Dogs Lead Lost Humans Back Home

"Humans can get lost, but I knew I could trust the dogs. Dogs can direct themselves by sniffing out a scent."

Jan 14, 2013
Outside Magazine

   Photo: Courtesy of Angeline Longshore

In early fall 2004 Angeline Longshore embarked on her first-ever backpacking excursion on what, according to weather forecasters, was supposed to be a weekend filled with blue skies and spring-like warmth. After two days of light hiking, she and her companion set up camp for their final night in the Sierras. They were near a picturesque lake. Visible in the distance were five other campers and a couple of frolicking dogs.

In late afternoon, Longshore noticed dark clouds. “It looks like we’re going to have some weather,” she said. They prepared for rain and got inside the tent. Soon it was dark. Then temperatures plummeted and snow began to fall.

“As soon as it started snowing, I knew it wasn’t good,” Longshore says. “We only had enough food for one more day—a candy bar, a package of miso soup, and some dried meat and fruit. It was freezing cold and we didn’t have the right clothes. I had to spoon with my friend to stay warm.”

By pre-dawn, the snow was already knee deep and still coming down. “It was a huge, huge dump. There was no trail at all,” she says.

Longshore scanned the area, searching for the other campers she’d seen the night before. They’d already hiked off, but their footprints and those of their dogs were still visible.

She and her companion began following the tracks. “Humans can get lost, but I knew I could trust the dogs. Dogs can direct themselves by sniffing out a scent,” she says.

Using the dog tracks as trail markers, Longshore and her friend hiked down as quickly as they could, occasionally saying, “We have to keep up. We’re losing the tracks” as the snow continued to fall.

She and her companion never caught up to the other hikers and their dogs, but six hours later the tracks led them to the trailhead.

“I was so relieved,” says Longshore. “It was definitely those dogs who saved us.”

Longshore’s hunch to follow the dog tracks was a good one. “A dog’s sense of smell is millions of times better than ours,” explains Mirkka Koivusalo, Ph.D., head trainer at Mindful Behaviors in Toronto who has trained dogs for search and rescue, tracking, and scent detection.

That said, tracking requires training. “Some dogs will wander around aimlessly, just getting you even more lost,” says Val DeSantis, a dog behavioral consultant and trainer in Pueblo, Colorado.

Various schools and clubs around the country offer classes in tracking and nose work. One simple skill you can teach your dog at home: Find the car.

This not only comes in handy if you are lost on a trail, it will also help you to more quickly locate your car in large parking lots, says Anna Jane Grossman, owner of School for the Dogs in New York and editor of Web magazine.

1. Start by rewarding your dog with extremely yummy treats every time you get into the car to go anywhere. This creates a positive association. Your dog sees your car and thinks, I like that car. “You want your dog to know that the car is a special place to be,” says Grossman.

2. Once your dog gets excited whenever you’re going to the car, add a command, such as “car” or “find car.”

3. Stand roughly 20 feet away from your car and say, “find car.” If your dog does it effortlessly, increase your distance.

4. Once your dog can reliably find the car on command, experiment with new locations. For instance, the next time you are at a park, in a parking lot, or on the trail, tell your dog to “find car” and see how he does.

Filed To: Adventure, Dogs