A New Look at Scent Articles

scent articles teaching the exercises Jan 08, 2020

My first dog, a tennis ball fanatic, taught herself to do scent articles. I noticed that when we were playing ball, and there were other balls present, she always brought back the same ball I had thrown. Excited, and fascinated, I had her retrieve the tennis ball can (in those days they were metal) instead of the ball, and sure enough, in a pile of tennis ball cans, she would retrieve the can I had scented. This made obtaining the Utility title a breeze, but didn’t teach me anything about teaching the Scent Article exercise.

 Teaching my first Shih-tzu to do articles was fairly simple. She really didn’t like to retrieve, but did it because she knew it was required. However, on this exercise she was very careful to find the right article. I always felt as if she was saying, “I don’t want to pick up any of them, I’m certainly not going to pick up a wrong one!”

 Teaching my field bred retrievers to do scent articles has always been a challenge. The more naturally intense a dog is to retrieve, the harder it is to get him to slow down and concentrate on the exercise. My first field champion was stymied by the exercise. He’d look at me as if to say, “Hey, if you don’t like that one, don’t worry, I’m quick, I’ll just go get the rest of them.”

 I have long been dissatisfied with the techniques commonly used to teach scent articles. I be-lieve dogs have the ability to solve problems, but the two most common methods, a tie-down board, and food on the article, are both asking the dog to solve the wrong problem. The Scent Article exercise involves two tasks; first, the dog must locate the odor on an object, secondly, he must retrieve that object. The traditional methods used to teach the scent article exercise put too much emphasis on the second task, that of retrieving. Whether you use the “tie-down” method, or whether you put food on the correct article doesn’t matter, in either case, the dog is rewarded for retrieving. Both methods have long produced dogs that, when confused or even distracted, simply grab any article. The dog is really not to blame since in his mind, Scent Articles has always been presented as a retrieve exercise.

 Scent Articles should be about finding odor. Somehow, I should be able to explain to a dog that I want him to locate the correct article, and that retrieving that article is secondary to locating it.

 In the spring of 2008, I watched Pat Nolan (Tactical Directional K9's), teach a 10 week-old Labrador puppy to indicate a container of black powder (that is not a typographical error- 10 weeks was the puppy’s age). This puppy had been taught to sit and put her nose in the container holding the odor to obtain a hot-dog reward. Beyond that, this puppy would leave a container of hot dogs to sit by the black powder in order to earn her own hot dog reward. Furthermore, when distracted with hot dogs, she would leave the distraction, and indicate the container of black powder.

 The puppy’s understanding of his task was remarkable. At 10-weeks of age, she had learned the task in a mere three weeks since arriving in her new home. I felt certain that Pat had information that my obedience dogs needed to better understand the scent article exercise.

 I had a young dog that had not yet learned the exercise, and I was ready to start. Pat and I have brainstormed on numerous dog training projects, and I thank him for supporting me as I worked through the following process.

Part I: Finding Odor- eliminating the retrieve

 Pat used a series of PVC tubes to introduce his puppy to odor identification, and although I started Micah with those tubes, it quickly became evident to me that I would never convince a group of students, or a room full of seminar attendees to invest in, and create, the fancy set-up. After some thought, I decided to use Christmas cookie tins. My reasoning is that almost everyone has some packed away somewhere, they are very conveniently made of metal, they can be too big for the dog to retrieve, and they are big enough to put a scent article inside.

I began with four uncovered Christmas cookie tins (Photo 1). I placed them on the ground in a row, and scented one of the tins by rubbing my hands over it as I would a scent article. 

Photo 1: A Christmas cookie tin starts the game. 

I scented the same tin every day, and was exceedingly careful to never touch any of the other tins. I placed a treat in the scented tin and told Micah to “search.” This was not a hard step. It took about three repetitions for him to understand that all he needed to do was run over to the line of tins, and canvas them until he found the treat. While he was gob-bling up the treat, I quickly came in behind him and rewarded him with additional treats (Photos 2 & 3). He looked at me as if to say, “This is the easiest game you’ve ever come up with, I’ve been finding food in a bowl since you brought me home.”  

Photo 2: Micah locates the tin with the treat in it.  

Photo 3: I move in and reward him for locating the correct tin. 

On that same day, I then punched holes in the bottoms of all the tins (Photo 4), put a treat in the scented tin, and turned the tins upside-down with the lids on the floor. I now wanted Micah to search the tins and indicate which one held the treat. I only put the treat in the scented tin, and I always scented the same tin.

Photo 4: Using a can opener, I punched holes in the bottom so that Micah could smell the contents of the tin. 


 Photo 5: With the tins upside-down, Micah searches for the correct tin.

When Micah would get to the correct tin, I waited until he gave me an extremely positive indication before I moved in and rewarded him (Photos 5 & 6). I would make a big fuss, giving him more treats, sometimes opening the tin and letting him have the treat inside.

Photo 6: Micah offers a very convincing indication that he’s located the correct tin.

Requiring a positive identification is imperative. I did not reward Micah for looking at the tin and looking at me. I only moved toward him when he was nosing, pushing, or pawing at the tin. I wanted him to be as insistent as a good tracking dog that is trying to get me to follow him on the next leg of a track. A mere glance at the tin and then a glance at me did not illicit a response from me. Pat referred to this as a "persistent indication."

I had been at this new game for about three days, changing the order of the tins, and sending Micah to the line from a variety of directions.  So far, no one else was impressed. Big deal was the general consensus; you’ve got a dog that will tell you that there is a treat in a container. Most dogs will do that without any effort at all.

 On the fourth day, I put a pair of scented articles, one metal and one leather, in the scented tin with the treat (Photo 7). Micah continued to play the game without hesitation. In fact, he was really enjoying the game. Pushing a tin, and banging on it with his feet, was quite in line with his rather pushy and insistent personality (Photo 8-10).

Photo 7: Two scented articles are placed in the scented tin. There is still a treat in the tin. 

Photo 8: Micah starts searching at the end of the line

Photo 9: He locates the tin


Photo 10: and convinces me that he knows he’s found the right one.  

The fifth day was the most important to me. It was that day that I put treats in all the tins. I wanted Micah to understand that what made that tin special was not the treat inside it, but that it was the only tin that I had touched. 

On the first four repetitions, Micah thought I was simply not paying attention. He, pushed tins, batted tins, and in general, looked at me like I had lost my mind because I would not respond. On each attempt, as he realized that I was not responding, he would move to another tin, and finally, quite by accident, get to the scented tin whereupon I would move in and reward him.

After four repetitions I quit, quite discouraged. I didn’t think this crucial step was going to work. I wanted Micah to realize he was not looking for food, and it did not appear that he understood what I was after at all.

The following day, skeptical at best, I put out my four tins again, with food in all of them, but one scented tin contained scented articles. Micah was 100% accurate. It was as if he’d slept on it. He flew over the tins that each contained a treat, and zeroed in on the scented tin without any difficulty at all. I was thrilled. I now believed that he understood that he was not simply finding food. Something else, namely my scent and the scented articles, made that tin the correct choice.

 On the 7th day, I removed the food from all the tins. Now, there were three unscented tins, and one scented tin containing two scented articles. Micah did not hesitate as he indicated the correct tin on every attempt. Before the day ended, I placed an unscented leather and metal article in each of the unscented tins. Again, Micah did not hesitate. He correctly identified the scented tin with the scented article each time.

On the 10th day, Micah was so good at the game that it was no longer remotely challenging. Pat wanted me to make the game look more like the real exercise, and as I was practicing my game of tins, a friend was teaching her young dog the scent article exercise using a tie-down board. She had been watching me out of the corner of her eye for several days, thinking that I had certainly gone mad, but was willing, when I asked, to let me use her board.

There were six articles tied to the board, and I scented one of the tied down metal articles. I sent Micah to the board. After some hesitation, he started sniffing and then, just as he had done with the tins, he indicated the correct article by pushing it with his nose, and placing his foot on it. I ran to the board and rewarded him for his find. I was thrilled. Now I had a dog that was indicating odor, regardless of the object, and not concerned about the retrieve. Perhaps he could really understand what this exercise was all about.

I played with the tie-down board for a couple of days, rotating the board between sends, watching, fascinated, as Micah got faster and faster at indicating the article that I had scented. On the third day, I was convinced that Micah understood that he was finding the scented article. It was now time to get him to retrieve the object after he located it.

Part II: Finding odor and retrieving

With five articles tied tightly to the article board, I used a shoe lace to tie down the correct article. Just as before, when Micah indicated the correct article, I went to him, gave him a treat, and then equally quickly, untied the article and told him to pick it up. He did, and after I took it from him, I rewarded him with another treat. After a few attempts with a metal article, I tried the same process with a leather article. The transition was quite smooth (Photos 11-13).

Photo 11: Micah indicates the correct tied article.


Photo 12: I move in and reward him for finding the article and untie the article.

Photo 13: Micah gets rewarded for retrieving the right article. This is the first time that the retrieve has been part of the game.

Getting Micah to pick up the article was simply chaining two behaviors. I simply stopped tying the correct article down, and as soon as he indicated the article, I told him to “fetch.” Traditionally, telling a dog to “fetch” as he hesitates over the correct article can cause problems. However, in Micah’s experience, he had never picked up a wrong article; he had simply not picked them up at all. So, after a few repetitions, he automatically started picking up the scented article and I stopped giving him the additional command (Photo 14).

Photo 14: It did not take much time before he was retrieving the article as soon as he found it. 

I chose to untie the articles from the board, and tie them together in pairs. I was concerned that he had never tried to pick up a wrong article. If he did, I wanted it to be obvious to him that it was incorrect. As I expected, Micah had a bad day. It was as if he discovered that all the articles were loose, and wondered if it really mattered which one he picked up. I simply told him “no,” and took the wrong article from him, and pointed to the right one.   After very few repetitions, he returned to scenting, much more quickly than I have ever had a dog work through this problem that has learned the exercise as a more traditional retrieve.

After about seven days of having the articles tied together, my curiosity got the best of me. I put four loose articles in a pile. Micah continued to scent and successfully retrieve the correct article. The whole process was amazing to me. In the end, I had a dog that had learned the scent article exercise in 28 training days. Certainly this was weeks faster than any other dog I have ever taught the exercise.

It has been years since I used this technique to teach Scent Articles to Micah. Since that time, I have helped a many people start the exercise with Christmas cookie tins, focusing on finding odor rather than retrieving. The results have convinced me that finding odor should be separate from the retrieve, and I intend to continue to teach the exercise with this different approach.


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