Search dogs

I’m training Ozzy, my younger Labrador, in search and detection techniques. She’s bred as a working Labrador, with an unrelenting drive and insane amounts of energy, so needs a job to do. And this seemed like something that could be fun and potentially useful.

I started off training her to find live people. She took to this like a pro and can now search even quite challenging terrain over anything from a linear path to areas of several dozen acres. We’re continuing to develop our skills as a search team, by trying new search patterns, doing longer searches and learning more about scent behaviour in different environments. Thankfully, I seem to have lots of friends who welcome the opportunity to hide so that Ozzy can find them.

Here’s a short video of a brief search drill in our garden.

I’ve hidden a scent source where Ozzy can’t see it. I then let Ozzy out of the house, give her the ‘find’ command and let her do her thing.

Ozzy finds the scent quite quickly, as you can see, and then comes to get me. Out of shot, she’s given her ‘alert’, to let me know that she’s found the scent source.

I then tell her to ‘show me’ the scent source, so she leads me back to it and sits next to the scent source, so I can tell where it is.

She gets a small food treat for doing a good job. After that, we go and play with her ball, which – for her, at least – is what it’s all about.

I’m also training Ozzy to do more detailed searches for other sources of scent. Dogs can be trained to detect all kinds of scents – including dead bodies, drugs, firearms, cash, electronic devices, animal scat, cancerous cells and the onset of epileptic seizures – but we’re working with cloves (the spice), because it’s easy to get hold of and Ozzy’s unlikely to come across it much in everyday life (though she did once alert on a chai latte!).

This detection work requires a different approach, as the scent is usually much fainter than that of a living human being. We focus on doing a thorough search of a smaller area, sometimes with Ozzy on a long lead and sometimes running free. Dogs can be trained to detect more than one scent, so now that Ozzy’s got the hang of the techniques involved, I should be able to train her to detect anything with a discernible odour.

In all of our search and detection training, I work hard to develop a scientific approach that draws on evidence-based research and on the experience of other practitioners in the field. This is important if I – and anyone else – is to have confidence in Ozzy’s ability to find what I want her to find and to know that, if she says it’s not there, then it isn’t.

One of the things I’d like to explore is the idea of working with Ozzy to detect historic human remains in an archaeological context. I have a keen interest in archaeology and am convinced – though have yet to convince many others – that a trained detection dog could be an ideal non-invasive tool for detecting human remains over a large and difficult-to-access area.

There’s a small number of teams doing this already around the world. And they’ve done so with considerable success. The challenge here is getting access to the scent needed to training Ozzy and then getting involved in relevant archaeological digs. This is something that I’m working on now. So if you’re an archaeologist, or know someone who is, or even if you’d just like to learn more, please do get in touch.