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  • Writer's pictureJenny Stamm

Alert to Scent Cue

Updated: Feb 8, 2023

Service dogs must be trained in certain behaviors to help their specific disabled partner. If the behavior is triggered with a command (visual or verbal), it’s called a “task.” If the behavior is triggered via an environmental cue (a sound, a change in the partner’s body, etc.), it’s called “work.”

This is part of a series on various service dog tasks/work behaviors, their purpose, and how to train them. You can find a glossary of terms here and the whole list of behaviors covered (so far) here. There are so many behaviors and ways to train those behaviors, but I hope to cover the most important ones. If I’ve missed something, please let me know!

Alert to Scent Cue

Alerts are considered work behaviors as they are triggered by something other than a direct verbal or hand signal. These can be audible cues (such as an alarm), visual cues (such as a flashing light), or even scent cues (such as body chemistry changes when a seizure occurs) that trigger some specific behavior. An example is a dog responding to a chemical change in their partner’s body to alert to a drop in blood sugar or to notify their partner of an impending seizure.

Note: An audible cue is generally the easiest to teach, followed by a visual cue, with scent cues the most complicated to train.

In order to train a dog how to perform an alert to a scent cue, follow the below steps. Mark (clicker or “yes”) and reward for correct responses and only move onto the next step when the previous one is consistent and reliable.

1) Train a behavior that you want the alert to be (such as pawing at you, bumping you with their nose, jumping into your lap, etc.). We’ll use “Lap” as an example, but you can easily use any cue that works best for you and your dog.

a. Every dog is different and will more readily react in one way over another. Sometimes it’s easiest (and best) to work with how the dog wants to alert rather than how you want them to alert. For example, my dog prefers bumping me with his nose over pawing, so that is in more of his alerts.

2) Capture a scent at the time you want the alert (such as during a seizure or a low blood sugar episode) using either clothing worn at the time or by doing a cheek swab with a cotton swab and store them/it in an airtight container (a refrigerator-tight baggy can work in a pinch).

3) Pair the scent cue with the alert behavior by giving them a whiff of the scent (e.g. open the baggy or jar) then requesting Lap (by verbal and/or hand signal).

3) After your dog is consistently jumping into your Lap with the visual cue, request Lap without the verbal cue. Then without the hand signal.

a. Your goal here is to have your dog jump up automatically, without having to be asked for it.

b. If your dog is doing well with the request, but doesn’t seem to be getting it without the request, give them a whiff of the scent, give them up to 5 seconds to try to figure it out for themselves, then request Lap. If you do that twice in a row with failure, practice with the request at least 3 more successful times before trying again.

c. Remember that scents will fade over time, so you may need to get a refreshed scent object/sample every 1-2 weeks, depending on the air-tightness of your container.

4) Generalize this behavior by practicing in new locations (even different rooms of the house) and if your dog alerts you randomly, reward them as if it’s correct until you know whether it is or not. If you know that an episode is coming on you, you can also ask for a Lap at that time instead of getting the scent sample out.

a. When you first move to a new location, you use a new scent sample, or you have more distraction around, feel free to move back to asking for a Lap for a few times, but then try to move up to automatically giving it again. It should be faster the 2nd time, even faster the 3rd, etc.

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