There’s Nothing to See Here; why your Scent Detecting dog doesn’t need an audience

This may come as a bit of a surprise to some of you but I don’t allow dogs to ‘spectate’ when another dog is working.

NO … “But my dog is friendly” dogs.

NO … “But they know each other and play together” dogs.

NO … “But they live together” dogs.

NEVER, EVER, EVER! And I apply this rule to my own dogs too.

If you’re used to attending any training, competition or social events with your dog (where it seems ‘de rigueur’ to keep your dog with you at all times including within an audience setting) you’ll appreciate that my stance is definitely not the norm. For some of you, my position will be irritating and inconvenient, for others it’ll come as a blessed relief; I give you permission to give yourself, and your dog, a break!

I don’t allow dogs to spectate when another dog is working. NEVER, EVER, EVER!

So, what are my reasons? Well, two-fold really. Firstly there are behavioural considerations for both the working and the audience dogs. Secondly there are Scent Detecting considerations that will have a direct impact on your dog’s training.

1. Behavioural Considerations

I live with two dogs, L and BB. They’ve been together now for almost 4 years and apart from the very occasional mild disagreement about something or other, their relationship is largely peaceable. In short, they’re ‘good mates’ … they understand one another.

As evidence for (what some might say are) my wild claims of sibling harmony, take a look at some of these photos … and … no … they’re not related.

I think you’d agree; they’re a team!

So, they rub along together very nicely, they know each other well, they play and live together … why on earth will I not allow them into the search area together while one or other of them is working?

Well, take a little look at this short video clip.

I’m in a field with L and BB. L is recalling to me very slowly. At 3 seconds she comes to a halt and turns her head away. At 9 seconds I think I see her lip her licks. Because of her dark coat colour, it’s not very clear, but I do notice her swallowing. Out of shot, lying beside me, is BB. L’s behaviour tells me that something that BB is doing is causing her some concern … enough to stop her in her tracks and use a number of “Calming Signals” – slowing down, head turning, lip-licking (Rugaas, 2006). L is attempting to defuse any potential conflict between herself and BB. When I look down at BB he’s staring intently at L, crouched and ready to pounce. He might think it’s a game … she quite obviously doesn’t … or … perhaps he doesn’t like her direct approach and she’s attempting to signal her good intent toward him? Either way, I’m in no doubt that they are in ‘conversation’ with one another.

Rugaas (2006) describes calming signals as a “life insurance policy”. Amongst other things they help “prevent things from happening … [and importantly] … make the others involved feel safer and understand the goodwill the signals indicate”. Mariti et al (2017) view these signals as having “a communicative role” and, as a social species, being able to communicate clearly with one another is not an optional extra for your dog.

Now imagine L and BB together in a search area; BB spectating perhaps while L attempts to work. As I think the video illustrates, despite knowing each other well, living in the same house, playing, sleeping and eating together, the need to communicate their intent toward one another at any given moment in time has to extend into the search environment and will interrupt, albeit in only a very small way perhaps, their training and work.

So, how about your dog, the one who’s trying to search in an environment where other, unfamiliar, dogs are part of the audience? Well, unsurprisingly perhaps, in Mariti et als (2017) study, calming signals were found to be used by dogs “more frequently while interacting with unfamiliar dogs”. In other words, your dog, if he’s to feel safe, will have to expend considerable amounts of energy monitoring (and responding to) the other, unfamiliar dogs’ apparent intentions (for good or bad) in preference to Scent Detecting.

As Palagi et al (2015) point out, it’s “probably adaptive for animals to discriminate others’ emotional expressions because this allows them to anticipate the behavioural response of the observed individual and to adjust their own behaviour accordingly”. It’s also worth considering here that, as Nielsen et al (2015) warn, “odors from animals in distress have an impact on conspecifics … [with the spreading of] … negative states”. This view is supported by Siniscalchi et al (2018) who state that “when a dog experiences an emotional state, for example anxiety, it releases a specific body odour into the environment. Despite being involuntary, this signal is received as a communicative signal by other individual because it informs them about the sender’s inner state and it can produce changes in the receiver’s behaviour”. If there are any dogs in the search environment – perhaps as part of the audience – who are uncomfortable around other dogs or people – fearful, anxious, worried – they will be distressed and your dog will know!

And what about you? A number of handlers have reported that because they don’t have to worry about other dogs in the search area they’ve been able to relax and feel more comfortable. It probably doesn’t need stating but, if you feel “safe” your dog will feel “safe” too. In support of this view, in a study by Custance and Mayer (2012), dogs were found to orientate “toward their owner or a stranger more often when the person was pretending to cry than when they were talking or humming … [this] … response was behaviorally consistent with an expression of empathic concern, but is most parsimoniously interpreted as emotional contagion”. In short … your dog is aware of, and will respond to, your emotions. His Scent Detecting performance will be influenced by how you are feeling. For more information on how you can influence your dog’s performance, you might like to take a look at False Indications, Clever Hans and You

So, what about the oft repeated claims that Scent Detecting can be beneficial in terms of your dog’s behaviour? Well … “Yes” and “No” and “Perhaps” and “Maybe”. Put most simply, there are “theoretical” reasons why Scent Detecting might have a number of beneficial behavioural effects for your dog (I’ll keep that discussion for another Blog) but any behavioural benefits may have more to do with the training methods employed (and there are as many different training methods used in Scent Detecting as there are in other dog sports and activities) rather than olfaction itself. It’s complicated!

All that said, a search area is not the best place to work on your dog’s social skills … he’s learning how to Scent Detect and that means giving him his own working space. As Anderson (2016) points out, “there is still a common expectation that dogs should automatically like, or at least get along with all people and all other dogs. Fearful, shy, or just plain introverted dogs really suffer from this. But even the most extroverted dog still has personal space. We need to learn to respect it”.

Sommer (1959) explains an animal’s “personal space” in terms of “the distance that the organism customarily places between itself and other organisms. The distance may vary from species to species and individual to individual” and, as Hall et al (?) state “contracts and expands depending on several factors” including his emotional and psychological state, his background and the activity that he’s engaged in at any given moment in time. In short, depending on your dog’s breed, past experiences, physical health, personality, familiarity with the environment, mood on a particular day (the list of variables is almost endless), to work successfully, he will require to be afforded more or less “space”.

I train my dogs to follow odour plumes, filaments and tendrils (Furton et al, 2001) back to source (more in a future blog) rather than using “pattern searching” and / or “detailing”. Patterns and Detailing require you to guide your dog around the search area and point out specific areas for him to investigate. Instead, I encourage my dogs to “free search” … to use their natural abilities to locate the target scent source by going in whichever direction the odour plumes, filaments and tendrils lead. To do this … your dog needs space.

More often than not the scent source may be in location X but for your dog to find it he may have to take himself into location Y to pick up any scent filaments and follow them back to source. What if location Y is also where the audience (including dogs) is sitting? How will your dog feel if he has to push through that audience to do his job? How will the audience dogs respond to having their space intruded upon by an unfamiliar dog? I’ll leave it to you to consider the answers to some of these questions.

2. Scent Detecting Considerations

The very early stages of Scent Detecting training involves “familiarising” your dog to the target odour (Hall et al, 2014). It’s about helping your dog form positive associations with the scent. What starts out as a completely irrelevant odour to your dog (or Neutral Stimulus – NS), will, after “conditioning”, start to predict that good things (food) will follow. In short, your dog starts to develop a strong liking for the odour. Here lies the first potential scent related problem.

If “familiarization” is conducted in an environment where your dog is feeling anxious or worried, perhaps because of the proximity of other unfamiliar dogs, this process is likely to be compromised. It’s certainly worth bearing in mind that “the olfactory system has direct anatomical and phylogenetic linkages to the limbic system, making it the sensory system most closely related to the parts of the brain that seem to mediate emotion” (Wrzesniewski et al, 1999) with a number of studies indicating that “odours present at the time of an event can be encoded in parallel with event details and consequently be used as cues in the retrieval of those event details” (Hughes, 2004). Rather than developing a liking for the target odour your dog might be developing far more negative associations.

And now for the second potential problem. By “familiarising” your dog to the target odour you are attempting to develop a positive conditioned emotional response (CER) … the target scent becomes, as Berridge et al (2009) describe it, a “motivational magnet” which has to be approached, often compulsively! This is definitely the attitude that you’ll want to foster in your scent detecting dog. As soon as he becomes aware of it in the environment it’ll be a cue for him to start working … but … and it’s a very BIG but … what if he’s not the dog whose turn it is to work? What if you have him beside you in the audience? You’ll have spent considerable amounts of time and energy turning what was an irrelevant odour into something that cues him to work and now you’re trying to prevent him working because he’s part of an audience. This has the potential to detract from all the training you’ve put in. Hopefully you’re now starting to see why keeping your dog with you in a search area, when it’s not his turn to work, is a very bad idea!

And finally, the human element of this discussion. I limit any audience to handlers only. If a dog demonstrates any difficulties working around people then the audience is asked to leave the search area until the dog has finished working. This is really no different to my rule that no dog works with other dogs present. In terms of people and what effect they might have on scent, it’s worth considering that every time you move around the search area you’re disturbing the air flow and, with it, scent molecules (Angle et al, 2016). This may, or may not, add to the complexity of the search for your dog but, as your dog’s handler, I ask that you give your dog plenty of space to work and as an audience I ask that you stay seated at all times.

So next time you attend any Scent Detecting event, will you work your dog with other dogs present? Will you let your dog be part of an audience? I’m hoping that you might just give it a little more thought.

Final Note

As with all of my blogs, I include a reference list. This allows you to investigate the topic a little further, check out the sources of my information and decide for yourself whether my interpretations of the literature are an accurate reflection of the author’s work. Happy reading.

© Lesley McAllister – Scent : Detect : Find Ltd 2018

References / Further Reading

1. Angle C, Waggoner LP, Ferrando A, Haney P and Passler T (2016) Canine Detection of the Volatilome: A Review of Implications for Pathogen and Disease Detection. Frontiers in Veterinary Science. June. Vol 3. 47. 1-7.

2. Anderson E (2016) Space Invaders. Barks from the Guild. Issue 21. Nov. 18-25.

3. Berridge KC, Robinson TE and Aldridge JW (2009) Dissecting components of reward; ‘Liking’, ‘Wanting’ and ‘Learning’. Current Opinion in Pharmacology. Feb 9(1). 65-73.

4. Custance D and Mayer J (2012) Empathic-like responding by domestic dogs (Canis familiaris) to distress in humans; An exploratory study. Animal Cognition. September. Vol 15. Issue 5. 851-859.

5. Furton KG and Myers LJ (2001) The scientific foundation and efficacy of the use of canines as chemical detectors for explosives. Talanta. 54. 487-500.

6. Hall ET and Hall MR (?) The Sounds of Silence. Accessed: 10.8.2018.

7. Hall NJ, Smith DW, Wynne CDL (2014) Effect of odor preexposure on acquisition of an odor discrimination in dogs. Learning and Behavior. 42. 2. 144-152.

8. Hughes M (2004) Olfaction, Emotion & the Amygdala: arousal-dependent modulation of long-term autobiographical memory and its association with olfaction: beginning to unravel the Proust phenomenon? Impulse. June 1 (1). 1-58.

9. Mariti C, Falaschi C, Zilocchi M, Fatjo J, Sighieri C, Ogi A and Gazzano A (2017) Analysis of the intraspecific visual communication in the domestic dog (Canis familiaris): a pilot study on the case of calming signals. Journal of Veterinary Behavior Clinical Applications and Research. Volume 18. March-April. 49-55.

10. Nielsen BL, Jezierski T, Bolhuis JE, Amo L, Rosell F, Oostindjer M, Christensen JW, McKeegan D, Wells DL and Hepper P (2015) Olfaction: An Overlooked Sensory Modality in Applied Ethology and Animal Welfare. Frontiers in Veterinary Science. December. Vol 2. Article 69.

11. Palagi E, Nicotra V, Cordoni G (2015) Rapid mimicry and emotional contagion in domestic dogs. Royal Society Open Science. 2. 150505.

12. Rugaas T (2006) On Talking Terms with Dogs: Calming Signals. 2nd Ed. Washington: Dogwise Publishing.

13. Siniscalchi M, d’Ingeo S, Minunno M and Quaranta A (2018) Communications in Dogs. Animals. 8. 131.

14. Sommer R (1959) Studies in Personal Space. Sociometry. 22. 247-260.

15. Wrzesniewski A, McCauley C and Rozin P (1999) Odor and Affect: Individual Differences in the Impact of Odor on Liking for Places, Things and People. Chemical Senses. 24. 713-721.

3 thoughts on “There’s Nothing to See Here; why your Scent Detecting dog doesn’t need an audience

  1. Thanks for this Lesley. Science backing what should be common sense! Applies to other working dogs too where multiple dogs are in the working area but some held back whilst others work. Good stuff!


  2. Excellant information. Thank you. What about if the search area is outside i.e. Vehicle searching, and the trainer allows other dogs in the area including a bitch in season unbeknown to anyone there?


    1. I apply the same rule for ‘external’ searches. Only the dog who is working is allowed in the area. All other dogs are resting in their vehicles. I do not ‘train’ in ‘public’ areas where dogs might wander through the environment as per public park. Additionally it is worth considering that holding an event in a public area does actually require special permissions and additional insurance and can be impractical. As for bitches in season, I have no problem allowing them to attend. Believe it or not, although there is often some initial interest, dogs will get back to work. It’s all part of the training.


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