The amazing ability of dogs to detect scent

In a recent study conducted by the University of Alberta, they determined that a dog could detect fire accelerants such as gasoline in quantities as small as one billionth of a teaspoon.

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The study was conducted to determine the effectiveness of arson detection dogs. To test this the researchers used two dog-and-handler teams. One dog was trained to detect a variety of ignitable liquids, and the other was trained with gasoline. Interestingly, the dog trained on a variety of liquids performed well detecting all accelerants, but the dog trained on gasoline could not generalize to other accelerants at extremely low concentrations.

The reason for the tests was that accelerant dogs will give an indication at a site and when the material is tested in a lab, no trace of accelerant is found.

Those of us who use dogs for various scent work will find this information helpful. The study concluded that a dog could detect odor at one billionth of a teaspoon. In previous studies by Johnson and Johnson, they determined that a dog could detect any scent at one part per trillion.

The variables that must be considered in research such as this are:

The dog’s physical ability to detect odor. Even a good dog will have off days.

The trainer’s ability to train the dog.

The air flow at the testing site.

The age of the material, in other words, how old is the scent source?

And my last comment, if the dog who was trained to detect only gasoline would not generalize to other accelerants at a low level, he was doing what he was trained to do. It does not mean that the dog could not detect the low-level scents. The question that needs to be addressed is do the non-gasoline accelerants have a gasoline chemical that evaporates quickly that the dog would identify at a higher concentration, but at low levels are there other scents or chemicals in the accelerant that are residual which the dog is not trained to find? For example, a dog taught to follow human scent will never follow animal scent. Unless the other accelerants had the chemical composition of gasoline, the dog should not indicate it.

But this is a good study and does give us an idea of the concentration of scent that a dog can detect.

 

How animals detect odor

Prof. Nowotny, Director of Research and Knowledge Exchange in the University of Sussex’s School of Engineering and Informatics had determined that animals may not single out a specific odor when they look for a substance. He has found that animals may find it easier to detect a collection of odors instead of a single substance. If this is true, then most of the detection dog training that focuses on teaching a dog to look for one odor rather than a scent picture, may not be the best way to train a dog.

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Scout following scent

One single odor does not exist in a natural environment, rather there are a collection of odors. When you consider that it is impossible to isolate a single odor in a natural environment, this discovery makes sense. Of course it is possible and often likely that a single odor is stronger than the surrounding odors, but still it is not the only odor present.

Professor Nowotny suggests that animal and human olfactory systems may not be made to do analytic smelling of pure odors. He uses the example of how an animal will give off pheromones, a complex set of odors, as a form of communication and that it is important that an animal recognize the entire chemical message and not a single element in the chemical message.

For years I have maintained that when teaching a dog scent work that there is no such thing as an uncontaminated scent article. Professor Nowotny has confirmed this with his latest research. Although more studies need to be done, and we should still train our dogs as we have in the past, it does open the door for a less narrow view of what dogs detect and how they detect it and may lead to new training methods. It is always good to “think outside the box.”