How to evaluate a toy-rewarded dog for scent detection


June 12, 2023

Photo: Bang/iStock / Getty Images Plus/Getty Images

Photo: Bang/iStock / Getty Images Plus/Getty Images

In my previous blog post, we made a hypothetical trip to a shelter to evaluate dog candidates for scent detection and left off before talking about specifics on how to evaluate a toy-rewarded dog for scent detection.

Before we get into that, though, let me make this simple: You’re trying to determine whether the dog you’re evaluating wants the toy badly enough to work hard to get it. If the dog isn’t willing to work hard for what you have to offer, you won’t likely be successful in training that dog.

It’s also worth noting here, that there is no such thing as a 100 percent reliable way to test a dog for anything, and that includes purpose testing, such as what we’re discussing. Having said that, we can get a good idea of a dog’s drive by using some specific methods that I’ve used for many years when selecting dogs for detection work.

Another thing I’d caution you about is letting emotion play a role in this evaluation. It’s easy to form an attachment to a dog that you’re interacting with as closely with as you will during this test. Just as with initially choosing a dog from among the many you may encounter at a shelter, you must remain objective if you’re to make a professional decision here.

A note on safety: Highly toy-driven dogs want the toy and they want it badly. Many times they will ignore things that are in their way of getting and biting the toy — that includes your hands and fingers. If you aren’t careful, you’ll be bitten, likely by accident, but a dog bite hurts and it can result in a need for stitches if a canine digs into your skin and rips or tears. Just be cautious and use a toy that has a string attached so that you can keep your hand and fingers a bit more out of the line of fire, so to speak, when you are playing with the dog and the toy.

In an upcoming segment, I’m going to publish my test score sheet and instructions for its use when evaluating a toy-reward dog. Feel free to use it or modify it to suit your program. All I’d ask is that if you share, leave the author footnote attached.

To begin, we want to know how attentive the dog becomes upon realizing that you have a toy. We want to evaluate how focused the dog gets by just seeing the toy and watching you play with it.

If that test shows that you should proceed, we need to test how distracted the dog gets when it hears a sudden noise. The sudden noise should be conducted while the dog is focused on the toy to measure whether the dog ignores the toy as a result of hearing the sound.

Next, we want to determine whether the dog is distracted by interacting with another person while you have it focused on the toy. Then, we test the level of intensity that the dog has to get the toy when it is inaccessible.

In the last test, the dog is evaluated for its desire to hunt for a hidden toy. The toy will be placed in different areas out of sight of the dog and the dog is observed to see how long and how intently it will continue to hunt until it finds the ball or gives up.

Food drive is evaluated in much the same way. You can simply substitute a piece of highly desirable food for the toy and conduct the same tests. Just be aware that most food-reward dogs are not going to exhibit the same level of intensity for a toy that a high toy-drive dog will show for a toy. That isn’t to say that food-drive dogs are less desirable, I’ve trained and worked with many food-drive dogs over the years and they can develop into just as reliable and accurate detector dogs as toy-rewarded dogs.

In the next two segments, I will share more about the test score sheet and its instructions for its use. If you have any questions about them, feel free to contact me.


About the Author

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David Latimer is founder of the World Detector Dog Organization, online at He can be reached at

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