Tag Archives: detection dogs

What Makes A Good Working Dog? Canine ‘Aptitude Test’ Might Offer Clues

The canine labor market is diverse and expansive. Assistance dogs may be trained to work with the visually or hearing impaired, or with people in wheelchairs. Detection dogs may be trained to sniff out explosives, narcotics or bedbugs. Other pups even learn to jump out of helicopters on daring rescue missions.

Despite the wide variety of working roles available for man’s best friend, those jobs can be tough to fill, since not every dog will qualify. Even among dogs specifically bred to be assistance dogs, for example, only about 50 percent that start a training program will successfully complete it, while the rest go on to be very well-trained family pets.

As a result, the wait list for a trained assistance dog can be up to two years.

Working Dogs

Shelby Smith was matched with her assistance dog Picasso through the nonprofit Canine Companions for Independence. UA researcher Evan MacLean is looking for ways to help organizations like Canine Companions identify promising assistance dogs sooner. (Photo: Bob Demers/UANews)

Evan MacLean, director of the Arizona Canine Cognition Center at the University of Arizona, is exploring ways to identify the best dogs for different jobs – before they start the long and expensive training process — by looking at their cognitive abilities.

He is lead author of a new study in Frontiers in Veterinary Science that looks at whether canines’ cognitive abilities can help predict their success as working dogs.

While a dog’s physical characteristics and temperament are often considered when thinking about which dog will be right for a given job, cognition is an area that’s received far less attention.

“People have really focused on temperament and how reactive a dog is to certain things in the environment,” said MacLean, assistant professor in the UA School of Anthropology. “What we were interested in was the fact that these dogs also face cognitive challenges. They have to learn all these things in the course of their training, and they have to be able to flexibly solve problems when things go wrong.”

MacLean’s study focuses on two types of working dogs: assistance dogs in training, which will go on to be paired with people with disabilities, and explosive detection dogs working for the U.S. Navy.

MacLean and his colleagues looked at the performance of both types of dogs on 25 different cognitive measures by using a battery of game-based tests, like hiding and finding objects and other forms of canine play.

What they found: A different set of skills predict whether a dog will be a good detection dog or a good assistance dog.

In the case of assistance dogs, social skills — including the ability to pay close attention to and maintain eye contact with humans — appear to be especially important. In detection dogs, good short-term memory and sensitivity to human body language, such as pointing gestures, were the best predictors of success.

“Dog jobs are just about as diverse as human jobs are,” MacLean said. “People sometimes think of working dogs as this general category of dogs that have jobs in society, but they actually have to do really, really different things, and because these jobs are so diverse, we didn’t expect that there was going to be one litmus test for what would make a good dog. It’s like if you think about aptitude testing with people – there are certain questions that will tell you something about one job but not another.”

The study involved 164 dogs from the California-based organization Canine Companions for Independence, which trains assistance dogs, and 222 dogs from the Navy.

The researchers tested the assistance dogs at 18 months old, when they first started a full-time, intensive six-month training program. Dogs in the study were considered “successful” based on whether or not they ultimately graduated from the training. Through cognitive testing, MacLean and his colleagues were able to predict the top 25 percent of graduates with 86 percent accuracy.

The success of the Navy dogs, whose training is ongoing and not marked by a single graduation date, was measured based on trainers’ records of the dogs’ performance on training exercises, as well as questionnaires with people who trained or deployed with the dogs.

MacLean’s findings suggest that cognition could be considered alongside temperament and physicality to predict working dog success.

If organizations that train dogs could better predict which dogs are most worth the investment, it could save tens of thousands of dollars in unnecessary training costs and also ensure that people in need get the right dogs faster, MacLean said.

He and his colleagues are now working on determining if cognitive testing could be informative even earlier — when a dog is just 8 weeks old. They also are looking at whether these skills have a genetic basis that could be targeted in breeding programs.

“One of the most exciting parts of all this is that it tells us cognition does something in animals,” MacLean said. “We study these abstract questions about how animals think about the world and how they solve problems, but there aren’t always a lot of situations where you can say, ‘Why does that matter? What does it allow an animal to actually do?’ This is some of the first evidence that suggests that these processes that we measure, which differ between individual dogs, have some real consequences related to something that’s quite worthy in society.”

Source:  University of Arizona media release

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New sniffer dog research

A team of scientists has provided the first evidence that dogs can learn to categorise odours and apply this to scents they have never encountered before.

The research reveals how the animals process odour information and is likely to have a profound impact on how we train sniffer dogs.

Sniffer dog research
Training a sniffer dog (photo courtesy of University of Lincoln)

The study, led by researchers at the University of Lincoln, UK, and funded by the Office of Naval Research and the Office of Naval Research (ONR) Global in the US,
found that dogs are able to categorise odours on the basis of their common properties. This means that dogs can behave towards new smells from a category in the same way as smells that they already know.

As humans, we do not have to experience the smell of every fish to know that it smells ‘fishy’; instead we use our previous experience of fish and categorise the new smell in the correct way. The new research, published in the journal Scientific Reports, reveals that dogs can do the same.

Researchers separated dogs into two groups and then trained them to respond to 40 different olfactory stimuli – or smells – half of which were accelerant-based. The dogs in the experimental group were trained (through a reward) to offer a behavioural response, for example “sit”, when they were presented with smells which fit a specific category, but to withhold that response for other non-category stimuli. The remaining dogs were trained on the same stimuli but were not rewarded for the categorical variable.

The researchers found that only the dogs in the category group were able to learn the task. Even more significantly, when presented with completely unknown smells, the dogs were able to place them in the correct category and to remember the odours six weeks later.

The researchers concluded that this means that dogs can apply information from previous experience to novel – or new – scents in order to apply an appropriate response.

Dr Anna Wilkinson from the School of Life Sciences at the University of Lincoln said: “As humans, we are very good at assigning different things to different categories; for example, we know something is a chair because there are identifiable aspects such as a flat space to sit on, or four legs. Categorising odours works the same way, and we were keen to discover whether dogs would be able to learn those skills.  

“This was an extremely hard task for the dogs as the odour stimuli varied in strength, so animals were never trained on exactly the same stimulus. As such, it is even more impressive that the experimental group dogs learned and retained the information.

“These findings add substantially to our understanding of how animals process olfactory information and suggest that use of this method may improve performance of working animals.”

The findings have implications in the field of working dog training as it implies that it may be possible to improve the way we train detection dogs.

Source:  University of Lincoln press release

How the opioid crisis is affecting dogs

The USA is the midst of an opioid crisis – large numbers of people are misusing and becoming addicted to opioids, which can include heroin, prescription pain medications and fentanyl (a synthetic).  The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that an average of 91 Americans die each day due to opioid overdose.

Veterinarians treating companion animals have to be aware of the symptoms of opioid overdose because, unfortunately, there are cases of accidental ingestion.  Sometimes the pet owners are unwilling to admit that their pet may have eaten opioid drugs, which of course is admission that they may be an addict themselves.

Drugs are, of course, big business and it’s up to law enforcement to help catch dealers who are making and selling the drugs.  Police dogs and detection dogs are part of that fight and they are often exposed to opioids in the course of detection work.

This video is for veterinarians and dog handlers to understand how to catch the signs of an opioid overdose in a dog and the treatment with reversal drugs like Narcan which are needed to save them.

and this is some of the news coverage about police dog handlers carrying reversal kits along with other first aid supplies.

Kathleen Crisley, specialist in dog massage, rehabilitation and nutrition/food therapy, The Balanced Dog, Christchurch, New Zealand

Bear’s best friends

Detection dog for bears

Camas, of Working Dogs for Conservation, on the job in the Centennial Mountains.  Photo credit:  Julie Larsen Maher

A recently released study from WCS (Wildlife Conservation Society) details a new method using  “detection dogs,” genetic analysis, and scientific models to assess habitat suitability for bears in an area linking the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem (GYE) to the northern U.S. Rockies.

The method, according to the authors, offers an effective, non-invasive approach to the collection of data that could play a vital role in the further recovery of grizzly bears during the coming decades.

“The use of detection dogs allowed us to quantify and map key areas of habitat for black bears in the Centennial Mountains located along the Idaho-Montana border west of Yellowstone National Park,” said Jon Beckmann, WCS Scientist and lead author of the study. “Black bears are a proxy species useful for predicting likely grizzly bear habitat. With recovery, a larger grizzly bear population needs room to roam and to reconnect with other populations. The Centennial Mountains region of the U.S. northern Rockies can provide room and safe linkages— critical to connecting the bear population in the GYE area to others further north and west”. 

During the study, two Labrador retrievers and two German shepherds owned and trained by Working Dogs for Conservation, located 616 scat samples of black bears and 24 of grizzly bears (identified by DNA extraction and analysis) in the 2500 square kilometer (965 square mile) study area.

“Dogs excel at searching for multiple scents at once, even if one is far more common than the other,” according to Aimee Hurt, Working Dogs for Conservation co-founder. “In this case, the dogs easily alerted us to a multitude of black bear scat, while also readily locating the rare grizzly bear scat, resulting in a multitude of data points and a robust model.”

“We recognize that black bears do not always utilize the landscape in precisely the same manner as grizzly bears,” said Beckmann. “But given the paucity of grizzly bears in the study area—especially  during the years of our study—our  approach, data, and model have value to grizzly bear conservation and management. This is especially true given that black bears and grizzly bears in the GYE are known to utilize very similar habitats spatially, but at different times.” 

Plugging the scat sample location data into their scientific model, the scientists examined the landscape with respect to habitat parameters, private lands, public land management and human activity in the area. Results of modeling provided insight into bear habitat use and resource selection patterns.

Among the findings it was determined that distance to roads matters; bears use habitat that is farther from roads, and when road density increased within 4 kilometers of a location bears used that habitat less. Bears also used a habitat less if it were high elevation, or privately owned. With this information land managers, land trusts, and others will be better informed to make bear habitat management and conservation decisions. This study may also inform human-bear conflict avoidance, and so help people and bears better co-exist.

“Using Detection Dogs and RSPF Models to Assess Habitat Suitability for Bears in Greater Yellowstone,” appears in the current edition of Western North American Naturalist. Co-authors include: Jon P. Beckmann of WCS; Lisette P. Waits of the Department of Fish and Wildlife, University of Idaho; Aimee Hurt and Alice Whitelaw of Working Dogs for Conservation; and Scott Bergen of Idaho Department of Fish and Game.

WCS’s work in this region is supported by the Turner Foundation, Wilburforce Foundation, Brainerd Foundation, The New York Community Trust, and the Bureau of Land Management–Dillon, Montana office.

Source:  Wildlife Conservation Society media release

 

 

New products to help train dogs for explosive detection

The Department of Homeland Security (USA) has been conducting independent assessments and developing products to assist canine explosive teams.

An explosive detection dog in action. Photo courtesy of the Department of Homeland Security

An explosive detection dog in action. Photo courtesy of the Department of Homeland Security

One of the biggest challenges in the training and testing of canine teams results from the explosives materials themselves – especially new homemade explosives. Due to the potential safety risks of explosives, only specially trained federal explosive technicians can provide the material for training and testing. This not only limits training times and opportunities, but also increases the costs since the technicians must travel to a central location for multi-day training events.

Researchers have been developing a new training aid that matches the scent of explosive materials but poses no danger to the trainers, the canines or the environment. It is currently undergoing field testing within federal, state and local canine detection teams. A key objective was to for the canines to react to the non-hazardous, non-explosive training aid the same way they would actual explosive material.

“It doesn’t go boom if you drop it, hit it or light it on fire,” said Canine Program Manager, Don Roberts. “That allows teams to take the training from the very controlled environment we currently have to train in for safety reasons and put it in a real-world scenario – for example putting the odor in a cinderblock and seeing if the dog can find it. We can put this new training aid in car wheel wells, airports etc., without fear that they’ll explode.”

S&T’s partner, Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab, developed the new training aid, Roberts said. After a number of trials, they’re ready to transfer the technology to the Transportation Security Administration, the primary customer for the aid. The bigger news, according to Roberts, is that the product was also designed to fit first responders’ needs as well.

“The design price point and usability factor has been geared to the first responder community – state and local explosive detection dogs who don’t have the regular training support TSA has. They are the ones who really need these products,” said Roberts.

The training aids are made to be thrown away after being used. These aids can last for over eight hours and can be stored up to two years. The scent can be dissolved in water, as opposed to the previous explosive training materials, which required special handling, transport and had to be stored in a bunker.

Next steps for this program include developing a second scent for training the dogs, and licensing so that the products can be produced outside of the federal government.

Source:  Department of Homeland Security media release

Read my other blog posts about explosives detector dogs:

Canine remote control?

Just how far will technology take us in interacting with dogs?

Jeff Miller and David Bevly of the Department of Mechanical Engineering, at Auburn University, Auburn, Alabama, have devised a system to issue cues by remote control.  They’ve published their results in an issue of the International Journal of Modelling, Identification and Control which is due out soon.

Their system provides guidance to the dog using an embedded command module with vibration and tone generation capabilities. Tests in a structured and non-structured environment show obedience accuracy up to almost 98%.

The system is designed with serious uses in mind – it’s not being designed for the lazy dog owner who doesn’t want to spend time or interact with their dog.

The team has demonstrated that a search & rescue or other working dog can be trained to respond “virtually flawlessly” to remote control tones and vibrations as if they were immediate commands from a human handler.

A detector dog in action

A detector dog in action

Directing detection dogs in areas where human handlers cannot access is one such serious application of the technology.

Source:  EurekAlert! press release

Training dogs for bomb detection

Unfortunately, we live in a world where people still build bombs to kill and maim.  Dogs have traditionally been trained to detect explosive devices by learning to detect specific odours and then to signal their handler.

A detection dog in action

A detection dog in action

The process of training a bomb detection dog is slow because the dog is trained to identify each scent individually.  In countries like Afghanistan and Iraq, homemade devices are made using mixtures of explosives.

With a grant from the Office of Naval Research, researchers at the University of Lincoln (UK) will investigate whether explosive detection dogs are capable of learning by categorisation, a cognitive process that is thought to play a major role in the way humans and animals naturally process new information.

The study will explore whether dogs can be trained to recognise the significance of a group of odours, rather than having to learn each scent individually.

Researcher Helen Zulch says, “In this study we will be testing whether a dog can be taught a general rule for a group of odours and then apply that knowledge to a new situation, involving scents it has never encountered. We know dogs can categorise visual stimuli, so the aim of this study is to find out whether dogs are able to categorise odours in a similar manner.”

If successful, the research will underpin new training approaches that will accelerate the process of training detector dogs.

Source:  University of Lincoln media release