Effect of Handler Knowledge of the Detection Task on Canine Search Behavior and Performance

Mallory T. DeChant, Cameron Ford, Nathaniel J. Hall

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

9 Scopus citations


Detection dogs are commonly trained and tested under conditions in which the handler or the evaluator knows the true presence or absence of a target odor. Previous research has demonstrated that when handlers are deceived and led to believe that a target odor is present, more false alerts occur. However, many detection teams operate under unknown conditions, and it remains unclear how handler knowledge (or lack thereof) of odor presence/absence influences the dog's behavior. The aim of this study was to evaluate if knowing the number of hides placed influenced detection dog performance in an applied search environment. Professional (n = 20) and sport (n = 39) detection handler-dog teams were asked to search three separate areas (area 1 had one hide, area 2 had one hide, area 3 was blank). Handlers in the Unknown Group were not told any information on the number of hides whereas the Known Group were told there was a total of two hides in the three areas. The sport Unknown Group spent a longer duration (69.04 s) searching in area 3 compared to the sport Known Group (p = 0.004). Further, sport dogs in the Unknown group looked back to the handler more frequently. When a miss did occur, dogs of both sport and professional handlers showed an increase interest in the location of the target odor compared to a comparison location. Critically, however, there was no difference in false alerts between the Known Group and Unknown Group for sport or professional handlers. In a second experiment, fourteen professional, and thirty-nine sport teams from Experiment 1 conducted an additional search double-blind and an additional search single-blind. Both sport and professional-handler dog teams had statistically similar accuracy rate under single and double blind conditions. Overall, when handlers knew the number of hides, it led to significant changes in search behavior of the detection team but did not influence the overall false alert rates.

Original languageEnglish
Article number250
JournalFrontiers in Veterinary Science
StatePublished - May 27 2020


  • behavior
  • detection dog
  • double-blind
  • handler bias
  • olfaction


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