This exercise is, without doubt, the one that causes most debate around the fringes of the ring. By the time the scent exercise begins, many competitors are still in with a chance, only to find it a seemingly insurmountable obstacle in their quest for a qualification.

Perhaps the fact that scent is invariably the last hurdle that one has to overcome, makes the handler more nervous than he or she might be, for example in the heel course or send away. There is no doubt in my mind, that the nervous tension and lack of confidence, can play a crucial role in any test, especially scent, where you are utterly in the hands of your dog. A nervous handler instantly transmits their mood to their dog.

It is a long day for all the handlers, especially in a C Test with an entry of sometimes around 30. One wonders if it would not be wiser to start with the scent, eliminate the failures, and offer those handlers an opportunity for an early breakfast! I have a sneaking suspicion that there would be an increase in the success rate.

Why, one could ask, is it in the one obedience exercise that depends entirely on the dogs nose, its greatest asset, that we have so much difficulty? Yet in all the other less natural exercises, we encounter far fewer problems. I have often loitered in the vicinity of competitors who have botched their scent, in an effort to discover their reasoning for failure and proposed solutions. One thing is apparent, and that is, very few handlers are prepared to admit that the fault may lie in their own training methods. The most common reasons for failure seem to be:-

  1. The decoys have not washed their hands after eating their snacks.
  2. The dogs have always disliked that judge’s scent.
  3. The decoys have scented their cloths too vigorously.
  4. The steward has touched all the cloths.
  5. I over/under scented my dog.
  6. My dog was distracted.

One of the most interesting deductions I heard once, was that the handler was a smoker, so the dog will always favour the cloth of any decoy that smokes. Will the problem be resolved if the handler gives up smoking, or could one safely assume, that then the dog will become more attracted to any cloths of a non smoker and avoid those of a smoker? I think not.

A common formula for success put forward is:- Always train using your own scent to ensure success. Only use a stranger’s scent in a competition. To my mind however, the whole object is to teach the dog how to take a strange scent, remember it and recognise it amongst other strange scents. The time that elapses between the act of giving scent and recognition of the target cloth is important. People who train only by using their own scent, put their dogs at a disadvantage. If they have been successful in the past, and one has to assume they have, then in a competition, the dog must first check all the cloths in vain, whilst first looking for the boss’s scent cloth.  After all, that is, in their own words, what they have been training their dog to do. Only upon failing to locate the handlers scent cloth, and only then, will the dog attempt to locate the correct cloth. The end result may be that the dog walks up and down the cloth line a few times, or loses interest, and/or eventually returns with the most attractive strongest scented cloth.

Once we have completed B Class, I feel we should actively train on strangers scent, if not before. Of course, one has to make it easy for the dog to start with by avoiding decoys.  For those with C Class scent problems, may I suggest you try the following:-

Choose one target, initially perhaps a family member or other person with whom the dog is familiar. Get that person to scent two cloths very well, damping them a bit if necessary and then placing one a bit upwind of several other sterile cloths. Give scent and send the dog. Any dog that does not succeed here, is not ready for C Class scent. It is a handler’s scent only dog, and one will have to go back to basics. However, I am confident that few if indeed any dogs will fail on the first attempt.  Now, during the same training session, using the same strangers target cloth, introduce one, then perhaps two lightly scented different strangers scent cloths.   Give scent and send the dog.  Next session, use a new but strongly scented family member or friends target cloth with one or two lightly scented decoys.  As long as, during the same session, you use the same target cloth from the same person, you will find you can gradually increase the number of decoys.  Insure initially, that your decoys are indeed from strangers (use folk at work and keep a supply in sealed zip bags). Do not train with different “target’ scent cloths that day.

In the next session use a different target cloth from another family member, friend or person known to the dog.  Place it amongst, but obviously not next to, other completely sterile cloths, and again repeat by gradually introducing a few lightly scented decoys. You will find that your dog should never fail. Change the layout pattern of up to 10 cloths.  When using decoys, don’t use decoys with scent from family or friends who have previously been used for target cloths. Not until dog is 100% fully trained on scent discrimination.

Soon handlers will reach the stage where their dogs will identify any target cloth from amongst any number of decoys. Slowly, over several sessions, reduce potency of scent on the target cloth and increase that on decoys till scenting methodology and time is roughly equivalent for target and decoy cloths. One can even risk increasing the strength of the scent on decoys just to give you confidence. The dog won’t need it.

Very soon, within a week or so the dog will have grasped the art of taking, remembering and recognising any given scent. If success rate is unacceptably low, say 95% or less, then go back as many stages as are needed to guarantee 99.9% success. A dog that has truly mastered the art of scent discrimination is one that will always recognise the target/ given scent, despite the presence of other decoys, no matter how heavily scented they are. To prove to yourself that your dog knows what it is doing, one can even introduce ‘decoy’ clothes bearing the handlers own scent, or that of family or friend.  All these around the ‘target cloth of a perfect stranger’. This of course is the ultimate test.


It is true, that if a decoy has not washed his hands or has just been eating biltong, or the catering staff are called from the canteen to act as decoys in the scent discrimination exercise, one could counter distractions.  Nevertheless, instead of seeking excuses, perhaps through training, we should all endeavour to prepare our dogs for such an eventuality. Train with such decoy distractions, but plan your variation carefully, with such ‘biltong’ decoys being very lightly scented to begin with.  I often feel we train our dogs in a cotton wool or sterile environment, too frightened to expose them to the harsh realities of the world.  There should be no risk involved in stretching their skill far further than the relatively basic parameters of a C Test scent exercise.  The dog’s nose is infinitely more capable than passing, what to a canine, is a pure kinder garden exam.

The act of giving scent to your dog is the subject of much controversy. Let the dog taste the scent as well as smell it, ask for the cloth to be placed on a brandy glass (held by the handler), then permit the dog to smell the cloth inside the glass. Ask for the cloth to be placed on the ground, and let the dog pick it up. Hold the cloth firmly over the dog’s nose. Don’t over scent the dog or under scent it. Much like Grandma’s homemade jam, these are some of the secret formulas one can hear. However the bottom line is, if your dog is successful, keep doing what you are doing. If you have played your cards right, you will have developed your style from as far back as A Class scent. The act of giving scent should never be new unchartered waters for you in C Class.

Any dog that regularly fails any scent exercise fails for only one reason. The dog has no idea what is required of it, simply because you have bungled the training. The dog knows exactly how to use its nose, but not always how you want him to use it.  I remain convinced that the scent discrimination exercise is one of the easiest for any dog, once the basics have been mastered. We should never be frightened of it. To the dog smelling is as easy as you talking or even thinking.  It’s automatic. But as I said, the trick is to use our brains in an effort to skilfully condition the animal to use its nose in the way we want, to the exclusion of all other smalls, no matter how attractive they may be.

“This” is the scent, smell it, savour it, remember it, now go find it.  If the dog fails, let us examine ourselves and our training technique. By doing this instead of looking for excuses, we might never be able to guarantee 100% success, but we can come pretty damn close!!