by Debby Kay ©2018 All rights reserved.
Last week I started doing scent detection training with a couple of eight week old Labrador puppies. What is striking about the pups is the ease which they have grasped the training. It is clear after working many other breeds of dogs the difference it makes when you have a puppy who is first, from a working breeding of dog and second, purposefully bred for a job such as these puppies.
People ask me all the time how do you choose a puppy for the medical alert work and I thought writing a little about these pups might help people who are looking to get one themselves.
I try to always choose a puppy from parents who are either doing the job I want the puppy to do or have at least been trained to do it and can demonstrate their ability. With the medical alert work that might not always be possible but the parents could have abilities that demonstrate related skill sets. For example, they could have tracking degrees, search and rescue certifications or scent detection titles. If the breeder you are dealing with can’t show any of their dogs with these titles, and especially the parents, then I would walk away. Thinking they can do the work and proving it by actually earning tittles or certifications are very different things and make a difference when you get your dog for such an important purpose. For the medical alert dogs, I want some evidence of good social skills so I look for parents with good citizen titles or obedience titles. This will be helpful in narrowing your choices especially if you are not an experienced dog person, to puppies from parents with proven abilities.
Being able to focus on the job and the person they are working with is another trait that makes training a puppy for medical work much easier. This trait is tricky to judge in little pups under 4 months as pups at this age have short attention spans. I will bait a room with 1-3 smelly things such as fishy cat treats and just watch how a puppy reacts when they come in the room. A pup from parents who are bred to use their noses will go over the space thoroughly sniffing every nook and will find all the treats. When I sit down with a treat hidden in my pocket, the pup I want will be the one who almost immediately follows its nose to the pocket with the treat. I have done this test with breeds that are not necessarily food driven as well and it is a pretty good indicator for sorting out the pups that will be easy to train for scent work.
Madison is one of the pups I am training now. Madison’s dam is a diabetic alert dog who took time off from her duties to whelp a litter of pups with me. Her sire is an explosives detection dog who has sired many working medical alert and other detection dogs. On the first day of her introduction to the diabetic sample, Madison sniffed and stayed with it. By the end of the session she already adding in the paw alert signal on her own. Her focus was for short periods but she repeatedly sniffed and pawed at the sample until her little tummy was willed with treats.
It was easy to get 25-30 repetitions of the scent training exercise per training session with her. Compared to some of the others pups I have worked with over the years at the same age that is really very good for the first week. That is not to say a pup won’t learn if you only get 5-10 repetitions at a session. It means it will take longer for that less focused pup to build up a good scent memory of the odor that is central to their job. Dogs learn by repetition so I am keen to give them as many repetitions as I can at every session. For my money (and time) I really don’t want a pup doing life-saving work that does not have the natural desire.
Madison is also learning games of self-control and things to teach her about body awareness at this age. These are two important parts of a service dog’s education also. Here is a short video of one of her training sessions. She has a lot to learn but is off to a good start.
For anyone interested in learning more about all inner workings of canine olfaction I am hosting a 2-day workshop in April by the world renown expert in the field Dr. Adee Schoon from the Netherlands. She brings the science and practical aspects of scent work all together in a manner that is easy to understand and motivating at the same time. Hope you can join use for this rare opportunity to learn from such a gifted knowledgeable person. Click here for details.