Success is a result of hard work. And as we all know, to work hard we all need motivation. This is no different for dogs.

How to motivate a detection dog? And how do you keep the motivation up?

To not to kill dog’s motivation, it is important to build the wanted behaviour in small steps and not to rush. For a detection dog this means teaching a target scent and boosting the dog’s will to search for it. If the target scent is not naturally interesting to the dog (like it is often the case), the dog needs to be rewarded with something it really wants. For most dogs play or food work well as a reward, but for others we need to be more creative. It is essential to understand that it is the dog that defines what is rewarding for it. We can not decide that for it.

Evidently, one criterion when selecting a working detection dog is how easily it can be motivated to perform different tasks. Practically any dog, however, can be trained to search as long as the handler knows how to make training motivating.

First, the target scent should be the best thing the dog knows and this should be stressed especially in the early training.  In the beginning the exercises should be easy and the dog should succeed every time. By arranging the search environment and hides in a way that the dog finds them independently, builds up its motivation and will to do the task again. If the dog always succeeds without the handlers help, it learns that it can make it on its own and it will not ask help. The more fun the dog has searching and finding, the more motivation it has to find the target scent even when the search area is sometimes empty later in training.


Second, you should never end rewarding your dog even when it has learnt the task. When a dog is rewarded for finding the target scent time and again, searching itself will become rewarding for the dog, based on Premac’s principle  – since the finding and alerting is rewarding, the behaviour before that becomes rewarding too. Admittedly, in some cases the learnt behaviour becomes so self-rewarding that the dog wants to work just for the work itself, but in most of the cases the dog needs to be rewarded for its effort regularly. For example tracking is very natural behaviour for a dog. If the dog likes it and can do it for its job, it might like the tracking itself more than the reward in the end.

The scent detection tasks vary depending on the target scent and the environment the dog is working in. If the scent is something that can be found in multiple places and the dog often gets to find it, it also gets rewarded often. And the more often it gets rewarded the higher its expectations are to find the scent the next time its working. If we take for example a mold dog. Mold is something that can be found in many buildings. If not in the structure, at least in the drains. So the mold dog finds the target scent in most of the cases and also often gets to alert in multiple locations. So whenever a mold dog is off to work its expectations are continuously high and so its motivation is easy to keep up.

A video of a highly motivated hunting labrador training is found behind this link. (Trigger warning: a dog carrying a dead rabbit.)

But what about bomb dogs in a highly secured building where the risk of bombs is high but the probability of them existing is low? A dog may be working continuously in a same environment without ever finding anything. Even the best detection dog with the highest motivation and drive will at some point realise that there is nothing to find. And if the dog never finds anything (and is never rewarded) its motivation to work will drop.

These were the basic principles that can be used when building a dogs working motivation in general. More sophisticated techniques at that the professional dog trainers use will be discussed  more in detail in the next blog post.

To keep the dog interested in its work it needs to find the target scent often enough. It depends on the dog how often is enough. When teaching an animal a strong and durable behaviour the key to success is variable reinforcement. It means that the reward is not available every time but the handler creates a pattern (a reinforcement schedule) that determines when the dog has a possibility to find the scent and get the reward. In scent detection the variable ratio is usually used to teach a dog to search larger and larger areas. The hides are there somewhere but the dog does not know if those can be found soon or later. It only has its hopes up for finding it soon. Reinforcing with variable ratio keeps the task unpredictable and exciting, when the dog can never know when the target scent is there to be found. This is important to remember in every stage of the training – including very experienced dogs.


When a handler makes hides for the dog to keep it motivated there are some things that should be paid attention to:

Patterns: We people tend to build up behavioural patterns. In scent detection training that means that we often make hides in similar places (like in drawers or behind a radiator) or walk the same route when making the hides (like walking first to make the hide and then walking around for distraction) or avoid making hides in places where it is hard for us to put it (like up, where one would need a chair to reach). Dogs pick up our patterns very quickly. They also often recognise patterns that we ourselves do not even realise having, like the earlier blog post describes. If a dog is being motivated by training hides, there should be many different people making them so that the possible patterns get broken and the searching stays interesting to the dog. Otherwise the dog may not work well when the pattern is missing, which usually is the case in real life searches.
Handlers signature scent: If the training scents are repeatedly handled or stored by the dogs own handler, they will get contaminated with his/hers individual odour. If the handlers odour is continuously simultaneously present with the target scent the dog might start searching for a scent mix (target scent + handler) instead of the original target scent. If this happens, the dog might not alert the plain target scent anymore. It is important to change the target scent often and use also other handlers training scents to avoid this problem.
Guiding: When we train our own dogs and know the locations of our training hides we have the tendency to get frustrated if the dog does not find it as soon as we expected. It becomes tempting to guide the dog just a little bit so that it would find the hide and we could reward it. But if the dog learns that we help it to do its work it will start observing us more and slowly becomes dependent on our guidance. The more the dog relies on our guidance, the more inefficient its independent searching develops and the worse the results in a real search are.

Handlers motivation to work is almost as important as dogs. If a handler is stressed or unwilling to work or lacks trust to his/her dog, the dog will sense the handlers mood and it will affect its work. Not necessarily immediately, and it depends again on the dog how easily it will react to its handler, but it is important to be aware of the possible effects. Some dogs may react by feeling a pressure to alert which leads to false alerts. Some dogs may skip alerts even when they have found the hide and some may actually start avoiding the searching entirely, if they connect handlers bad mood to the work it is doing.

For us handlers it is always encouraging to see how our hard work and training pays off: when the dog alerts the target scent in a real life search and finds what we were looking for. Especially when we are not expecting anything to be found. That is the goal we are aiming at and which gives us handlers the ultimate motivation to keep on training.

(If your dogs motivation suddenly drops without an obvious reason, always consult a vet first!)

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