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This paper presents a novel probabilistic approach to hierarchical, exemplar-based shape matching. No feature correspondence is needed among exemplars, just a suitable pairwise similarity measure. The approach uses a template tree to efficiently represent and match the variety of shape exemplars. The tree is generated offline by a bottom-up clustering approach using stochastic optimization. Online matching involves a simultaneous coarse-to-fine approach over the template tree and over the transformation parameters. The main contribution of this paper is a Bayesian model to estimate the a posteriori probability of the object class, after a certain match at a node of the tree. This model takes into account object scale and saliency and allows for a principled setting of the matching thresholds such that unpromising paths in the tree traversal process are eliminated early on. The proposed approach was tested in a variety of application domains. Here, results are presented on one of the more challenging domains: real-time pedestrian detection from a moving vehicle. A significant speed-up is obtained when comparing the proposed probabilistic matching approach with a manually tuned nonprobabilistic variant, both utilizing the same template tree structure.