Original Paper

Animal Cognition

, Volume 14, Issue 3, pp 387-394

First online:

Open Access This content is freely available online to anyone, anywhere at any time.

Handler beliefs affect scent detection dog outcomes

  • Lisa LitAffiliated withDepartment of Neurology, University of California at DavisM.I.N.D. Institute, University of California at Davis Email author 
  • , Julie B. SchweitzerAffiliated withDepartment of Psychiatry and Behavioral Science, University of California at Davis
  • , Anita M. OberbauerAffiliated withDepartment of Animal Science, University of California at Davis


Our aim was to evaluate how human beliefs affect working dog outcomes in an applied environment. We asked whether beliefs of scent detection dog handlers affect team performance and evaluated relative importance of human versus dog influences on handlers’ beliefs. Eighteen drug and/or explosive detection dog/handler teams each completed two sets of four brief search scenarios (conditions). Handlers were falsely told that two conditions contained a paper marking scent location (human influence). Two conditions contained decoy scents (food/toy) to encourage dog interest in a false location (dog influence). Conditions were (1) control; (2) paper marker; (3) decoy scent; and (4) paper marker at decoy scent. No conditions contained drug or explosive scent; any alerting response was incorrect. A repeated measures analysis of variance was used with search condition as the independent variable and number of alerts as the dependent variable. Additional nonparametric tests compared human and dog influence. There were 225 incorrect responses, with no differences in mean responses across conditions. Response patterns differed by condition. There were more correct (no alert responses) searches in conditions without markers. Within marked conditions, handlers reported that dogs alerted more at marked locations than other locations. Handlers’ beliefs that scent was present potentiated handler identification of detection dog alerts. Human more than dog influences affected alert locations. This confirms that handler beliefs affect outcomes of scent detection dog deployments.


Dog Canine Scent detection Social cognition Interspecies communication