From time to time, I come across with the fact that it’s not always easy to recognise a good, reliable detection dog, especially if you are not a professional in this business. So I gathered here a small info package to use for those who might need it. 

Some people are good talkers. They convince you with their dogs’ talents in no time by grounding their propositions on facts based on research studies or stories from their fieldwork. Some people have succeeded in competitions, which they say is a guarantee of their dogs’ skills. Some have decades of experience working with detection dogs, and they use it as an argument of their talents. But none of these is helpful recognising how good their dogs really are. 

Especially if you are hiring a dog team for work, you should understand some basics about how dogs work, how they use their nose, how they interact with their handlers, and how they are trained. To help you with finding the right dog team for the work, I made a list that you can follow.

  1. Ask about the dog’s and handler’s training history.

    • Who has trained this dog, and what is the background of that trainer? What about the handler? Do they have knowledge about animal behaviour? A detection dog is an animal, just like any other dog. It’s trained for its job, but if the trainer/handler doesn’t understand animal behaviour, they can ruin that capability sooner than they even notice. Dogs learn all the time, and if you don’t know when that happens, you might train the dog to indicate falsely or not alert on the target. Either way, if that happens, the dog is not reliable to do its job anymore.

  2. When has the dog last been certified? What is the certification like? What is the pass rate? How many false alerts are accepted, and how many of the targets does the dog need to find?
    • Working dogs should be tested regularly to be sure that they have maintained their working skills. Minimum for the certifications is considered once a year, but the more often they are tested, the better one can follow their working capabilities. There are significant differences between the test methods. It is more than often that you hear about testing, where the target has been hidden in the training facility familiar to the dog and the test situation being supervised by the person who has hidden the target. There are lots of things that can be done to make the test easier for the dog to pass, but taking care of these three things, one can be pretty sure the dog really knows its job.
      1. The dog is tested in an unfamiliar or working environment. Dogs have high expectations in their training facilities, and that affects their way of working. (Read more…)
      2. Used targets are fresh scents that don’t have contaminated scent from the handler or the instructor. If the dog is often trained with contaminated target scents, it might not react to uncontaminated ones at all.
      3. The test is double-blind. There should be no one present in the test situation who knows where the target/s are hidden. Dogs are incredibly talented in reading people’s body language, even the smallest twitches, and those can give enough information for the dog to navigate to the right spot and alert without even sniffing. (Read more…)
    • The higher the pass rate, the more reliable the dog is. If the test is passed with false alerts (dog alerts when there is no target present) and passing targets (dog does not alert when there is a target present), then you should consider if the dog is reliable enough to do its work.

  3. If possible, ask for a video that shows the dog working.

    • From a video, you can see a lot. Is the dog truly sniffing with its mouth closed and walking through the search area consistently and independently, or is it running around mouth open with no search pattern whatsoever and glimpsing its handler regularly? Don’t mistake thinking that the faster the dog moves around makes it more efficient detection dog. If the dog is searching for a significant amount of scent, it might move a bit faster. Still, it’s good to understand, that by running, the dog uses most of its energy to moving around when it actually should use the energy to sniffing and analysing the scents in the area. If again the dog is looking to its handler a lot, it is not working independently, but relying on getting help from its handler. And as long as the dog is not independent and sure about what it’s supposed to do, it’s not working effectively.

  4. Understand your odour.

    • What is the dog searching for? The way the dog should search depends a lot of the scent that it’s searching. If the target releases only a small amount of odour, the dog should work very precisely. The number of scent molecules that are released to the air varies not only by the material itself but by many other factors too: temperature, humidity, age, amount, surface area, depth of the target, etc. The dog handler should know the scent theory enough to consider all these while working with their K9 partner. Still, as a rule of thumb, you as a service subscriber should know if the scent they are searching for is something fairly big (like an alive human, mould, smelly narcotics, etc.) or small (like individual insects, some explosives, ivory, etc.). From that, you can already conclude if the dog should work by running or walking and relentlessly sniffing.


Now, if you are an operational K9 handler reading this, would you get chosen for this job?

This post is also available in: Suomi (Finnish)