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  • Writer's pictureConservation Dogs Collective

Building Odor Relevance

An overview of how conservation canines learn a target odor

When it comes to a dog, anything is paws-ible! Anyone who has shared their life with a dog can attest to their incredible ability to smell. We all have experienced that snuffling sound of a dog sniffing, followed by a whine or bark from our four-legged furry friend signaling to us that a kernel of kibble has found itself out of reach. And surely you’ve been greeted with excited snorts of glee when we move the couch or rug for them to get their treat!

Keeper Jo and Finder Willow building odor relevance for bumblebee nests

The natural ability dogs have to detect scent is unmatched, but what is even more incredible is that they can be taught to sniff for specific “target odors,” and in the case of our Canine Finders, this means they can learn to detect species—or items—of conservation importance. When we teach our Canine Finders a new target odor, the critical first step is for us to acquire appropriate training samples.

In a recent webinar, CDCI Canine Keepers Jo, Morgan, and Laura went over how they help their Finders develop odor relevance, allowing them to locate species like box turtles, bat carcasess, and much more! If you’re hankering to learn more right now, head over and purchase the full presentation here! For the bookworms out there, read on for more sniff-a-riffic information!

Motivation and Success

When it comes to training and teaching dogs, one of the first steps to success is finding out what motivates the individual learner… The Finder! This may be playing with their favorite toy or tasty food, or even a game of jumping around. Using a reward hierarchy to assess your paw-tner’s pay scale is extremely helpful, and when you know what they LOVE vs. what they like, you can maximize success in learning!


Building Odor Relevance

There are several steps our Keepers must take to help set up our Finders for success in building odor relevance. This includes utilizing a selection of target odor samples and learning how to safely collect, reuse, and store the samples.

Feasibility and Ethics

Certain target odor samples may not be as easy to find as others. For example, one of the target odors Finder Willow is trained on is the Eastern box turtle, which are not easy to find via human survey methods in the wild. For this project, Keeper Jo worked with the project partners to figure out the best way available to acquire turtle “scent” without having to locate a wild turtle. It was decided to use captive turtles that were familiar with being handled by humans to collect their odor by rubbing them gently with sterile cotton swabs to collect scent from their outer shell and carapace.

Authenticity and Contamination

Once odor samples are acquired, it is important to ask whether the samples will be accurate or if they will be able to form a good enough scent pool. This is important because when the Finders are on a task in the field, the scents may be masked by other environmental features such as thick grass, gullies, or strong wind. These naturally occurring features can cause confusion and frustration for the dog when they are searching in the field.

When collecting and preparing odor samples, we must also ask how long the odor sample will last. Storage is another important factor to consider ensuring the authenticity of the samples. Depending on the training aid some storage options are freezing, refrigerating, dehydrating, or simply storing training aids in a dry glass jar out of direct sunlight.


Keepers must change up where they work with their Finders to ensure they can handle different working conditions. This allows you to see what may cause the dog to succeed or what conditions the dog finds challenging.

Observation, Innovation, and Flexibility

Conservation work requires the use of observation, innovation, and flexibility in order to achieve success. Teams must aim to find samples and training areas that are the closest match to field conditions, use multiple variations of target odor samples (e.g. different ages and sexes of an animal, different volumes/quantities of scat), and be open to adapt and problem solve when unexpected outcomes occur.

Training Goals and Approach

Training plans and goals should vary to achieve maximum success for each unique project. The Finder-Keeper team is just that; A team. Keepers must “listen” to their Finder, take time to learn their preferences, and understand adjustments will be needed and are a natural part of the learning process. While we always aim for errorless learning, sometimes even with the best planning, our Finders tell us they’re learning something different than we planned! And that’s OK!

When developing training goals, take into account the specific project. Ask, “Will it be more harmful for my dog to occasionally miss something that might be “on target” — or occasionally show me something that might be off target.”

Making Scents of it All

In conclusion, we want to emphasize the complexity of building odor relevance! Each team requires planning and training specific to the project and the strengths and weaknesses of the dog. This includes understanding each Finder’s reward hierarchy and striving to set them up for success!

While dogs naturally excel at sniffing, there are certain factors that may prevent them from successfully locating a target odor. Conservation detection dog work requires Finder-Keeper teams to be open and flexible—in and out of the field—in order to be successful.

Photo by Lindsay Hayward

Have questions?

Are you getting started on your first conservation detection project and need help? Stuck in a training rutt?

Contact us to talk with our expert Keepers!

As always, have fun with your dog!


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