How to Train Your Dog to Detect Drugs

Hard
6-12 Months
Work

Introduction

Drug dogs help authorities detect and locate illegal drugs at borders, airports and crime scenes, and have become invaluable tools to law enforcement. These talented canines can detect even small amounts of scent given off by drugs, even when drugs are cleverly disguised in layers of other, scented materials.

One drug-detecting dog, a Springer spaniel with an exceptionally sensitive nose, discovered cocaine worth nearly $40 million (485 pounds of it) at Gatwick airport, just before her retirement. She had been 7 years on the job and the record drug find was her 100th instance of drugs located in her distinguished career. Quite the achievement!

Defining Tasks

Drug detecting dogs need to learn basic on and off-leash obedience, control, and be able to focus on their task in distracting environments.Training this ability takes weeks to months of practice, to establish strong responses to obedience commands and the ability to tune out distractions that are often present in public environments where a drug dog needs to work, like bus terminals, airports and border crossings. Drug dogs are also taught a signal or alert to perform and indicate they have located drugs. This behavior is often taught separately at first, and then associated later with detecting the drug scent. The signal to the dog's handler that the drug scent has been located may be a ‘sit and look’ at the handler, or another behavior that has been taught. Drug-detecting dogs are allowed to investigate an area, usually on-leash, but sometimes off-leash, such as a storage or luggage facility or hub. When the dog locates a drug scent they immediately signal their handler by performing the target behavior, such as sitting and looking at their handler, and are immediately rewarded with a toy and play time. Drug dogs are usually taught to be completely obsessed with their toy and playing with their handler, so they will work hard to detect drug scent for the opportunity to play.

Getting Started

Dogs that are going to be used for drug detection need to be taught basic obedience commands that can be used in public places.

To train a dog to detect drug scents, trainers need to use samples of the drugs. This will require licensing and certification by law enforcement agencies to have access to samples, or trainers can use commercially available substitutes that mimic the smell of various drugs.

Most drug detection dogs are taught to detect with the use of a toy that they get to frequently play with. A toy that will stand up, like a  Kong, or can be easily replaced, like a white towel, is appropriate.

The Associate with Toy Method

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Step
1
Play
Provide a specific toy and play with your dog often. Use play with the toy as a reward for basic obedience commands.
Step
2
Hide toy
Start hiding the toy in a box and teach your dog the game ‘find it’. Start with fairly easy locations and let your dog see you hide the toy. Gradually make hiding spots more complex.
Step
3
Hide scented toy
Start hiding the toy along with the scent of the drug to be targeted. Either cover the toy in the scent, wrap the toy in the substance, or hide the drug scent with the toy. Command your dog to ‘find it’. Your dog will learn to associate the smell of the drug with the toy. When your dog finds the toy with the drug scent, play with your dog with the toy as a reward.
Step
4
Vary hiding
Start hiding the toy and scent in more complex locations.
Step
5
Remove toy
Gradually move to just hiding the drug scent and commanding ‘find it’. When the dog locates the drug, produce the toy and play with the dog and the toy.
Step
6
Make complex
Use more complicated hiding places and introduce distractions. Reward locating the drug scent with play with the favorite toy when the dog is successful. Ignore unsuccessful identifications.
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The Shape SIgnal Method

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Step
1
Teach signal
Teach your dog a signal such as ‘sit and look at me’ or ‘bow’ that will be used to indicate the presence of the drug scent. Use a hand signal to command and capture the behavior with a clicker.
Step
2
Add scent
Now use the hand signal and provide a scent in a small open container. When the dog performs the signal in response to the presence of the scent and hand signal, click and reward with food or toy play. Practice several times a day, for a few weeks. You may start with a drug scent, or start with another strong scent like peanut butter, tea, vanilla or cheese and later introduce and transfer the behavior to a drug scent.
Step
3
Remove command
Gradually remove the hand signal. Continue to present the scent and use the clicker and reward the dog performing the alert signal.
Step
4
Hide
Now hide the scent in a small container, such as a small open box. Let your dog find the scented object and perform the alert, then click and reward.
Step
5
Remove clicker
Gradually remove the clicker. Reward the dog for alerting to location of drug scent, but ignore when false signals are given.
Step
6
Make complex
Move to larger containers and and hide the scent in more difficult places. Reward identification and signal.alert. The dog will eventually learn to locate the scent in and in various containers and locations.
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The Match to Sample Method

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Step
1
Establish signal
Teach your dog a signal such as ‘sit and look at me’.
Step
2
Plant scent
Prepare two articles, one that is scented with a strong scent such as vanilla and one that is not. Put the items in two different spots on floor of the room.
Step
3
Provide scent
Provide your dog with the vanilla or strong scent on a separate object.
Step
4
Shape and reward match
Let your dog loose in the room. When he approaches the unscented object, ignore him, but when he approaches the scented object, click and reward. Gradually click and reward as your dog gets closer and closer to the scented target object. Repeat exercise multiple times a day for several weeks.
Step
5
Add signal
Now give your dog the command for his signal, such as ‘sit and look at me’ when your dog locates and matches the scented object. Continue to click and reward when your dog successfully matches the scent and signals you by sitting.
Step
6
Remove command and click
Gradually remove the sit command, then the click.
Step
7
Reward match
When the dog matches the scent and sits, provide a food or play reward.
Step
8
Introduce drug scent
Now start using a drug scent on one object and providing a sample. Transfer the behaviors from steps 2-7 to the drug scent until identification of the scent and alert is established.
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Success Stories and Training Questions

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