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How to tell if your scent detection dog is really working

Chris Jakubin


If you have an allergen detection service dog or a scent detection dog of any kind, he should work every time you take him out with you, whether it’s a training problem or a real life search.  There may be times when you question whether or not your dog is actually doing what he was trained to do.  It can be difficult to tell sometimes.  Not all dogs that search well in training scenarios perform that way in everyday life.  Sometimes dogs that started out searching well all the time pick up bad habits as time goes by.  This test is designed to see if the dog is paying attention to the odors in his environment or if he is taking his cues from something else (most likely his handler).


From the first day your dog started smelling the deadly allergens that can harm you or your child, he has been conditioned and shaped to perform a job.  That job is to hunt.  Dogs naturally hunt because they have a genetic blue print to survive.   A dog in the wild will naturally hunt for food.  When your dog goes through training, we reshape that hunt drive into something useful to us.  We teach them to hunt for something other than just their dinner.  In our case, we teach them to hunt for allergens in the environment that we can’t see.  If it wasn’t for the genetic blue print to hunt and be part of a pack, dogs would be useless for this type of work.  So the question you should be asking is, “How well is my dog hunting?”


Here is a simple test you can run to evaluate your dog more objectively.


  1. Pick a new training location you haven’t been to before.  If you go to a location you have been to numerous times your dog may have already been conditioned in that environment and the test results may be skewed.
  2. Without you or the dog present, have a person familiar with your safe detection practices hide the training aids for you.  It should be a blind test for both you and your dog to make sure the dog is not responding to your unintentional handling cues.  Ensure you have the permission of the store owner and they know where you placed the aids.  Remember:   you may not be the only one around that is allergic.
  3. Place the training aids in a fair location; not too easy, not too hard.  Choose a place that is realistic but not overly challenging.
  4. Make this training problem the same as any routine store visit.  It is important not to cue your dog that this is a training problem.  Sometimes we can condition the dog by our routine actions in training.  If you always leave your dog in the car when you set up training aids but take him in immediately when you’re doing your routine work, then leaving him in the car will become a cue that he’s about to train.   Think about how your training routine might differ from your normal routine and make sure you avoid giving these cues, especially when trying to objectively test your dog.
  5. Walk through the place without giving any commands (verbal or physical) that may trigger your dog to hunt.  This initial part of the test is to see if the dog is hunting on his own and responding to odor without being told what to do.  Walk down the aisle where the training aids are placed.  Your trainer should give you a large enough area that you can observe his behavior without crowding or hovering over him.  Watch to see what your dog does.  Is he actively sniffing or is he just cruising?  Is he paying attention to scents in the air (can you see him move his head to better follow the air flow?) Does he slow down every once in awhile to investigate something? Does he look engaged and interested or like he’s on autopilot?  Is he watching people or the environment? Can you see any areas where he showed his typical changes of behavior (COB) for odor detection
  6. If your dog doesn’t respond on the first walk through,  don’t fret…try a different approach.  Sometimes we really don’t know what the environment is doing.  All the odor could be flowing in a different direction.  Taking different angles may give your dog the advantage he needs.  Remember during this test not to make the plants impossibly difficult.
  7. If your dog still doesn’t respond, then detail the area.  Give the dog your search command and present the area as you best see fit.  If tight search with many presentations is appropriate, then do that.  If a looser search is more fitting, go with that.  Whichever you choose, make sure you are doing your best work as a handler.  Your pattern should be smooth, consistent, thorough and swift as you search.
  8. If the dog still doesn’t hit the training aid, take time to evaluate why.  Don’t make any snap judgments from this one training problem.  One bad training day doesn’t mean your dog isn’t good.  Look for trends…if this test is failed run it again and see if you get the same results.  If he’s missing odor often, video tape the search and watch it afterward.  You may be able to see something you missed while handling. Record all your training with both written and video documentation to show what you have been doing.  Sometimes a professional trainer can look at your training sessions and recommend suggestions that might really help.  If you have a good relationship with the person or company who trained your dog, talk to them about this problem.  If you don’t, most scent detection trainers are usually willing to help out fellow handlers.
  9. Here are some of the potential reasons for a dog to miss odor:
  10. Your dog is having a bad day.  Dogs have bad days indeed!  Environment, health and/or stamina issues could be the reason why.  This may seem like too simple of an answer, but often that is all it is.  Dogs are not machines.  They get sick, scared, tired and thirsty.  Are you productive when you’re sick or tired?  Dogs are the same way.  Service dogs are a tool we use to help keep someone safe, but sometimes your tools may not work.  Ensure you have your other tools available to keep yourself or your child safe.
  11. Your dog and/or dog team needs more training.  It may take a little repetition with these “real life” exercises to get your service dog to understand that his responsibility extends beyond training sessions into everyday life.  This often happens when handlers neglect to make everyday sessions productive for the dog.  Too many blank searches teach the dog that hunting is not worth it because he’s not going to be rewarded for his work.  It is CRITICAL to maintaining effectiveness that you give your dog something to find for which he can be rewarded.  This does NOT include rewarding the dog for his responses to odors you cannot visually verify.  (Ex:  if your dog searches and responds to a crumb on the floor, you can assume he is correct but you cannot be sure.  Praise and move away but do not give his reward.)
  12. Watch your handling on video to see if you are doing a good job.  It may be you that needs more work.
  13. If you have a dog that has been inconsistent throughout his working life, or if you are self-training and are trying to figure out if this dog is cut out for service work, you always have to consider the worst case scenario.  There are times that even with good consistent training, if your dog continues not to search on his own and consistently misses odor, it is possible he lacks the proper genetics to be a scent detection dog.  Not all dogs are suited for service work.  In fact, the vast majority of them are not.  A good service dog should ignore the distractors in the environment and stay focused on the learned and tasks.
  14. If this is the case you are working with a broken tool.  Would you hammer a nail if the handle was broken in half….why would you put a life at risk with a dog that doesn’t work properly?    Even with the proper training and care the dog without the right genetics for the job is incapable of properly performing his job.  If this is your personal service dog, consult with your service dog provider to get a replacement for the dog.  If you are training the dog for someone else, think very hard before proceeding.  There is no excuse for passing off a dog that is not working in the intended.