Be a splitter not a lumper! To succeed in double-blind scent detection tests (e.g. narcotics certification) or elite searches with clearing in scent work competition, you’ll be required to clear rooms, ignore distractions and face an unknown number of hides with potentially unlimited elevation. Set your team up for success by breaking down the individual components. Start by reading the rules of the organization you’re testing or competing in, since it lists possible requirements. Don’t blame the certifying official if you didn’t read the rules. Check off each component on your list as you train it, so you’re better prepared.
Be a splitter, not a lumper!
The best trainers don’t pile together several extremely difficult challenges resulting in failure, but rather, set their dogs up for success by splitting it up into small, achievable steps. For example, if your dog has never trained outside a building, don’t ask him to perform a 15-minute search with hides on the roofs of the vehicles and distraction donuts taped inside every wheel, off leash while there’s a 100 km/hour wind. Many dogs would fail that test and that’s demotivational. You’d be more likely to succeed with a green dog by warming up with a container search near your door, then go outside to search 1 familiar hot box a few feet away on asphalt with no intentional distractions.
Components of Scent Detection Searches
Here are some advanced scent detection components you may want to train at some point:
- If you go to any environment, will your dog accept 10 food rewards in a row? At the pet store? In a wide-open field? In a huge echoing room? In a bathroom? If not, don’t ask your dog to search there. Work on exposure and acclimation in more diverse environments so your dog is comfortable and ready to work! If your dog is scared, your dog may not work at all, or work but very slowly and hesitantly. Get help if you need to, and work those issues away from odor first.
- False alerts – Does your dog sniff the distractions, causing you to call a false alert because your indication is subtle? If you go inside a clear room with the door closed, does your dog alert because he doesn’t know what else to do? What if you stand still for minutes while your dog searches independently?
- Lack of focus– Does your dog have an expectation of search duration and expect a reward at that time? For example, does your dog start barking after 4 minutes, spinning and demanding a reward without searching? If yes, work on building search stamina gradually, and transitioning to a variable reinforcement schedule
- Passing the hide – If you offer 3 rooms or clusters, does your dog want to skip the first room and run willy-nilly to find the easiest hides? Don’t practice missing hides or returning to hides you already found. Use known searches and insist the dog finishes each cluster or room before moving on.
- Three Box tests:
- Box 1 is hot, box 2 is distraction
- Box 1 is hot, box 2 is clear
- Then Box 1 is hot, #2 is clear, #3 is distraction.
- Box 1 is hot AND has a distraction inside it as well, #2 is clear
- Add boxes and distractions while maintaining drive
- Double blind test
- Indication/Trained formal response – Will your dog perform his indication outside when the ground is hot, cold, wet, rocky, dirty, etc.? What if the hide is moving e.g. helium balloons floating above, on a tree branch in the wind, socks on a laundry line, etc.
- Diverse distractions – Is your dog confused or fixated, or false alert on distractions? Train as many as you can, while keeping is safe. Make distractions inaccessible, so that dogs with allergies will stay safe. Try training:
- (Kongs, balls, tugs, stuffed toys etc.), kibble or dry treats in a container, leashes/collars, or unused, clean odour containers and/or swabs. Elite level distractors may also include human food items.
- Squeaky toy squeaking while another dog plays
- Environmental distractions e.g. Animal scat, another dogs barking
- Life rewards e.g. squirrels, swimming, rolling in snow
- Masking odors e.g. room fresheners, palettes of black pepper
- Test: if you put a hide inside a bunny fur toy, can your dog indicate it?
- Watch some examples:
- Search 24 opaque containers of any material e.g. Strange boxes, hula hoops, wood, metal, fabric, paper, plastic, with or without holes, set up in any pattern (lines, circles, squares).
- Watch some examples at https://youtu.be/1ufHnrHRZus.
- What about containers raised or placed below furniture e.g. containers on chairs, containers on tables, containers inside dog crates?
- Try well ventilated containers buried in sand or snow
- When objects are scattered in a random pattern, can you search systematically? Can you remember which hides you called and which boxes you need to search?
- If you put boxes (in a field) and boxes have a huge reinforcement history for most dogs, can your dog leave the boxes and go to a non-object hide such as in ground or on a tree? This is even harder blind, when most handlers are distracted by the containers? What if the hide is inside a boundary pylon? What if all the other pylons contain distractions?
- Intensity – Can your dog detect the smallest amount of target odor in a large room? What about overwhelming odor (try safely containing 100 mls of liquid or several ounces of powder) in a small room?
- Inaccessible hides – Can your dog indicate a deep hide such as inside a cabinet or inside luggage? If you do a hide buried in snow or dirt, can your dog resist the temptation to dig?
- Converging odors – Can your dog indicate 2 hides placed inside the same Rubbermaid container? Can your dog find 20 hides placed in a 10×10 ft area? Can your dog find a hide next to a distraction on a vehicle?
- Sourcing precisely– When you present small boxes filling your kitchen, stacked up on each other, can your dog indicate source precisely?
- If the judge asks you where is source, can you answer? Practice answering, because you may eventually be asked by a judge and it’s better to be prepared.
- Independence – Can your dog do a container search off leash while you stand in the doorway of the room? What if you sit on the floor or say alert constantly? Can your dog search while you move constantly and when you are frozen throughout? Can you do a search on leash where you sit on a chair and the objects are 15 feet away? What if the hide is 4-6 feet high? Check out some examples of distance searches:
- Aging – Our nosework classes have included hides with hours of aging up to 2 weeks of age outside in the snow. It probably won’t happen in a test or competition, but it was fun to watch the teams succeed at this difficult challenge. Every success builds confidence.
Take What You Like and Leave What You Don’t
Every team is unique, so take the ideas you like and leave the rest. This list is intended to provide suggestions you can modify to fit your dog and your tests.
Whatever you choose, stay safe. For example, avoid glass items in the search areas. Practice on floors with good traction, removing both trip hazards and objects that could fall. To maintain the trust your dog places in you, always walk through or around the search environment to verify it’s safe and appropriate. When it’s not safe, walk away instead of asking your dog to search.
Triple Bunk Break Down
For example, one K9 bed bug detection handler was preparing to inspect triple level bunks (as shown in the photo above). One suggestion for breaking that scenario down in training would be:
- Search a mattress on the ground
- Search a mattress on a boxspring/frame
- Add ladders and place plywood with mattress above it, always ensuring security and safety. Search the top mattress from below, or lift a smaller dog in your arms
- When confident, add a third mattress
- Add distractions and generalize
If you take a green dog who’s never done an interior search and expect him to perform triple level bunks with distractions, you may be disappointed. Strange events and distractors can always surprise you, but the more prepared you are, the better your odds of success. The art of scent detection training is breaking it down and knowing when your sniffer dog is ready for each level of challenge.
“No Intentional Distractions”
The distractions your certifying official provides may pale in comparison to the distractions inherent in the environment itself. Officials should do their best to provide challenges that appropriate for the level of the dogs, but officials can rarely move the test to an entirely different environment. In one test, there were 2 rings in a large room of a community centre with a hotdog stand. The rings were moved as far away as possible from the food, but it was impossible to remove the smell of wieners. Distraction training and acclimation helped dogs to prepare to ignore those inaccessible (and unintentional) food scents while they worked.
Searching a restroom is another fairly common challenge. Many dogs are attracted to the drain in the floor, or carpets with dog smells. Some dogs are afraid of that slippery surface and echoing noises. Large breeds may find it difficult to lie down and indicate in a small room with the judge, timer, and handler trying to do their jobs without getting in the way.
Always arrive early to new environments to allow your dog at least a few minutes to acclimate to the environment so he’s comfortable and ready to start searching as soon as you give your search cue. A dog that is scared, distracted, overwhelmed just can’t give you his best performance. Never forget to start with an easy warm up, present one appropriate challenge, then finish with a fast fun search to end on a positive note. Avoid waiting until the end of a long session to present your challenge when the dog is very tired, since that sets you up for failure. If you have a negative experience, hopefully you can return to the warm up boxes provided by the host, to end on a positive note.
The more varied the environments your sniffer dog succeeds in during generalization, the greater your odds of success in tests or competition. Dogs don’t generalize well, so practice in as many environments as you can find (while keeping it safe for the sniffer dogs, of course). Over the course of our advanced 6 week classes, we train bathrooms several times, so all teams are able to make some progress. I love to see the teams catching on.
There are so many fun options! Be open to some laughter. If this is your hobby, it’s supposed to be fun. For example, one team completed a Halloween inspired Interior search, retrieving a gory, fake arm placed as a distraction. I wish I had a photo. That’s one component you won’t see often, but it still makes me smile to recall. You can opt to find the joy, as well as finding the scent.
What are your favorite components of scent detection training? Bloopers are welcome. Share in the comments below.