Archaeology dog training

Looking for live people is great fun, but for us it’s a means to an end. It’s about training Ozzy to search for a specific scent (in this case the scent of a live person), to follow a planned search grid until she’s located the scent she’s looking for, to find the source of the scent, and to guide me to that source.

My long-term plan is to train Ozzy to do the same thing with the scent of… well, erm… dead people. Not recently-dead people, like the police might search for. But people who have been dead for hundreds, or even thousands, of years. Which is getting into the realm of archaeology.

This isn’t as daft an idea as it sounds. Lots of dogs are trained to search for human remains. They can find people who have been buried underground, trapped under avalanches or drowned under water. And they can do so long after the person has died. It’s just that the longer a person has been dead, the less obvious the scent will be.

I’m not the first person to have this idea. There are already a (very) small number of ‘archaeology dogs’, though not – as far as I’m aware – in the UK. And they’ve been very successful in finding human remains in archaeological sites. They just need to be trained what to look for, which is the scent of very, very old human bones.

How the training works

There are some tried and tested ways of training dogs to search for human remains, so the challenge for us will be obtaining the scent of remains that are sufficiently old. We’ll also need to better understand the context in which archaeologists work, so that we can actually help them in their endeavours, rather than just get in the way.

I’m interested in archaeology anyway, so I’ve been talking to some archaeologists, doing some online courses and reading a lot of books to learn more about how archaeology works and where an archaeology dog might be useful. Getting hold of the scent of ancient human remains to train Ozzy with will be a bit more difficult, but I have a plan and I’m working on it.

(It’s perhaps worth pointing out, in case any archaeologists are reading this, that we don’t actually need any ancient human remains. We just need to store some scent-absorbing material with some newly-discovered remains for a few days, so that the material can absorb the scent. Or we could use a sample of soil from beneath the remains, as this will have absorbed the scent, too.)

The initial step in the training is to ‘imprint’ Ozzy onto the scent, so that she know that this is the particular scent she’s looking for. I then associate looking for this scent with a particular command, like ‘search’. Once Ozzy knows what we’re looking for, we can then hide the scent source and do some searching. Small searches at first, building up to searching a larger area.

I’ll also need to train Ozzy to search for scent coming from under the ground, as of course this is where archaeological human remains are most likely to be.

Scent imprinting

Dogs can be trained to detect a number of different scents, so to get our training started I’m training Ozzy to detect something that’s easier to get hold of: cloves. You know, the little spices you stick into oranges at Christmas. They have a distinctive scent and Ozzy’s unlikely to come across them outside our training scenarios.

They’re also one of the scents used by people who train dogs for ‘sport’ scentwork competitions. And, critically, they’re not something that Ozzy is likely to come across in an archaeological excavation, so I’m not training her on a scent that will result in a false ‘alert’ in the context of an operational archaeological scenario.

Rather than use actual cloves as the scent source, I put some small bits of absorbent gauze in a tupperware with some cloves for a few days. I then take the cloves out and use the bits of gauze as the scent source. This gives a fainter scent and it’s easy to ‘top up’ the scent by putting some cloves back in the tupperware for a couple of days.

To make sure that I don’t contaminate the gauze with my own scent, I always wear surgical gloves and use tweezers, etc., when preparing the scent material.

To imprint Ozzy on the scent, I put some of the scent material in a small jar with holes drilled in the lid. I then lined up some concrete blocks in our garden and put the scent source in one of the blocks. Into the other blocks I placed identical jars with ‘unscented’ gauze in them, so that the only difference with the ‘hot’ block was the scent of cloves.

I then walked Ozzy up and down the row of blocks and, when she put her head down to investigate the ‘hot’ block, clicked her clicker (I’ve previously trained her so that she knows the clicker means ‘well done’) and gave her a bit of dried liver (her favourite treat).

After a few goes, we played with Ozzy’s ball for a bit (for her, the aim of the entire exercise is to get her ball). I then moved the ‘hot’ block to another position and we did it all over again. I moved both the block and the jar, in case the block had absorbed any of the clove scent. And I put Ozzy in the house when I moved the block, so she didn’t see where I’d put it – and yes, she is that clever!

After doing this exercise every day for a couple of weeks, Ozzy could reliably detect the ‘hot’ block and ignore the other blocks. I then trained her to sit next to the ‘hot’ block when she had detected it, which is her way of alerting me to the fact that she’s found it. I also trained her to start searching when I give the ‘search’ command and, when I say ‘show me’, to put her nose directly to the scent source.

I chose this ‘sit’ alert because it’s non-invasive. If we were working on an archaeological site, I don’t think anyone would thank me if Ozzy detected a scent and started digging frantically at the ground. And by asking her to sit by the scent source, rather than returning to me for the alert, I minimise the chance of her disturbing anything she shouldn’t in her hurry to get back to me.

Where we’re at now

Now that Ozzy’s imprinted on the scent of cloves, we’re working on developing her fine search skills. After all, ancient bones buried underground are going to have a much weaker scent than a living human wandering around above ground, so Ozzy’s going to have to get used to searching a bit more slowly and thoroughly.

I have some bits of plastic tube with end caps and with holes drilled in the sides, into which I put some of the clove-infused gauze. I then hide these and get Ozzy to find them.

We do some shorter ‘drills’ in the garden, with lots of short searches, to get Ozzy used to the process of finding the scent and alerting on it. And I hide the scent tubes in larger areas out and about, to get her used to searching larger areas.

We do some of these sessions off-lead and some with Ozzy on a ten-metre line. We did some separate training beforehand to get her used to being on a long lead, and so that I could get better at controlling her when she’s on it. You’ll be pleased to know that we now very rarely get tangled around trees.

This sort of detection work is excellent fun in itself. But it’s also teaching Ozzy how to search an area thoroughly for a faint scent. And how to tell me when she’s found it. The idea is that I can, at a later stage, imprint her on other scents and she’ll be able to search for them in the same way.

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