Dog trains man

Sunday, April 10, 2011

The Scent Box

Kenzo impatiently waiting for his turn to track
Kenzo joined his first tracking class for this season. We used the time between classes to reflect. What have we achieved so far and where do we want to get better? This season will therefore be all about improving focus and concentration on the track, and a proper marking of the objects Kenzo finds on the track.

The situation we find ourselves in is not uncommon. It happens to many trackers. We all rush ahead and experiment with new elements on the track. Turns, distractions, different types of vegetation, etc. Any issues, like in our case Kenzo's ability to keep his focus, regularly come back and hunt us. Things that have been simmering under the surface from the start and only seem to get worse over time.

The track itself as reinforcer

Those problems could all have been avoided with a proper start. Correcting unwanted behavior later on in tracking is very difficult. We cannot help by instructing or showing the dog what to do. Or reward them for everything they do correct. They will loose their ability to problem-solve independently and when they encouter an issue on the track look up at you, asking "ok, what now?". We cannot correct, in the punishing sense of the word, either. As that will spoil their interest in tracking as a whole. Why do something that is no fun? All the reinforcement should come from the track, not you. Therefore it requires a lot of planning and creativity to work on a problem. How to let the track itself teach your dog to track? A good start can prevent all these problems.

Starting tracking by not tracking at all

The newbie trackers in class have started with something new and very interesting. Actually they start with tracking by not going tracking at all. The only thing they do is something called The Scent Box. Any issues the dog (or the handler) might have will turn up in the Scent Box. And they first start tracking when those issues are solved.

In short, the Scent Box is a small trampled area with a lot of treats. In the box is your scent. Outside there is none. The treats attract the dog to the box. They quickly learn scent discrimination. The treats are where the scent is. No treats where there is no scent. This way they build up the necessary understanding and confidence before they start actual tracking. Here is a short video introducing the concept of the Scent Box (starting 1 minute into the video):

The Scent Box is "invented" by Joanne Fleming-Plumb, a dog trainer with a long and impressive resume in tracking, obedience and defense training.

It was very interesting to see the newbies in class start with the Scent Box. You could already see the issues from each dog appear. Some were too eager, some unfocused. Some could already move on to their first track after a couple of Scent Box sessions, others are still in the box. One thing they all had in common. They made some staggering progress. Their issues were addressed, and maybe even solved, before they started with actual tracking. I am expecting some serious competition from the newcomers. This is going to be a fun season.


  1. This is so interesting. I loved the video. Any chance we will see videos of Kenzo?

  2. Teaching dogs how to solve problems on their own is such a fascinating idea. I'm always amazed at the thoughtful ways trainers come up with to reinforce creative problem solving.

    The idea of the scent box is very interesting. In the nose work class I took, the approach was to start with treats and later move to an artificial scent, like birch oil. This notion of pairing the food with the human scent right from the start looks like a strong beginning.

  3. I have always thought tracking sounded like so much fun. It's teaching the dog how to use and follow his own instincts. I have watched a lot of scent trials and scent work and I always find it so fascinating, the things dogs are capable of doing.

    Thanks for sharing the video. I haven't seen any classes like this offered her but it may be something fun to try on our own.

  4. @Deborah
    You are reading my mind :) we are working on video's with Kenzo!

    It is very interesting indeed. I am working on some scent discrimination blogs/videos with Kenzo. It is amazing what they can do by scent ... and on their own. We humans only get in the way and complicate things :)

    Please do! It is so fullfilling. It will also built Shiva's confidence. Did you see my "How to going your first track" ? Hope that helps, would love to hear about your experiences!

  5. Really interesting! Looking forward to hearing more about it as you go. :)

  6. Aha! I see what you meant by G problem solving now :)

    Tracking sounds like fun. Do you do tracking of real animals eventually or is this strictly an exercise? Georgia is a natural tracker, which worries me a little since I don't like the idea of her actually catching anything. Her nose is in the ground almost as soon as the gate is open. It can be a bit painful on our arms if she suddenly picks up a scent while on the leash! Her faves are cats and possums which is one reason I hate taking her out when it gets dark. I'm sure Kenzo is a much better behaved and more disciplined tracker than her :) Sometimes I or The Other Half will hide so she can find us. I think she quite likes that game. It's all just silly fun for us:)

  7. @Georgia
    I was in the dog-do-it-yourself-problem-solving mood when I wrote that comment on your blog, sorry for the confusion :)

    We are not going to track animals, only humans. And it is for fun only. Maybe we do some competetions but that is about it.

    When you and The Other Half are hiding so Georgia can find you is a great game. Actually you are already doing SAR :)

  8. Tracking has always fascinated me. I think that it is wonderful that you are taking on this adventure and I look forward to hearing more about it.

    I read your comment today on my post and we attend handling classes for the boys to practice on their show stuff. The classes are great and the instructor points you in the right direction. I tried showing Sherman myself but I don't have the nerves to do it, so we now have a handler show them. I wish I could get up the confidence myself to do it because it would be so rewarding! Maybe some day:)

  9. Great post, I have recently started to work with my German Sheppard to track scent. She does it all naturally, all I have to do is learn from her. I must say I learned a lot from your post. Thanks


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