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The Nose Knows: An Introduction to Scent Detection

by Jason Mann CPDT-KA, ABCDT

scent detection training for German Shepherds
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 at all.

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 easily.

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 target odor.

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.

Related Information:
Dog sports for German Shepherds
K9 Nose Work information

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