Let detector dogs take the lead


June 22, 2018

Dog training group photo

Attendees at the recent WDDO Seminar in Virginia Beach, Va. PHOTO: David Latimer

Our discussion about dogs and their ability to apply a cognitive process to problem-solving continues. Let’s examine some of the ways we interfere with and prevent the dog from bringing all its considerable capabilities to the odor detection task. What I’ve found over the years is that it is usually a matter of control and trust.

Some trainers and handlers control their detector dogs to the point that no room is left for the dog to apply its learned skills and problem-solving ability. These handlers move through a search, constantly bent over, repeatedly indicating with the extended hand and index finger exactly where the dog should sniff and continually repeating commands. This happens in many cases because these handlers simply don’t trust their dogs to do the job they were trained to do — at least not without a lot of help. They are, in many cases, afraid that the dog will miss some spot where the handler “knows” the target odor should be found.

Such handling methods prevent the dog from utilizing its sense of smell and applying the cognitive steps we discussed last week. Dogs handled this way soon learn that they have little control over the decisions and choices made during a search, and that they should look to the handler for input before making any important choice. It’s hard for me to understand, frankly, why handlers who control a dog to this extent even use a dog to do an inspection. They do a disservice to themselves, to their dogs and to the profession of canine scent detection.

Less talking, more inspecting

Continued extraneous chatter by the handler is a common issue. When a dog is given a command, we should expect a specific response. If we don’t get that response, remedial training is in order. Repeating words to dogs, uttered as commands, and yet not getting such a response, tends to reduce the value of our voices in the dog’s mind. It tells them that some of the commands we give aren’t important. The dog is left to discern which commands are relevant and to be complied with, and which can simply be ignored. You should make verbal communications with your dog meaningful, not just rhetoric.

Dogs that are allowed to, will learn to unilaterally track odor to source with little to no help from the handler. Developing that skill requires patience and encouragement from the trainer, if the dog is to figure out for itself how odor behaves and how best to pursue it.

Properly trained and handled dogs quickly learn that increasing concentrations of odor, for example, usually lead to the source and a reward. They also learn that decreasing amounts of odor are not productive to follow.

Properly trained and handled dogs also know that they, and they alone, are responsible for detecting odor. Just as importantly, they know that the handler trusts them and has confidence in them to do that.

Next week, we’ll discuss how to encourage your dog to use its ability and logic to help you solve odor detection problems.

Read Part I: Train your detection dog to think

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