Home » Library » Teach » Special Situations

Clicker Training a Narcotics Dog

Filed in - Special Situations

Write a short piece on training a narcotics detection dog using operant conditioning," said Karen Pryor. Easier said than done. I apologise for the information glossed over or not included. I hope to be able to give you a feel for the way I have trained my dogs and hopefully allow you to formulate some fun work ideas with your own dogs.

Train the Behaviour Response

The required response is varied and will depend on the type of scent you are searching for and the areas in which you are working. The two categories required at Heathrow Airport are:

  • Passive Response - sit - used on passengers and their hand baggage.
  • Pro-active Response - dig, retrieve, bark - used in all non-passenger areas. Each has advantages, I will use my current dog, Tonka - a German Shorthaired Pointer, as my example.

As Tonka is employed to search travelling members of the public, I wanted a passive sit as the alert. I conditioned him to a clicker and shaped a sit in the present position i.e. in front of and facing me. Once the correct sit position was being offered consistently and quickly, I attached a cue - a controlled substance, Cocaine. In the presence of the cocaine the sit response was rewarded.

The training so far is then generalised to new training areas. This teaches Tonka that the rules of the game apply anywhere he finds himself.

The next stage is to teach Tonka to cope with a moving target, I incorporate this into a game of chase. He chases me, when I stop he sits in the alert position and is rewarded. The cue and behaviour sequence is then transferred onto people other than myself, from this stage I will no longer carry the cue or reward an alert on myself.

Review of Training

  • Train the required behaviour (sit)
  • Attach a cue (scent of narc.)
  • Generalise training so far, all areas, moving target, other people.

Proof the Cue

It is obviously important, when dealing with something as sensitive as searching members of the general public, that Tonka learns not to offer the sit behaviour without the presence of the cue. There are many stimuli which a passive search dog may perceive as being predictors of an impending reward. For example hands in pockets, non travellers who have mixed with an arriving flight (scent discrimination), the list goes on. Each stimuli will in turn have to be extinguished.

The dog, if he chooses, is allowed to alert without the presence of the scent cue. This behaviour receives a neutral response, neither pleasant or unpleasant. When the dog finally makes the correct choice to work on he is rewarded with quiet verbal praise.

Now the basics are firmly in place and it is time to increase the number of people the dog is required to search. This is done slowly and the number of people searched before the cue/reward is found is varied.

Transferring the Stimulus

Once the behaviour is established with the initial scent cue, additional scents can be added. My dog is trained to alert on Cannabis (marijuana), Cocaine, Heroin and Amphetamine Sulphate.

It is a straight forward task to encourage the dog to offer the sit behaviour for the new scent, once it has been rewarded it will be offered again. The dogs are very quick to learn that the same rules apply to the new scent.

Final Stage

The final stage is to teach the dog that the rules of the game apply wherever the cue is found and in any number of situation.. We do this by varying the training scenario, but always structuring the training to allow the dog to succeed. The end result is a very confident Narcotics Detection Dog.


Although this is a very brief account of how to train a Narc. Detection Dog I hope that it has given you some ideas on training your own dogs to carry out some neat tricks and have fun at the same time. Try using peppermint or vanilla essence.

About Jane Sharp

Jane Sharp hails from England and has been involved with dog training activities both as a sport and professionally since 1973. She has owned and trained dogs from a variety of breeds, including Belgian Shepherd Dog or Mainois, Border Collie, Boxers, Flat-Coated Retriever, German Shepherd Dog, German Shorthaired Pointer and Labrador, and has also trained cats, horses, rats and chickens.

Since 1987, Jane has been a Narcotics Detection Dog Handler for H.M Customs and Excise, working at London's Heathrow Airport. Trained by the Royal Air Force, Jane has experience as a "Pro-active" and a "Passive" handler. She has also served as Dog Unit Manager and Trainer.

Jane is also a John Rogerson Associate, and is involved with behavior counseling and pet dog training.

Post new comment

  • Allowed HTML tags: <a> <em> <strong> <cite> <code> <ul> <ol> <li> <dl> <dt> <dd> <embed> <object> <div>
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
  • Glossary terms will be automatically marked with links to their descriptions. If there are certain phrases or sections of text that should be excluded from glossary marking and linking, use the special markup, [no-glossary] ... [/no-glossary]. Additionally, these HTML elements will not be scanned: a, abbr, acronym, code, pre.
  • Each email address will be obfuscated in a human readable fashion or (if JavaScript is enabled) replaced with a spamproof clickable link.

More information about formatting options

To prevent automated spam submissions leave this field empty.