What’s That Smell? How a Dog Learns to Find a Scent

A dog’s sense of smell is incredible. In the conservation world, their olfactory ability, combined with their desire to work alongside humans, makes dogs an amazing partner for sniffing out a variety of target species to help protect and restore our planet’s health. As we like to say, “If it has an odor, our dogs can be trained to find it!”


One of the most common questions we get asked is, “How do you train your dogs to find a scent?” The answer is simple, yet complex. Teaching a dog a target odor is, in fact, an easy thing to do. Some of our dogs can learn a new odor in as little as a handful of repetitions. However, it’s the handler’s job to have a thorough understanding of how dogs learn through classical and operant conditioning.



Additionally, the trainer must have a keen eye for dog body language and a thorough understanding of what motivates their dog. Once that knowledge is acquired and understood—and applied to other learned behaviors, such as coming when called—we can begin to teach our dogs a target odor.


Here’s the process we use to train our dogs to find a new scent:


Introduce Your Dog to the Target Odor

  • Acquire Training Samples: Before we bring the dogs out for their first sniff, it’s important to have the training samples and their respective containers to house them in.

  • Keep Track of Your Samples: Label the outside of the containers with a method that makes sense to you and your project needs.

  • Protect Your Samples: Wearing nitrile gloves or using sterile tweezers, place the samples inside the containment equipment. Your dog should be comfortably waiting in a separate area while you are handling materials.

  • Prep the Training Area: Set-up your training environment in a fashion that will allow your dog to sniff comfortably and give you (the trainer) a good view, and minimize any controllable environmental factors that might compete for your dog’s attention.


How to Teach a Dog the Target Odor is Relevant

The initial target odor training has one goal—to teach a dog that the smell of the target = THEIR REWARD. Our method to teach this uses a process called “pairing,” where we place a dog’s desired reward right on top of the container that has the target inside.


This classical conditioning, sometimes referred to as pavlovian conditioning, is a tried and true way to teach detection dogs a new target, just as it teaches a dog that their dog bowl = dinner time, or their leash = we’re going for a walk!


The vented container allows the odor of the target to escape the container and the food on top of the container allows the dog to self-reward (i.e. eat the food/play with a toy while they are sniffing the target). Using pairing, the dog is allowed complete autonomy, while helping to prevent destructive behaviors like pawing, biting, barking, when they arrive at the target odor.

"If it has an odor, our dogs can be trained to find it!"
An example of a paired hide

Pairing the Target Odor with Your Dog’s Rewards

  • Set Up Your Samples: Place one container out, then pair it up with your dog’s reward. For the purpose of this article, we won’t discuss the various types of rewards (food vs. toy vs. play).

  • Introduce the Dog to the Area: We almost always have our dogs on a 6 foot leash for the introduction of a target odor to help them stay engaged in the search area, if needed.

  • Commence Sniffing: Wait for your dog to orient themselves to the container with the paired target odor. When they are looking at the container, give their leash some slack, allowing them to gain access to the reward.

  • Praise and Reset: After they have rewarded themselves, happily talk to them and encourage them back to their confinement area by giving them a tasty treat when they go there, and then reset the search area.

  • Practice: We typically repeat this exact set-up between 5-8 repetitions, then end the training session with an end of session cue and carry on with our day—once we document the particulars in the training log, of course!

Testing Your Dog for Odor Recognition

Depending on the individual dog’s learning history and observable behavior, we may bring them out the next session and give a quick "test" without pairing the target odor to observe any odor recognition. With this “unpaired” process, we are implementing operant conditioning, sometimes referred to as Skinnerian conditioning, through the use of positive reinforcement where their behavior of sniffing the target scent equals their reward. And that is a promise and contract we keep with our dogs every time they sniff the target. It ALWAYS pays off!


When performing the test, we’re looking for any recognizable change of behavior when they sniff the container with the target that signifies a “OH, hey! This smells familiar!” response. This behavior can look like anything from a full body turn around to a head snap, or even more subtle, such as a change in breathing pattern or a minute shift in their head position above the container. Once we see a change of behavior, we deliver the dog’s reward.


Training Your Dog in Different Scenarios

After you’re confident your dog is trained on the target odor on a single container, you’ll add in a variety of different scenarios to work towards your final goal. For example, you can increase the number of containers, some may contain the target and some contain different odors. You can also change locations, work on/off leash, work at different times of the day, etc.

One New Zealand mudsnail is hiding in the sediment!

After your dog has trained in several scenarios and successfully located the target scent, we recommend conducting a blind search. Enlist the help of your training partner to place the target odor in a location unknown to you (not just your dog) and then allow your dog to search the area to find it.


With solid training, a robust reward history, and confidence in your dog, you’ll surely witness your dog successfully locating the hidden target. Have fun as you get sniffing!



You can give a gift to the dogs of MCDI that help keep them doing the work they love!


Special Note:

The process and information shared within this target-odor-training blog is a high-level overview of the methods MCDI uses to train our dogs to learn the scent of a new target.


We continuously assess and modify our training plans and processes to ensure our dogs are happy and successful. Most importantly, we listen to and learn from our dogs—they are our greatest teachers.


If you are a professional dog handler in training, we encourage you to have a training partner and mentor whenever possible. Having someone who can provide unbiased feedback on what they are observing from your dog—and you—is an invaluable component to developing the strongest detection dog/handler team possible.


Related Links:

If you liked learning about target odor training, you might also enjoy this piece on the types of scents a dog can detect.


Here’s a look at the inner workings of a dog’s nose. Because who doesn’t want to understand what makes dogs so great at sniffing things out?


Perhaps you’re familiar with scent detection, but are just learning about a dog’s ability to work in the field of conservation… Check out what a conservation dog actually is!

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