Zen and the Art of Tracking

In the introduction to his classic book of popular philosophy, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values, the author Robert Pirsig (who passed away last month) noted that, “it should in no way be associated with that great body of factual information relating to orthodox Zen Buddhist practice. It’s not very factual on motorcycles, either.” Similarly, this article should in no way be associated with Pirsig’s sentinel book, other than in an attempt to pay homage to his exploration of “quality” in the context of tracking.

Pirsig examines the tension between classic values, like the mechanics of a motorcycle, and romantic values, like the beauty of a winding road. In the end, he argues that only the combination of the rational and romantic will enhance the quality of life.

“Quality . . . you know what it is, yet you don’t know what it is. But that’s self-contradictory. But some things are better than others, that is, they have more quality. But when you try to say what the quality is, apart from the things that have it, it all goes poof! There’s nothing to talk about. But if you can’t say what Quality is, how do you know what it is, or how do you know that it even exists? If no one knows what it is, then for all practical purposes it doesn’t exist at all. But for all practical purposes it really does exist.”

OK, that’s kind of cool, but what you ask has it got to do with tracking?


Well, lets first look at tracking from the classic or rational perspective. There is no national tracking standard for search and rescue dogs in Canada (perhaps more on that in a subsequent article), but let’s use the Province of Manitoba’s ground search and rescue dog standard as an example.

The tracking element of the Manitoba standard includes the following criteria:

  • An unknown and unmarked track of one to two kilometers in a rural environment.
  • 30 to 45 minutes old (depending on the weather conditions)
  • Two road crossings
  • Four scent related articles
  • Four right angle turns
  • One dead end (not over 15 meters long)

Good sound technical requirements – measurable and reproducible. Handlers can understand what is required of them and can tailor their training strategies to meet those expectations. Successful handlers will also have a working understanding of other tangible things like animal behaviour, odour mechanics, and lost person behaviour.

But the standard doesn’t tell us about the intangible things that are required to successfully complete such a track.

Things like the communication between dog and handler. The way the dog’s breathing changes or the way he holds his tail, and what those signals mean. The subtle vibrations and hesitations that flow up and down the tracking line. The variations in speed, and what they say about the team’s confidence. The mutual trust.

The sense of anticipation and angst at the start of an unknown track. The emotional ups and downs with each turn, article, and road crossing. The sense of relief, joy, and pride at the end of a successful track. The irrational importance of the experience.

Tracking demands true teamwork between handler and dog. It is a blend of science and art. And there is no better feeling than when it all comes together – the rational and the romantic – and it’s just you and your dog celebrating that quality at the end of the track.