It’s another Sunday morning musing 😆 and this one may be a bit controversial. These are my thoughts and opinions you are more than welcome to drive on by without giving them a second thought.
We are half way through a beginner Scentwork course and I’m thinking about odour.
More specifically I’m thinking about the odours we choose when we are teaching detection tasks. With detection becoming an increasingly popular sport and leisure activity for human and dog teams it surprises me that I rarely see any posts about the pros and cons of the odours we use.
I’m putting aside odours that are chosen for service and operational dogs because of a need (narcotics, biological samples, glucose levels, peanut or other allergens) as a large can of worms for a different day! I am just considering odour that is chosen for sport, fun and exercise.
The world is full of odour but dogs prioritise what’s important to them, food, water, social opportunities and nuances, health and the living world around them.
For detection we first take an odour that has little or no relevance and make it important to the dog through a process of classical conditioning,
when you smell this, something happens.
For most pet dogs this would involve positive reinforcement using food, in operational or working dogs this would commonly be adrenaline (fast moving ball or other arousing play), again …. can of worms = different post, different day !
So to do this effectively we are best to chose an odour that the dog would rarely come across outside of training at least for the initial stage, so we can speed up the connection of smell = reward.
We want the odour to be safe both for the dog and for the human handling it.
We want it to be legal, it would be embarrassing if the police came knocking on the door to confiscate your training kit
We want it to be easily and cheaply available so we can refresh often
We want it to be easy to handle, not to contaminate its surroundings as most of us don’t have access to unlimited training venues
When enrolling onto a detection/nose work course it is incredibly rare that there is any discussion of what odour you might chose and why. Most commonly you are given an odour as an absolute ‘you must use’
I have no idea why!
Starting with clove as absolutely the most common odour used in pet dog detection in the UK , firstly I can find a clove by smell in a large room so to a dogs nose this is the olfactory equivalent of a fog horn. Haven’t you ever been in a room where a perfume, or smell was so overpowering that you felt sick and headachy? Consider how poor your sense of smell is compared to a dog. Even when we reduce the scent source by using soaks and containers there is no subtlety in the odour of clove, no pieces of the puzzle. It is a one note tune. With a high oil content it transfers odour onto other surfaces easily. I’m also not convinced it is a neutral odour health wise. Clove oil is antibacterial, anti microbial, insecticidal and a numbing agent.
Not the odour for me!
Next we have gun oil. Gun oil is a refined petroleum-based lubricant, commonly it contains additives designed to protect the metal parts of a gun from corrosion and to alter viscosity and volatility. Given that oil contaminates and is contaminated incredibly easily if you live in a rural community where shooting is common (as I do) you and your dog will probably come across this substance frequently, on clothing, vehicles, handles, switches, other items that people may touch. It’s hard to completely avoid contaminating your search area and your stored kit, even using soaks, shells and containers. These factors alone make it an undesirable choice to me. But most importantly for me, considering the contents I can think of 50 substances right now I would rather my dog spent time breathing into their precious delicate nose than this.
Absolutely not the odour for me!
Truffle oil. Ok this is more complicated as I can understand the reasoning behind this choice. Truffle is an intrinsically appetising smell for many dogs and they have a highly complex scent profile. This profile varies greatly according to species, time of year, temperature, weather patterns, soil type and on and on so has the potential for an interesting and varied training choice. But fresh truffles are expensive, seasonally restricted and just plain hard to get hold of except for a fortunate few. So for detection it is common to use truffle oil. Good truffle oil is traditionally made by soaking pieces of or less desirable truffles in a virgin or light oil such as olive, the oils can then be drained off and bottled. However many of the available truffle oils are made using a manufactured odour compound and have had no contact with a real truffle. This may work to the sports trainers benefit as will reduce the variety and complexity of the true truffle odours.
It’s oil, as well as the previously mentioned problem of contamination. Speaking as someone who managed to spill half a tiny bottle of truffle oil in her car I admit that it’s a deal breaker for me as despite repeated shampooing that car smelt like a dead thing when opening the doors until it’s final day. Food grade oils spoil and become rancid with contact to the air and changes in temperature so the oil must be freshly opened and stored appropriately.
Not the odour for me, although I was lucky enough to do a course with the lovely Andrea Misto and bought enough fresh truffle to train for a few months sadly as yet, my poodle has not secured a fresh supply in the wild however I keep my fingers crossed!
Dried tea leaves. After learning about enriched environments from Turid Rugaas, I was introduced to Scent Detect Find in Burton on Trent who has developed a careful and thoughtful modular approach to detection training for which I am highly grateful whenever I see any of my dogs lovely passive indications. Her odour of choice is a smoked black tea (lapsang souchong). There are many advantages to this as a choice and I still use it as one of my dogs primary odour. It’s easily available, and quite consistent as produced regionally so many of the organic variations remain similar. There are several distinctive qualities, the grade of leaf used, the type of wood used to smoke it and how it is stored after smoking. It has a complex odour profile making it an interesting and challenging puzzle to put together for the dog. It’s dry and stable. Pretty much the only complaint I have with it is that tea leaves create dust and are in small shredded pieces so contamination can be an issue around your scent kit and training area.
Sometimes the odour for me
A while ago I started to look for a solution that fitted my needs better. That’s when I started to look at using liquorice. Used in its root form it is dry, stable, cheap and easy to get hold of. It’s an intrinsically appetising smell to many dogs. It has a complex odour profile and the food grade varieties widely available only come from limited regions.
Mostly the odour for me ☺️