7 min read


Can Dogs Smell Ammunition?



7 min read


Can Dogs Smell Ammunition?


Of the many things dogs have been used to sniff out, ammunition and firearm detection are one of the most popular targets for canines in their new and fast growing profession within Police and Task Force Agencies worldwide. You may be asking yourself how exactly is it that man's best friend manages to blow us away by being able to complete jobs as difficult as detecting a teaspoon of sugar in an Olympic sized swimming pool? 

The truth is, dogs are biologically fascinating beings, as they have an olfactory system that makes their nose thousands of times more sensitive to scents compared to our own. Buckle up and ready yourself to get a brief understanding of how dogs have the ability to detect ammunition, among the many other things they are used to find!


Signs a Dog is Smelling Ammunition

When detecting anything, dogs are sure to display certain signs upon locating it. As your dog receives appropriate training to specifically detect ammunition, the signs they exhibit when they have found or when they are looking for their target will become much more obvious to you. 

When your dog first begins their search, they are likely to move quickly, moving their nose vigorously over the ground in the area you are searching, eventually making their way towards objects, furniture and people. As you can imagine, the first sign your dog is on the right path, after you have exposed them to the scent of the ammunition, is the change in their body language. 

They are likely to display heightened alertness coupled with them appearing to be more attuned to aspects in their environment. That being said, as soon as your dog has picked up on the scent, you should know. When the scent reaches their olfactory receptors, the dog's ears are prone to raise, while their muscles concurrently tighten in both their body and jaw. 

Your dog will then almost appear as if they are following an imaginary line that you and no other human can see, and if you try to pull them from their path, they will quickly readjust themselves to get right back on track. You see, they are following molecules that match the scent of that which they are searching for, and because these molecules are so small, they are invisible to the human eye. 

Body Language

These are some signs you might notice if your dog is smelling out ammunition it has been trained to locate:

  • Staring
  • Alert
  • Barking
  • Sniffing
  • Stalking
  • Ears Up

Other Signs

Some other signs to watch for include:

  • Alertly Approaching Its Located Target With Caution
  • Pawing At The Location Where The Ammunition Is Hidden
  • Attacking Or Barking Aggressively
  • Seeking Some Form Of Reward

The History of Dogs Smelling Ammunition


Man's best friend has had a long history in the scent-detection industry, dating back as far as the early 1900s. It's known that since the domestication of dogs, humans have used them for a variety of purposes including hunting, which involve scent tracking. It wasn't until the 1960s, though, that there are records of dogs first being used to sniff out illegal narcotics and explosives by the Scotland Yard.

Not too long after, in 1968, the United States caught up in the dog detection business by creating its very own Military Working Dog Program to train canines to detect various things, with drugs being the focus. Finally, by the end of the 1970s, using dogs for scent-detection became a norm by government agencies worldwide, including The United Kingdom. The United Kingdom has used dog for border security since the late 1970s, to provide surveillance, and also to be on guard for smuggling.

Today, dogs are pertinent members of Police and Task Force agencies across the country. They have been trained to sniff out both biological (e.g., humans in a research and rescue mission) and non biological (e.g., narcotics, guns, ammunition and explosives) objects in a variety of circumstances. 

Historically, certain breeds have gained preference for scent-detection, because of their superior olfactory abilities that put them above all others. Those dog breeds include Bloodhounds, Basset Hounds, German Shepherds, English Springer Spaniels, Labrador Retrievers and Belgian Malinoi.

The Science of Dogs Smelling Ammunition


Dogs can be trained in all sorts of scent-work, including the detection of  ammunition due to their superb ability to smell. This ability manifests itself in the biology of our beloved pets. For starters, the region of the brain that is responsible for olfaction is proportionally 40 times larger in canines, compared to that of humans. 

The fact that the region of their brain dedicated to detecting scents is so large indicates that their ability to do this is effortless, to say the least. Not only is their brain region associated with olfaction larger, but an average dog has approximately 300 million olfactory receptors constantly on patrol inside of their nose, compared to the measly 6 million found in humans. 

These receptors are continuously communicating between the nose and brain, taking messages received by the receptors once they are activated by airborne molecules landing on them and sending them first to the olfactory region of the brain, then to the appropriate other regions that allow the dog to interpret what the smell is. 

This isn't the only biological advantage dogs have that give them a  heightened sense of smell. In addition to a larger brain region dedicated to olfaction, all dogs have what is known as the vomeronasal organ (also called Jacobson's organ). This organ can be found in the bottom area of your pooch's nasal cavity. 

It's function is to detect pheromones, which are chemicals unique to and produced by all species to indicate things such as emotion and mating information. Even though humans can't consciously smell pheromones, we are definitely influenced by them in our everyday lives. Dogs, however, have the gift to detect pheromones, another factor influencing their keen sense of smell. 

Finally, dogs, like all other species, have what is called a sensory epithelium and the size of the epithelium is directly correlated with the dog's sensory abilities. The average human's epithelium has an area of 5cm squared, whereas the average dog's area on the sensory epithelium is approximately 150cm squared. This extra area gives dogs the advantageous ability to recognize scents they have been exposed to during scent-training, (such as amuniation) and later recall the scents in order to detect them.

One interesting finding regarding scent detection is that male dogs have been found to have a better ability to discriminate scents compared to females. Behavioural scientists have shed some light on the topic by determining this tendency for male accuracy is rooted in their interest and focus in completing scent tasks, as opposed to the idea that they have superior sensing capabilities. 

Training Your Dog to Smell Ammunition


It is certainly possible to encourage and reinforce a dog's ability to smell ammunition through routine scent-training, which is exactly what police and task force units do when they train canines. This, like forms of conditioning, is not an overnight endeavor because it requires dedication, effort, and patience. To start, it's good to know that a few dog treats coupled with positive reinforcement will get you a long way. 

Therefore, using positive reinforcement when scent-training is essential, especially using some form of treat of toy. Listed below are the steps to use when you are scent-training your dog:

Step 1: Before you can set your dog out to look for ammunition, you need to complete some basic training sessions where they first learn the command find it. This can be done using a "search and find" game with a beloved toy. Reward the pooch every time they find the toy, and make sure to begin the game with the find it command.

Step 2: After learning the command, it's time to start the scent-training with more basic games like guess the hand. Just like you might have guessed, this involves putting a treat in your hand, closing it while your dogs is watching, then asking them to find it using their nose, or paw as an indicator. If your dog is correct, reward the behaviour with the treat. If they are incorrect, show them the correct hand and try again. Once your dog masters the first level of the game, step it up a notch by hiding the treat without them seeing.  Be sure to reward the behaviour to keep it coming!

Step 3:  Once you're convinced your dog is proficient at steps one and two, its time to pair your find it  item (e.g., chew toy or treat) with the ammunition, so that it acquires the smell of the treat or toy. Now, because their are all sorts of different types of ammunition, it would be good to begin training your dog only with one type to start, allowing them to become proficient, increasing their chances of success. 

By pairing the ammunition with the toy or treat, your dog will become more likely to find it, as your pup is use to finding the toy or treat when it plays find it.  Continue playing find it, as usual. 

Eventually, your dog will not only be looking for the treat or toy, but also the smell of ammunition, because they believe when they locate the smell they will also locate the treat or toy, which is a reward in the canine's eyes. Note: You can also begin by directly exposing your dog to the scent of ammunition, but using the pairing process is more likely to yield successful results.

Step 4: Over time, take away the toy (paired stimulus) that you have been using, and solely hide the ammunition you want your dog to locate. Allow them to smell the ammunition before hiding it, to ensure they have the exact scent. You can increase the difficulty as your pooch improves by increasing the distance between them and the hiding spot.

Although all dogs differ with their scent abilities and their receptiveness to training, consistency with your training should lead to your dogs success in only a few months. 

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Written by Becky Widdifield

Veterinary reviewed by:

Published: 06/14/2018, edited: 04/06/2020

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