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Scent Detection - The Human Factor
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Scent Detection – The Human Factor

Black Ridge Harley, 10 Months Old

Harley doing 3 successful finds in under 1 minute. We are at Pet Expo, International Center, with 5000 people, animals, and food court behind her. 2014. She is 10 months old.

I haven’t written anything on nosework in a while. As some of our team are moving past the ‘trial’ type of searches into more advanced work I wanted to highlight some of the reasons why some dogs fail to progress as fast as their owners want them too.

Stop Helping

I know owners hate to be told this – but your dog is better at searching than you are. I don’t know how many times I’ve watched dogs searching while their owners keep saying ‘search’ ‘search’ ‘search’ over and over. I don’t know about you, but I have a hard time concentrating when someone is ‘back seat driving’.  This is especially true when the dog ‘think’s it caught the slightest pool of odour and tried to follow it.

This brings me to the second ‘most common mistake’. Owners who use the leash as a steering wheel. I can tell you exactly what is going to happen. Eventually one day your amazing scent dog is just going to give up trying. “You think your so smart? Then YOU go find the scent.”  Let the dog work. Even if the dog is going off scent, following a false pool, or maybe lost all together – the dog is learning. The more the dog learns on his/her own, the better the dog will come.

Back Off

One of the countless things missed when taking the average scent class is teaching the owner to back off. Even when you tell people, repeatedly, to back off they never do. This is something you need to learn. Practice it. I know you want to play the game with the dog, but scent is the dog’s game. You are just the Pezz Dispenser.

  1. If your dog is hunting then stay out of the way.  Your interference could teach the dog behaviors that you don’t want. What I see most often is the dog who has lost confidence. Mostly because the owner wants a ‘pretty’ mark right from the beginner’s class.
  2. If you must bring your dog back then use a happy and energetic recall. If you are not sure that your dog is off track then do nothing. You can ruin a dog by repeatedly pulling it off the scent when you think it is being ‘doggie.’  Or a better idea is #3
  3. If your dog looks at you, ignore it. Avoid eye contact. Look in the direction you want your dog to search. Speaking will just reinforce the dog looking back at you.
  4. Stop saying search over and over. Your dog will give up and wait for your ‘approval’ before marking. Also, never – ever – use negative reinforcement if the dog is marking on the wrong place. Let the dog explore, check it out, and move on.
  5. Don’t stop the dog. Never stop the dog. And if you missed that, do not bring the search to a dead stop before the dog has marked. Always keep your feet moving.
  6. Let less information you give your dog, the more it will work. Either you are in charge or your dog is in charge. Many false marks are the result of owners taking so much control off the dog that the only way for the dog to feel it is pleasing you is to ‘do the mark’ as that is the only time you are happy and engaged with them. They disregard the odour and believe the ‘Mark’ is what you want.


Watch Your Body Language

Dogs have 270 peripheral vision. They can sniff the ground and watch most of you.  Dogs often use our body language to cue them. If we know where the scent is we may often signal the dog.  Learn to breath softly and evenly. Walk slowly and try to stay behind your dog. Don’t tense your muscles. Don’t stare your dog down. Don’t lean forward.

Pay close attention to whether your breathing speeds up, or slows down, when you approach the scent. Do your feet stop moving? Do you slow down? All of these are teaching the dog ‘I must mark on the box in front of me.’ They are not teaching the dog to imprint on the odor.

Make it Fun

I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t do an extremely hard job for 1 little bit of kibble or liver.  I would want to be paid. Sniffing is a hard job. You try breathing deep for two or three minutes. You try holding your nose over a noxious smell (to dogs) until your owner ‘gets a clue’ and realizes you found the scent.

My dogs get a handful of treats when they find, and after ‘work’ they get a play time with a favorite toy.


We do not offer scent detection classes like other centers. Instead we bring together all our dogs so the younger dogs can learn from the older dogs. Your dog will move at its own pace. We use all scents for all organizations in Ontario.

We also work on calming and moving to different environments so that your dog isn’t disoriented when it goes to a trial and sit staring at you, or make false marks.  We meet Monday 6:30 – 7:30 year round, and Thursday at 7pm.

Bring a lawn chair, water for your dog, and a mason jar for the scent you will take home. Cost is $80 for 10 sessions.


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