Training vs Reality. A detection dog blog by Stu Phillips

Most days I have a scroll through social media before starting work and I can’t help but notice that there are more and more people getting involved with scent work and detection dog training. Most days the videos are all the same, a dog working a brick wall in Sweden, a dog working a brick wall in the USA and another dog working a brick wall in the UK.


I am huge advocate of training on walls, wheels and consoles or pots, but my fear is that people think this is normality for the detection dog world, it is not. The key word I use here is training, because training is a different world to the real working world of detection dogs.


As you will see in this video, Griff the Springer Spaniel can work a scent wheel and he can work a focus wall and scent consoles. He probably does this for one morning a month, no more. The reason I train him on these pieces of equipment is mainly for odour recognition testing and it is also something different for him as he works operationally with law enforcement agencies most days. Since January this year Griff has performed 425 operational searches for illegal tobacco with law enforcement, he is a working dog, not a social media demo dog.


My reason for posting this video and write up is because I fear handlers are relying on a TFR (trained final response) from their detection dog, influenced by trainers who do only train, trainers who have never been under pressure on a live operation to find the drugs, tobacco, cash, or firearms. Of course, it depends on what the handler is doing with their detection dog, and some might argue that my post it not relevant, especially to people who only do scent work or detection activities for fun.


Over the last 23 years of working and training dogs the biggest thing I have learned is that I must get to know my dogs. During the past 11 years this has never been so important, I must know my dogs so well that I can spot the smallest change of behaviour, because spotting that smallest change of behaviour is the difference between not identifying a concealment and law enforcement being able to make a seizure. On many occasions when I’m being followed around by a Police Officer, Customs or Trading Standards Officer they will question my observation skills and more often than not they will have totally missed a behaviour change made by one of my dogs. The main thing is, it’s me that needs to see these small changes of behaviour and nobody else. I’m asked daily, “what’s the dogs indication?”, because the perception by many is that when a detection dog has a find it must sit or stand and stare, or freeze. I tell the officers I work with, when the dog finds something, I’ll let you know. Over 75% of the finds that we have are because of the dogs displaying a small, split-second change of behaviour. If I wanted or even waited for TFR then we would not get the results we’ve had in the last 11 years.


I can train my dogs on all the equipment available to me in the world, but when it comes to real world scenarios then I can guarantee you that I haven’t trained enough and there is not a single piece of equipment that can help with my detection dog training. Working a detection dog in a hazardous room in the dark, with shattered glass on the floor, glue traps for rats scattered around and boxes stacked to make corridors is a world away from the brick wall in your back yard.

The video that accompanies this blog post shows the same dog, Griff, first in a training environment on a scent wheel and then in a live environment during a law enforcement operation. You'll see a lovely TFR on the scent wheel and in the operational environment you'll see no TFR, just changes of behaviour and the dog trying to communicate the best he can with me, that an odour he is familiar with is 2.4 metres above and he can't put his nose directly on it.

About the author

Stuart Phillips

Stuart Phillips is a multi award-winning detection dog handler, trainer and instructor. In 2009 Stuart formed B.W.Y Canine Ltd, who now provide trained and untrained detection dogs, training and consultancy services to clients in the UK and internationally. 

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BWY Canine

Formed in 2009, B.W.Y CANINE is a leading supplier of specialist detection dogs for UK and international clients. B.W.Y CANINE provides a range of sniffer dog services to a very diverse range of clients for detecting Drugs, Explosives, Firearms and Counterfeit Tobacco. Our clients include Police Services, Trading Standards, Private Companies, NHS Trusts, Oil Refineries and the 3rd largest Port Authority in the UK.

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