The detector dog must undergo a rigorous training program in order to perform safely in the field. There are several critical steps with the trainer as well as with the handler.
The duration of handler training with a personal dog varies from team to team, but can be as long as one year. Training a dog by a professional can take from 2 to 6 months. An important thing to understand is that training never ends; the dog will continue to learn daily throughout its career.
Curious about what training a detector dog entails? Read on!
How to start detection training?
There are two possible ways to train a detector dog.
In both cases, the basic training technique is the same. It is very simple on the face of it, but each dog is different. Therefore, you need an experienced person who will be able to adapt the approach as you go along.
1. Training by a professional
The first option is professional training. The trained dog will then be placed with a handler for training over a few weeks to two months, depending on the programme.
2. Training by the handler
The second possibility is that a person who wants to become a handler with his or her own dog is accompanied by an experienced specialist for training and team building. In this second case, the training will take longer.
What are the training steps?
There are 7 important steps to follow when training a dog for detection. The method discussed here is general. It is possible to include more steps, but it is also possible to take shortcuts. The important thing is to be guided by someone with experience in detection and to adapt to the dog in order to be successful!
Step 1: Find the dog’s favourite toy
You need to find the dog’s favourite toy, for example a ball or a Kong. Ideally, this toy should be easy to carry on a belt to simplify the work. From then on, the dog will only play with the toy during detection training in order to associate this privilege exclusively with detection.
Note that it is possible to train a dog using food. For professional purposes, however, this is not a technique we recommend.
Step 2: Looking for the toy
First, the dog is taught to look for its toy. The toy is thrown or someone is asked to hide it. Then, the dog is allowed to go to the toy by being given the command. It is important that the command be a simple word such as “search” or “find” and that this is the command that will be used throughout training. The first few times, the dog should be given a chance to catch the toy. The difficulty should subsequently be gradually increased.
Step 3: Hide the toy
The next step is to begin hiding the toy, making sure that the dog cannot catch it. The dog will become agitated and look for a way to get to the toy. This is one of the times when the desired signal can be incorporated (sit, down, bark, stare, etc.). As soon as the dog performs, the toy is thrown to him (a second toy identical to the one that is hidden, but which we will have on us).
Step 4: Integration of the first scent
Once the dog has understood the game, it is time to integrate the first scent. To begin with, it should be hidden with the toy. This way, the dog quickly associates the scent with its toy.
Step 5: Remove the toy
After several sessions, the toy is removed and only the scent is left. When the dog finds the first scent easily without the need for the toy, new scents can be introduced.
Step 6: Introducing new scents
To introduce the following scents, the unknown scent can be hidden on its own or the previous steps can be repeated with the toy and the scent together. Since it is a strong scent that is out of the ordinary, the dog will naturally be attracted to it. After a few seconds, with his nose on the scent, we ask for the dog’s signal, for example “sit”. As soon as the dog sits, he is rewarded.
Step 7: Associating the scent with play
After several training sessions, the dog will associate the new odour with play. This will work for all scents that are necessary for the work of the dog. The dog should have as much fun as possible during training when it finds the scents. This is the only reason for the dog to search.
A powerful nose capable of breaking down scents
A dog’s nose is very different from ours. Not only does it have a much greater capacity, but it also works differently. Its nose is powerful! The dog is therefore able to break down the scents it sniffs. This enables him to differentiate his toy from the odours he is looking for, but also to differentiate between all the odours he has learned. This allows him to find all the derivatives of the scents he knows.
For example, a drug detection dog will signal certain legal prescription drugs containing an amphetamine because it will recognize this ingredient in the drug’s composition. This also ensures that even if the scent is masked with a strong odour, such as coffee or perfume, the dog will have no difficulty finding it as it will recognize the molecule it is looking for among the others.
Train the detector dog to work in all environments
Once all the odours have been acquired by the dog, the hardest part of the job remains. You want a dog that is able to do its job in all possible environments, regardless of conditions and distractions. It is therefore important to know what kind of distractions the dog might have to deal with during a contract such as:
- Children’s toys
- Toys or food for animals/pets
- Various temperatures (cold, hot, humid)
- Limited space
- Slippery floor
- Loud noise
- Strong odours
These are factors that the dog must learn to ignore. We want him to have only one thing in mind: to find the odours that will allow him to have his toy and finally play with his master.
You also have to vary the difficulty of the hiding places; place the substance at different heights, vary the time of search and the time that the substance is hidden, etc. There are many variables that only experienced people are aware of and can help you work out how to be as effective as possible in the field.
Basically, you have to be consistently inconsistent in your training, since reality is inconsistent!
Detector dog training myths
We often hear negative comments or myths related to the detector dog.
Myth: The dog will die younger
It is not true that detector dogs die younger than other dogs. In addition to selecting our dogs according to specific health criteria, we make sure that they are in top form. This includes joint X-rays, blood tests, vet visits, quality food and supplements of all kinds. Nothing is too good for our working partners.
As a result, their life expectancy is the same as that of a family dog and often even higher.
Myth: The dog has to take drugs to find them
This is obviously not true! Dogs never come into contact with drugs or explosives. We follow very strict safety rules as this could be lethal to them.
Myth: The dog knows he is working when he is harnessed
Many say that the dog knows he is going to work when you put a harness on him. Certainly, this gives him a clue. However, we prioritize that the dog is ready to work regardless of its equipment. In the end, the dog’s only motivation is to play. A piece of equipment will not change his desire to have fun!