Scent Detecting and the Enriched Environment

When Unit 13, the permanent home of Scent : Detect : Find Ltd, opened its doors to clients in September 2016, it became the FIRST training space in the UK to provide a DEDICATED Enriched Environment for every dog that would subsequently spend time there. Since then, all training at Scent : Detect : Find Ltd has continued to take place in an environment that looks something like this …

At the end of September 2016, Unit 13 opened its doors to provide the FIRST dedicated, Dog-Centric, Enriched training Environment in the UK

Although it changes on an almost hourly basis – items are repeatedly moved around the space and alternated with newer items –  Unit 13 is always full of interesting things. As the saying goes, one (wo)man’s rubbish is another (wo)man’s treasure! Dog-Toys. Plant-Pots. House-Hold Furniture. Wood-Piles. Cardboard Boxes. Plastic Milk Cartons. Garden Furniture. Books. Magazines. Squeaky Toys. Newspapers. Plastic buckets. Old kitchen appliances. Egg Boxes. Scent ‘n’ Snack Mats. Bricks. Children’s Toys. Toilet-Roll Centres. Balls. Mats. Cuddly Toys. Bedding. Blankets. Varying textures, different odours, different colours, sizes, shapes and heights, unusual and unexpected sounds … and odours.

In addition to the items deliberately selected to add enrichment to Unit 13’s space, happenstance also plays a big part – background radio, conversation between clients, food odours, odours left by previous visitors (human and canine), the sound of machinery and voices from neighbouring Units.

So, what exactly is an Enriched Environment?

Well, according to Bender and Strong (2019), enrichment “has become a buzzword [that] gets casually tossed around in conversations … but when asked to define enrichment, things get a little less clear”. For some owners, enrichment might mean providing their dog with a puzzle feeder or scattering a few food treats around the garden. For some trainers, enrichment may be a purposeful, specially planned, event (within the auspices of a larger training event, perhaps) where dogs are allowed and encouraged to interact with a selection of novel items. Once the interaction has taken place, the items are removed from the space and training continues as “normal”.

With what seems like a recent eXpLoSIoN, within dog training circles, of all things enrichment, the concept seems to have taken on an almost mythical status; something “very special” – an “occasion” or “event” – rather than, as Bender and Strong (2019) would prefer, learning what our dogs’ needs are and then structuring an environment for them that allows them, as much as is feasible, to meet those needs“. As they continue, “this isn’t just about toys and play. It’s about who dogs are, the entire spectrum of their physical, behavioral, and instinctual needs, and how we can meet those needs as a part of our daily routine“. 

Clearly then, an enriched environment is just one aspect of an enriched life – “the meeting of all of an animal’s needs as closely as possible to how they would be met in the wild, in order to empower them to engage in species-typical behaviors in healthy and appropriate ways” (Bender and Strong, 2019).

(Incidentally, I’d highly recommend Bender and Strong’s (2019) book. A really comprehensive, readable, in-depth, exploration of the subject area).

According to Faverjon et al (2002), an enriched environment (specifically) is one in which there is a “combination of inanimate and social stimulation” and might include elements that innervate any, or all, of your dog’s senses – Olfactory. Auditory. Visual. Gustatory. Touch. Herron et al (2014) highlight the positive effects that might come from this type of enriched environment stating that it “increases the complexity of dog behaviour and helps prevent undesirable behaviour“. 

Interestingly, Boissy et al (2007) argue that the term enrichment “should be reserved for environments that are truly enriched beyond basic needs“. As they point out, simply “adding resources or features to an impoverished setting” is better described as “supplementation” with a reduction in “indicators of poor welfare … rather than an increase in indicators of good welfare”. For me, this lends weight to the position that environmental enrichment can only constitute real enrichment if it’s something that’s added into an already complex and interesting environment. A specially planned section within a larger training event – where your dog is given the opportunity to interact with a few novel items, for a short period of time, before they are removed again – is far better described as “supplementation” with, arguably, somewhat limited benefits.

What are the claimed benefits of creating an enriched environment for your Scent Detecting Dog?

Exploratory Behaviour

Studies conducted on numerous different species demonstrate that, amongst other things, an enriched environment will result in an increase in the animal’s exploratory and locomotor behaviour (Beattie et al, 1995). These are precisely the types of behaviour that we want to develop in our Scent Detecting dogs; dogs who will happily, and confidently, explore … search … their environment.

According to Panksepp (2011), any increase in exploratory (searching) behaviour will activate the brain’s “reward-SEEKING” system. “This system engenders an enthusiastic affective-‘energy’ … it provokes animals to become intensely energized to explore the world and also promotes learning … it leads animals to become excited about the mundane, and the system conditions rapidly to yield vigorous approach, exploration and, eventually, various consummatory behaviors … it just wants opportunities to explore the world, which is critical for survival. Indeed predatory behavior is one manifestation of this system in action”. 

Improved Learning and Cognition

An enriched environment provides novel experiences for your dog. Novelty demands increased effort … “consequently, coping with enriched environments requires activity and exercise, and such environments favor hippocampal neurogenesis and synaptic plasticity” (Boissy et al, 2007). As the hippocampus has a major role in the learning process and the formation of new memories, the connection between a novel, enriched, environment and the enhancement of learning seems self-evident.  

In addition, Milgram et al (2005) point out that “rearing in enriched environments improves learning ability, produces beneficial changes in cellular structure and increases the resistance of neurons to injury”. For Schipper et al (2008), “environmental enrichment induces structural changes in the brain that results in improved cognitive abilities”. This position is further supported by Gluck and Harlow (1971) who state that “deprivation rearing attenuates all learning capacity, while rearing in enriched environments facilitates all learning”. If an enriched environment can support your dog’s learning in this way, this has got to be a good thing!

What seems worth noting here is the reference to the enriched environment and rearing. As Boissy et al (2007) point out, “experiences that occur during adulthood may … influence emotional responsiveness, particularly through classical processes of learning and habituation. The exposure of adult animals to enriched environments … has been shown to decrease subsequent fear, although the reported effects are generally less marked than those induced by the same treatments during infancy”. The development of a successful Scent Detecting Dog starts young and central to the success (or otherwise) of this project may be the rearing practices employed; namely, the provision of an enriched environment.   

Better Welfare

Schipper et al (2008) point out that, “in general, an animal’s inability to perform specific behaviours (for example, due to a lack of suitable stimuli or physical restraint) is often viewed as a cause of reduced welfare of animals kept in captivity … there is increasing evidence that the opportunity to display more species-specific appetitive behaviours is beneficial to captive animals”. 

Whilst much of the work on enrichment practices originated within Farm and Zoo settings, it’s an uncomfortable truth that our dogs (family pets or working dogs) are as “captive” as any Meerkat, Penguin or Pig. Giving our dogs the opportunity to “just be dogs”, providing them with an enriched environment as part of an enriched life – investigating new items in their home, shredding old cardboard boxes, rummaging through a pile of clothes, locating food items scattered in the garden, taking the lead in terms of direction and speed during a walk, having the company of their own and other species – can only lead to an improvement in their welfare.    

Positive Emotions (Affect) and Eureka

The enriched environment can provide your dog with much needed challenges. According to McGowan et al (2014), “animals may experience positive affective states in response to their own achievements“. Your dog appears to be aware of the efforts he’s made and the success (or otherwise) of these efforts. As Boissy et al (2007) state, “the possibility of controlling the environment and coping successfully with challenges may be another source of positive emotions. Despite some degree of stress being necessary in the initial state of coping to activate alertness and metabolism, successful actions with a positive outcome make the animal master of the environment”. 

Context and Place Preference

Interestingly, but perhaps unsurprisingly, your dog (and you too!) will experience something that Feuerbacher and Wynne (2012) describe as a “place preference”. Typically, your dog will choose to “spend more time in an [environment] paired with positive reinforcers … [and] … less time in [environments] paired with aversive events”.

But place preference is not simply dependent on how many food rewards your dog receives in a particular environment. It’s about the quality of the environment itself. As Ikemoto and Panksepp (1999) point out, your dog is able to learn about his environment without the need for rewards such as food treats. This is a form of declarative learning – the ability to recall facts and events. Did he have a good time there? Would he like to visit again? Was it interesting? Did it stimulate his SEEKING system?

Why does Scent : Detect : Find choose to work in an enriched environment?

Firstly – ASSESSMENT – From his very first visit to Unit 13, your dog is free to investigate the environment in whichever way he chooses. This time – long before he starts any Scent Detecting training – provides an opportunity to assess his ability to navigate the area, climb, clamber and interact with what might be, to him, novel stimuli. His coping strategies. His body language. His use of Calming Signals (Rugaas, 2006). Whether he moves away from you without “instruction”, “direction” or “luring”. These observations provide valuable information. They tell you who your dog really is. They shed light on his past training history and ability to act independently of you. 

Tweed investigating the enriched environment

You are advised to just let your dog “be”. To begin with, he may choose to simply sit beside you rather than explore the area. This is his decision. As Kaufer (2013) argues, it’s “a shame when puppies [and dogs] do not get enough time to explore new situations, but instead are coaxed with food before they can overcome their insecurity or fear on their own“.

During this assessment phase, I do not use food to encourage your dog to explore the area. “Luring”, as I think this could best be described, may prompt your dog to move toward the food and so, on the face of things, start to ‘explore’ the environment but …  before he feels ready to do so! Rather than food, I let the enriched environment do all the work and simply wait …

SecondlyCONFIDENCE – To help your dog develop his confidence in new and complex environments. An opportunity to investigate new items, play with toys, encounter novel surfaces and sounds. Start to habituate to new stimuli in a safe and secure space … when your dog feels ready!

Thirdly – CHOICES – The enriched environment provides your dog with items that he can interact with if he needs a break from scent detecting. A toy to play with, a cardboard box to rip, a teddy to fling around. Real Choices. If you’re interested in the subject of “choice”, keep a look-out for my forthcoming Blog – Let your Dog Decide. Scent Detecting and the Power of Choice.

Sully using a Squeeky Pig to take a break
Rosie relaxing amongst the “treasure” before starting back to work!

Interestingly, according to Sommerville et al (2017), “more destructible toys increase play, perhaps because they better imitate prey”. Certainly, the opportunity to shred a box or chew a toy is used as a “coping” strategy by a number of dogs who visit Unit 13. If they’re becoming tired, finding the work too tricky, struggling with a particular training element, they can walk away from the task, interact with any of the items available to them and then, without further “instruction”, and after only a very few minutes (often seconds), return to work at the point they’d left off!

Bea taking a break with a little bit of box-shredding!

And … NO … this doesn’t cause (or encourage) your Scent Detecting Dog to be lazy, or disobedient, or easily distracted, or … or … or …! Far from it. With increasing Scent Detecting experience, your dog’s need to “take-a-break” diminishes greatly and he’ll become less easily distracted in other, new, search environments.

FourthlySEARCH – As discussed earlier, enriched environments promote movement and exploration, the hallmarks of search behaviour. There is no need to use food to lure your dog out of his comfort zone and it may well be counterproductive. For further discussion of this topic, look out for my forthcoming Blog – Food, Glorious Food

Fifthly – HIDES – The enriched environment provides innumerable places in which to secrete your dog’s target scent source. In addition, because of the complexity of the environment, it’s far more difficult for either you, or your dog, to “guess” where the scent source might be located. This can be a particular issue for competition style scent work. Compare the following photos. Which search area “tells you” where you and your dog should search?

Two luggage line-up searches. Enriched Environment vs Barren Environment

I wonder how surprised you and your dog would be if you were to discover that, in the barren environment, the scent source was actually hidden on a window-ledge, behind a curtain?   

Similarly, in an outdoor search area I would recommend that you use what is already there; it’s enriched enough. Use the trees, use the old plant-pots, use the walls and window-ledges and bricks and fence-lines and hedgerows. Think twice (or three times) before placing any items there that don’t naturally belong; it’ll do little other than act as a big pointing finger to you and your dog saying “search here”!

Don’t add to an Outdoor search area – Use what’s already there!

So, faced with an environment like this …


or like this …

Poppet. Dream. Teddy. Abel. Luytje.

… which do you think your dog would prefer to investigate?

So … in conclusion …

Enriched environments may be the latest in a very long line of “next BIG things” in dog training circles but Scent : Detect : Find Ltd has always harnessed their beneficial effects. What is so heartening to witness is the number of Scent : Detect : Find Alumni who, after having spent time at Unit 13 with their own dogs, have gone on to create their own enriched environments based on the Unit 13 model. That’s a lot more happy Scent Detecting dogs reaping the benefits of an enriched environment!

Final Note

As with all 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 represent an accurate reflection of the author’s original work. Happy reading.

© Lesley McAllister – Scent : Detect : Find Ltd 2020

References / Further Reading

  1. Beattie VE, Walker N and Sneddon IA (1995) Effects of Environmental Enrichment on Behaviour and Productivity of Growing Pigs. Animal Welfare. 4. 3. August. 207-220
  2. Bender A and Strong E (2019) Canine Enrichment For The Real World. Making It a Part of Your Dog’s Daily Life. USA: Dogwise Publishing
  3. Boissy A, Manteuffel G, Jewen MB, Moe RO, Spruijt B, Keeling LJ, Winckler C, Forkman B, Dimitrov I, Langbein J, Bakken M, Veisser I and Aubert A (2007) Assessment of positive emotions in animals to improve their welfare. Physiology and Behavior. 92. 375-397
  4. Faverjon S, Silveira DC, Fu DD, Cha BH, Akman C, Hu Y and Holmes GL (2002) Beneficial effects of enriched environment following status epilepticus in immature rats. Neurology. 59. 1356-1364
  5. Feuerbacher EN and Wynne (2012) RELATIVE EFFICACY OF HUMAN SOCIAL INTERACTION AND FOOD AS REINFORCERS FOR DOMESTIC DOGS AND HAND-REARED WOLVES. Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior. 98. 105-129
  6. Gluck JP and Harlow HF (1971) The effects of deprived and enriched rearing conditions on later learning: A review. Cognitive processes of nonhuman primates. 285-319
  7. Herron ME, Kirby-Madden TM and Lord LK (2014) Effects of environmental enrichment on the behavior of shelter dogs. Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association. 244. 6. 687-692
  8. Ikemoto S and Panksepp J (1999) The role of nucleus accumbens dopamine in motivated behavior: a unifying interpretation with special reference to reward-seeking. Brain Research Reviews. 31. 6-41
  9. Kaufer M (2013) Canine Play Behavior. The Science of Dogs at Play. Washington: Dogwise
  10. McGowan RT, Rehn T, Norling Y, Keeling LJ (2014) Positive affect and learning: exploring the “Eureka Effect” in dogs. Animal Cognition. May. 17(3) 577-87
  11. Milgram NW, Head E, Zicker SC, Ikeda-Douglas CJ, Murphey H, Muggenburg B, Siwak C, Tapp D and Cotman CW (2005) Learning ability in aged beagle dogs is preserved by behavioral enrichment and dietary fortification: a two-year longitudinal study. Neurobiology of Aging. 26. 77-90
  12. Panksepp J (2011) The basic emotional circuits of mammalian brains: Do animals have affective lives? Neuroscience and Biobehavioural Reviews. 35. 1791-1804
  13. Rugaas T (2006) On Talking Terms with Dogs: Calming Signals. 2nd Ed. Washington: Dogwise Publishing.
  14. Schipper LL, Vinke CM, Schilder MBH and Spruijt BM (2008) The effect of feeding enrichment toys on the behavior of kenneled dogs (Canis familiaris). Applied Animal Behaviour Science. 114. 182-195
  15. Sommerville R, O’Connor EA and Asher L (2017) Why do dogs play? Function and welfare implications of play in the domestic dog. Applied Animal Behaviour Science. 197. 1-8

Lighten-Up your Scent Detecting!

I’m sure you’ve all seen the video clips of scent detecting dogs being lifted onto the shoulders of their handlers before being carried around the search area to try and locate a scent source placed high on the top of a cupboard or door. A friend, and colleague, of mine says that she’s unable to watch these videos without picturing the dog as some sort of flesh-and-fur vacuum cleaner, the handler directing their dog’s nose into every crevice of the search area to suck out any lingering odour molecules. I must admit, I see this picture too!


Based on the number of videos posted across a variety of social media sites, lifting dogs for high hides appears to have become a more and more commonplace practice. What started out as a strategy employed almost exclusively by the “professional” handler has been picked up (no pun intended) and run with by an ever-increasing number of scent detecting “hobbyists”. Perhaps that’s not so surprising really given that, rightly or wrongly, there’s a tendency amongst many scent detecting enthusiasts to look towards the “professional” community for ways they might improve their handling skills and, ultimately, their dog’s performance.

So, is lifting your dog skyward for high hides a good idea? What are the likely outcomes for you? What are the likely outcomes for your dog? Is it a handling strategy that will increase your chances of scent detecting success or might there be a better way of working with your dog?


Every time you attempt to lift your dog from the floor, you’re engaged in a manual handling activity. According to the HSE (2020) “manual handling means transporting or supporting a load by hand or bodily force. It includes lifting, lowering, pushing, pulling, moving or carrying a load. A load is a moveable object, such as a box or package, a person or an animal”.

Worryingly, around 40% of all work-related ill-health and injury is associated with manual handling tasks (HSE, 2016). Self-evidently, manual handling activities are far from risk free and UK legislation – “The Manual Handling Operations Regulations” (1992/2002) –  places a duty on all employers to protect their employees from the risk of injury and ill health arising from any hazardous manual handling task in the workplace (HSE, 2020).

At first glance, as a scent detecting “hobbyist” (as opposed to a “professional”), manual handling legislation may not seem particularly relevant to you. From a strictly legal standpoint, it probably isn’t, however, what might be highly relevant is the practical guidance it can provide. Remember, every time you decide to lift your dog from the floor, you’re engaged in a manual handling activity; you’re as likely to sustain an injury whilst engaged in your hobby as anyone else is during their time at work.

In addition, if you’re a scent detecting trainer, you’ll owe a duty of care to your clients. A duty of care can be defined as “the responsibility of an individual to not harm others through carelessness” (LawTeacher, 2013). At a minimum, for a duty of care to exist, there has to be;

  • “reasonable foresight of harm” – if you advise your client to lift their dog then you need to be sure that this advice is safe.
  • “a relationship of proximity” – unquestionably, as your client, this relationship exists between you.

Always keep in mind that Professional Indemnity (Liability) Insurance exists because poor advice from a trainer can result in injury or loss to a client. A sobering thought!

So, what might constitute best practice in terms of manual handling? If you do decide to lift your dog or advise your client to lift theirs, how can you avoid causing harm to yourself or others? One very important consideration is the weight of your load – Your dog!

The HSE (2020) provide weight categories where they consider the risk of injury to be low and where it is probably safe to proceed with the lift. Any weight outside these limits is “likely to increase the risk of injury” (HSE, 2020).


Close to Body         Arms extended

Shoulder height               7kg                       3kg

Elbow height                   13kg                      7kg

Knuckle height               16kg                      10kg

Mid lower leg height     13kg                       7kg

Ground level                    7kg                        3kg



Close to Body         Arms extended

Shoulder height              10kg                      5kg

Elbow height                   20kg                     10kg

Knuckle height                25kg                     15kg

Mid lower leg height      20kg                     10kg

Ground level                    10kg                      5kg

Already, you’ll be able to see that these weight limits, particularly those at shoulder height, are very low – anything between 3kgs and 10kgs depending on whether you’re a man or a woman or holding the weight close to or further away from your body. As the owner of dogs weighing in at 30kgs and 45kgs, it would be unsafe for me to attempt to lift either of them. As for getting any one of them to shoulder height ….. I’ll just leave that to your imagination!

The HSE (2020) also stipulate that these safe weight guides assume that “the load is easily grasped with both hands and is handled in reasonable working conditions, with the worker in a stable body position”. Here lies the next difficulty, your dog can be considered an unstable load. At best he’s likely to move, wriggle and adjust his position as he’s lifted from the ground, at worst he’ll struggle violently as he attempts to get away from you! Unstable loads place you at further risk of injury as does working in a confined or cluttered space whilst attempting to look around your dog to watch him work – your body position is no longer stable.

The HSE (2020) outline three key points that must be considered in preventing and managing risk – Avoid. Assess. Reduce;

Avoid – as far as possible, avoid any potentially hazardous manual handling task. Do you actually need to lift your dog? Can you, as the HSE (2020) suggest, do your work in a different way?

Assess – if you decide that the manual handling task can’t be avoided, you’ll need to assess the risk of possible injury and, as far as possible, find ways of reducing that risk. What weight will you be attempting to lift? Have you any pre-existing health conditions that might affect your ability to lift safely? Have you had any training?

Reduce – you must minimise the risk as far as possible. Can someone help you lift your dog? As Becker (2017) says, “the best way to lift a large dog is with two people”! Can you arrange the search area in such a way that there are fewer restrictions on your movement that could further compromise your safety?

To summarise, as a scent detecting “hobbyist”, unless your dog weighs less than 10kg (7kg if you’re a woman) and you can keep your dog close to your body as you lift him to shoulder height, you’re at risk of injury and should not proceed with the lift. Additionally, in considering the HSEs (2020) three key points – Avoid. Assess. Reduce – there can be little justification for lifting your dog for what is, at the end of the day, only a hobby. There is even less justification if your dog weighs over 10kg. You need to find another way of working with him.

Your Dog 

Aside from the very obvious risk to your dog of being dropped, he may not actually like being picked up. As Becker (2017) points out, even if your dog never complains, it doesn’t mean he’s okay about it. With your dog at shoulder height it’s unlikely that you’ll be in any position to notice any signs of distress, anxiety or pain – lip-licking, yawning, half-moon eyes, looking away from you. For dogs with arthritis or joint disease, “lifting can be extremely painful” (Becker, 2017). Many dogs will endure a great deal of discomfort or pain without any vocalisation (Vogelsang, 2016). It is beholden on you, your dog’s handler, to act as his advocate and protect him from any unnecessary distress.

Injuries related to poor lifting techniques include;

  • Picking the dog up under his front legs like a child – “strains the muscles in the front legs and spine, which can result in torn ligaments and even a dislocated shoulder or elbow” (Becker, 2017).
  • Using the dog’s tail as a ‘handle’ – “Damage caused by pulling your dog’s tail can affect the nerves and muscles that move the tail as well as those that control elimination” (Becker 2017).
  • Picking the dog up by his collar – this can “cut off his air supply and cause him to choke. It’s also a good way to do serious permanent damage to the very delicate organs located in his neck, including the throat, larynx and trachea” (Becker, 2017).

For a useful pictorial guide on how to lift your dog as safely as possible, you might like to refer to Pippa Elliot’s (2019) information sheet – “How to Pick up a Dog Properly”.

Scent Detecting

For me, the simple solution to the high hide problem (which will greatly reduce the possibility of causing any harm to you or your dog) is to train an unambiguous passive indication with duration. With a passive indication, your dog can point out the location of the high hide, with a great degree of accuracy, without his feet ever having to leave the floor. If you’d like to know more about the benefits of a well-trained indication, take a look at my blog from 2018 – “The Indication. It’s not an optional extra!” 

Poppy pointing towards the high hide - just follow the line of her nose!
Poppy indicating the position of her high hide – just follow the line of her nose!
Abel pointing out the high hide in the projector grill.
Dream reaching up toward the scent source
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Luytje, an older lady, doing a little bit of clambering to point out her target scent
Abel’s nose pointing skywards!

In addition, I’d want to foster my dog’s confidence to climb and clamber. The closer he can get to a high hide, without having to be lifted, the better it is for all concerned. Your dog can still give his passive indication perched on top of a piece of furniture!

Climbing and clambering – Useful skills

Very sadly, if lifting our dogs for high hides becomes “normal practice” within scent detecting circles this will preclude many handlers and their dogs from participating in this activity. If you work one of the large breeds or have an underlying medical condition or pre-existing injury … this could mean you!

In conclusion

  • Will I ever lift either of my dogs for scent detecting activities? No. While there are other, safer, ways of working with my dogs, there’s no need. A well-trained passive indication is all that’s required.
  • What will I do if my dogs start to climb and clamber by themselves? Support them. That’s one of the reasons they wear a harness.
  • Are there any circumstances in which I would attempt to lift my dogs? Yes. If they were injured and in danger, I’d do my utmost to move them to safety. That said, a lift may not be the best option or, for that matter, even possible. Dragging and sliding may be a far safer practice.

So, keep yourself and your dog safe and leave his feet on the floor!

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 original work. Happy reading.

References and Further Reading

1. Becker K (2017) 3 Things Never to Do When Picking Up Your Dog. Accessed; 30.4.2020

2. Elliot P (2019) How to Pick up a Dog Properly. Accessed; 1.5.2020

3. HSE (2016) Manual Handling. Manual Handling Operations Regulations 1992. 4th Edition. Crown Copyright.

4. HSE (2020) Manual handling at Work. A brief guide. HMSO.

5. LawTeacher (2013) Duty of Care Lecture. Accessed; 30.4.2020

6. McAllister L (2018) The Indication. It’s not an optional extra!” Accessed; 1.5.2020

7. Vogelsang J (2016) 5 Things Your Dog Wishes You Knew About Picking Him Up. Accessed; 30.4.2020


© Lesley McAllister – Scent : Detect : Find Ltd 2020


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 lick her lips. 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 work independently … 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 other 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.