What the detector dog’s nose knows


May 14, 2018

For this third installment on pest control detection dogs’ false alerts, let’s discuss how bias can influence us — and in turn, our dogs — and how to avoid that.

Bias can come from pressure on the handler from customers, salespeople, supervisors or bystanders who believe that what you’re looking for is in an area that you’re asked to search. We’ve all had those assignments where you’re called to do a search and are told, “I know they’re here, I just need you to confirm it.” That happened even in my previous career as a police K9 handler.

Of course you feel pressure in such a situation, any human would. But here’s the problem: Your dog feels what you feel. The handler can, as a result of such pressure, inadvertently (or otherwise) create pressure on the dog to alert somewhere.

Another important aspect to remember about the alert is that it can come to serve as a sort of pressure relief valve for the dog. In other words, dogs soon come to realize that simply “sitting down somewhere” can end the anxiety of an extended search. For the dog to clearly understand and proficiently fulfill its role as an odor detector, it must understand that it and it alone is the sole, final arbiter of when and where an alert should be performed. There is little the handler or bystanders can do to improve a dog’s sense of smell. If the dog smells the odor, it should alert. If it doesn’t, it should not — and you should never coax or force it to.

If your dog is missing odor, there are ways to train to fix that, ways that don’t include you taking your dog to a specific spot and then convincing the dog to alert somewhere that you know or that you think odor should be found. It must be the dog’s decision, based on its training and experience. Dogs that are successful at scent detection develop a high level of independence from the handler’s control during a search — and subsequently, a high level of self-confidence.

This does not mean that the dog ignores the handler. It’s quite the opposite, actually: Great detector dogs understand that they are a part of the team. They understand that it is their role to do the sniffing and detecting in response to the command by the handler. The detector dog’s latitude to make independent decisions and choices is one thing that sets it apart from dogs trained in obedience, agility or other such activities that we can measure and observe through observation.

You can “blame the dog,” as many weak handlers do, but that won’t resolve the issue until you’ve learned how to trust your dog and how to allow it to do what it does best: Sniff for odor. Let the dog work and help you. Stop interfering and trying to influence when and where it should (or should not) alert.

About the Author

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David Latimer is founder of the World Detector Dog Organization, online at WDDO.org. He can be reached at latimer_david@yahoo.com.

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  1. “Trust the dog”…my meditation mantra.