Scent Dogs

Scent Dogs: How These Amazing Animals Are trained

Scent Dogs: How These Amazing Animals Are trained

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.”

Scent Dogs: How These Amazing Animals Are trained (Part 2)

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.

Scent Dogs: How These Amazing Animals Are trained (Part 3)

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.


The information shared on this site is for information only. It does not take the place of professional advice from your pet’s healthcare provider.

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