How Are Dogs Trained to Detect Drugs?

By U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Peter D. Lawlor [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Sniffer dogs are professionally trained to respond to certain odors. They can be trained to detect an endless list of substances and react to their presence differently. Essentially, when dogs perceive the target odor, the trainer rewards them. Once they have learned to perceive the odor, they will be given a treat, praise, a toy, or a combination of the three.

So, a dog that sniffs for drugs is not looking for them because he likes them. He has no interest in the drug whatsoever; he is actually looking for his favorite toy. His training has led him to associate his favorite toy with the scent of drugs.

The method of training will depend on the environment where the dog will be working, the strength of the scent of the substances to detect, and what is the method of indication required.

Drug dogs will usually respond aggressively by trying to dig to get the toy out. However, if a dog is trained to sniff illegal substances and finds it in someone’s luggage, nobody wants this dog to sniff inside their belongings. In general, a passive response such as sitting, staring at, or barking will be what is asked for to protect people’s property.

A sniffer dog is trained to use his sense of smell above anything else. They are trained to detect a wide variety of substances that include:

  • Drugs
  • Illegal foods
  • explosives
  • Firearms
  • Bedbugs
  • Humans
  • Human diseases
  • Cash
  • Other contraband

Sniffer dogs have a remarkable ability to discern individual substances and focus on it by getting rid of surrounding odors. The smell then hits their nose and is interpreted by their sensory cortex, which interprets the smell. The dog then proceeds to indicate to his trainer that he has found the substance.

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