Clive D. L. Wynne, Ph.D., Pr.
Arizona State University
Dog Olfactory Learning and Cognition
Odor perception is one of the most complex forms of perceptual behavior. Although relatively under-developed in our own species, it is the most developed sense in canines, and therefore dogs are an excellent species in which to study basic processes of smell cognition and learning. In this talk I will review what is known about the capacity and limitations of dog olfactory learning. Dogs inherited their sensitive noses from their ancestors, wolves, which use their noses to find prey and communicate with each other. Trained detection dogs are called upon to locate contraband, explosives, missing people, and other things, in ways that are similar to how their ancestors hunted. Relatively little research has addressed how wolves and dogs use scent in communication, but both subspecies are observed scent marking, scent rubbing, and scent rolling. These behaviors likely play a role in social communication. Claims have been made that wild canids have more sensitive olfactory systems than dogs, but, although it is plausible that in the wild any lack of olfactory function would be selected against, direct evidence for differences between dogs and wild canids in olfaction is lacking. The training of olfactory detection dogs involves several different basic behavioral principles. Classical or Pavlovian conditioning is involved when trainers pair a scent with an attractive consequence, like the opportunity to chase a ball. In Pavlovian conditioning, the novelty of the to-be-conditioned stimulus is important, and I shall report experiments we have carried out on this topic. Operant conditioning comes into play when a trainer shapes a specific desired target response that serves as the dog’s indication that it has found the target odor. In operant conditioning, the question of how and when reinforcers are delivered becomes of paramount importance. Context is very important too, and it is very difficult to maintain the desired target behavior in dogs that seldom detect targets—as must be the case for explosives detection dogs working outside war zones. The behavioral and biological principles involved in the nose of the dog are well-established in common laboratory species like rats, but, notwithstanding how important detection dogs are to human safety, much less research has directly engaged with our canine “best friends.”