Pros and cons of Odor Detection Box training

Training a reliable detection dog is not easy because we need to dive into the minor details of training. Books, YouTube videos, FB posts, Insta tips, online courses, and instructors will tell you a different approach. Many roads lead to Rome. There is not one perfect approach that will always get you there. The reason for this is that, like humans, also dogs have different personalities and different learning styles. But what is the same for every approach is a strong foundation. This week I want to highlight the pros and cons of detection training in combination with boxes. I like to split the various fundamentals of the detection training. 
While detection dogs can be an incredibly useful tool, there is one limitation to their capabilities: they cannot learn to discriminate between odors if there is only one target odor. 
Although there are many ways to start training your detection, I want to highlight the method of odor box training. It’s a typical fundamental training in many professional K9 companies and government units. The box is an essential building block in this training. Most of the time, it’s square, and the opening on the top of the box is big enough for the dog to puts its nose in. Dogs are opportunistic curious animals, so putting a box in front of a dog will generally interest the dog so that it will put its nose in. If that results in finding a piece of food or his favorite toy or triggers an action from its handler that reinforces the dog, you know what will happen next. The dog starts to put its nose more and more into this box because he is getting something good in return. Operant conditioning is doing its job, and by positive reinforcement, this behavior, putting your nose into the box, will become more and stronger. 
Classical conditioning kicks in if we add a target odor in this box, like explosives, narcotics, bedbugs, or whatever target odor you are interest in. Without realizing it, we call this involuntary learning, the dog will start to be conditioned on this target odor. Because whenever he puts his nose in that box, this target odor is present. Yes, the target odor can now become an important cue for the dog that a reinforcement procedure is about to start. Here the connection between target odor and reinforcement is built. But it’s more complex than that. Trainers need to be very careful now. Why? Well, let’s split what is going on in this box procedure. 
The box can become a problem
Trainers do not always realize that the box itself is also part of this expectation for the dog. And it’s not only the sight of the box. The behavior of sticking the nose into the box will become part of this expectation. Later smelling the target odor raises the expectation that the reinforcer is coming. The big question for the dog is what will lead to the reinforcer? Seeing the box, sticking my nose in, smelling the target odor, moving my head or freezing, using my paws, barking or what about the action of the trainer? So which is the most important, in which order, and for how long? In this stage, it can become confusing for the dog. What is the behavior or the trigger that the reinforcer is coming? And what if the reinforcer is coming too fast or too late? The dog can become puzzled, leading to passive behavior, new behaviors, or frustration. Now a lot of other superstitious behaviors can start. Because quickly, the dog understands that this box will lead to reinforcement but is puzzled about what to do to get this reinforcer.
Keep training simple
We must keep the training procedures simple to train our dogs to become good and reliable detection dogs. Break them down into small steps that are easy to understand for our dogs and our handlers. In such a way, they know what to do, what will bring the reinforcer, when this will happen, and how we can move on to the next step. I like to build my training protocols so that people can study and practice them before they start training a dog. I learned this from Marian and Bob Bailey when I began working with them. Write clear step-by-step training protocols, collect and analyze your data. Don’t train to 100% but move on to the next step in your training protocol when you have reached an 80% score. 
The difference between target and target odor
Before we move on into detail, let me first explain the difference between a target, a target odor, and distraction odors. Targets are objects that will contain an odor. The box itself is a target for the dog. It’s an object of interest. Something good can happen near or in this target, that box. Also, we can place a target odor in this box. A target odor is a specific odor of interest for the handler that, by classical conditioning, will be imprinted into the dog’s mind. This particular target odor will also become interesting for the dog. After some conditioning (repetitions), this target odor will become a stimulus for the dog, probably leading to a reinforcement. 
Expose your detection dog to multiple targets
For a detection dog to be effective, it must be able to distinguish between different odors. This requires the dog to be exposed to multiple targets to learn to differentiate between them. For example, an explosive detection dog is learning to find the odor of TNT, an explosive material. This TNT is now the target odor that will lead to reinforcement. After only a few repetitions (3-5) with the target box and the target odor (TNT) in this box, we move on. Now we offer the dog not only one target box with a TNT target odor. We introduce a second target box, one empty and one loaded with the target odor TNT. Quickly the dog learns that the box with TNT odor will lead to reinforcement and that the empty box will not. Now we add a third empty target box. The 50% chance is gone, and it’s a 33% chance of finding the TNT target odor in this setting, which is more challenging for the dog. As soon the dog reliably ignores the empty target boxes and points out the target box with the target odor TNT, we can start adding distraction odors. 
What are distraction odors?
Distraction odors are anything different than the target odor. Usually, I like to use distracting odors that the dog will encounter in his operational work. But start it up in a thoughtful way. Wait to put dog food or other strong distraction odors in the other target boxes. For example, in this stage, I would add some paper towels in both ’empty’ target boxes while the target box with the TNT target odor stays the same. In this stage, distraction odors are used to teach the dog to look for a specific (target) odor. How to take the following steps is not going to be explained in this blog. I want to explain more about using target boxes in detection training.
It is essential to understand that a detection dog needs to be exposed to a variety of target odors so that it can learn to recognize the specific odor of each one. Besides this, the detection dog needs to learn to only look for these conditioned target odor and ignore distracting odors like food, rubbers, papers, perfumes, deodorants, dirty socks, toys, and much more. 
Use more than one box in your fundamental training
This brings us to the part that it is crucial not to use only one target box but at least two or, even better, three from the start of your training. Because if the dog is only exposed to one odor, it will not be able to differentiate between different odors accurately. This limitation also applies to substances that have similar smells. For example, if a dog is trained to detect narcotics, it must be exposed to multiple narcotics to learn to differentiate between them. If the dog is only exposed to one type of narcotic, it cannot accurately distinguish between different kinds of narcotics. In short, while detecting dogs can be incredibly useful, they cannot learn to discriminate between odors if there is only one target. For a detection dog to be effective, it must be exposed to multiple targets to learn to differentiate between them accurately. And find these target odors in real operational circumstances where the dog must be able to ignore distraction odors. Remember that a target odor is the odor that a detection dog has been trained to detect, such as an explosive or illegal narcotic. A distraction odor is any other smell the dog encounters while on the job, such as food, another animal or whatever. The detection dog must be able to differentiate between the target odor and the distraction odor to be successful.
The choice of three is powerful
Giving a detection dog a choice of three targets allows the dog to make an informed decision by allowing them to compare the different stimuli and make an accurate judgment. This helps ensure that the dog responds to the correct target rather than just randomly responding to one target. Additionally, providing multiple targets gives the dog more practice and helps to strengthen its detection skills. The best way to imprint a target odor into a detection dog is through repetition and reward. Start by exposing the dog to the target odor in a low-stress environment, and reward them with treats and praise when interacting with the target odor.
And then increase the difficulty level until the dog can locate the target odor in various situations. The odor detection box (ODB) is a very effective and efficient training method. You can place them in a low stress safe environment and later add more and more stressors around them.
Work double-blind for the best results
Double-blind training is the most reliable and effective way to train a detection dog because it eliminates any potential bias between the handler and the dog. During double-blind training, neither the handler nor the dog is aware of the position of the target odor. This prevents the handler from influencing the dog’s behavior and allows the dog to use their natural scent detection abilities without the potential distraction of a reward or other external cues. Double-blind training also helps ensure that the dog accurately detects the target odor and does not rely on cues from the handler or environment. Using at least three odor detection boxes will give handlers and dogs the confidence to work double-blind. If you want to know more about this specific double-blind training, then my online Odor Recognition Test (ORT) course is perfect for learning this. 
Be careful when selecting training material
In the K9 training world, detection box training is getting more attention. But I need to highlight more the fact that you need to be selective in the material of these boxes. When it comes to training dogs for odor detection, there is no better material to use than glass or stainless steel. While glass is difficult to produce in a box and use in this training, I like stainless steel. This material is strong, non-porous, and easy to clean. These qualities make stainless steel ideal for especially odor detection. First, stainless steel is extremely durable. This means it can stand up to the wear and tear of training and can withstand the rigorous conditions of a detection dog’s training. It won’t corrode, rust, or break down over time. This makes it one of the most reliable materials to use for training. Second, stainless steel is non-porous. This means that odors won’t seep into the steel, making it ideal for odor detection training. Dogs can quickly identify and locate odors that are contained within the steel’s surface. This makes it much easier for trainers to teach dogs to detect a particular odor. Finally, stainless steel is easy to clean. It can be wiped down with a damp cloth and disinfectant, and it won’t retain any odors. This allows trainers to quickly and easily prepare the materials needed for each training session. Additionally, stainless steel is non-toxic, which is important for the health and safety of the dog. This is important because training dogs for odor detection requires regular cleaning of the materials used. This is important when dealing with distractors such as food and other items the dog may have handled.
Other materials like wood and plastic can be contaminated with odor residue because they are less durable and more prone to scratching and cracking. This can cause odors to become trapped in the material over time, making it difficult for a dog to detect them. Additionally, plastic is somewhat porous, which can allow for odor molecules to become trapped in the material, making them harder to detect. Stainless steel is the best material to use when training dogs for odor detection. Its durability, non-porous surface, and easy-to-clean qualities make it the ideal material for dog training. With stainless steel, trainers can ensure that their dogs will have the best chance of success in learning how to detect odors.
We need detection dogs; the keep our communities safe
Training detection dogs is a critical part of keeping our communities safe. So you need to invest in the best materials and best training methods. This will speed up your training and produce reliable detection dogs. These dogs are trained to detect various substances, including narcotics, explosives, bedbugs and even biological agents. As they are trained to detect specific substances, it is essential that they are exposed to a wide range of odors. Exposing a detection dog to multiple odors is essential for several reasons. First, it allows the dog to become familiar with various smells. This helps them to become more sensitive to the specific odors they are trained to detect. Second, it helps the dog develop a stronger focus, allowing them to hone in on the target odor. Third, it helps to reduce the likelihood of false positives. The dog can better distinguish the target odor from other similar odors by having a greater understanding of odors. Exposing a detection dog to multiple odors is also important for the dog’s overall well-being. Introducing the dog to new smells helps reduce stress and keeps them mentally stimulated. This can help ensure the dog remains healthy and happy throughout their working life. Overall, exposing a detection dog to multiple odors is a critical part of its training and is essential.
The more odors a dog is exposed to, the better their ability to recognize and respond to those specific odors. Once the dog has been exposed to various odors, it can begin learning the different tasks associated with detection work. Training can involve:
  • Teaching the dog to search for specific odors.
  • Alerting the handler to the presence of an odor.
  • Even tracking a particular odor over a distance.
All of these skills require the dog to be able to accurately recognize and respond to a variety of odors and be able to ignore distraction odors. For this reason, I’m a fan of using odor detection box training in my fundamental detection training. Enjoy training, be happy!

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