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Can dog psychology research methods predict scent detection dog success?

Remember the Unsolvable Task? (If not, see our last post for a detailed description of how this canine cognition method is used by researchers) Researchers at Auburn University were interested in finding out if this task could be used to help identify if certain dogs are better suited for working as scent detection dogs. These dogs are incredibly important, especially for protecting people from explosives. You might see scent detection dogs at sporting events, before riding the ferry in NYC, or even at the Time’s Square NYE celebration (K9 Mía was there with her handler, providing invaluable protection services). Because this is such a specialized role, many dogs are not suitable for placement in service, even after extensive training programs! How can dog science help us conserve valuable training resources for only the dogs who are up for the job?

81 dogs who were on track for training and later service as scent detection dogs were tested at 3, 6 and 11 months of age on the Unsolvable Task. The researchers measured how much the dogs interacted with the box, trying to reach the toy or treat, as well as how often the dogs gazed at humans to ask for help.

Interestingly, at 3 and 6-months of age, there was very little human-directed gazing during this task. By 11-months, dogs were using this help-seeking social behavior significantly more. This might mean that dogs require some life experience with humans to understand how to ask for help in this way. However, at all ages, the scent detection dogs in training were very persistent at trying to get into the box.

How do the results relate to successful placement as scent detection dogs? Dogs who used more human-directed gazing at 11-months were more likely to be placed successfully into service at 12-months! This makes sense when thinking about their job. They must remain alert and persistent in their work of detecting dangerous scents, and then be able to alert their handler, effectively asking for help in neutralizing a potentially life-threatening situation. It is possible that these effects appear earlier (between 7-10 months), but more research is needed to know for sure!

Find K9 Mía on Instagram @K9Mia_ to follow her amazing work!

Citation: Lazarowski, L., Strassberg, L. R., Waggoner, P. & Katz, J. S. (2019) Persistence and human-directed behavior in detection dogs: Ontogenetic development and relationships to working dog success. Applied Animal Behaviour Science. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.applanim.2019.104860

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