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How to Train Your Dog to Detect Drugs
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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!
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.
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
Provide a specific toy and play with your dog often. Use play with the toy as a reward for basic obedience commands.
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.
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.
Start hiding the toy and scent in more complex locations.
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.
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.
The Shape SIgnal Method
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.
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.
Gradually remove the hand signal. Continue to present the scent and use the clicker and reward the dog performing the alert signal.
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.
Gradually remove the clicker. Reward the dog for alerting to location of drug scent, but ignore when false signals are given.
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.
The Match to Sample Method
Teach your dog a signal such as ‘sit and look at me’.
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.
Provide your dog with the vanilla or strong scent on a separate object.
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.
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.
Remove command and click
Gradually remove the sit command, then the click.
When the dog matches the scent and sits, provide a food or play reward.
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.
By Amy Caldwell
Published: 12/12/2017, edited: 01/08/2021
Training Questions and Answers
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Train to detect drugs
June 12, 2022
Caitlin Crittenden - Dog Trainer
1133 Dog owners recommended
Hello Tina, Are you already connected with a team that's training drug detection dogs or are you training on your own? You will need to start by getting connected with a team that does drug detection because you will need tiny samples of the drugs you are training on to do scent work games with pup and that's not something that should be done on your because you could get in big trouble for being in possession of those samples without being a part of the right group. I would look online to see if there is a group that trains in your state and reach out to them for connections in your area. Best of luck training, Caitlin Crittenden
June 14, 2022
Staffordshire Bull Terrier
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I want him to find drugs and paraphernalia.
Feb. 13, 2022
Alisha Smith - Alisha S., Dog Trainer
257 Dog owners recommended
Hello! You will want to start with the basics of scent training, and then once you have that mastered, you will likely want to contact a trainer in your area to work on advanced training with. I do have information attacked on how to begin scent training. Start Early in the Morning To teach scenting a track, you need some treats and a grassy area, such as a baseball field or park. Although hot dogs are not the most nutritious food, I find they work best, and you won’t over stuff your dog’s belly. Begin early; many people start by 6 a.m. before anyone has walked on the grass. Create a Treat Track Have your dog sit or lie down and stay. Take a couple of inch-long pieces of hot dog and use your shoe to mash them into the grass. Make sure to crush the grass under the hot dogs, which will release a grass scent. Then, with the hot dog residue on the bottom of your shoe, walk a straight line away from your dog. Every six or ten feet, drop a piece of hot dog. Stop after about 20 feet and drop one of your gloves or one of your dog’s toys; your dog needs to find something at the end of the track. Drop another piece of hot dog on top of the item. Command Your Dog to Find the Treats Go back to your dog and release him from his stay, encouraging him to smell the ground where the hot dogs were. Tell your dog “Find it!” and let him sniff. If he begins to follow the track, praise him quietly by saying, “Good dog!” and let him lead the way. Don’t be too enthusiastic or you may distract the dog from his sniffing. Also, don’t try to lead him; let your dog figure it out. At this point, your dog is following several scents: the trail of hot dogs, which helps motivate him, the crushed grass where you mashed the hot dogs and the crushed grass where you later stepped. Your dog is also following your individual scent, which he knows well because he smells your scent every day. But now your dog is learning to combine the scents, to follow them and to find the item at the end of the track. Start Increasing the Length of the Track When your dog successfully completes this trick, make another one by taking 10 steps to the side. If your dog is excited and having fun, you can do three or four short tracks per training session. As your dog improves over several sessions, make the track longer, add curves and corners, and drop several items along the way, but put the hot dog only on the one you want him to find. When making tracks longer or adding curves, use small pegs, stakes or flags to mark the track so you can tell if your dog is off track. Air scenting requires your dog to find someone by sniffing the scents wafting through the air instead of following a track. Most search-and-rescue dogs have both skills; they can follow a track, but if people walking over the track spoil it, they can also use their air-scenting skills. Please let me know if you have any additional questions. Thank you for writing in.
Feb. 13, 2022