Training domestic dogs (Canis lupus familiaris) on a novel discrete trials odor-detection task

Nathaniel J. Hall, David W. Smith, Clive D.L. Wynne

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

26 Scopus citations


Dogs can be trained to reliably detect a wide variety of odors. Little scientific research, however, has been published on the rate at which dogs can learn to detect an odor, the variables influencing this rate, and how this rate may vary across dogs. In two experiments, we developed a procedure that allows the study of individual differences in the acquisition of an odor detection task in dogs. We demonstrate that differential reinforcement can be used to train a rooting response in a bin under the control of a novel odorant in discrete trials. In initial testing, we showed that as a group, twenty dogs performed significantly above chance within 24 trials, with two dogs meeting an individual criterion for above chance performance. In a follow-up experiment, we compared burying accessible food inside the target bin (with inaccessible food in the non-target bin) to the experimenter delivering food by hand following correct responses. We assessed the effect of this procedural variation on both an odor discrimination and a visual discrimination. Dogs learned faster on the odor task when the experimenter delivered food, compared to when food was placed directly in the bins. Performance on the visual task was lower than on the odor task and was unaffected by how food was delivered. Our discrete-trials procedure with experimenter-delivered food may be a useful method to study rapid acquisition of an odor-detection in dogs.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)218-228
Number of pages11
JournalLearning and Motivation
Issue number4
StatePublished - Nov 2013
Externally publishedYes


  • Detection
  • Discrete-trials
  • Domestic dogs
  • Olfaction
  • Training

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Health(social science)
  • Neuropsychology and Physiological Psychology
  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Education
  • Developmental and Educational Psychology


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