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Sniffers – the best nose for the job!

The sniffer dog is still the best mobile detecting sensor possessing up to 200 million olfactory cells in its nose compared with a human's 5 million and one third of a dog's brain is set aside for scent detection alone.

Scientists at the Defence, Science and Technology Laboratory (Dstl) at Fort Halstead in Kent recognise that the sniffer dog is still far from being replaced by technology and is increasingly being used for detection purposes. For this reason, a three-year research programme was undertaken by Dstl and the Anthrozoology Institute, University of Bristol to investigate ways of improving how potential sniffer dogs are selected, reared and trained.

The vast majority of sniffer dogs are obtained via donations from the public. However, there are some problems in obtaining dogs by this method as many are from poor backgrounds (both genetically and socially), they usually come with an unknown history and frequently have behavioural problems.

A breeding programme is another option, but there are substantial infrastructure and expense implications involved in such a project. The Dstl research commenced with an extensive literature review and surveys of dog trainers, behavioural counsellors, service dog breeding establishments, search dog training centres and handlers.

The study then went on to look first hand at the early stages of a potential sniffer dog's life. Explaining the reasons for the research, Samantha Gaines, Project Leader at Dstl said: "There was, and still is, a problem with the supply of suitable dogs for explosives search.

This study came about in order to help redress the balance. We were aiming to find a set of parameters that would make the ideal rearing conditions for the sniffer dog".

Dstl randomly selected thirty-two male Labrador Retrievers and procured them for the project. Dogs from both gun dog and show dog lines were selected but at no point were puppies chosen for specific characteristics. The dogs were then sent around the UK to be reared in puppy walking homes. Part of the purpose of the study was to investigate the effect of puppy-walking on the ultimate success of the dog in training.

All puppy walkers were given a strict protocol to follow, which ensured that the puppies were exposed to the same set of environments and situations as each other. The result was that all 32 puppies were well socialised, showed little fear of novel environments and very few behavioural problems.

At eleven months of age, 31 dogs entered the Defence Animal Centre at Melton Mowbray and following ten weeks of training, a documented procedure (the first of its kind) gave a standardised method of assessing the search ability of individual dogs.


Findings of the sniffer dog programme: The study showed that prescribed puppy walking and a socialisation routine is an effective way of enhancing search dog procurement and training success. Dogs rated most suitable after training were from gun dog, rather than show dog lines. Dogs that showed excessive attention seeking behaviours toward humans were shown subsequently to have poor search ability. · It was noted that dogs which found novel experiences stressful, indicated by increased levels of excreted cortisol, were less suitable for search work. Given the success of the puppy walking study more research is now in the pipeline.

As Sam elaborates, "Dstl and the Anthrozoology Institute at Bristol University are hoping to study dog handlers and how their selection and training can be enhanced. Follow-on research will also look at ways of improving the transition from home environments into working environments. This information will be made publicly available to benefit all dogs which need to be kennelled for reasons of quarantine, boarding or in re-homing centres."