How Are Detection Dogs Trained?

Springer explosive detection dog with chains in subway,  working dog, bomb-sniffing dog.
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Dogs have been man's best friend for thousands of years--we pretty much evolved together. Anyone who has a dog can tell you that their pups are basically just people but better. In fact, dogs have more human behaviors than any other animal. Our relationship with our canine counterparts hasn't always been that of a pet owner and trusted best friend. It isn't all playing fetch, cuddling on the couch, and open-mouthed doggy kisses. These very good boys and girls have been our helpers, companions, and co-workers and have held important jobs throughout our long history together including being trained as detectives sniffing out contraband, explosive devices, or even cadavers.

Which dog breeds make good scent detectives?

Like most jobs for dogs, the job a dog has reflects the dog's strengths. A dog ideally suited to herding sheep or cattle will have a particular set of traits or characteristics. Seeing eye dogs or other service dogs may be easier to train or better behaved. This is also true for scent-trained dogs who work to sniff out bombs, drugs, or even dead bodies.

Dogs that are naturally suited for jobs requiring scent work will have an above average sense of smell. Since dogs' sense of smell is almost like a second sight--and something like 100,000 times better than ours--not much gets past their noses.

Typically, police dogs and dogs that work in the armed forces are courageous, strong, intelligent, and loyal. Some breeds commonly found as police dogs or dogs who work for the armed forces as bomb sniffers are:

  • German Shepherds
  • Bloodhounds
  • Beagles
  • Retrievers
  • Malinois
  • Boxers
  • Pit Bull Terrier
Dog of ladle smelling a track on the area , (Braco Hungaro)
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Scent training

The first step in any canine's career as a scent detective, be it bomb, drug, or cadaver detective dog, is scent training. Whether you are scent training a dog for sport or for important police work, the process is essentially the same. You begin by choosing a scent that is new for your dog. By creating a positive association to the scent you would like your dog to be able to identify, you essentially are tapping into a kind of Pavlovian effect--your dog learns that by finding this new smell, she will be rewarded. Once your dog is familiar with a specific scent that you've introduced, you reward her with a treat. It is important to make sure that you switch up the hiding places of whatever container you are using that is holding the scent so that your pup doesn't find it by memory. While you can relatively easily train your dog to identify specific scents, police dogs that sniff out drugs, bodies, or suspects and bomb sniffing dogs go through more training.

Bomb-sniffing dogs

It is important to begin training young, so many dogs that build a career out of scenting and locating explosives started as puppies. As with all scent detection, the process begins with creating a positive association with finding a specific smell. But sniffing out a bomb is not the same as finding a cotton ball drenched in lavender. Because explosives are dangerous, a bomb-sniffing dog must also be trained to be 100% responsive to his human partner. This is not an activity where a pup can get distracted or goof around.

Bomb dogs, or explosive detection canines, aren't necessarily the best at using their noses, but rather have a willingness to focus, train, and listen. They have to want to work and to learn, because they will go through rigorous socialization training as well as learning how to smell the materials that make up explosive devices. However, this hard work is also like a game. As anyone who happens to have an intelligent dog will tell you, when left to their own devices, a bored or undirected dog can get up to a whole lot of mischief. Trained to sit when he smells something, a bomb dog who has located a scent associated with a treat or play will look excited and energized. He knows he's done his job.

A Belgium Malonois military working dog stands by his handler.
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Drug detective dogs

Just like bomb-sniffing dogs, drug detective dogs undergo months of training, often beginning at puppyhood. While bomb dogs learn to find smells associated with explosive devices and their ingredients, drug detection dogs learn the scents associated with, well, drugs.

Commonly utilized by police agencies like the DEA (Drug Enforcement Administration), these dogs also begin their training with obedience classes. It is important that a drug detective dog is able to communicate with her partner when she smells her target. These dogs are trained to point their noses in the direction the smell is coming from. Through exposure to the scents she is looking for, positive reinforcement when she finds them, and structured activities to help her in her training, a drug detective doggo gets the job done.

Cadaver Dog and trainer searches for victims in a disaster exercise
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Cadaver dogs

Cadaver dogs and dogs that are trained to sniff out human bodies are trained much like their bomb and drug-sniffing colleagues. While it may seem a little gruesome, cadaver dogs need to be constantly in contact with human remains including bones, decaying flesh and blood. Because most cadaver dogs are working in dangerous locations like collapsed buildings or crime scenes, it is important that he be trained with actual human remains and not an animal substitute. Dogs' sense of smell is so acute, if he is trained to find raccoon bones, that is what he will find.

Because dead bodies can be found pretty much anywhere, a cadaver dog needs to be accustomed to searching in all kinds of terrain, and in all kinds of weather. It is important that he doesn't get distracted by noises, other animals, people, or scents. Both police units as well as search and rescue teams will have cadaver dogs on staff, as it were.

Training is an ongoing process

With any detective dog, training is on-going and takes a lot of practice. Even if a dog has some downtime, playing games that require her to find her scent—be it explosives, drugs, or death—will help hone her nose and keep her skills sharp. Practice in this case definitely does make close to perfect, and these dogs and their partners put in extensive training and take the process very seriously. Lives can literally be on the line, but these hard-working dogs still have fun doing what they love to do and what they are trained for.