Scent Dogs: How These Amazing Animals Are trained – Part 1

Janet | May 18th, 2008
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Early training for service dogs destined to work in some field of scent detection generally involves a lot of socialization, followed with some basic obedience – and in some cases, a little agility.

Canine Detection Training centers first have prospective puppies go to carefully screened foster families with whom the pups will be raised until they are roughly 12 to 18 months of age. The primary role of these foster families (in addition to providing a loving home) is to socialize the dogs.

The families are obligated to take the puppy out at least three times a week to socialize it with all kinds of people and other dogs. Staff from the detection centers will check in with the foster homes once a month and take the puppies out themselves to test their public capabilities.

Interestingly, most of these dogs do not have to have much obedience training to start, or any at all. We try to look at obedience training as an individual thing, says Steven Sharp, staff member from the Auburn University’s Canine Detection Training Center (CDTC), located in Anniston, Alabama.

Steven goes on to say, Some dogs require a little obedience, but too much obedience can take a lot of a dog’s independence away. We want the dog to be able to get out and away from the handler, guiding the handler to the scent.

The agility training most detector dogs receive is not only for fun but also to develop the dog’s sense of balance, as well as accustom the dog to walking on uneven surfaces and high levels of platforms. For example, in an urban disaster situation, the dogs are called on to walk on uneven terrain. There will be wobbly bridges or removable objects they’ll need to cross.

Next, training to identify specific odors is taught using multiple sessions and lots of positive reinforcement. We start with several infrequent, short periods of time for training, Steven says. As the dog progresses, we expand that time, always keeping it fun for the dog. Once the training isn’t fun and the dog isn’t enjoying itself, it stops trying. We want the dog to come to the training area to have fun.

The detection training centers will use toys, food, a tug towel whatever works as the primary reinforcer for the dogs. We like to let the dogs select their own, preferred reward, Steven remarked, And as a second reward, the handlers will use praise.

Read Part 1 | Read Part 2 | Read Part 3


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