Hiding in Plain Sight – Scent Detecting in the “Open Space”

Have you ever noticed just how attracted your dog is to “stuff”? How, when you return home from a shopping trip, he has to investigate your bags? How, when he enters a new environment he has to check out its perimeter and then … anything else that the area might contain? How, when he’s out on a walk, his route will take him from one thing to another – from fence-line to lamp-post to letter-box to gate to gutter – your dog’s trajectory seemingly a canine version of “join the dots”?

Have you ever noticed just how attracted your dog is to “stuff”?

According to Boissy et al (2007), this type of exploratory behaviour is about information gathering and is “a behavior that most species of animal are motivated to perform. ie: they are fulfilling a behavioral need“. It’s something that we humans do too. In the case of Scent Detecting, any exploratory tendency on your part can have a major influence on your dog’s searching behaviour; more on this a little later. As Boissy et al (2007) state, exploratory behaviour is “a behavior that seems to be self-reinforcing to some extent. It doesn’t satiate in the same way as many other behaviors do … it might actually be a behavior that is continually ongoing and is only interrupted when other, more immediate needs, are present“.

In terms of Scent Detecting, information gathering is a hugely useful behaviour. You want your dog to actively explore the search environment. As he does so, his brain’s “reward-SEEKING” system will be activated. As Panksepp (2011) states, “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“. 

According to Boissy (2007) there are two forms of exploration

1. Inquisitive exploration where your dog is looking for a change in the environment. Has anything moved? Is the area as I last remembered it?

2. Inspective exploration in which your dog is responding to some sort of change in the environment.

During inspective exploration, which is typically prompted by the presence of a novel object, there is a gradual approach toward the object “similar to that seen in other approach / avoidance situations … the response to the novel object is a result of curiosity and fear … with exploration being the behavioural outcome” (Boissy et al, 2007). 

Interestingly, this relationship between exploratory behaviour and fear fits well with the findings of Svartberg et al (2002) who, during the development of their standardised behavioural test – the DMA or Dog Mentality Assessment – identified five specific behavioural traits including Curiosity / Fearfulness (Svartberg et al, 2005). In all likelihood, there’ll have been many occasions where you’ll have noticed that your dog, when faced with something new in his environment – a novel stimulus – has appeared “conflicted” – apparently wanting to approach the new “thing” (curiosity) whilst, at the same time, hesitant to make that approach (fear). Whilst, on occasion, this might have caused you some concern, the good news is that Curiosity / Fearfulness “scores” can change over time and are influenced by repeated exposure to the particular stimulus (Svartberg et al, 2005). Your dog’s curiosity can over-ride any initial hesitation to make an approach. 

The Enriched Environment – Implications for Scent Detecting

The Enriched environment is described as one in which there’s a “combination of inanimate and social stimulation” (Faverjon et al, 2002) which will act to increase your dog’s exploratory and locomotor behavior (Beattie et al, 1995). These are precisely the types of behaviour that you want to develop in your Scent Detecting dog. 

The Enriched Environment - Acts to increase your dog's EXPLORATORY and LOCOMOTOR behaviour
The Enriched Environment – Acts to increase your Dog’s EXPLORATORY and LOCOMOTOR behaviour

Enriched environments can provide your dog with much needed challenges. As Boissy et al (2007) state, “the possibility of controlling the environment and coping successfully with challenges may be … [a] … source of positive emotions. Despite some degree of stress being necessary in the initial state of coping … successful actions with a positive outcome make the animal master of the environment”. When curiosity and accompanying exploratory behaviour overcome any fearfulness, your dog “may experience positive affective states in response to … [his] … own achievements” (McGowan et al, 2014). Your dog appears to be aware of the efforts he’s made and the success of these efforts.  

If you’d like to find out a little more about enriched environments, just follow this link to Scent Detecting and the Enriched Environment.

As well as helping to build your dog’s confidence, the Enriched environment provides a number of other Scent Detecting benefits – 

1. Encourages exploration – any enriched environment will, as previously discussed, encourage your dog to explore. Put simply, it supports your dog’s searching behaviour without the need to adopt any other strategies such as luring, leading or directing. 

2. Provides places to secrete the target odour – anything in the enriched environment – a tree, a wall, a box, a vehicle – can act as the perfect hiding place for your dog’s target odour.

Anything in the enriched environment can act as the perfect hiding place for your dog’s target odour

Unfortunately, not everything about the Enriched Scent Detecting environment is so rosy! Potential pitfalls can include –

1. Objects in an environment will tend to draw your dog towards them – in terms of developing your dog’s search skills, this can be a very useful phenomenon, unfortunately, unless carefully managed, it has the potential to become highly problematic. A dog who searches “things” rather than “areas” is only performing a very limited search – he may well fail to locate the target scent source if it’s located in an open space away from a “thing”.      

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Your dog may well fail to locate the target scent source if it’s located in an open space away from a “thing”.      

2. Objects in an environment will tend to draw YOU towards them – as mentioned earlier, you are as curious and exploratory as your dog. When you spot something in the environment, you’ll have a tendency to want to investigate it. In terms of Scent Detecting, this can cause you to;

a) direct your dog to “things” in the search area for him to investigate thereby limiting his searching, 

b) secrete your dog’s target odour in close association with a “thing”. This can strengthen your dog’s future tendency to focus his searching on “things” … after all … that’s where he keeps finding his target odour!   

3. Objects in an environment that are not in context will tend to draw both you and your dog towards them – this seems to be a particular issue when searching in an outside area. Rather than simply making use of the area as it is – the trees, the hedges, the ponds, the walls, the paths, the garden borders – there seems to be a tendency to add further “things” to the area … “things” that are completely out of context – that would not normally be found in this type of outdoor environment. These, out of context, “things” simply act as a big pointing finger to you and your dog telling you to “SEARCH HERE”. 

Make use of the search area as it is – the trees, the hedges, the ponds, the walls, the paths, the garden borders – without the addition of any, out of context, things

Scent Detecting in the “Open Space” – Tips for developing your dog into a searcher of “areas” rather than a searcher of “things”! 

1. Fully utilise the power of the Enriched Environment – Despite the potential for enriched environments to encourage your dog (and you) to become searchers of “things” rather than searchers of “areas”, this (in all likelihood) has far more to do with the degree of enrichment rather than enrichment itself.

Don’t be tempted to work your Scent Detecting dog, particularly a novice, in a “barren” area. When thoughtfully managed, the benefits of an Enriched Environment far out-way any potential pitfalls. Rather than placing just a few items in the search area – a table, a couple of chairs, a traffic cone or two – fill the area with “things”. Whilst a few “things” will act as that big pointing finger I mentioned earlier – “SEARCH HERE” – numerous items will prompt your dog to explore the area more thoroughly as he moves from item to item to item.

It’s worth getting into the habit of secreting your dog’s target odour source in the area rather than associated with an item in the area. In short, hide your dog’s target odour source in plain sight. What might seem (visually) very obvious to you will not be (visually) obvious to your dog.  Your dog won’t see his target odour source and you’ll be laying the foundations for “open area” – more complete – searching. As Gazit and Terkel (2003) report, olfaction has been shown to be the main sense used by dogs during detection work, not only when light levels are low but also in full light … “dogs appear to rely solely on their sense of smell for immobile odour detection“.

Rather than placing just a few items in the search area – a table, a couple of chairs, a traffic cone or two – fill the area with “things”.

2. Avoid directed, pattern, searching and detailing – Directing your dog around a search area by adopting a particular pattern of travel, and pointing out to your dog where you want him to search, can be the root cause of a number of Scent Detecting problems including;

a) false positive indications – if you start to show too much interest in a particular part of the search area, it’s highly likely that your dog will too. In a study by Szetei and Miklosi (2003), almost 50% of the study dogs would go to an empty bowl indicated to them by a person pointing at it rather than to a bowl in which the dog had previously seen and smelt food! This phenomenon – The Clever Hans Effect – is extremely powerful. If you’d like to know a little more about this, just follow this link to False Indications, Clever Hans and You

b) inadvertently pulling your dog away from the target scent source – remember, you are as attracted to “things” in your environment as is your dog. By insisting on directing his search trajectory, you can prevent him from searching more thoroughly – guided by odour – rather than where you would prefer he searched.

c) turning your dog into a searcher of “things” rather than a searcher of “areas” – again, your attraction to “things” in the environment will tend to cause you to prompt your dog to investigate these “things” in preference to any “open area” in the search environment.  

3. Develop a Filament Detection Dog® who will search independently of you – At Scent : Detect : Find Ltd, all training is focused on developing a dog who will search independently of their handler – both off and on-line – utilising scent plumes and filaments to guide their direction of search and area of interest. Amongst the many benefits of this approach to Scent Detecting training is the development of a dog who will search a whole “area” rather than becoming fixated by searching “things”. What drives a Filament Detection Dog’s® searching behaviour is odour rather than objects – surely that’s the very essence of what makes a Scent Detecting dog?   

4. When your dog is more experienced, utilise “open spaces” to secrete his target odour source – Early Scent Detecting training, and the development of your dog’s search behaviour, will benefit greatly from the provision of an enriched environment. As your dog becomes more experienced, you can start to secrete his target odour in “open spaces“. Start carefully. To begin with, limit the size of your search area but, with your dog’s increasing experience, gradually expand the area that you want him to search.  

Utilise “open spaces” to secrete your dog’s target odour source

So … in conclusion …

Always remember … searching is about information gathering and exploration. Curiosity will lead you and your dog to investigate “things” in the search environment … but never forget the “open spaces” because that’s where your dog’s target scent source may well be hiding … in plain sight!

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 2021



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. 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
  3. 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
  4. Gazit I and Terkel J (2003) Domination of olfaction over vision in explosives detection by dogs. Applied Animal Behaviour Science. 82. 65-73
  5. 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
  6. Panksepp J (2011) The basic emotional circuits of mammalian brains: Do animals have affective lives? Neuroscience and Biobehavioural Reviews. 35. 1791-1804
  7. Svartberg K and Forkman B (2002) Personality traits in the domestic dog (Canis familiaris). Applied Animal Behaviour Science. 79. 133-155
  8. Svartberg K, Tapper I, Temrin H, Radesater T and Thorman S (2005) Consistency of personality traits in dogs. Animal Behaviour. 69. 283-291
  9. Szeiti V and Miklosi A (2003) When dogs seem to lose their nose: an investigation on the use of visual and olfactory cues in communicative context between dog and owner. Applied Animal Behaviour Science. 83. 2. 141-152