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K9 Scent Work – Introduction

K9 Scent work varies in complexity from the mundane to the inordinately complex. From the type or types of scents you would like to imprint your dog on, to the environmental variables you would like to proof him against, it could take days to years to have a fully functional dog.

For the average hobbyist however, in a few weeks you can have your dog up and pointing the way to anything from bee hives to truffles if you carefully follow a few easy steps.

1. Obedience train your dog. This makes everything easier and you will see why later. The dog should be able to sit, down and recall on command as a bare minimum.

2. Select a reward. As I have discussed before this can make or break your training. You may find chicken/liver/cheese irresistible, but some dogs will just die for a tennis ball. Also some rewards are simply too cumbersome for the speed and spontaneity that is required for concise training.

3. Load the marker. Whatever your positive marker, be it a clicker, or verbalization, you need to associate it with the reward. Before you even begin your scent training, load your marker for at least a few days, if not a couple of weeks.

4. Scent imprinting. Assuming you have selected and collected your target scent, you can now begin imprinting your canine on it. Start out working in a very small and bare environment. Using a dog proof scent container with ample scent in it, allow your dog supervised freedom in the room. Begin by marking and rewarding your dog showing even remote interest in the scent container (a glance, a sniff, any movement towards it). Continue shaping the behavior all the way up to the alert you require. Initially reward any interest, enthusiasm or effort, and start withholding the lesser 20% or 30% of the behaviors that are not as vigorous.

5. Select the Alert. Like the reward this should be well thought out. The alert should be a behavior that will be acceptable in the environment you will be eventually working in, and also a behavior you will be able to associate and request upon command. Typically a bark, sit, down or scratch is used, with some favoring mouthing a brindle or other more complex requirement.

6. Proofing. The final step in your scent training involves proofing your dog to distractions, environmental variables, as well as similar but wrong scents. Your dog may need to eventually be comfortable working in rain or snow, with heavy equipment operating nearby and may need to detect ants versus termites. Proofing a dog to the gold standard can take years, but will certainly take months at the very least. A dog that is proofed to a large number of variables and distractions is worth his weight in gold.

With that, I will let you on your way to try your hand at this immensely rewarding canine training discipline. Relax, have fun and watch your relationship grow.