How to Turn Any Dog Into a Detection Dog

I had a great response to my article about Scent Detection Dogs for more on that click here

And, I have been asked to expound on the training of a detection dog.

First and foremost let me say that I am not and “expert”.  Although I have done tracking and some scent detection work in the past, I have not had the training that others in the field have and the performance of scent work is truly a science.

If you are serious about training your own scent detection dog, then I suggest you find a trainer in your area that can help you attain your specific goals.

Dogs can be taught to find, of course, drugs, explosives, fire arms, and fire accelerants for law enforcement and fire departments.

But dogs can also detect

  • Cancer
  • Mold
  • Termites
  • Bed Bugs
  • Currency
  • Mobile Phones
  • Human remains (even ancient burial sites can be located by a dog’s nose)
  • Endangered species
  • Precious gems
  • Produce and Agricultural items
  • And, even bootleg DVDs

And, probably almost anything else you could imagine!

Nose of dogObviously not all dogs can do this kind of work.  The dog has to have good obedience, be able to be off leash in wooded areas (without chasing wildlife or anything else), have a very high prey drive (desire to play and chase), and be able to work alone, methodically, and completely on his own without the help of his handler for very long periods of time without reward.

In essence these dogs live to hunt and use their noses and don’t become frustrated or give up easily, some of these dogs will hunt until they are downright exhausted.  After all, it may take a long time to find the item if it is even there at all (remember not all vehicles searched for drugs, have drugs in them).   And, border control dogs search for hours at a time with minimal breaks.

Any Dog Can Benefit From This Kind of Training

Well, maybe not ANY dog, but most dogs have noses that work to some degree (although I have a dog that has a strange nose condition where she can barely smell) and some dogs have little to no prey drive.

Although prey drive can be built in most dogs! For help with the initial building of excitement into your toys click here, you will need a high drive dog for this to work!

And to use this new found prey drive to help with your obedience skills click here (this will help you too).

So once your dog lives for the toy (or toys if you are lucky you can use many so one toy; say the tennis ball on a walker at an old folks home, won’t upset the dog and keep him from working).

Step One

Tease your dog with that toy, let him chase it and retrieve it for more on how to tease your dog appropriately click on the link.    The toy should become the focal point of your dog’s life, this may take a month or more!

Woman walking with dogStep Two

Find a wooded area.  This is where your dog needs to be off leash, for help getting your dog off leash click here  because your dog will need the ability to search.  You can carefully use a retractable leash but be careful, they can cause physical damage or you can hurt your dog or stop him from hunting and doing what he is suppose to do by limiting his leash!

Now hold your dog by his collar and toss his leash into the woods.

Keep an eye on where it approximately lands, just in case you have to go retrieve it.

And, throwing it down wind will help your dog pick up and follow its scent.


Stand quietly.

We humans are sooo very impatient!  You will want to move closer or get his attention and point him in the right direction of you see the toy.

But you will be hindering his ability to work on his own.

Real detection dogs need to work completely on their own.  Their handlers don’t know when there is real explosives or drugs or bedbugs, it is doing him a disservice to help him in training or he will never be able to work alone.

In the beginning, I toss it so it is fairly easy to find.

I step back and just let him search.  Often I add a helpful “You can do it” and add the word “Search” so he knows for more on teaching the initial search click here for my fun first game on Nose Work .  This, in my opinion teaches them to look around and search.  That way when you ask them they are looking and sniffing.

If a toy is more important, they give up caring for food.  And, I never use food out in the real world in the woods.  I don’t want them eating something of unknown origin. But my dogs are so very toy motivated from all the playing and teasing that is what they are searching for!

Don’t move closer to the item, don’t lure him, just let him work; alone, the way he would if you weren’t there and he wasn’t relying on you.  Because some day you’ll have to trust him and his changes in behavior to indicate a find.   And, he will false indicate if he thinks he needs you to help.

Step Three

Begin to hide the toy in places that are more difficult to find.

At first I toss it out, hold him but let him see it ricochet around the woods.  Occasionally he sees it land, sometimes he doesn’t.

Now I am going to hide his eyes or put him on a down stay while I chuck it into the woods so he can’t see it at all, I may glance so I know approximately where it is.

THEN I send him basically right after it while watching him hunt and still not helping (remember your help hinders).

Step Four

Make it more and more difficult.

Chuck the toy in further so he can’t really hear it anymore.

Hide it under something then get him and send him in to find it.

And, patiently let him work

This Work

Master and her obedient (German shepherd) dogThis constant hunting and searching is exhausting!  This is where the average pet will become tired and exhausted from playing this game (and of course this is what you want).

You are teaching him to find something and he is using his mind and his body and he is excited!

For something that seems so easy, this is so taxing!

Step Five

Now take this little game to other places and more sets of wooded areas.

Do the same, toss it easy to find first then make it the game of search and find.

Always praise and reward for a job well done.

My dog’s reward is that I toss it immediately for him when he brings it to me, this keeps him motivated!


Eventually when he is finding the toy or toys then I can begin to add a scent to his toys.

If I want him to find drugs, in his mind, his toys smell like drugs.

The addition of scent makes the process of finding easier, but the point is to build a dog that works on his own with little outward reward.

This is a Great Game

I love taking a few toys outside and hiding them, then taking my dog out and giving him the search command.

I can comfortably sit in a chair and chill out while he methodically sniffs and searches for his favorite toy.

And, sometimes my idea of a good time with my dog is a game that takes little to no effort from me.

I can even give the toys to the kids and have them hide them (as long as I watch and make sure the places are appropriate).

So this is a great game that can be played all year round, by the whole family!.

NOTE: For more great training ideas like this for creating awesome obedience, check out our Hands Off Training program that shows you to get your dog to listen and obey you using clever tricks and games like this.

Hands Off Dog Training Formula

Start Calming Down Your Over Excited Dogs Today!

Your First Lesson’s FREE:

Sign up below and we’ll email you your first “Training For Calm” lesson to your inbox in the next 5 minutes.


  1. loraine pace says:

    great article.It takes great trust in your dog to go into the woods and let him off leash.


    Minette Reply:

    He loves his ball and his toys more than anything else he might ever find!!


  2. Michael says:

    I really appreciate your short email sttivles


  3. Miglena says:

    I am from Europe, Bulgaria. Thank you so much. You was so helpful to me and friends I have with dogs.
    All the best to you,
    Sincerely from Europe.


  4. Kathleen says:

    I certainly don’t want to throw my cell phone for my dog to fetch. How do you teach a dog to find a cell phone?


    Minette Reply:

    Find an old phone you no longer use or ask friends and family if a cell phone is what you want to use. However most of us start with toys first


  5. S says:

    Are there any small breeds/cross breed dog that could b a good detection dog if u train whilst young and its energetic wiv a favourite toy you could practice wiv for e.g money etc if you have the right stuff u want to practice it to learn to sniff out? If a dog has a smaller nose is it’s sense of sell weaker even if it’s hyper for such a small dog 🐶


    Minette Reply:

    size doesn’t matter


Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *