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How Do Police Dogs Track Scents?

Police or scent tracking dogs are an essential part of a police unit. Police dogs are trained to assist their human colleagues in searching for people and suspect odors, drugs and illicit substances, bombs, missing people, and even corpses.
All dogs are known to have a very powerful sense of smell, but some dogs have stronger noses than others. German shepherds are often seen as the stereotypical “police dog” because of their versatility. However, Bloodhounds, Basset Hounds, Beagles, Labrador Retrievers, and English Springer Spaniels are other common police dog breeds.

How do police dogs follow scents?

As we mentioned before, police dogs have many different duties. But how are each of those duties executed?

  • People and suspect odors – police dogs track the scent of a suspect, aid in finding the location of the suspect. This is typically done by giving the dog a belonging of the suspect to get their scent. Alternatively, police may bring the dog to a location in which the suspect was known to frequently be at, such as their home or vehicle.
  • Drugs and illicit substances – police dogs locate drugs and illicit substances in all kinds of places. This training takes many months of training for both the handler and the dog. Common methods used are treat or toy association with the targeted scents.Air Purifier for Pets - Pet Odor Eliminator - german shepard
  • Bombs – these police dogs are trained to sniff for bombs or other explosive devices. This job is very dangerous for both humans and dogs, so it is important that their training is thorough and complete. Typically, bomb dogs will have a “passive alert” which means they will not become scratch or disturb the device once they have found it. They must be trained to alert their handler in a different way as to not endanger himself and his human colleagues.
  • Missing people – police dogs are given a missing person’s belongings to help track down the person.
  • Corpses – these dogs are specially trained to track the smell of decomposition. This is often used in the instance of natural disaster, when there are many bodies hidden under rubble.

Dog’s noses have over 300 million olfactory receptors (the receptor which allows for smell), compared to a human nose which only has 6 million. They also have a larger portion of their brain dedicated to smell which is about 40 times larger than a human brain’s “smelling department.” So, dogs really were built for sniffing!


The amount of time it takes to train a dog varies widely on the type of dog and the scent in which they intend to be tracking. As we mentioned before, some kinds of training, like bomb and explosive sniffing, takes longer due to safety precautions. A very smart and determined dog who is training to sniff a person’s scent may only need 3-4 weeks of training whereas another dog may need several months of training in order to keep their team safe.
Police dogs must undergo regular obedience training before they can enter any kind of specialty training program. This is to ensure that the dogs are ready to be professionals and work on crime scenes where responsibility and respect is expected of them. Some police departments have their own obedience programs that train dogs with specific commands in other languages so civilians cannot command their dogs.
Once obedience training has been completed, more specific scent training can be started. Generally speaking, the steps taken in these courses are:Air Purifier for Pets - Pet Odor Eliminator - police training

  1. Training to recognize a target smell. This will also mean training them to discern between similar smells.
  2. Training to single out the target scent among many other scents.
  3. Training to track the scent when it has moved from one location to another. This starts with small distances, like from one corner of a room to another, and progresses to more complicated scenarios.
  4. Training to complete their job with distractions. Much like a service dog, police dogs will have to fulfill their duties in a busy world that does not pause for them.
  5. Real-life training. This is often done in airports, schools, and border checks which are less high-stakes locations that allow for more time and leniency as well as fewer distractions.
  6. Police dogs will continue to train throughout their career to keep up with any new training techniques and to refresh their previous training.

Police dog training is a process that has been developed and perfected over many years, and it will continue to be improved in the future. Dogs are amazing and using their awesome abilities has proven to be helpful to law enforcement in many ways.

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