How to Train Your Dog to Sit at Scent – Part 2 Scent Puppy Foundation

This video captures Jager’s first session training a sit indication for high hides at a hot indication box. Jager’s  6-month-old Brittany Spaniel and bed bug detection candidate. I began by experimenting to find a comfortable height where he can sit with front paws on the ground and press his nose to source. I was happy how the session progressed and he demonstrated nice obedience to odor. Behind the scenes, it took a lot of steps to get there.

Don’t make a common but detrimental mistake: indications should only happen on a hot box containing odor! Never practice lying down to indicate cold boxes without odor; that’s practicing false alerts!

In Part 1 “Up-Sit”, we explained how a sit indication with nose pressed to source increases reliability by clearly communicating the precise location of source. And we showed you how to shape an “up-sit” towards food (which will eventually be replaced by target odor). This post will show you the other foundational training we complete with our puppies away from odor, prior to introducing the sit indication at a hot box. Once the foundation is in place, indication training should be quick and easy.

Imprinting Target Odor

In the imprinting phase our goal is to build value for the target odor. Instead of focusing on how to make the dog stay at source, we make source so incredibly rewarding the dog doesn’t want to leave.

We start imprinting when puppies can eat solid food rewards, about 5 weeks of age. To teach a dog to find target odor, high value rewards must be in place, including food, toy and life rewards. Note that if your dog feels so unwell he’s not interested in food, it will be difficult to entice the dog to search. At every class, we begin with a taste test to determine if the dog loves that food on that day in that environment. And if the dog fails the taste test, we can’t proceed with training because that’s not rewarding.

During imprinting, we are shaping a positive association with odor in the scent detection lab. Learn more at:

Progressing at the dog’s pace, the goals are:

  • Strong obedience to odor. Your dog should be proficient at systematic, confident, independent searches for target odor, and in finding the precise location of source, including high hides.
  • High commitment to staying at odor. Your dog should go to source and stay there, with attention focused at source. If your dog is looking to you for reassurance and offering obedience behaviors to please you, you need to build more value for odor before you make it harder.

The dog is learning so we reward the dog EVERY TIME he finds source. It should be easy to succeed and hard to fail. Coincidentally, it turns out that most dogs are ready to begin indication training after about a hundred searches. The exact number varies for each individual dog, but most students say it took longer than they expected. Expect that most dogs need hundreds of repetitions to generalize “find it” before it’s advisable to make it harder and ask the dog to “show me”. You need to build the value of odor before you test the value. Note that if you embark on indication training too soon, you ramp up the pressure and the dog may leave source, offer frustration behaviors, lose motivation and/or quit searching. Whenever your dog fails several times, you need to make it easier and be more rewarding.

At its best, scent detection training is an iterative cycle, where you train, trust and verify your scent dog, and then repeat. Whenever you introduce a challenge that turns out to be too hard, you’ve located a hole in your training. Whether you blame it on yourself, or your dog, or both, you always have the option to address that hole through training, so your next test can be more successful. So, if imprinting doesn’t go as well as you envisioned, consider whether there are some holes in your puppy’s foundation training, which can be addressed away from odor, where mistakes are “less expensive”.

Fun & Games

There are some prerequisites that it helps to have in place before training a sit indication for high hides. If you only choose 1 goal, choose to have fun together every day. You only need 2 minutes. Once you get into the habit of training for breakfast, it becomes easy and you should both look forward to it as a positive start for your day.

Sometimes it can feel overwhelming when your puppy needs to learn so many things. Don’t waste time in analysis paralysis. Games are fun, and strengthen your bond with your dog while teaching foundation skills. Take what you like, and leave what you don’t, from the list below. Introduce a wide array of skills, building drive and focus with 2-5 minute sessions, never drilling. Later on, you can revisit and perfect skills as necessary.

  • It’s critically important to socialize young puppies. There are many resources available to help, including puppy classes at Kayenna Kennels, Donna Hill’s Online courses at the Service Dog Training Institute, or Puppy Culture.
  • Play – Try many games and rewards to learn about what your puppy loves most e.g. play tug, flirt pole, fetch, frisbee, hide and go seek, dock diving, or tricks like a handstand. For a great online course, try Polona Bonac’s Let’s Play Course at
  •  “Get it” jump up to get the food on cue
  • Food play – Catch the food or chase the food
  • Default to don’t steal the food – Cookie Zen game Part 1 and Part 2. There must be very clear cues for when the puppy should demonstrate impulse control and ignore distracting food vs. drive ahead and get the food reward on command
  • Engagement with the handler – Engagement is the dog’s desire to work with you. Instead of thinking how to I get my dog not to disconnect from work, focus on becoming the cookie. When you’re the most rewarding part of the dog’s life, the dog will offer attention to you by default, watching and waiting for the next opportunity to work and have fun. Two great programs for building engagement are Naughty But Nice by Absolute Dogs (UK) and Michael Ellis’ puppy training through Leerburg streaming videos.
    • Once your dog is engaged in a distraction free environment like your living room, then take it on the road and practice in new locations. If your dog is too distracted to take food rewards in an environment, you need to build confidence gradually, before you ask the dog to work. Set yourself up for success by breaking it down into even smaller, more achievable steps
    • Hide and go seek forms the basis of a reliable off leash recall, also useful for tracking and search and rescue
  • Sit (If you prefer to train a down indication, check out this post)
    • A tight, tidy, tuck up-sit away from odor
    • If your dog has never sat away from odor, sitting at odor is less likely. Set your dog up for success by generalizing your sit behavior. Many certifying officials have a pet peeve that teams have an argument at the start line when the handler repeatedly asks the dog to sit and the dog ignores them. When you’re building drive for nosework, I recommend against asking for any obedience behaviors. But if you really want your dog to sit at the start line, train the behavior so your dog is very reliable and sits on the FIRST AND ONLY cue.
    • Sit Play Sit game teaches the dog to sit in high drive and excitement
    • Impulse control games –sit by default several times a day e.g. sit to get out of the crate, sit to go outside for potty, sit for dinner, sit while you’re out walking, etc. Great resources are crate games by Susan Garrett and boundary games by Naughty but Nice
  • Acclimatization – Comfort in the search environment. For example, if you attend classes and your dog is very scared of the car trip to get there, and scared of the other people and dogs, he will not be able to work to his full potential. Those aren’t scent detection issues, and can be addressed away from odor.
  • Comfort with the gear you’ll use in nosework e.g. buckle collar, leash, longline, harness
    • Teaching loose leash heeling
  • Calming behaviors – Dogs need to learn there’s an on switch for work and an off switch for relaxing. You can put those on cue, so the dog is able to quietly and calmly wait for his turn between searches. Check out this video of Jager ignoring distractions to stay on the table. This allows the dog to go to the start line below threshold, so he is able to think and work. Constant frenetic activity like spinning, barking and lunging is not conducive to focusing on a job. One easy way is to teach the dog to relax at your feet or on a table while you’re watching tv in the evening.
  • Potty training – Regardless of your dog’s scent detection skills, dogs that urinate or defecate during searches are usually eliminated from consideration by the officials in most organizations. So, it’s important that your dog can potty before and after searches and be ready for searching. Check out Donna Hill’s online courses for training service dogs for ideas for pottying on cue in challenging environments such as small concrete dog runs at airports.
  • Agility – Many scent detection teams cross-train agility, such as disaster dogs. It’s a fun way to spend time together and stay in shape, and good physical condition allows the dog to search at the peak of his abilities without being limited by fitness. Most of the skills in this post complement agility training. Note that dog’s need to learn to understand opposites: handler focus vs odor focus, running an agility course at a distance vs. heeling with full attention on the handler vs. sniffing for fun during a walk. Proficiency can take years, so be happy with progressive approximations as you build the final performance with your canine partner.
    • Shadow handling – similar to off leash heeling, but less precise, the dog stays close to the handler, following the handler’s movement. When the handler turns, the dog turns with her. When the handler accelerates, decelerates or stops, the dog follows accordingly
    • Rear end awareness (essential for 2 on 2 off contact performance and obedience heeling)
    • Navigating unstable surfaces
    • Build value for a low jump
    • Wrap objects such as pylons
    • Tunnels and agility equipment
    • Distance – forward sends, lateral sends, recalls to heel, recalls over equipment. Check out this fun nosework game, recalling over containers.
    • Impulse control – crate training, start lines, table targeting at a distance with sit and/or down
  • Forward focus
    • Created through leash pressure and/or
    • Games: 321 Get It countdown (start with food, optional to progress to toys the dog loves)
  • Targeting – You can begin with training the dog to press its nose to your hand. But in nosework, the dog needs to leave you to focus forward and independently find odor at a distance, so you need to get your hands out of the mental picture as soon as possible.
    • Targeting objects. For example, dogs can learn to press their nose to a cotton duck bag you’ll use for narcotics hides, pylons, or large plastic cups from the dollar store (at 37 seconds) . Teach your dot to work at a distance, start by targeting a table or piece of wood on the ground. You could also opt to have the dog stare at objects such as a coin (stopping short of pressing the nose to the object, but still with focused attention). Use what you have.

For each of the foundation skills and games, expect to continue to grow as your dog’s skills progress. There’s always a balance between “need for speed” vs. “crying for control”. Training is never “done”, as even working scent detection K9’s require daily maintenance training and annual testing to keep their skills sharp.

Train your sniffer dog in our online Scent Dog Foundation Course or if you’re in the Calgary,  drop in for a one hour scent detection session at classes at Kayenna Kennels.


Online Sniffer Dog Training:
Our Brittany Spaniel Puppies:
© 2019 Hunter’s Heart. Media by Hunter’s Heart, Videoblocks, Storyblocks, Epidemic Sound.

1 thought on “How to Train Your Dog to Sit at Scent – Part 2 Scent Puppy Foundation”

  1. Pingback: Only a few spots left! INTRODUCTION TO NOSEWORK class starts Wed. April 18 (Calgary), Hunter's Heart, Canada

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