Scent Dogs: How These Amazing Animals Are trained – Part 3

Janet | May 26th, 2008
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Watch any special on television about scent-detector service dogs and you will see these amazing canines brave after some of the most dangerous work in the world uncovering drugs, finding fugitives and locating explosive devices.

The dogs that make it through the training are the cream of the crop, so to speak, but not every dog has what it takes. In fact, some estimates say as few as 1 out of 100 dogs shows potential, and of these dogs more than half will fail somewhere in their initial imprinting of odors or even before.

So Where Do These Super Sniffers Come From?

The dogs come from many different sources, including shelters, personal pets, and specially selected and bred German Shepherds and Labrador Retrievers.


Traditionally, trainers would scour shelters and pounds for candidates with potential for scent-detection work, and adopt those they felt had the right mix of drives to be successful. The breeds could be purebreds but were often mixes, too.

Typically, selected dogs were those that had driven previous owners batty with their high activity levels and persistence in wanting to play ball or retrieve. Many trainers still search shelters for detection-dog candidates and a significant portion of the dogs you see working today may be discarded pets turned heroes.


Some agencies accept dogs donated from private individuals, as well as breeders. Auburn University’s Canine Detection Center Training facility, for example, has a detection-dog breeding program but the demand for trained dogs is so great at times that it must supplement its own stock with additional dogs. Often, potential donations don’t have the right kinds of drives to be good detection dogs; however, others do.

Green-Trained Dogs

The country is now dotted with those who offer started or green-trained detection dogs for sale to government agencies and private-sector companies. These dogs have been trained to alert specific odors, but have not had the repetition, continued training and working experience to be considered a finished dog.

The dogs come from a variety of sources, including overseas breeders and trainers. Often, if an agency that needs a scent detector dog has a trainer on board, it will purchase green-trained dogs and have their trainer finish the dogs.

Breeding Programs

And finally, dedicated breeding programs have been created to provide highly-qualified scent detection dogs. For example, the Australian Customs Service Detector Dog Program began its own Labrador Retriever breeding program during the 1990s to improve the odds of finding dogs with the correct drives, temperament, work ethic and soundness to make outstanding detection dogs.

In 10 years, their program bred down a lot of the Lab’s problems hip and elbow dysplasia, eye problems, etc. In addition, the dogs were bred specifically for endless energy, strong play and hunting drives all the right kind of traits for the job.

Read Part 1 | Read Part 2 | Read Part 3

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