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Training A Scent-Detection Dog
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Warren and pupil

Other boxes had other scents: dead squirrel, kibble, deer bone. His nose quickly rejected them to find the box that made the ball come down the chimney. Lucy put ladders and chairs and slippery cardboard in front of the bank of boxes. After worrying and thinking hard, Jaco leapt over them, then shoved them aside with his nose. And there was the plywood box containing human remains. He planted his nose there. Lucy waited several beats. So did Jaco, his head cocked, fixed, like a fox at a mousehole. At last, as he knew it would, the good tennis ball came down the chute. And Jaco got his game. I make it sound so simple. Oddly, it was.

THE GAME’S THE SAME

We took the game outside the garage, and Jaco generalized quickly. No boxes with chimneys? Never mind. They’re not part of the scent-ball-tug triumvirate. He started to find scent source in the yard, in the woods, in the warehouse, in the alley behind a large home-improvement store. He was always astonished and pleased. His head would bob up and down like one of those toy drinking birds, almost touching the source, swinging up to make sure that I was coming to reward him, bringing it down to fix his nose as close to the source as he could get. The rules never changed; the game was the same.

Of course, this didn’t happen overnight, and, like any scent-detection dog, Jaco’s a work in progress. As am I, his handler. But as Jaco learns to find the scent of human remains hung in a tree, buried in the ground, downwind, upwind, in the heat and in the rain, on short searches and long searches, I’m watching him with joy. He’s not perfect. No dog is (nor is any handler). He adores chasing insects, possibly a vestige of his past life, when he was in a kennel and bored and flies were a great distraction. But he’s learned that a live tennis ball is more fun than a fly.

He needs no command. A tennis ball on a string is waiting on the ground when he leaps out of his crate. He grabs it. We go to wherever the training search starts. I show him a second ball, he drops the first, grabs for the second and misses, and I tuck both into my pocket. This ritual betrayal is his signal to start the hunt. His eyes light up, his mouth opens and he leaps away from me. Game on. Recently, I hid training material in an acre or so of deadfall and heavy brush and mud, the kind of mess created by a flooding river. A brisk wind whipped scent through the fallen trees and debris. He’d never worked in conditions this physically challenging.

So that he couldn’t track me back, I started him in an area away from where I’d walked to plant the material. I tucked the tennis balls in my pocket and he threw his head and ran. Within a minute, he was working more than 150 feet away from me, balancing on logs at the outer edge of the pile, then working his way back in. I could see him lift his head as he found scent drifting through one side of the pile. He ran around the edge, working to get ever closer. I stood there, watching him teach himself, watching his intense focus, watching him learn a new search pattern in the jigsaw puzzle of logs and branches. I was a bit worried about this new and precarious environment. He was not.

For Jaco, the tangle of wood, wind and mud was simply in the way of the three things he wanted: Scent. Ball. Tug.

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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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