The Nose Knows: An Introduction to Scent Detection
by Jason Mann CPDT-KA, ABCDT
A dog's sense of smell is 100,000 times stronger than a human's. It is said that dogs have 2 billion olfactory receptors,
versus 40 million in humans.
Training your German Shepherd to smell a specific scent is not
easy by any stretch of the imagination. However, with patience and a "learn by
their mistakes" approach you can have your dog targeting a specific odor in
much less time than you might imagine.
Before you start training your dog for scent detection you
should keep in mind that if your dog is a low drive dog (takes a lot to
get them going) the process will take longer. The ideal detection dog is
a high drive, high energy, dog that really (I mean really) loves toys.
My approach to training a detection dog is to allow the
dog to use their instincts and their nose to discover what the game is
all about. They learn by their mistakes and mistakes are not discouraged
but rather they are welcomed.
Whether you are training your dog to track a man or find
a target odor hidden in a suitcase in a car you should always keep in mind
that your dog's nose knows more than you do. Your dog's nose is infinitely
more powerful than you can imagine and the most common mistake I see
handlers (and trainers) making is they help the dog too much.
The basic approach you're going to read about here has
three rules. First, you should remove yourself from the process as much
as you can and allow your dogs nose to do the work. Second, you should
be patient and understand that this is a process that takes time. Third,
you should allow your dog to make mistakes and you should not use punishment
With all this in mind let's get started.
Basic Detection Dog Training
Before we get to the nose work it is important
that you know that I train scent discrimination using marker training. Marker
training involves using a word or a sound (a clicker) to "mark" the behavior
in which you want to reinforce.
You and your dog should have a solid foundation in marker
training if you are going to use the training exercises below.
Pairing the Target Odor with Reward
Your first step in detection training is to pair the target odor
with your dogs most valuable reward. Whatever your dogs most valuable reward is at
the beginning of training is what you should you start with. Now is not the
time to introduce new rewards. You should be certain your dog desires the
reward you are offering.
There are many different approaches to pairing the target
odor with the toy. The approach I use requires that you place a toy in a zip lock
bag with the odor until the toy soaks up the odor enough where you can smell
it on the toy and then play with the dog using only that toy. You do not play
with the dog using any other toy. Your goal is to (A) create desire for
that specific toy and (B) isolate the smell of that toy so the dog learns
that smell means it's game time.
One of the most important reasons why you play with your
dog using a toy marked with the target odor is to pair the odor with fun. I
cannot stress how important it is to just play with your dog. No obedience,
no punishment, just fun and play time. Do not punish your dog for any
reason during the play session. It must always be loads of fun for the dog.
After each play session put the toy back in the zip lock
back or replace the toy with a new one and put the new one in the zip
lock bag. Let it sit for a few days and continue the process for a week or
two. Play, put the toy in bag, play, put the toy in the bag, and so
and so forth.
Changing the Game
After a week or two you can start to hide the toy and have
your dog find it. Your dog will know you have the toy so trying to conceal
it is not important at first. When you hide the toy the first few times put
it low to the ground and make sure it is visible to the dog. Now is not the
time to increase the difficulty. You want them to be able to find it fairly
Also, now is the time you will start to introduce your "find it"
cue. I use "find it" for the sake of simplicity but you can use whatever you
want. When your dog finds the toy, mark and reward by allowing them to play
with the toy for a bit.
You can start to make it more difficult once your dog is
"getting it." You will be able to see if the dog understands the game or
not because their body languge will tell you. It is very important to make
sure if your dog is struggling at first you should step in before they
lose interest and help them find it. They should always find the toy.
Once your dog is understanding the game you can start to make
the searches more difficult for them. Move the toy higher, put the toy in
a box, or place the toy under a shirt, change areas where you are searching. Start
inside and then gradually move to outdoor searches (much harder due to wind moving
the scent around). I try to complete 200-300 of these searches before moving
to the next step which is to start having the dog find the target oder on objects
like cotton balls, swabs, towels, etc...
Advancing Your Dog to Finding the Target Odor
The final step in the beginning training is to move your dog
to finding the target odor without the toy present. You should prepare the
search area using gloves (try to avoid putting your scent on the object)
and you should keep their toy on your person for reward when they find the
You should start just like you started when you started
having them find the toy marked with the target odor. The item should be
in plain view, low to the ground, and easily found by your dog. If they
are struggling you can help them but remember to pay attention so you don't
get into the habit of helping them out too much.
When your dog finds the target odor, mark and reward.
While this is by no means a complete training manual for
teaching your dog to find target odors the information here will get you
started on the right foot. Along with this information you should learn
all you can about scent detection training methods and find the one
that suits you and your dog best.
There are several books that I recommend that you read. You
can find the list at the end of this article.
Your main goal is to stay out of the way and only help
when your dog is obviously struggling. The process should be fun and light
hearted. You want to try your best to avoid any stress or frustration early
on in the training especially if you are training for a sport like
K9 Nose Work.
Whatever you are training for the information you read above
will give you a head start. If you and your dog are not using marker
training for your training foundation then I encourage you to learn more
about the method. It is far superiour to anything else out there.
Finally, take it slow. You should have a firm understanding
of your dog, your dogs personality, the training process, and training principles
before you get started. Being prepared will help you avoid or correct any
problems you will encounter while training.
Dog sports for German Shepherds
K9 Nose Work information
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