Getting Started in Scent Work

February 1, 2019

Written by:  Megan Esherick CPDT-KA

The following article originally appeared in Saber Tails.

In 2019, a scent work trial will be offered at the PBGVCA National Specialty for the first time. This is exciting news, as PBGVs are very well suited for this sport.  Scent work trials simulate the work of professional detection dogs, such as those trained for narcotics or explosive detection.  Instead of potentially dangerous (or illegal) substances, dogs are taught to locate cotton swabs containing small amounts of specific essential oils that have been hidden in containers or the environment.  There is also an element in AKC Scent Work where the dog’s task is to locate a sock, glove, or cotton ball that has been scented by the dog’s handler.  As scent hounds, PBGVs are well suited to this sport.

Now is the perfect time to begin training your PBGV for scent work, because with regular practice he could easily be ready to compete at the specialty in April.  There are several methods frequently used to introduce dogs to this sport.  The technique described below is my preferred training plan and is based on the methods that I used in my career as a service dog trainer to teach dogs to alert to low blood sugar and other medical conditions.   In this process, the dogs are introduced to the target odor right away and then taught to search for the odor in increasingly difficult setups. Another common method for teaching scent work is to first have the dog search for hidden food in the environment, then pair the odor with food, and then eventually have the dog just search for odor.  In my experience, this method tends to take significantly longer and can cause difficulty in the higher levels of competition when food distractions may be present in the search area.  

Before getting started you will need to have some items on hand:

  • An AKC odor kit. You can put one together yourself, but purchasing a commercially available kit ensures that you have the correct oil and an airtight storage container.  You will only need to train birch to compete in novice, which will be the focus of this article.
  • Some vessels for hiding the odor, like small magnetic tins or centrifuge tubes.
  • Tape or Quake-hold for securing hides.
  • 6 small plastic food storage containers with holes punched in the lid.  Mark one of the containers and lids as hot.
  • At least 10 identical cardboard boxes.  AKC doesn’t require that a specific brand be used, but white literature mailing boxes are commonly used at trials.
  • If you plan to train for handler scent  you will need a few extra boxes and a cotton glove or sock.
  • Treats that your dog really likes, preferably something that doesn’t crumble and can be eaten quickly.
  • Dogs can wear a flat collar or non-restrictive harness and any length leash for Scent Work. I recommend a harness such as the Brilliant K9 (Lucy medium fits my PBGVs well) and a ten foot biothane line. (www.palominelines.com). If a search is held in a secure area, the judge may give the option of searching off leash.

Stage One:  Odor is cool

  1. Place a cotton ball or half Q-tip containing 2 drops of birch in a small tin with holes punched in the top.  Wear gloves or use tweezers to avoid contaminating your hands with odor.
  2. Hold the tin in one hand and 5 tasty treats in the other.  Present both hands to your dog.
  3. Ignore any attempts by the dog to steal the treats.  When he orients to the tin in any way, feed him one of the treats close to the tin.  Repeat until you have used all of the treats.  
  4. Place the tin on the ground close to you.  When your dog investigates, reward on top of the tin.  Repeat 3-5 times depending on your dog’s level of interest.

At this point, we are not expecting any behavior change or “alert” signal from the dog.  Just let him stumble upon odor and pay him well for it.

In between sessions, be sure to store your odor in an airtight container like a Mason Jar.

Stage 2:  Introducing Containers

  1. Place your odor tin in the plastic container that you have marked “hot”.  Leaving the lid off for now, place the container on the ground near your dog.  Reward your dog 3-5 times for investigating it in slightly different spots.
  2. Add a second container.  Allow the dog to investigate both, but only reward at the hot container.
  3. As long as your dog is actively engaged in training, add additional containers one at a time.  

Each training session should consist of only 3-4 searches and should last just a few minutes at this stage.  You may start to see very small behavior changes at the hot container at this stage, such as a tail wag, head turn, or simply lingering for a but longer.  This is great, but you should still reward as soon as the dog reaches the hot container.

Stage 3:  Changing to boxes

AKC rules allow for a variety of box styles within a specific size requirement, but the type most frequently used at  trials are plain white literature boxes.  To introduce boxes, follow the same procedure described in stage 2.  Work up to a total of ten boxes, but only add boxes when your dog is actively engaged and appears confident.

You will want to discourage your dog from damaging boxes, as this will be faulted in trials.  If your dog has a tendency to smash or damage the boxes, continue to practice with something very sturdy until your dog has built up more desire for the odor.  In most cases, dogs stop playing with boxes when they realize that finding the target odor will result in a payout for them.

At this stage, begin to drag out the reward process.  Instead of a single treat at the correct box, feeding several tiny treats, one after the other, to extend the time your dog spends near the target odor.

As you begin to see consistent behavior changes, you may start to delay the reward very slightly, to encourage a stronger alert behavior.  Often the behavior change that a PBGV will display “in odor” is similar to what they may do when they pick up a faint scent on the hunt field- such as sustained interest, tail wag, or whining.  If you are training alone, you may want to video your training sessions because it can sometimes be easier to see subtle behavior changes after that fact in the beginning.  You are allowed to reward your dog at source during Scent Work competition, so don’t worry about weaning off of rewards.  

Stage 4:  Interiors and Exteriors

It will be best to begin in a space with minimal clutter or distraction.  Do not use a normal dog potty area to train exteriors, as your dog will need to learn not to eliminate while searching.  

  1. Place a hot plastic container in the interior or exterior environment.   Allow the dog to find the container and reward as usual.
  2. Remove the container and place the odor in an easy spot on the environment.  In novice, the hide will be no higher than 24 inches, but it is easiest to start with a nose height hide.  Allow the dog to find the hide and reward generously.
  3. Gradually increase the difficulty of the hide.  In a trial, you will not be able to see the hide, but the dog will be able to place her nose on it.

Stage 5:  Buried

Buried hides are a challenge for many dogs.  In novice, the hide will be buried in sand or commercial topsoil in a container that may or may not have a lid.  Buried will not be offered at the PBGVCA trial, but to begin training, start with the hide on top of the soil and very slowly increase the depth of the hide until you reach the required depth for your level.

Stage 6:  Handler Discrimination

Handler discrimination is more challenging more many dogs because human scent is not as strong as essential oil scent.   You can use the procedure above to train handler discrimination, but here are some hints specific to this element:

  • It’s generally a good idea to training Handler Discrimination before working other odor in a training session or in separately sessions from other odors.
  • For novice, handler discrimination will be a search of 10 boxes, much like a container search.  While a box used for birch or other odor can never be used as a cold box again, you can air out your used handler discrimination boxes and re-use them as cold boxes.  
  • You may want to consider using a different cue and/or different equipment for Handler Discrimination searches.  I use “seek” rather than search for Handler Discrimination and have my dogs wear buckle collars instead of harnesses for this element.
  • In addition to your glove, there will be a distractor glove scented by the judge. As you advance in training, you will want to have some “other people” gloves to train with.  It’s best to use a glove scented by someone outside of your household for this, as your family members likely use the same cleaning products and eat the same foods.
  • Handler discrimination is the only element where a handler can run multiple dogs in the same class because the hide is placed in the same spot every time.
  • For novice, you can use the same glove at every trial.  I have been training and competing with the same glove since the AKC program was announced in early 2017.   My glove at this point is pretty disgusting, but my dogs have little trouble finding it.

What are you waiting for? Go train your dog!

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About Me

 

I am a professional dog trainer, dog sports addict, and small scale breeder of PBGVs.  For more information about The Clever Hound LLC dog training: