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Detection dogs a brief insight to scent training

I have been very fortunate to be one of the pioneers of many different types of detection dogs from the environmental detection of endangered species and pests to cadaver dogs for old human remains.

There are many great scent dog trainers with a wealth of experience here in Australia but some of the truly great ones you may never know their name. This is because some of the greatest scent dog trainers work within our services training and operating dogs in the military, police and prisons. These men and women have state of the art facilities and training by some great dog trainers from around the world with top shelf highly bred and tested dogs.

Scent dog training is easy and extremely complex at the same time so I thought I would list some things that can go wrong or training oversights that will affect the operational work of the detection dog. So when we start off at the beginning we want a dog with super high drive for a toy then associate that toy with the target odors. When the dog locates the target odor we want the dog to tell us by either a sit, a drop, bark, active indication etc. We also want the dog to ignore every other distraction in the search area and only be searching for the target odor. This will include food, smells, animals, noises etc and if the dog gets stressed then that may override his desire to locate target odor.

So the basic dog has to be very highly driven, retrieval crazy, and so obsessed with the toy reward that nothing else matters.

So when we introduce the dog to a target odor and have the dog doing a sit indication when he locates the odor we then make all the searches harder and harder. This is when the dog is doing much longer searches and pinpointing the exact location of the target odor around multiple distractions and locations.

So now the dog is locating target odor in an operational environment and has a 100% success rate hitting the find every time on and off lead. Now let's do a check on some of the oversights which may render the dog useless in an operational search but excellent in the training sessions.

If you handle the odor with your hands the dog may just be sniffing around locating anything with your or someone else's scent on it. so the dog is locating your odor not target odor. If you wear latex gloves then the target odor may be covered with a film of latex smell so the dog is searching for secondary odor latex.

If you place a target odor in a car or enclosed room and do a search after 10 minutes and the dog locates it successfully that does not mean the dog is confirmed on the target odor. The dog may be locating something that is foreign to that environment. So the entire search area in the car all smells as one environment except your target odor. You can place a non target odor in the car and some dogs will hit on it. You can do searches are set up weeks in advance so you can eliminate this problem.

Your target odors may be in Glad sandwich bags which is the most popular choice for many people and also the most popular for drug users to store their supply. Again the dog may have 100% find rate on multiple target odors but is the dog hitting each target odor or now the secondary odor of the sandwich bag is now the primary odor for the dog?

So it is very possible to have successful drug finds from a dog that is only trained on Glad sandwich bags. If you don't want the bag to be a secondary odor then you put the target odor plus several non target odors in the sandwich bags to teach the dog to ignore all but the target odor. If you want the bags to be a secondary odor then place the non target odors in paper bags.

With the use of a scent detection room we build for the training of the detection dogs we were able to set up so many controls so we were certain the dog was hitting target odor and ignoring the dozens of controls.

The scent detection room had 18 holes in the wall with the target odor screwed into one of the holes with a tennis ball release. If I only place one target odor and a ball in the search then the dog could just be sniffing for the ball or if i took the ball away then the dog may indicate as it's the only hole with an odor in it. This is where I can place a non target odor only to see if the dog wants to indicate because it's the only one there.

When we did searches in the room I would place 18 tennis balls and the target odor so the dog knew that to get his ball he had to hit target odor to get it.

Other times i would have a clicker when the dog hit target odor I'd have someone behind the wall throw the ball down the tube. The scent detection room was great to validate that the dog was on target odor and ignore numerous scent distraction.

So I spoke before about dogs hitting secondary odor such as latex gloves and human odor so here are some tips. Your body is constantly pouring out body odor and breath so even if you are wearing gloves the target odor is already covered with your scent. I will use 10 scent pods and handle the entire lot with my hands. I would then place in each one a latex glove and piece of tennis ball and sandwich bag. In a couple I will put in non target odors or distraction and finally I will put in the target odor. I will let it sit for at least 30 minutes then start the search.

The next problem is handler prompting or body language that tells the dog he is on target odor. This can be increased level of praise or excitement from the handler or reaching for a treat or toy when the dog is near odor. We tested out a termite detection dog in the Sydney detection room and the dog was 100% on odor so the handler thought. The beagle was rewarded with treats from the bum bag and the dog sat every time the handler touched his bag.

Scent saturation is another big one, odor can settle in wet areas and the dog may indicate and the handler may see this as a false indication, part of the training is to place target odor in an atomizer with water and spray the search area, then place the target odor in the search area. Some dogs will be confused as some may sit at the entrance and indicate and other get over excited in the area and cannot pinpoint the target odor.

Now how much target odor do you want your dog to find? When I was training one of the dogs I was using tiny samples so I would touch the target odor with a cotton bud and then rub it on a rock in a large area. I was able to have the dog indicate every time on residue odor so small which was important for the operational work of this dog. In other cases such as food detection dogs at the airport this will be a disaster as the dog will be indicting on nearly everyone. The basics of this is to place food in several boxes for a while then remove all of the food except one, when the dog goes to sit at an empty box he,s not rewarded but guided to move on and only rewarded with a box with food in it.

So you can condition the dog to many things but a great deal of thought must go into each training session or you may be doing more damage than good.

Here is a few examples of simple mistakes that can be made and affect the outcome of the training.

S & R dog overshoots track so the handler gave him heaps of praise, the dog though he was been rewarded for doing the right thing so he continued tracking something else.

A new handler with the Koala detection dog rewarded the dog on Possum poop as she thought it was Koala poop during a training session. The dog started indicating in the field on possum poop until retraining sessions.

Cane toad detection dog was originally trained on live cane toads and did great. Frozen Cane toads was then used as live ones were not aloud across the WA border. The result the dog after several months would only indicate on frozen cane toads until live ones were reintroduced again.

Other factors include stress which overrides the dog's desire to search. I trained a super ball driven Labrador as a drug detection dog and he was fantastic. The first client the new owner got was a slaughter house and the dog shut down and was useless in that environment but everywhere else was fine. Another dog was a great detection dog but raised on a farm so in a familiar area worked great but the moment you take him out to a new area stress kicked in and the dog shut down.

This is only a small insight into detection dog training and it is so important. Dogs are still the number one method of detecting explosives and there are 1000’s of endangered species alive today as a direct result of the environmental detection dogs finding them and tracking down pests. Around the world many new and exciting programs with detection dogs and the very talented handlers which is going to make the world a much better place.

More information is available on my YouTube channel


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