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Training A Scent-Detection Dog
Jaco is a two-year-old German Shepherd from the Czech Republic.

About a week after Jaco came to live with us, one of our neighbors saw him gazing at me with his enigmatic umber eyes. Leaping across species and gender boundaries, she declared, “He looks at you just like he’s a mail-order bride!” But I didn’t want Jaco for his gaze—which, by then, we were pretty sure wasn’t sociopathic—I wanted him for his nose. And I wanted that nose up and running as soon as possible.

I had spent eight years searching for the missing and dead with Solo. Only months after he died at the age of 11, we got word from the vendor that she had a good working dog prospect for me to assess. Part of me wanted a puppy, but I also wanted a dog who was sufficiently developed to allow me to see if, as an adult, he would have what I needed: the drive and mental stability to search for hours in bad conditions.

Not unlike a vaguely suspicious spouse who realizes it might be good to know more about his mysterious mail-order bride, I did an Internet search and stumbled upon an early video of Jaco trying to find a PVC pipe filled with Semtex (a plastic explosive notoriously popular with terrorists) under one of several milk crates. I say “trying” because Jaco wasn’t very good. I could see both his sincerity and his hesitation. He was 14 months old then, with tufts of hair going every which way, like a teenager who had just fallen out of bed. Is this what you want? He kept glancing at the trainer, and then back at the three plastic crates. One had the pipe underneath. He offered a tentative down next to it. It looked as though he hadn’t bothered using his nose. He was smart enough to cue off the trainer, who kept her foot planted on the positive crate.

The video gave me pause. I had expected a bundle of muscle and drive with a superfine nose, all parts installed and in working order. I wondered if this was why Jaco had been sent to the United States.

Still, I wanted to get going. I wanted to fill that handsome sable head with new marching orders, a world of toys and treats, a rich vocabulary, and so many new people he would soon realize how wonderful humans were (even if I knew better). In my American ignorance, despite all the evidence that he was mostly goofy and playful, I wrongly assumed that he’d had a puppyhood devoid of play and stimulation. I wanted to teach him to fetch and tug, and sit, and down and heel.

Most importantly, I wanted to expose him to the entirely new range of odors he would need to recognize to start searching for the dead. Those odors are as complicated as people; forensic scientists have identified at least 480 volatile compounds emitted by human remains, and the list keeps growing.

As I prepared to institute my complex battle plan, a more experienced friend—one who had trained many more search dogs than I—stopped me and gave me advice that I hated. “Sometimes,” my friend said, “doing nothing is better than doing something.”

I’m not exactly Zen, so it took time to understand what she was saying. When her simple remark sunk in, I realized that it was the best training advice I’d ever received. Making Jaco sensitive to what I did or said, teaching him to gaze adoringly into my eyes before he moved? That was the wrong approach. The definition of “doing nothing” depends on the individual dog, but in general, it means slowing down and not tossing a dog you don’t know into a scrum of people and new situations he’s not comfortable with, flooding him instead of teaching him. It means not rushing into training that might backfire.

I backed off my ambitious initial plans. Instead, David and I cuddled Jaco. Oddly, he liked that. We taught him to get in his crate without a fuss and wait for his food rather than scrabble to get out. He learned to navigate our slippery stairs without hesitation, and to stay off the counters. He had only one accident in the house. We taught him to tolerate his nails being Dremeled without grabbing our hands in irritation. I took Jaco into tobacco warehouses and deserted office buildings, and he stopped eyeing dark corners with as much suspicion. But I didn’t invite some of my wonderful but voluble friends over to meet him, and I didn’t parade him around the farmers’ market.

I waited. We bonded. And he didn’t growl at David again. Instead, when he saw my husband, Jaco’s mouth would fall open in a delighted grin.

TEACHING OBEDIENCE TO ODOR

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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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