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Training A Scent-Detection Dog
The education of a scent-detection dog.
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Jaco pulls me hard past the cars in the driveway, slowing to run his nose across the seam of each trunk. The Prius, the Leaf, the old Mercedes, our Honda Civic covered with road dust and acorns. It’s an obsessive-compulsive habit from his early adolescence in the Czech Republic, where he had started to learn to detect explosives. I keep him moving. Someday, however, he may have to search car trunks for the scent of human remains. Because I’d like him to do that, I don’t actively discourage his vestigial nose sweeps.

Jaco is two years old, a compact sable German Shepherd with a stiff, cream-colored ruff of fur encircling his neck. He looks like a cross between a wolf, a tortoiseshell cat and Queen Victoria. I first met him outside a working-dog vendor’s kennel in North Carolina. His name was Jack then. He was 17 months old, recently flown in from the Czech Republic. Many U.S. law enforcement agencies get their detection and patrol dogs from Europe, either directly or via vendors who go over and bring back dogs they think show promise for law enforcement or for ring sports such as Schutzhund. I had decided to go the same route for my next cadaver dog.

I had never considered bringing home an adult German Shepherd before. I’d always started with fuzzy pups with milk teeth and elastic brains ready to be molded. This time, we’d get a dog who was already a bundle of muscle, with huge ivory fangs and a mind of his own. My husband, David, and I talked a long time about this unfamiliar dog-acquisition route. David asked me uneasily how a dog bred and raised for law enforcement or military work might fit into our small household and my world of volunteer search and rescue. Would the dog bond with me? With David?

Of course, I assured him breezily. Look at all the cops who have dogs they adore, and vice versa. They rarely get them as pups. I didn’t tell David that I knew some cops who greatly respected but didn’t love their dogs. And while rare, I’d seen a few cops who were afraid of their own dogs.

When the vendor brought Jaco out to meet us, he eyed me obliquely, then walked stiff-legged over to David, stood at his side and growled gently at him. David stood still and avoided making chirrupy, encouraging noises. The vendor wasn’t disturbed in the least; she approved of that wariness. That was the East German border patrol lineage coming out.

This particular dog, the vendor told me earlier via text, was “a lot of dog,” “a working fool.” Maybe too much dog for me? I needed a dog to work alongside me, not climb up the leash after me. I was a volunteer who wanted a dog to find dead people, not seek out suspects. I didn’t need a dog who considered every stranger, or my husband, as a potential bad guy.

But the qualities one looks for in any scent-detection dog, whether for law enforcement or volunteer purposes, are similar: A dog with drive. One who can hunt for scent for hours and not give up. Those qualities can be easier to find in the thousands of young German Shepherds, Dutch Shepherds, and Belgian Malinois brought over each year from Europe to populate law enforcement K9 units in this country. These dogs—usually with ribs showing as a result of pacing in their kennels, being chronically underfed and then shipped long distances—arrive with the stench of kennel urine. They don’t arrive with cheery notes from their trainers. Or warning labels.

With imported “green” working dogs, it’s hard to know exactly how they were trained, what kind of health they’re in or what sort of personality they have. They all seem to have good noses (and a love of launching at a bite sleeve or a Gappay ball). We didn’t know if Jaco was housebroken or if he’d ever been in a home. We didn’t know if he was going to retain his suspicion of David.

Jaco’s early training had clearly involved bitework. When I brought out a section of rubber blast hose a few days after we brought him home, his teeth chattered with eagerness; he was trying to cap his own drive with that chatter. Then, he levitated and grabbed it, jolting me hard. He saw a jute bite sleeve at a training venue and dragged me to it, head low, gaze fixed, digging his nails into the concrete floor to get to it. The first few times I brought him into a warehouse, he was sure it was to play the bad-guy game. He glanced around quickly, ears pricked, forward on his toes, looking for a decoy skulking in a corner.

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Cat Warren is author of the New York Times bestseller What the Dog Knows: Scent, Science, and the Amazing Ways Dogs Perceive the World. A professor at North Carolina State University, she is also a volunteer cadaver-dog handler. 

catwarren.com

Photography by Ben Salama and Aimee Lyn

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