John Cox


Of little practical use to a dog owner or indeed a professional handler, the scent discrimination exercise continues to remain a compulsory exercise in the senior Obedience Test.  It is also the exercise which strikes fear into the hearts of all concerned.  Scent discrimination is an extremely strange choice for an event in an Obedience Test when one considers it’s very specialized ‘Working Dog’ application.  Nevertheless, for what it is worth, we have to live with it and overcome our initial apprehension about it.  In essence, we must realise that scent discrimination is based on a sound retrieve, without which one cannot hope to progress.  Then we are informed, at most clubs, we must have a different command such as ‘seek’ because we wish the animal to  check out all the articles, or at least some of them, before selecting and returning with the correct one.  May I suggest that this is where most of the problems start?  Personally, I use my retrieve command for scent discrimination in Obedience and my area search in Working Trails without any problem, but much to the horror of local Dog Clubs Trainers.


 As a recent experiment, I took six security dogs, all strong in the retrieve but none of which had done even the most basic ‘A’ Test Scent Exercise.  It must be emphasized that all dogs responded well to the ‘good and bad sounds’ which in these cases were ‘Good boy’ or ‘No’.  The general obedience standard and ages were very comparable.  The dog names were placed in a hat and drawn to give us two groups of three.  There was, as it turned out, one bitch in each group.  With both groups, each dog was asked to retrieve the dumbbell using the standard exercise but the dumbbell was thrown into an area of three square meters, in which all five other dumbbells were present.  One group used the normal retrieve command ’fetch’ and the other a brand new command, ‘seek’.  All dogs retrieved their own dumbbell, most checking out and ignoring the dumb bells of the other dogs.


Each Handler was then given two cloths to scent of similar material, size and in this instance colour.  Handlers and dogs were then given time to play with their dogs and get their dogs to retrieve their cloths, bearing in mind these dogs would retrieve most articles, so a piece of “knotted” cloth posed no problem.  Each dog was then tested retrieving their own cloth thrown into the same three square meter area as the five cloths of the other handlers, but ensuring they were not touching each other.  Regardless of the command ‘fetch’ or ‘seek’, all dogs retrieved the correct cloth, and in this case all dogs inspected at least one other cloth prior to picking up the correct one.  This may prove surprising to some people when one considers that these dogs were all trained to retrieve ‘any article’ with human scent on it in an area of twenty-five square meters, so, what made them specifically ignore the other cloths?  It would seem that the ‘retrieve’ environment with the act of throwing the article, is a strong enough conditioning factor to overcome any decoy.


There is no doubt that at this stage, if the retrieve is strong enough, the command becomes irrelevant.   At this point, we carried out the same exercise with the cloths, but on this occasion all six cloths were placed in the area, the last one being placed, not thrown, by handler in view of his dog.  The 6 dogs were introduced to the ritual of ‘taking scent’ from a second cloth.  This removed any possibility of the dogs retaining visual contact with the cloth that was placed amongst the others by the handler.  After about thirty seconds, the handlers in turn, pretended to throw the second cloth, three handlers saying ‘fetch’ and the others ‘seek’.  Two out three ‘fetches’ were successful and one of the ‘seek’.  The unsuccessful ‘fetch’ handler, reprimanded his dog with the bad sound when it picked up the wrong cloth and then gave a second command fetch.  Upon nearing the vicinity of the correct cloth and when the dog showed an interest, the good sound and encouragement was given.  The cloth was then retrieved.  With the two failures using seek, the bad sounds was also administered when the dogs showed an interest in the wrong cloths and repetition of the command  ‘seek’ (still new to the dogs) seemed to serve only to confuse the animals.  The handlers were more successful when they said ‘fetchseek’.  


After about two weeks of plus minus six fifteen minute sessions per day, six days per week, these dogs achieved a reasonable success percentage using handlers scent and the new command seek on its own.  The dogs trained on the retrieve ‘fetch’ command were all completing the scent discrimination, without fail, within the first day, using handlers’ scent and in each case, the dogs, where necessary, inspected the other cloths.  All dogs soon associated the  visual layout of cloths in an inconsistent but fairly close configuration, with the requirements of the exercise, and it seemed obvious ,that this factor and not the ’command itself’ was important.  In other words, whether a dog was asked to fetch a dumbbell during a normal retrieve, or several articles hidden in the bush during an area search, or to select a particular cloth amongst several others, the environment and pre-exercise conditioning  rituals were critical, not the command.


It is my opinion therefore, that a new command for scent discrimination is not necessary at all and in some cases can serve to delay results.  We also hear trainers advising handlers with dogs being newly introduced to scent discrimination, not to talk to their dogs whilst they are working, or not to reprimand the animals for returning with the wrong cloth.  We even have cases where handlers are encouraged to start scent discrimination with their dogs on the lead.  If any handler cannot exercise full control over his animal off the lead during a retrieve and by use of the voice alone, make it leave an object or pick one up as desired, then the basics have not been mastered.  We all know that a dog must be discouraged or corrected for an error at the precise moment of that error, and when it does well, praise is rendered promptly.  Using this principle, it must stand to reason, that as the dog is in the act of picking up the wrong cloths it must be admonished, preferably by voice.  In a similar manner, the handler must encourage the dog during the initial stages, and praise the animal at the correct moment.  If the dog responds well to the good and bad so, then a handler can exercise full control in much the same way as an angler reel in a catch.  No lead is required.


The transition from handlers scent to be the strangers scent, should in theory, become a mere formality.  Naturally, talking the dog onto the correct cloth should be dispensed with as soon as possible, but during training, a handler should never allow the dog to deliver the wrong cloth.  By the time handlers are ready to start scent discrimination, they are usually preoccupied with a desire to insist upon straight sits and perfect finishes.  This during the initial stages must be avoided, the main object to get the dog to choose and retrieve the correct cloth.   A great fuss and game should be made of success and not a strict long drawn-out finishing sequence.  So the secret to the scent discrimination barrier is a good retrieve, excellent control with a conditioned response to the voice, particularly the good and bad sounds.  Resist the temptation to start training for this important exercise too soon.  Get the basics right and the sky the limit.


But one final word. Let me reiterate. Whilst I use always initially use my retrieve command for the retrieve, the article area search and scent discrimination, there is absolutely nothing wrong with, over time, a gradual transition to a new command/sound.  But I think you will find that once a dog gets conditioned to the build-up rituals and visual environments of the simple retrieve, i.e. (wait watch me throw this, throw and send), then the scent discrimination (wait and smell this nice cloth and then send) and the pre-hype up of your dog for a working trial article search (and release of the collar), your actual command will matter very little. Try it with your fully trained retriever. Say ‘wait’ or ‘stay’, throw the ball or dumbbell, wait several more seconds, then “cough” or say “go for it baby” … and see what happens.  By then, the dog is 100% tuned into your ritual, your body lingo and even your mind.  Remember, there are literally dozens of totally different bits of agility equipment, but we manage all of them with relatively few commands such as up, over, through and maybe even the occasional weave.  But, it’s eventually what the dog sees in front of it, and the environment that triggers the correct response.  However, don’t forget to practice with a friend who enthusiastically shouts out, “throw your article” and then “send your dog”… Make no mistake, Bonzo is looking for just any old excuse or sound to rush out and fetch the article for the boss!!!  Good Luck


J Cox. Originally published in KUSA Gazette 1990s. Updated June 2022