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Training A Scent-Detection Dog
Jaco gets a grip on a section of rubber blast hose, which is used to train dogs in bitework.

A month after he came to live with us, Jaco and I went to see Lucy Newton, who’s quiet and exacting. She likes dogs. And most people. Unlike me, she is settled within herself. She has a couple of decades of experience training search-and-rescue dogs, patrol dogs, human-remains detection dogs, narcotics dogs, conservation dogs. I have enough experience to have had some success, but I’ve had notable failures as well. I also had some bad habits. It wasn’t just Jaco who had things to learn.

Lucy breaks tasks down into their smallest increments, partly for the handler’s benefit, sure, but largely because it helps the dog. Her directions to me were specific and clear: Open Jaco’s crate in the car. Clip his leash to his flat collar. Clip the collar on Jaco. Don’t hurry. Gather yourself. Only then, let him leap to the ground.

A chartreuse tennis ball on a string waited on the ground where he landed. His eyes glowed, his teeth snapped and he pranced into the nearby garage, the tennis ball clenched in his jaws, its short string hanging from his mouth like the tail of a dead mouse. After four weeks of cold turkey on any toy that resembled a ball, after four weeks of bonding boredom, Jaco finally got his fix.

Lucy waited for us at the back of the large garage, standing on a platform behind a bank of eight identical plywood boxes hanging from a rail. Part of a detection-dog training system developed by K9 trainer Randy Hare, the boxes had big PVC pipes sticking out of their tops like chimneys and clear plastic covers that could be raised and lowered on their fronts. Tinny rock music blared from a radio in the corner. Jaco ignored the music. The floor was slippery. Jaco ignored that. His mouth was full of tennis ball, and he was straining at the end of his leash. He’d been ball deprived and he didn’t want it taken away from him.

Without fanfare or a single word, Lucy dropped another tennis ball on a string down one of the box’s chimneys. She made it jerk around like a psychotic puppet. The trap was set. Jaco’s eyes widened. Forget that saying about a rabbit in the mouth being worth two in the bush. So untrue. He dropped the sodden ball on the concrete, then lunged toward the herky-jerky ball in the box. I lurched along behind, trying to keep his leash loose. Lucy, a masterful puppeteer, kept the tennis ball on the string both inside the box and inside Jaco’s jaws with slow, methodical tugs. His tail wagged slowly, his eyes were slitted in ecstasy.

That particular box held more than a bouncing ball. Wafting from a hidden compartment was the scent of human remains. As he blissfully tugged, Jaco got constant hits of this scent. That’s why Lucy let Jaco bogey that ball. That’s how you addict a dog to a scent. It was Jaco’s first step in learning the most important concept a detection dog needs: “obedience to odor.”

This moment was why my friend hadn’t allowed me to teach Jaco to “watch me” or “sit” or “down” or “give” or “fetch.” Or “come,” for that matter, as important as it is. Those would come later. For a scent-detection dog, one desire should override everything else: getting to the odor, wherever it’s located. That was what Lucy was teaching Jaco with Randy Hare’s box system. Other training techniques work, too. But this particular method made Jaco’s job simple and mine even simpler: I just had to get out of his way; he could essentially teach himself. He learned that three things were connected: if he could get as close as possible to a particular odor, he’d get a ball and a fun tug.

Over the next two weeks, in two 10-minute sessions each day, I watched Jaco transform from a hesitant “Is-this-it?” dog into an obsessed “I’m-at-the-box-with-the-scent-so-giveme- my-tug-game!” dog. Lucy, occasionally a tease, would wave a tennis ball on a string in front of his face, and he’d ignore it. If it wasn’t right next to the scent, he knew the ball wouldn’t put up a fight. Lucy threw a bunch of balls onto the floor, where they lay enticingly, like sirens on a rock. Jaco, now wiser than Odysseus, ignored them. He knew those balls were a trick, that the only time he’d get a ball to fight properly was if he had his head buried inside the box that contained the scent of human remains.

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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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