The way police dogs operate can be a bit of a mystery. They're able to locate bombs, drugs, or missing people just with their nose. Sometimes their sense of smell is so strong that they can even detect when a person has been in a room without leaving a physical trace. Despite these abilities, K9s don't actually have any real understanding of their work; to them, it's all a game.
These dog detectives have actually been trained in a similar way to other service dogs. Through some games and Pavlovian positive rewards, they’re taught how to undertake complicated tasks. Their actual training involves just games stacked on top of games. Most dog owners will recognise a lot of processes involved in teaching dogs how to function as K9 units. The main difference is the complexity and commitment of the training.
Police dogs can use their enhanced sense of smell to find all sorts of illicit substances and safely tell their handlers the location. However, these dogs don’t really know what it is they’re looking for. They actually think they’re out sniffing for their favourite toy, ready to have a game of tug of war with.
The training game used for these police dogs involves rewarding the dog for finding the drugs. K9 units aren't rewarded with a treat, but with a game of tug of war using their favourite toy. These dogs are training with cleanly washed towels, perfect for playing with and without a scent of its own for the dog to register. After the dog has become attached to their towel, a substance is placed inside of the towel so the dog associates the smell with their favourite toy.
When K9s are used in the field, they search out the smell of their favourite toy. They expect the end result to be a fun game, their reward for finding it! To a properly trained police dog, finding drugs is all just some hide and seek with their favourite toy.
Experts have found that a dog is capable of finding a smell that has been diluted to one part in a thousand. This makes it hard to hide a treat from them, but it is also what allows police dogs to track down suspects or missing people with little clue of their whereabouts. It takes a lot of work to teach a K9 how to hone this ability, but it all comes down to learning to sniff, sit and lay.
The dogs are first taught to recognise the very distinct smells of people. After being shown a scent, they're tasked with finding that specific scent in a room of distracting odours. This process is repeated, learning a smell, finding a smell, laying next to the smell. As it repeats, the scale of the area they're searching increases as does the distractions.
This gamer gets larger and more complicated every time. However, by the time a police dog finishes their training the entire world is one pick hide and seek game for them. They are given the scent of a missing person, then seek them out just as they did with the jar.
Training for cadaver dogs takes the same general shape as finding out any other smell, but a little different. Here, K9 units are searching for the smell of death.
The biggest problem in training a dog to sniff out bodies is finding materials to use in their training. While distinct personal smells are used for other dogs, the smell these K9s look for is very different. To teach a dog to recognise the smell of a dead body, only a dead human body will do. A dog’s nose is too sensitive, using animal parts will only train them to seek out dead animals.
Some training centres have special permission to use human body parts, hiding them in their facilities and rewarding a police dog for finding it. Others have to make do with less grisly bits of human flesh, like teeth, placentas or blood.
These dogs are trained with the same type of game and other missing person seeking dogs, but they have to be a bit more specialist. It is still a game of hide and seek, but this game could be played in demolished buildings. These dogs need to be trained to play their game in some of the worst conditions. Cadaver dogs are difficult to train, but even their job comes down to playing a game.
The most confrontational task a police dog is faced with is helping public enforcement. These dogs aren’t trained to seek out smells, but to use aggression to deal with the public. While a slightly more dangerous game, their training is still a game. It typically comes in three steps, general obedience, chasing, and biting.
Obedience is important for every K9, but especially in this job. These police dogs need to keep a calm head in crowds and anxiety heavy situations, so they have to be very obedient and well behaved. Since the dog is being raised to actually bite people, it is key that they have the self-control to let go when told.
A K9 is first trained to chase a target. A trained will deliberately antagonise and tease the dog until it chases them on cue. Once they've mastered chasing, they're then trained to chase and then bite. This bite needs to be controlled, so a dog will only do it when necessary. It needs to be a bite to incapacitate, not to maim. This training is very delicate. Training a dog to be aggressive and rewarding aggression has to be balanced with control. These dogs are still learning through a game, but a more violent one.
Most of the things that K9 dogs do seem impressive, but they're really just elaborate games. These dogs are highly disciplined, but like all dogs, they're mainly interested in playing. Games of hide and seek can be used to find bombs, drugs, or missing people, but to a dog, it is still just hide and seek. These exercises are a great example of how much an intelligent dog can do with the right training. While they achieve big things, police dogs are still just dogs having fun.
By: Jordan Ashley
Jordan is an experienced author who enjoys writing about all things dogs. He loves all animals and when he is not working he spends his time curled up with his two dogs playing video games, and maybe enjoying a craft beer.