepherd to find things, start early, and he will associate the smell with something he loves, such as a favorite toy. Guide him towards simple seeking and retrieving tasks, and reward him for each find. In a matter of weeks, you can transition away from familiar scents to general objects.

In this definitive guide, you will learn all the steps you should take to train your German Shepherd to find things. This includes how to:

  • Associate scent with playtime
  • Train your German Shepherd to find visible objects on command
  • Teach your GSD to find nearby hidden objects
  • Train him to seek objects despite distractions
  • Help your German Shepherd find things regardless of distance
  • Get your dog excited and single-minded about finding things

We’ll also look at why German Shepherds are good tracking dogs and, if you are looking for a hunting companion, how to train your dog to locate deer trails and track wounded deer.

So, whether you want your German Shepherd to find things you’ve misplaced, for fun, competition, or you want to train him to be a working dog, such as in search and rescue or police work, welcome to my full guide on how to train your German Shepherd to find things and track.

A German Shepherd tracking. How to Train a German Shepherd to Find Things

Let’s get started!

How to Train a German Shepherd to Track

German Shepherds are intuitive and have an innate ability to pick up scents. However, they need to be trained before they can use this ability. You should start training your dog to find small retrievable objects from an early age and then progress to tracking.

To train a German Shepherd to track, you must first teach him to find things in a distraction-free environment. Once your dog learns to focus on an object by its scent, you can introduce distractions and add distance. Your German Shepherd will then be ready to track over a long distance.

If you have been to my blog before, you’ll know that I spent almost 30 years in law enforcement. During this time, I enjoyed working with the Police German Shepherds, particularly helping the handlers train new search and tracker dogs. It was crazy how they had me hiding in the woods in the dead of night, waiting for the dog to hunt me out. I was certainly glad of the bite sleeve when the dog found me. But I loved it!

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Anchor Scent With Play

Dogs love to play, and by being strategic, you can leverage their enthusiasm to educate them in finding objects. Use distinct pet-friendly scents to dust or coat different toys. Your German Shepherd should develop strong associations between smell and playtime, just like he registers certain smells and noises with feeding time. It takes no more than a week for your dog to understand that each of his toys has a distinct smell.

Train Your GSD to “Find” Objects in His View

Instruct your German Shepherd to sit, then let him smell a specific toy. Proceed to place the toy away from him and at a distance. Then point towards the object and command him to “FIND IT.” Your dog will go after the toy because of his interest, but your pointer will guide him, and your command will get registered. 

You should do this repeatedly till your German Shepherd realizes that “FIND IT” means he has to retrieve what he just smelled. Of course, you’ll need to bribe your dog with treats, as there is no better way to build up associations quicker than with treats.

Train Your German Shepherd to Find Hidden Objects

After two weeks of training, a young German Shepherd should be able to “find” visible objects on command even without your pointer finger guiding him. I recommend you start hiding the toys in the third week. Like with the previous step, you will instruct your dog to sit and smell the toy. Then you should proceed with hiding the toy in front of him.

Make it simple enough for your German Shepherd to “win” on the first try. Hiding the toy behind a box with a part of it poking into his view could be a great first try. Then you can hide the toy in the same place but entirely out of view. Still, your dog is relying on some level of sight to find the object, but he is learning to associate the “FIND IT” command with finding and not just retrieving things in his view.

By the fourth week, you will be able to hide things in a different room and have your dog follow when you command to “FIND IT.” Now, your dog goes to the other room because he saw you go there to hide the toy, but once he goes into the room, he has to rely on his sense of smell to get to the toy. That is how you get your German Shepherd to rely on his sense of smell to find objects.

Start Anti-Distraction Training

At this point, you may be tempted to train your dog to track toys at a distance. While tracking objects by faint smell is essential, it isn’t feasible if your German Shepherd gets distracted. If you have a huge mansion, you can do the same training as described in the above steps and add distance until your dog is excellent at picking up faint scents.

But for most people living in apartments or small spaces, training for long-distance tracking involves taking your dog outdoors.

Outside, your German Shepherd can get easily distracted by people and other stimuli, so you must first train him to track objects despite distractions. To do this, keep repeating the previous training but add a distraction now and then.

One way to do this is by having other tempting toys in the way. Make sure these toys do not have any recent scent on them. You can also invite friends over, especially if they have children!

It might take a whole month of training with distractions before you are ready to take the tracking exercises to the outdoors.

Take Your Training Outdoors

There’s some degree of “use it or lose it” tendency with dogs when tracking things by their scent. That’s why you’ll need to engage your German Shepherd’s tracking abilities quite regularly. It is crucial to building your dog’s enthusiasm around tracking.

Many people make the mistake of taking the training outdoors and adding complexity and distance right away. Doing so will make retrieving a chore and will also set your German Shepherd up for failure. The outdoor environment is naturally distracting!

So the first retrieving drills will be similar to what you did indoors. You should have a friend accompany you to an open yard. Instruct your friend to hold your dog by the collar. Command your German Shepherd to sit and place his ball 15 feet away. Point towards the ball and say “FIND IT” while drumming up excitement in your voice. You can also talk excitedly while pointing at the ball.

Your German Shepherd will naturally want to chase after the ball. The fact that your friend holds him back for a few seconds will make him more excited about “finally” getting to pursue the object. It also teaches your dog to go after the ball despite the initial resistance.

The next step is to hide the toy while instructing your German Shepherd to find it. Initially, you’ll need to scent it more heavily than you did indoors, as outdoor stimuli will make it more challenging for your dog to track the scent. While using heavy smell, you should start hiding objects out of your dog’s sight, so he relies more and more on his sense of smell, even outdoors.

The final stage of your dog’s outdoor tracking training involves bringing his tracking skills to a practical situation. In real-life tracking scenarios, you don’t hide the object after letting your dog smell it. You let your dog smell something with the object’s scent and let the dog guide you to wherever the said object is.

A German Shepherd Police Dog at a crime scene. Are German Shepherds Good Tracking Dogs?
A Police German Shepherd at a crime scene smelling human scent on blood-stained clothing

To replicate this towards your training’s tail-end, you will apply the scent to something the dog wouldn’t be fond of putting in his mouth. Apply the same scent to a rag and a toy. Pre-hide the toy while your dog is not looking. Command your dog to sit, and as he sits, place the rag close to his nose.

Take the rag away from his nose and pretend to throw it in the direction where you have hidden the object and say, “FIND IT” Your dog will run because he assumes you have thrown the item in that direction, but he reverts to using his nose as he gets closer. 

Using his sense of smell, he will find the toy. You can expect this step to take a few tries, but you should reward him with a treat when he’s successful and give lots of praise.

Train Him With a Focus on Specialization

The final stage of training your German Shepherd’s tracking abilities is specialization. Now that your dog can associate the scent with the target, you need to use decoys of whatever you want your dog to track. This phase can last up to three months if you’re working with older dogs.

It is best elaborated in the section about deer tracking, although you can use the same strategy with targets, including birds.

Are German Shepherds Good Tracking Dogs?

German Shepherds derive their name from their traditional use in shepherding farm animals. They are highly effective guard dogs and are reliable work companions in security-related jobs. They are also specialized in tracking, whether that be missing people or criminals, and often don’t get the deserved limelight.

German Shepherds are good tracking dogs as they have an extraordinary ability to sniff out faint scents from a distance and can focus and drown out distractions while seeking their target. They also use many of their natural positive traits to excel in tracking skills, such as intelligence, stamina, and loyalty.

If you’re wondering whether the German Shepherd you have at home can learn to sniff and find things, then you should be ready to spend at least three months training him. Alternatively, if you are contemplating adopting a dog to help you track for game hunting, I would recommend getting a puppy as they’re easier to train.

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Tracker Dog Hunts Man | I Didn't Know That

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Can German Shepherds Track Deer?

Since German Shepherds have a solid ability to sniff out things at a distance, they’re often trained to find and retrieve small objects like toys and even lost household items. However, this doesn’t mean they can’t track in settings other than showing off party tricks!

German Shepherds can track deer if they’ve been trained well in both scent-based and tracks-based seeking. Although they’re naturally good at working with other animals, while they are not typically used as hunting dogs, many of the skills that enable them to excel as working dogs also allow them to track deer.

That said, you need to give your dog the primary scent-based seeking education using the steps mentioned above. After that, you will have to introduce tracks, a blood trail, and a decoy deer simultaneously. Of course, you will not hide the deer while the dog is watching you, as this sets up the wrong expectations compared to the actual scenario!

PRO TIP! You can use the below strategy with other targets, such as birds.

How to Train a German Shepherd to Track Deer

If you want your German Shepherd to be your specialized hunting partner, you need to train him to track hoof marks, blood trail, and deer scent to help find an injured deer. Since this task is a lot more complex than tracking toys around the house, you must develop a seeking circuit that employs all of your dog’s senses.

To train your German Shepherd to track deer, hide a decoy deer, and create hoof-steps and a trail of blood leading up to the hidden dummy. Commanding your dog to find it after he sniffs some blood will help him get accustomed to the real thing and help you evaluate if he has a strong foundation in scent-based tracking.

If you need further elaboration, look no further. The rest of this article covers each step in detail, including how to:

  • Create hoof marks in your backyard
  • Create a parallel trail of blood
  • Hide a decoy deer to wherever the trail leads
  • Get your dog to track the scent of blood

Create Hoof Marks

This is one of the most important steps in training your German Shepherd to track deer as it grounds the drill in realism. If the hoof marks don’t match a deer’s hoof, your dog might get confused in a real-life scenario. That’s why you should avoid fake deer hooves and buy a real deer leg for this part. Don’t worry, though, as most hooves sold on the market are cut really short.

Tying a hoof to a walking stick will help speed up the trail creation process. Once you have your deer stick, poke the ground just enough to make a visible mark. Make two to four hoof marks at every spot. You should mimic the marks a deer would leave as he runs away.

Create a Blood Trail

This step requires real blood. It is one thing that combines your German Shepherd’s scent-tracking and vision-tracking like nothing else. Using fake blood will not accomplish this. While you can use almost any animal’s blood, using deer blood from one of your previous hunts is the best option.

You can dilute the blood so that it is easier to wipe off, and your dog learns to pick up a fainter scent. A good idea is to have a bottle of deer blood with holes in the cap and sprinkle it as you make hoof marks, so you don’t have to make two rounds. Any plastic bottle with a lid you can pierce with a pen or a razor is good enough for this.

You can safely conduct this training on your own land. If you live in an apartment and want to train your German Shepherd to track deer, you’ll need to take him to the hunt’s location and do the exercises there. Using astroturf and fake leaves to conduct the activities indoors isn’t feasible, and it’s unlikely that such training works when the environment shifts drastically.

Hide the Decoy at the End of the Trail

Using a deer decoy has two benefits: first, you can use the same bait for hunting deer, and the second is that your German Shepherd can develop a connection between what he’s doing and why he is doing it. This visual association will help a lot when the target is far away, as is deer hunting. By seeing the deer at a distance, he’s already primed to seek.

This step is pretty straightforward; all you have to do is hide the decoy in a place where some of it is visible. Unlike finding toys and small household items, this training involves seeking the general region where the target is. 

The only thing you should consider is whether you want to show the decoy first and then hide it or start by having your dog smell blood and follow the trail. If your German Shepherd has a strong foundation in finding objects based on their scent, you can start with the blood-on-rag method.

If he doesn’t, you will have a better time taking a month or two to train him in just that, using the steps earlier. I believe that is a lot more practical than having your dog sniff a decoy and then running to find it. Good luck getting your German Shepherd to stay put as you excitedly run away from him!

The Three Stages of Tracking Education

Congratulations! You have just learned the three stages of training your German Shepherd to track deer. That said, you should know that different dogs require a different level of hand-holding through the process. The three stages below assume your dog requires a lot of help before internalizing instructions and detecting patterns.

Stage One: Natural Curiosity Anchor

A Deer. Can German Shepherds Track Deer?

Some people might find it hard to communicate the instructions via the trail alone. As long as you’re patient, you can let your dog’s natural curiosity drive him towards the decoy. You simply have to take your dog on a walk around the area you have dusted with hoof marks. German Shepherds can get curious and might start following the steps and blood on their own. 

If they don’t, walk in the same direction, and your dog will follow along. This is where you can anchor the “TRACK” command. As soon as you notice your dog sniffing blood and following with his nose to the ground, simply say the word “TRACK.” 

After a few repetitions of this, your German Shepherd will associate the word with the specific combination of stimuli, and you’ll be ready to add distractions to improve his real-life deer-tracking acumen. Of course, each success should be rewarded with treats, cuddles, and an appreciative tone, as this incentivizes your dog to learn.

Stage Two: Ramp up the Difficulty

Most German Shepherds will qualify for this stage right away if they have a foundation in simple scent-seeking. If your dog can track the decoy five times in a row without getting confused, you should proceed to the next level. Here, your main aim should be to help him succeed without making him realize he is doing a harder job. Most DIY trainers make the mistake of ramping up the difficulty level too quickly.

Consider how your dog can differentiate between two commands that have the same number of syllables. This is a testament to the German Shepherd breed and their intelligence. And since he can develop response-circuits to such fine detail, changing too many factors in his training will make him approach the next level as a different drill altogether.

Playing fetch and getting your German Shepherd to find a hidden toy follows the same series of activities for most of the circuit, yet your dog compartmentalizes the commands differently. You don’t want your dog to take the entire tracking education up to this point and categorize it while he figures out what to do with the “new” task.

Here are some handy ways to introduce distractions without introducing a new “education” circuit:

  • Spend at least one week running the same circuit till the distraction/difficulty you introduced is normalized.
  • Start with the easiest distraction and move up. Always set up your dog for success.
  • Keep everything else constant while changing a specific factor.

Stage Three: Live Drill

Once your German Shepherd is confident in his tracking skills, and you notice yourself hand-holding less often, you can take him for the real thing. Reading this post may give you the impression that it’ll take a long time, but most German Shepherds can be tracking-ready in a few weeks. The only thing you have to manage at this point is your expectations! 

At least the first time you take your dog to track deer, it has to be about him. Do not expect everything to go perfectly! Expect him to get distracted or lose the trail. Managing your expectations will help you be patient and give your German Shepherd the real-world experience he needs.

Disadvantages of Using German Shepherds as a Deer Hunter

While German Shepherds are a great aid to hobbyist hunters, they aren’t conventional hunting dogs. That’s why their use in hunting comes with its own set of limitations. Here are some of the drawbacks of using German Shepherds as hunting companions.

Not Suitable for Chasing Live Prey

While they can track the game once you hit a delayed-effect shot – if the animal does not die from your shot, you can’t expect your German Shepherd to finish the job for you (at least not without mutilating the target). If you want to get serious about hunting and want your dog to chase and hold injured prey for you, you should look for traditional hunting breeds such as a Bloodhound.

Not Good With Large Targets

Your German Shepherd will be more open to learning how to retrieve ducks, birds, and animals the size of rabbits, if not smaller. This can limit your ability to hunt larger animals. 

With deer, you must be able to deliver a fatal shot the first time you shoot. And if you do not have a customized turret and a scope, it is almost impossible to hunt a deer with a German Shepherd. The first shot is rarely fatal, and without firing two rounds, you can only get your game by having a hunting dog who can chase and hold the target.

Final Thoughts

Teaching my German Shepherd “Willow” to “FIND IT” was one of the first commands I taught her. If you have a German Shepherd at home, you can easily train your dog to find and track things, and it’s great fun! However, the training period is inversely correlated with age to a degree.

Start training your dog at a young age, however, it’s never too late to train a German Shepherd, and you can teach even an older dog new commands with some patience and consistency.

If you want to train your dog to track for sport, the American Kennel Club tracking events are the competition form of canine search and rescue. A quick online search will find you dog tracking events and associations in your area, such as the UK Tracking Dog Association in the United Kingdom.

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  • Sharon Waddington

    Sharon Waddington is the founder of World of Dogz. With over 30 years of experience working with dogs, this former Police Officer has seen it all. But it’s her trusty German Shepherd, Willow, who steals the show as the inspiration behind this website. As Sharon’s constant companion Willow has played a pivotal role in shaping her passion for dogs. Find her on Linkedin!