Scent Work for the Family Dog
We often associate scent work with working dogs like bomb detection or medical assistance dogs. New ways dogs can help people by using the dog’s incredible powers of scent discrimination are discovered regularly.
Recently, it was reported that trained dogs were able to sniff out malaria from the socks of children with malaria parasites and to distinguish between infected and uninfected children. The dogs correctly identified whether malaria was present or not in 70 percent of the infected children and in 90 percent of the uninfected children tested. This was research done by the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine and the charity, Medical Detection Dogs.
There are lots of scent discrimination activities the family dog can participate in and these activities are something many dogs and owners find fun and rewarding! It has been my experience, as a trainer, that scent discrimination exercises can increase confidence in a dog and can decrease problem and destructive behavior in some dogs who need a job or a purpose.
Scent discrimination activities take many forms. Two of my dogs are trailing dogs who specialize in searching for and locating missing animals. The training for this includes lots of practice time with target animals of different species. The “target” animals are animals who lay a trail (with their handler) which the trailing dog follows. As the trailing dogs learn and develop their skills, other animals and their handlers participate in the training as “decoys”. The decoy dogs and handlers also lay a trail, but the trailing dog must ignore their trails and follow the trail of the target dog who has also laid a trail. Other exercises make sure that the trailing dog is following the scent of target dog and not that of the handlers. These dogs also learn to let the handler know if the missing animal they are looking for is deceased with a trained indication.
It’s well- known that dogs have been instrumental in looking for and finding lost people. Family dogs can also do search and rescue training through SAR organizations. In my area, the dogs and people must be certified by the RCMP.
Tracking and trailing just for fun is something a lot of people do with their dogs. When a dog is first learning, the trail should be easy for the dog to follow and always on safe terrain. I start dogs by having the tracklayer lay the trail on a vegetative surface because it holds scent well and so that the beginner dog can more easily follow the rafts of scent left by the tracklayer. There are several things that can influence the difficulty of the trail such as weather, age of the trail, vegetation, traffic, type of surface, how quickly the tracklayer was going when laying the track and so forth. I start with a very easy trail and build the difficulty as the dog gains skill and confidence. In all trailing exercises, the handler learns to read his or her dog and understand when the dog is out of odor and when the dog is following the scent. If there aren’t courses available locally, there are many good books on tracking and trailing. Tracking and trailing work are a good foundation for dogs to then do search work. It’s also handy to have a dog who can find lost keys or a missing cellphone!
Dogs can be taught to search areas for specific odors like various essential oils and there are organizations who certify instructors and hold trials for people who want to compete. The dogs often start by searching for food they like in a variety of situations like inside items, hidden around the exterior of vehicles, or hidden around exterior search areas.
I highly recommend scent work for family dogs – training is accessible online as well as in many communities and it’s a lot of fun!
Jane Bowers, B.A., CABC, CPDT-KA
Jane Bowers has been training dogs for over two decades. She teaches people to train their dogs in group and private training courses and has a keen interest in assisting dogs with behavioral issues. Her company is Dogs of Distinction Canine Training Inc. Jane has a monthly newspaper column on dog related topics and is a former host of a live call in TV show on animals. She is a strong advocate for force free and humane training methods for all animals. Jane has a degree in psychology and is certified as a dog trainer through the Certification Council of Professional Pet Dog Trainers and as a behaviour consultant through the International Association of Behavior Consultants and through the Association of Animal Behavior Professionals.
These organizations require a minimum number of continuing education units be obtained to retain certification. She is also a professional member of "The Pet Professional Guild," an organization committed to force-free training of animals and the "Association of Professional Dog Trainers," a professional organization of individual trainers who are committed to being better trainers through education. Jane is the content creator of the online course "Assessing and Interpreting Dog Behaviour," which is a course for law enforcement personnel who meet unfamiliar dogs in the course of their duties. She is the author of "Perfect Puppy Parenting," a guide to raising a happy, confident, well-behaved dog. Jane spent 17 years working for Customs Border Services and in joint teams with US Homeland Security and the RCMP. She spent a further 8 years working as an Animal Control Officer and Bylaw Enforcement Officer. Jane lives on a small farm with dogs, sheep, donkeys, and chickens. The dogs each came from situations that prevented them from living in their original homes. The dogs range in size and age and with the dog training and behavioral work, whether it's participating in the development of an online training course, working with a client's dog or tracking a lost pet or animal.