Teach your dog to sniff out someone else’s lost pet

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Oh, the wonder of a dog’s nose! Yes, they can find drugs and detect cancer, but their speciality might just be finding living things that have gone missing.

Many are familiar with the work done by search and rescue dogs: they look for lost victims after earthquakes and avalanches, Alzheimer patients gone missing and so forth. But there are also search and rescue dogs who aren’t so interested in lost people: These dogs that look for lost pets for a living. Pet Search and Rescue is California-based organization whose canine teams offer help for people who have lost their pets. Dogs’ noses have the capacity to find just a few scent molecules; with training we can teach them to find any targets.

Annalisa Berns from Pet Search and Rescue recently wrote a blog on ClickerTraining.com about the training procedure for their dogs. The protocol for finding the scent of an animal is exactly the same as with any scent detection work: first the dog has to search for the scent, then they need to locate where it is coming from and then somehow indicate the find to their handler. If you and your dog have any clicker training basics this is a fun game to play. All you need to get started are some tasty treats, your working partner dog, a clicker, a target stick/plastic lid and a “target” pet ( a stand in for a lost one) who is comfortable spending time in a crate or a carrier.

A traget stick and some jars of scents I use to teach the fundamentals of scent detection in training classes I teach.

The first step is to train the dog to touch a target with their paw or nose. Most clicker-savvy dogs already know how to do this. In many other forms of scent detection the dogs are also taught to nose target the source of scent. The target is placed on the crate of the target animal and gradually the targeting behavior is transferred to the actual crate. Once the partner dog is reliable with touching the cage or crate, the behavior is named, for example “Find Kitty.”

Next more distance is added to the game so that the working dog will actually start searching for the target pet. These exercises are first done in a relatively empty room, where on cue ‘Find Kitty’, the dog will go and paw target the crate. Gradually visually hiding places are introduced; the target pet can be in a closet (leaving door open), under the bed, on a chair, etc. This step is where the working dog learns to use the sense of smell and will start to sniff out the hidden pet. As with any search work this is the most important step, it shouldn’t be too hard for the dog and it is always important to keep the game fun!

The last step is teaching the report behavior, in other words the way the dog alerts the finding. This can be a trained behavior that is chained to the paw /nose targeting step, such as a ‘sit’. What the dog handlers do is, now instead of clicking and treating for the targeting, they wait. Most likely the dog will turn around as if saying ‘hey, whereas my paycheck’. And this moment the dog is cued to ‘sit’. The click and treat will not come for the targeting anymore, it will actually come from the sit, which is the final link in this behavior chain. Gradually the targeting may fade away as it is not needed anymore. This a little different from most other types of scent detection training, where the report behavior ‘sit’ would be directly linked to the targeting without requiring a turn away from the target. With lost pets it makes total sense, though, since many pets like cats or rodents or even other dogs wouldn’t be too impressed with a cold wet nose or a paw coming to poke them when they most likely are already scared! Besides, most likely the lost pet will be out of reach for the working dog.

Any kind of any scent work can be a wonderful way of bonding with your dog and building self-confidence. If you have another pet in the house, training your dog this skill may be more than just fun and games: it  could help reunite you with one of your other prized (and possibly furry) possessions.


Featured illustration by Lisa Adams.


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