Dog Training

Scent Discrimination


Handler’s scent on handler’s article. The total number of articles shall not exceed ten, all of which shall be clearly visible to the dog.


Handler’s scent on article provided by Judge. A separate similar article to be used for each dog and the total number of articles shall not exceed ten, all of which shall be clearly visible to the dog and shall be similar to the article given to the handler. Judges must use a separate similar scent decoy or decoys for each dog. No points will be awarded if the article is given to the dog.


Judge’s scent on piece of marked cloth. Neutral and decoy cloths to be provided by the Show Executive. The Judge shall not place his cloth in the ring himself, but it shall be placed by a Steward. A separate similar piece to be used for each dog and the total number of separate similar pieces of cloth from which the clog shall discriminate shall not exceed ten. If a dog fetches or fouls a wrong article this must be replaced by afresh article. In windy weather at Open Air Shows scent articles should be lightly weighted to prevent them being blown about. The method of taking scent shall be at the handler’s discretion but shall not require the Judge to place his hand on or lean towards a dog. A separate similar piece of cloth approximately six inches by six inches but not more than ten inches by ten inches shall be available to be used for giving each dog the scent. Judges should use a scent decoy or decoys.

The explanatory notes on this exercise tell us:

A Steward will place the scented article amongst up to a maximum of nine other articles. In a scent test if a dog brings in a wrong article or physically fouls any article ( ie mouths it) this article will be replaced. The dog should at this time be facing away from the articles. On command the handler should bring the dog to a point indicated give the scent and stand upright before sending the dog to find and retrieve the appropriate article. The dog should find the article and complete the test as for the Retrieve test. In all tests, scent articles are to be placed at least two feet apart. Limiting the time allowed for this test is at the Judge’s discretion.

There is some difference of opinion about the best way of teaching scent discrimination. Some dogs will do it the first time they are asked but most dogs have to be taught, and I shall describe what I have found to be the best method.

First of all you must always bear in mind that you have now come to the stage where you are asking your dog to do something which you cannot do yourself, and you therefore cannot put yourself in the dog’s shoes, so to speak. Also, I am convinced that a dog that is upset and in a ‘flummox’ cannot use his nose at all well, and sometimes appears to lose the power of scent entirely. This means that you cannot force a dog to use his nose. You must always ask him to do so. Before you begin, be quite certain that your dog retrieves well the article which you are going to use. Having taught the dog to retrieve a suitable article reliably (to start with I always use a piece of rag tied in a knot), take two identical articles, one of which you have carried in your pocket for some time, the other clean and free from scent. Be careful not to contaminate the clean article with your own scent. Pick it up with a stick, pair of pliers, tongs or anything except your fingers.

Now sit the dog and let him see you place the two articles side by side and about a foot apart, a few yards from him. Go back to the dog and give him the scent from your hand, but don’t suffocate him as so many people appear to do. Place the cupped hand under the dog’s mouth so that the scent rises into his nostrils, which are left sufficiently free to allow him to breathe. If you just clap your hand over his nostrils he will be unable to smell anything!

With a good dog, there is no real need to give the dog the scent from your hand. Most readers will have seen dogs with no special training searching on a beach for a stone which had been held for only a few seconds by the owner. When we gave demonstrations several of our tricks (picking out the flags of different nations etc.) were based on scent discrimination. We simply sent the dog, often from some distance from where we were standing.

We could put a flag, handled by either my wife or myself, into a box and invite a member of the audience to cover it with a whole lot of other flags. Both Pip (a Corgi) and Flush (a Cocker) would pick out all the strangers’ flags one at a time and drop them beside the box, then pick up the right flag and bring it back. We never touched the dogs and they could be relied on to do it indoors or out; on hot or cold days; in thunderstorms and with an audience applauding loudly. I often think of these two little bitches when I see the palaver some people get up to when giving the dog their own scent in the obedience ring.

However, it won’t do any harm and may help the dog to differentiate between scent discrimination and retrieving. Having given him the scent send the dog to retrieve, using the same command as you have been using for the ordinary retrieve, as you will only muddle him by saying ‘seek’ or something else at this stage.

Obviously, if he picks up an article it will be either the right or the wrong one. If he picks up the right one, whether he uses his nose to find it or just picks it up by luck, praise him very well and make a great fuss of him. Take the article from him and put it back, this time about a foot beyond the article without scent, so that the dog must pass the latter to reach the right one. Send him again, and if he sniffs at the first and picks up the right one, you can be pretty sure that he is using his nose. Try two or three times, altering the position of the articles, and, if the dog does it right every time, praise very well and leave for the day.

Start next day where you left off and, if he still makes no mistakes, try two articles without scent and one with. If he obviously uses his nose and always finds the right article, then consider yourself very lucky.

Let’s now suppose that you put out the two articles, the one carrying your own scent and the other clean, and the dog picks up the wrong one. Do not, as so many do, curse the dog severely, grab hold of him and make him drop it. Remember that the dog has never done this before and has no idea what you want him to do. Correction at this stage can easily put him right off scent discrimination, and probably ‘retrieving, too, if he is sensitive or not very keen. Take the article from him the first time without praising and without scolding — just take it quietly and send him back for the right one, and praise very well when he brings it. Now try again, and this time you will be able to test the real value of having taught your dog to respond to word of command and tone of voice.


First of all, if he is a keen dog, inclined to rush off and pick up anything, you will have to give him the command to carry in a firm, steadying tone in an effort to get him to take his time. If he goes to pick up the wrong article you can stop him by saying ‘No’. If you say ‘No’ in a very harsh tone, he should immediately leave whatever he is doing. In this case, he will probably leave both articles and come straight back to you. If, however, you say ‘No’ firmly and quietly, but not harshly, you should be able to get him to falter. This will enable you to go forward to the dog and encourage him to move forward and pick up the right article. Whenever he moves, or even looks towards the article, give him the command to carry in a very praising tone of voice, and the chances are that he will pick it up gleefully.

If you work patiently on these lines, the great majority of dogs will very soon grasp the idea that it is only the article with your scent that is wanted, and will start using their noses to find it. Some dogs, however, are very obstinate and you may have to use your own ingenuity to suit your own dog. I have had to put a lead on a dog (which became very good at scent discrimination) to prevent his grabbing the wrong article. Another idea which sometimes works is to teach a dog to retrieve a very small, inconspicuous article which he cannot immediately see, and then use two similar articles to teach discrimination. The point to remember is to encourage the dog to ‘look’ for the article with his nose, not his eyes. For that reason I never use a favourite ‘toy’ such as a glove or handkerchief, which he may recognize by sight.

From using one scented and one unscented article progress to two unscented articles and so on, step by step, until you reach the stage where the dog will ‘discriminate’ a scented article among quite a lot of others. Then you can start with strangers’ articles instead of the clean ones, gradually working up in the same way. You can also start teaching the dog to discriminate on as many and varied types of articles as possible, again not forgetting that retrieving comes before discrimination.

Scent discrimination on a stranger’s scent is much more difficult. Like everything else, this is an exercise which should be built up gradual/y. Start the dog on your own scent and, as soon as he is reliable on that, get him on to someone else’s. Training is like going up a ladder. There is no good trying to reach step No. z if your foot is slipping off step No. 1. At the same time don’t keep him on your own scent longer than necessary. The longer you keep him on it, the more you will fix in his mind simply to find your article rather than to discriminate between a lot of articles.

When starting on a stranger’s scent begin with someone the dog knows and don’t change to anyone else until he will discriminate on that person’s scent. We are told quite clearly that the articles for this exercise will be pieces of cloth not less than six inches square and not more than ten inches square. So you might as well use pieces of cloth in teaching this exercise. Be careful to keep them clean but if you do happen to handle one by mistake don’t wash it in disinfectant or some other chemical as the dog may simply learn to avoid cloth with that smell. Fresh air and sunshine are the best scent removers but it is sometimes surprising how long scent will hold on a piece or cloth.

Start back at the beginning — never be afraid to go back to the beginning in all training. Put out one clean article and, instead of your own article, a similar one well handled by the person who has agreed to help you. And proceed from there as before. You should be able to proceed more quickly this time as the dog now knows what discrimination is. It will help to make it clearer to the dog if you use a different command with your own and a stranger’s scent, for instance Seek for one and Find for the other.

When the dog will pick up your friend’s article from a lot of clean ones you can add some decoys — articles handled by someone other than the ‘judge’. Training classes can be very helpful for this sort of thing. Not only will you find people willing to help by placing scented cloths but you should be able to find someone who can give you first hand advice if things go wrong.

In giving the dog the stranger’s scent be careful not to put your own scent on the cloth or to put your hand so that the dog will get your scent as well as the judge’s. Take the cloth by the corners and hold it lightly over the dog’s nose bringing the loose ends under so that the scent will rise into his nostrils. But don’t suffocate him as so many people seem intent on doing! Some dogs don’t like a cloth placed over their nose even if it is done carefully and, if a dog resents it, he won’t get the scent from it. Accustom the dog to having this done to him before you do it for scent discrimination.

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