Recently, it was reported that trained dogs
were able to sniff out malaria
from the socks of children with malaria parasites and to distinguish between infected and uninfected children. The dogs correctly identified whether malaria was present or not in 70 percent of the infected children and in 90 percent of the uninfected children tested. This was research done by the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine
and the charity, Medical Detection Dogs
There are lots of scent discrimination activities
the family dog
can participate in and these activities are something many dogs and owners find fun and rewarding! It has been my experience, as a trainer, that scent discrimination exercises can increase confidence in a dog
and can decrease problem and destructive behavior
in some dogs who need a job or a purpose.
Scent discrimination activities take many forms. Two of my dogs are trailing dogs who specialize in searching for and locating missing animals. The training for this includes lots of practice time with target animals of different species. The “target” animals are animals who lay a trail (with their handler) which the trailing dog follows. As the trailing dogs learn and develop their skills, other animals and their handlers participate in the training as “decoys”. The decoy dogs and handlers also lay a trail, but the trailing dog must ignore their trails and follow the trail of the target dog who has also laid a trail. Other exercises make sure that the trailing dog is following the scent of target dog and not that of the handlers. These dogs also learn to let the handler know if the missing animal they are looking for is deceased with a trained indication.
It’s well- known that dogs have been instrumental in looking for and finding lost people. Family dogs can also do search and rescue training through SAR organizations. In my area, the dogs and people must be certified by the RCMP.
Tracking and trailing just for fun is something a lot of people do with their dogs. When a dog is first learning, the trail should be easy for the dog to follow and always on safe terrain. I start dogs by having the tracklayer lay the trail on a vegetative surface because it holds scent well and so that the beginner dog can more easily follow the rafts of scent left by the tracklayer. There are several things that can influence the difficulty of the trail such as weather, age of the trail, vegetation, traffic, type of surface, how quickly the tracklayer was going when laying the track and so forth. I start with a very easy trail and build the difficulty as the dog gains skill and confidence. In all trailing exercises, the handler learns to read his or her dog and understand when the dog is out of odor and when the dog is following the scent. If there aren’t courses available locally, there are many good books on tracking and trailing. Tracking and trailing work are a good foundation for dogs to then do search work. It’s also handy to have a dog who can find lost keys or a missing cellphone!
Dogs can be taught to search areas for specific odors like various essential oils and there are organizations who certify instructors and hold trials for people who want to compete. The dogs often start by searching for food they like in a variety of situations like inside items, hidden around the exterior of vehicles, or hidden around exterior search areas.
I highly recommend scent work for family dogs – training is accessible online as well as in many communities and it’s a lot of fun!