Not long ago I had the opportunity to speak to Dr. Wayne Severn from ScentTECH Ltd. and Central Search Dogs.
The work that detector dogs and search & rescue dogs do has always fascinated me so it was great to have the opportunity to learn more and get an insight into how it all works.
Firstly a bit of background on Wayne: Wayne has been working with detection and search dogs for over 20 years and was one of the first Urban Search and Rescue Canine Search Specialists to qualify 15 years ago.
Since then he has gone on to start his own company ScentTECH which offers services in drug detection to help keep workplaces and schools drug free. Wayne visits many different companies in the Wellington area and has the gorgeous Indie do her job of sniffing out the drugs.
Now, most importantly for us animal lovers, information on Indie (sorry Wayne): Indie is a pure bred 5-year-old German Shepherd and has been with Wayne since he picked her up from the breeder at 8 weeks old.
I asked Wayne how he knew that Indie would be the sort of dog he needed and he explained that there were a few traits that he looked for, even at 8 weeks old. Another inclination is that Indie comes from a line of German Shepherds that is very successful in producing not only search & rescue dogs but police dogs too (one of Indie’s littermates is a qualified police dog!) he knew there was a high chance of her being a good candidate.
Wayne did say though that you do need a bit of luck thrown in as you could have a puppy that shows great potential but then turns out to be unsuitable.
Wayne originally trained Indie as a search & rescue dog and then transferred her over to being a detection dog. Apparently the transfer over was pretty easy as she already knew most of what she needed, her skills just needed adapting slightly. Indie now has the ability to detect 4 illicit drugs and has used her ability to track down many people who have come in contact with illegal substances. It is said that there is no limit to the number of substances a dog can be trained to detect, however, as all dogs need constant training on each of the scent sources, logistically most handlers will limit it to 12 substances per dog.
Interestingly there is a common misconception that dogs can’t smell drugs when they are in sealed containers. The truth is that it doesn’t matter what the container is made out of the scent of the substance will seep through eventually and the dog will be able to smell it and with their keen noses they will be able to smell it a lot quicker than we would! Passive transfer is also a great advantage to detection dogs – no matter how careful you are in packing a substance in a container, you will leave trace amounts on the outside. Because a well-trained dog can detect nanogram amounts of material (amounts that you can’t see), they will easily find these residues.
One story that Wayne told me that I want to share with you is how one day they were out on a job and Indie indicated to a car door handle. Wayne overlooked her signal so she continued indicating with the expression “Wayne stop being stupid, I’m telling you there’s something there” (we all know that condescending stupid human look dogs give!) It turns out that there were drugs in the car and Indie had detected them from the transfer from the person’s hand onto the car door handle. Wayne says he learnt his lesson that day and now knows that he has to trust her, she always knows if drugs have been there
To work together Wayne and Indie must have a great relationship. When I asked about training Indie, Wayne simply saidthe dog has to enjoy working; otherwise the dog won’t do it! Which makes complete sense to me! If we’re asking the dog to do something and the dog doesn’t think that the job is fun, why would it do it? Money doesn’t mean anything to dogs, they do things because they enjoy doing it and find it a rewarding experience.
Wayne also made the point that although there are standard ways to teach a detection dog they are only a way of training not the way of training and you have to adapt the training to suit the dog to make sure they are enjoying it.
Being very interested in dog training (kinda comes with the job!) my next question to Wayne was when working did he use food rewards or toy rewards.
There are pros and cons for both. Food rewards are easy to use and very quick to administer so you can get back to the job quickly. However, you run the risk of the dog being unable to ignore other food whilst at work detecting substances. This is exactly why Indie is trained with toys; Wayne has trained her so that although she is a foodie at home, when she has her harness on she knows
she is at work and goes into work mode so ignores tempting morsels.
Although Wayne does admit that there can be a downside to using toys as well Toys are great as a reward as it is during playtime that the bond between the dog and the handler is reinforced. However, it can be quite time consuming and tiring for the dog to play so it can be harder to get them back into working mode once the reward is over, but that issue can be easily managed by the handler by using a system of variable reward.
Having heard about Indie and her amazing skills I couldn’t help but get curious about how to get involved. I’ve been looking for a few things that I could start working on with Kai; he’s too young still for agility or weight pull and he can’t catch to save himself so flyball is out! So maybe some really basic detection work could keep him entertained? But have any of you also noticed how it always seems to be Beagles or Labradors you see on TV for detection dogs?
Naturally my next question to Wayne was whether particular breeds or kinds of dogs were better suited to the task? His answer was something I had never thought about; basically, no breed is particularly better at the job as they all have their different qualities but you have to think of the public’s perception of the dog. For example, a Beagle sniffing someone at the airport would be a lot less scary for that person than a Rottweiler sniffing them. (Unfortunately public opinion is that Rottweilers are big and scary although many of us know that most Rottweilers are just big teddy bears when you get to know them!) Another example is a German Shepherd; the archetypical working dog, almost demands attention and respect as we naturally associate them with the Police so they make great detection dogs when entering private premises (Indie & Wayne are the perfect example)
When it comes to search & rescue dogs something you do have to take into consideration is size. You would ideally want a medium sized dog so that it is easy to transport. Imagine trying to squeeze a large dog such as a bloodhound into a helicopter!!
But the most important thing when training a dog for either detection or search & rescue is to make sure the dog has a fantastic work drive and enjoys doing it, otherwise it may never make a great detection dog or search & rescue dog no matter how much time and effort you put in.
We will be exploring more into setting up a course for people to attend so they, and their dogs, can learn the basics of detection work. It is known to be a great way to tire out those hyper dogs and is a great bonding experience working as a team with your dog. Watch this space and we will have more information for you soon.
Thank you again to Wayne (and Indie). Keep up the good work!