Old Dogs, New Tricks

In addition to searching for live humans in an urban disaster situation, SAR dogs on Canada Task Force 4, Manitoba’s Urban Search and Rescue Team, are encouraged to develop a detection specialty, such as explosives, narcotics, or human remains.

SAR Dog Keji was trained and certified in human remains detection. When we began this training six years ago, we used wooden detection boxes to introduce the target odour, learn to search, and establish a final sit indication. We trained with real source material, and used a verbal marker with a toy reward (Kong on a rope). It was an effective approach that produced solid results. And it was a skill set that we were called on to use repeatedly on operational calls.

Flash forward to a couple of months ago when I decided it was time to introduce some new odours to Keji’s repertoire. I was aware that there are a lot of different approaches to scent work, and thought it would be interesting to try something new.

A lot of training systems now use a back chaining approach that focuses first on building odour recognition and an alert/indication. The active search dynamic is introduced only after the dog knows what to do when they find a target odour. Makes sense. Keji already had good search technique and a solid final indication, so I focused on how to introduce new odours.

The range of detection systems and odour containers can be a little overwhelming. In the end I settled for a simple and inexpensive do-it-yourself system built from ABS plumbing fixtures – a 4” elbow mounted on a flange, with a drain to isolate the odour source in a perforated tin – all mounted on plywood. It works like a charm. I really like the way the dog can get his entire head into the opening, and get his nose close to, but not on, the source.

I also decided to use a clicker as a marker and to reward with food. Although Keji was used to a toy reward for human remains detection, he was familiar with the clicker in other contexts, so this was an easy transition for him. I rewarded the dog for getting his nose close to and then into the container for progressively longer duration. The next step was to introduce a second container with no source and to only reward for interest in the container with source. It only took a few sessions, with multiple repetitions, for Keji to understand that he was being rewarded for this new odour source. It was a quick step from there to fading out the scent containers and having the dog indicate on just the odour source hidden in the perforated tin.

All in all, an enjoyable and effective experiment for a couple of old dogs.