Errorless Learning in Scent Detection and Nosework Training

“The dog in his kennel barks at his fleas, the dog that hunts does not feel them”, Chinese Proverb1

Scent dog training is easy because most dogs naturally enjoy searching for scent! Humans perceive the world using their eyes, while dogs generally perceive the world using their noses2. When a human thinks of walking from point A to point B, his dog wants to sniff the scents discovered on their path, revealing a history and complexity that is difficult for us to comprehend. Scenting is a natural and integral part of being a dog. According to Papet et al, “hunting for prey desired by man is at the heart of canine olfactory

demonstration and forms the basis of the varied disciplines in which a dog is used today”3.

Most dogs already know how to use their noses. Born with eyes and ears closed, puppies use scent to find their mother’s milk. Just scatter some of their food on the lawn and most dogs will find their dinner. We train scent dogs how to systematically search for the target odor we want, and how to clearly show us the location of the source of scent, even when they must pass by their dinner to do so.

You just can’t take the scent dog instincts or drives out of a dog. It’s impossible to train any dog in such a way as to transform him into a robot, without any instincts or drives or feelings. What you can do is to recognise your individual dog for what he is, to understand his drives and how they influence behaviour, and apply that knowledge through evidence-based scent dog training techniques.

Errorless Learning in Scent Dog Training

We’re frequently asked “how do I get my dog to stay at scent?” It’s all about rewards. Our scent dog training techniques are so rewarding that your dog will not want to leave the scent!

Our scent dog training techniques are based on errorless learning4, as much as practical in the real world scent dog training. We control the scent dog training environment and the learning process to make success likely.

Errors are infrequent, because we only add one tiny challenge at a time. The dog will likely succeed on his first attempt, his second attempt, and so on. We mark every success the moment the dog succeeds, so it crystalizes in his brain that he’s being rewarded for finding the exact location of scent.

Watch 8 week old puppies succeeding in their first training session in our scent detection lab: The search lasts 6 seconds (from releasing him at 0:27 to picking him up at 0:33). The puppy succeeds within 2 seconds and he receives 6 rewards at source. That’s a rate of 1 reward per second. Now that’s rewarding!

Perhaps equally important, we only see behaviors we want, and none of what we don’t. The puppy never looks away, gets distracted, wanders off, or asks help. We aren’t rehearsing errors, just building the behavior chain we want. We’re carefully controlling the environment to set the pup up for success, building confidence and drive.

Scent dog training by some other methods can be a slow process that begins involving many errors. But errors aren’t required for learning, and in fact may hamper learning5. Don’t start by offering 23 incorrect boxes in front of one correct one. Your dog’s chance of failing is 96%! Instead, make sure your dog is watching from 1 foot away while you put food in a bowl and release him to find it. Then gradually move the bowl clockwise around the room. Viola, a systematic search that helps the dog find reward in just a few seconds.

We’ll show you how to start right and finish right. Our students find that once their scent dogs are trained, they don’t have to do much because the dog naturally performs the job he loves.

Proven Scent Dog Training Techniques

We take the ideal performance of a scent dog with a systematic, independent search at a distance despite distractions, and break it up into many small achievable components. Watch

Scent Dog Training Prerequisites

For example, before we begin teaching a scent dog to search in the scent dog training “lab”, the following prerequisites should be in place:

  1. A taste test determined which high value rewards the scent dog prefers most, on that day, in that environment
  2. The scent training dog is conditioned to the clicker or verbal reward marker
  3. The scent training dog is comfortable in the scent training lab environment
  4. The handler has a clear understanding of how, when, and where to reward, and
  5. The handler has practiced rewarding without the dog, so that the reward process is on time, at source and effective in building the desired performance.

So, if the scent training dog spits out the food the handler brought, we do not start the training session until we find a highly rewarding motivator for that dog, on that day, in that environment. Then we can jump in.

On the first repetition, the handler brings their scent training dog inches away from the first box and restrains him. The trainer teases the dog with the high value reward and places it in the food bowl. When (s)he drops it into the first box, the handler releases the leash. The dog surges forward enthusiastically to grab the reward. Note how we set the scent training dog up for success, by minimising the chance for errors. For example, the scent training dog would be unlikely to wander off because he chose his favourite food reward and was paying full attention while he watched it being dropped just inches away. Once the scent training dog is proficient, we move to the next step.

Our proven scent training techniques deliver the rewards the scent training dog wants most, in the most effective way6. The scent training dog builds muscle memory, confidence, drive and experience, while having fun. Our proven scent training techniques work quickly and effectively, for most dogs, from big to small, old to young, of all breeds and abilities.

Scent Dog Training Should Prevent Problems, Not Fix Problems by Retraining Later

Problem behaviours are easier to avoid, than to fix by retraining the scent dog training, after problems arise! The more successes your scent dog has, the faster, more efficient, and less frustrating learning will be.

Never forget that you get what you reward. So if you reward your scent dog for a bunch of behaviours, you’ll get a bunch of behaviours. If you reward your scent dog for finding scent 6 feet away, don’t be surprised when your dog stops 6 feet away from scent, instead of at scent (or within 2 inches of “source”, the highest concentration of odor).

We hate to see scent dogs fail. Some common mistakes include:

  1. Not choosing clearly defined goals– for example, not choosing one indication for nosework. If you don’t know what you want, it’s easy to fail. We’ll show you how to choose the best indication for you and your dog, and we’ll show you how to train it successfully, while having fun
  2. Rewarding the scent dog for undesirable behaviours e.g. staring at the handler, leaving source, digging, or biting. We don’t allow dogs to rehearse unwanted behaviours because our protocols make it difficult to fail
  3. Overestimating what the scent dog knows – handlers often expect one performance at class, and we repeatedly see something else. For example, the handler will say at home their dog indicates by lying down, but in class, he repeatedly walks past source without slowing. We test the dog’s understanding, and don’t move on to the next step until he’s proficient
  4. Showing the scent dog the location of odor, then rewarding him – this teaches the dog that when a search is tough, he can quit and the handler will reward him
  5. Cueing the location of scent with unintentional body language – handlers should never move to source, then stand there, because dogs tend to stop when handlers stop. Our protocols proof handler movement past the scent, while the dog remains at source indicating its location
  6. Repeating cues e.g. saying “find it” and or “show me” or repeating the scent dog’s name – if your dog doesn’t know his job or isn’t doing it, naming it won’t help him. There should only be one cue per search. We ensure the dog is proficient, before we add a verbal cue. We only cue behaviours once, and our dogs reliably and enthusiastically perform the work
  7. Blaming failures on a “bad” “lazy”, “dumb” or “untrainable” dog – we’ll help you overcome challenges quickly, so training is fun, and your scent dog is a pleasure to work with. Almost every dog can learn scent detection.

Scent dogs and handlers who use our proven scent training techniques don’t need to eliminate common mistakes, but instead, they succeed early and often, forming automatic muscle memory. We start right to finish right. It becomes easy. We’ll guide you through the process of building a rock solid foundation for your partnership, from inception.

We love to show scent training teams what they can achieve and help them become the best they can be. Considering all that our dogs do for us on a daily basis, the least we can do is to offer them our very best in return.

Learn to train your sniffer dog with our online Foundation Course. Register at:

K9 Scent Detection Training Resources

  2. From Fire Hydrants to Rescue Work, Dogs Perceive the World Through Smell, Fresh air website, downloaded Oct. 6, 2016 from
  3. Feller, DA, 2005. Heir of the Dog: Canine Influences on Charles Darwin’s Theories of Natural Selection. Thesis: University of Hawaii.
  4. Jesus Rosales-Ruiz, Teaching Dogs the Clicker Way, Jun-July 2007,
  5. Terrace, HS, Discrimination Learning with and Without Errors. Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior, Vol. 6, No. 1, 1963.
  6. Reid, Pamela. Excel-erated Learning, Explaining in plain English how dogs learn and how best to teach them, pages 90-96, James & Kenneth, Oakville, 1996.