You’ve just dropped your keys or lost a glove. How nice to be able to tell your dog “Go Find” and have him promptly return with the lost item! And most dogs can be taught to do so fairly easily. Many even start to do scent work on their own. Because the training starts on lead, all you need is a harness and lead or long line, a dog, and a keen eye for observing your dog’s body language.
You do not teach a dog to find an object; you teach him to do it for you. You do not train him to follow a specific trail, you train him to follow it on command. Scent work depends on mutual respect. Dogs have a sense of smell several million times more acute than that of humans. Sometimes getting the dog to work on command can be difficult: for example, a dominant dog may rebel against being restrained and a submissive dog may look to you rather than relying on his nose.
Every dog has enough scenting ability to learn basic scent work. Some, such as bloodhounds and most sporting breeds have been bred for this work for generations and therefore may prove more talented. It is probably easiest to start with a young puppy.
To have any practical use, scent work must be a partnership. A dog may have a fine nose, but if he cannot or will not communicate what his nose is telling him no information is conveyed to his handler. Fortunately, because dogs are pack animals, letting their packmates know what they have found is instinctive. The dog will give signals; the handler’s job is to “read” them.
Each dog has his own body language, his individual way of working, his unique manner of communicating. By close observation you can learn your dog’s body language, not only what he is doing but how he is feeling about it. It takes time and experience to learn to “read” your dog and know whether is sure he is on the trail or is casting about hopefully.
It is best if the scent dog lives in the house and spends a lot of time with you. Start by observing your dog’s obvious needs. How does he communicate that he wants to go out? How does he let you know his water pan is dry? Often the signals get stronger and more obnoxious when the dog has to ask numerous times. Answer the dog’s first signal and you may never see the insistent, obnoxious one. Tell him “Thank You” at his first bark when a car turns in the driveway and pet him to convey you’re grateful for the warning but that is enough. If he is still worried, take him on lead to the door. This lets him know you have the situation well in hand. Simply yelling “Shut Up” implies that you didn’t understand he was cautioning you or you think he is too stupid to know danger. Either way, his natural reaction is to bark louder.
From the first day you bring your dog home, look, listen and respond. Give your dog feedback. Let him know you have understood his message. As you start formal scent training, watch for every sound, sniff, movement, posture, or even change of pace your dog makes. Keep your training lively, keep it spontaneous, and most of all, have fun!
Once you get in the habit of really noticing your dog, it becomes second nature. You will know when he needs a drink or a break to relieve himself. You will begin to notice how factors such as humidity, temperature, wind or terrain affect your dog’s ability to work. When you see pricked ears, a rigid stance, a wagging tail suddenly stilled, you should ask “What is it?” even if you know or can guess. The longer you delay acknowledging what your dog wants to show you, the more obvious will be his signal.
When you acknowledge his signal, give immediate praise. As it becomes habitual for your dog to communicate everything he detects and to believe you won’t know these things unless he tells you, be careful not to discourage this by reprimanding him for doing so around the house. All at once a partnership will begin to jell and you will each sense what the other is thinking or wanting. This is the beginning of a good scent dog partnership.
A great resource for training a dog to find lost items is the book Practical Scent Dog Training by Lou Button.