Do detector dogs lie?

By |  May 2, 2018

Latimer dogsLet’s start with being honest with our customers and ourselves: All odor detection systems — whether mechanical, electronic or biological — have error rates. There is no such thing as a perfect testing instrument or system.

Well-trained detector dog teams are very good at what they do, better than humans at pest detection. Detector dog teams are the most portable and efficient scent detection system available. The challenge, faced by dedicated detector dog handlers and trainers, is how to minimize false alerts and other errors. And in order to address an error, we first must be able to identify and define it.

The most common definition for a false alert describes when the dog indicates (and the handler agrees) that it has found an item or substance, that the dog was trained to detect, when in fact, the item or substance is not in the area indicated. The more technically accurate term is “false positive.” In my opinion, it’s usually more accurate to call such alerts “unconfirmed alerts” — read on, and I’ll explain.

The word “false” is not exactly appropriate to describe the error we’re discussing, because the human context of the word “false” implies that the dog is being untruthful, unethical or immoral. The fact is dogs have no moral or ethical standards by which to evaluate the integrity or veracity of their actions. Dogs learn what behaviors will result in pleasurable consequences for certain behaviors and which will result in discomfort or no pleasure. All of this is based on their experience with the trainer, and then with the handler. Dogs are in fact, some of the simplest (albeit least understood) creatures with which we associate.

The bottom line for the dog is “What can I do that will make you happy?” They are constantly searching for their Holy Grail, which includes praise from the handler and a reward. That is one of the things that make them such good work partners, but it can also be their Achilles’ heel.

Think about it this way: The dog sits down somewhere and immediately, we praise it effusively and offer it a tasty treat or a highly desired toy. For the dog, then, life is great: “I make an alert, I get rewarded and praised.”  It’s simple and easy to understand. The dog searches diligently for the target odor, because when the odor is found, very good things happen in the dog’s life. The only reason your dog needs to celebrate is for you to celebrate, he or she is just as happy to celebrate at a false alert as at the source of target odor.

The first step in avoiding false alerts is to make sure the dog understands that the odor isn’t the important thing odor is the only thing.

Next week, I’ll discuss some of the mistakes we, as handlers, can make that may cause a dog to false alert.

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