When she’s excited, Iris wags her whole body. Even the nylon tunnel can’t contain her delight. The black Lab disappears into the tunnel, and her joy becomes sound: slap, slap, slap, tail on tube. You’d never know it’s dark in there. Rusty, a smiling yellow Lab, and Ruger, a German Shepherd whose smile is hidden by the large toy in his mouth, can’t wait for whatever comes next. That turns out to be the arrival of Falco and his owner, Jason Rogers.
It’s a sunny but cool morning in Upper Lake, Calif., gateway to Mendocino National Forest, where California Department of Fish and Game (DFG) K-9 program supervisor Lynette Shimek is hosting a monthly training session. Finding a mussel in a boat bilge takes practice, especially when daily work in the field has revolved around other tasks—say, deer poaching.
A warden’s work can be unpredictable. To keep the dogs on their toes, the group often switches locations, but Shimek’s rural property, complete with barn and fields, is the base camp. All around, mysterious props hint of hard work disguised as serious fun: tunnels, ramps and wooden pallets; jars, balls, tugs, pails and climbing rigs. “You want to first teach them that it’s fun,” Shimek says.
No need to tell the dogs they are here to save the planet. Let them enjoy the scents of nature, the breeze with its hints of bear and deer. Or was it elk? These dogs know the difference.
How It Works
“I think any dog can be taught anything,” Shimek says. “It’s a matter of communicating with them.” That’s no small task when it comes to scent detection. A dog’s brain is closely hitched to the 220 million olfactory receptor cells in their noses. Humans, on the other hand, have about 5 million receptors, and this can make it a challenge for a person to understand how strong a dog’s sense of smell actually is, and how to harness it.
Shimek explains it this way. “A person sheds 40,000 skin cells [groups of which are called rafts] per minute. On each raft are odors. Each is individual to the person, and everyone has different types of sweat glands that give different odors. Then, think of all the different things you put on your skin daily—shampoos, soaps, deodorants, creams. There are compounds within odors.” And the odors themselves have a life, influenced by wind speed, temperature, time of day and terrain.
Training doesn’t end with graduation. DFG’s certification standards require 16 hours of monthly maintenance training, and both agility and nose work are part of the practice session.
Hidden on Shimek’s property are animal scents encased in jars. For deer, hide material is often used, tucked into wooden pallets and a series of lockers. Odors travel, and working with lockers helps the dogs learn to pinpoint the source. More broadly, a search will entail what Shimek calls a “scent picture.” For example, one spent casing differs from 20 spent casings. A Seattle Police Department K-9 training document describes how a dog can decipher that hidden world. A person walking through an area, for example, leaves two types of evidence that make up the ground scent picture: airborne rafts and other debris that fall to the ground, and the disturbance of the earth from their steps. Each footfall alters the ground, prompting changes in soil chemistry and bacteria, which alerts the dog to a change from the surrounding area.
Once the dog locks onto a scent, he or she alerts the handler. In a passive alert, the dog remains quiet and indicates the find by sitting, standing or staring. An active alert, also called an aggressive alert, involves barking or scratching. If the odor is on ground, the dog lies down; if it’s somewhere above chest level, the dog sits. The dogs must discriminate among competing smells, and there are no rewards—treat, toy or a pat—for alerting on the wrong scent. “We don’t pay them for residual odors,” Shimek notes.