Scent Dogs: How These Amazing Animals Are trained – Part 2

Janet | May 23rd, 2008
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Though every trainer may teach the actual scent-detection training a bit differently, the basics are very much the same whether the dog is learning to detect chemicals, drugs, alcohol, gunpowder, explosives, or even large amounts of currency.

The dog is first taught to recognize an odor by introducing it to a scent-soaked ball or toy and using retrieval exercises to establish scent association. When the dog successfully retrieves the scented article, it is immediately rewarded, so it associates the odor with something extremely fun.

The next step is to add the response portion to the scent detection. The response or action of the dog must be swift, clear and decisive so the handler knows that the dog has detected the odor. Passive responses (a sit or a down) are always used in the case of explosives detection; aggressive responses (scratching, barking) are sometimes used to indicate drugs.

Teaching the response requires a lot of repetition. Steven Sharp, a professional trainer for canine scent detection dogs, says, You get the dog to smell the location where the substance is. While the dog is sniffing, you tell it to ‘sit’ and the dog is immediately rewarded with a toy or food, then the handler gives the dog verbal and physical praise. This is done over until the dog starts to indicate on its own.

Once a dog has indicated a scent correctly at least 20 times, Steven says the dog knows that odor and you can move on to teaching the next odor. While the dog is learning the new odor, the handler increases the difficulty of the search for the learned odor by lengthening the time the odor has been left out (less-powerful scent) and the depth of the plants (in an open drawer, then in a closed drawer, etc.).

This is done in baby steps, Steven notes, challenging the dog just enough to move forward in its skills, but never so much as to set up a failure.

Odors are added and strengthened in this manner until the dog has learned all of (or almost all of) the odors that the dog’s future handler will require. We don’t ‘finish’ a dog, Steven says, explaining that his organization trains the dogs on most of the odors, but not all of them. The handler teaches the dog the last couple of odors so they not only know how to handle the dog, but also train it.

When a handler knows how to add new odors to the dog’s repertoire, it immediately makes the dog-handler team proactive and a much more powerful tool particularly against the war on terrorism. With terrorism, the response always tends to be reactionary so the dogs need to be several steps ahead.

Read Part 1 | Read Part 2 | Read Part 3

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