Sniffer dogs and the smell of nightmares

Can dogs really smell if you're having a nightmare?
24 April 2018

Interview with 

Rob Hewings, UK College of Scent Detection


A dog's nose


Dogs have incredible olfactory capabilities: compared with the 4 million smell receptors in the average human nose, a dog has 300 million; and the brain region devoted to decoding smells is roughly 40 times bigger than our own. As a result, the things they can smell continue to amaze us, from bacterial infections to cancer. And now, the UK College of Scent Detection has even trained dogs to recognise the smell of nightmares. But why? Georgia Mills spoke to Rob Hewings, Head Manager at the UK College of Scent Detection to find out how they go about training a dog to learn a new smell for example a competition favourite, gun oil!

Rob - The first thing we’ll do is we’ll pair the gun oil, we’ll classically condition that scent so that the dogs knows every time I sniff gun oil something great’s going to happen. Whether it’s “I sniff gun oil, I get my toy; wow, this is like the best thing ever”. “I sniff gun oil, I get a fantastic treat; this is the best thing ever”.

We can set it up so I can put a couple of drips of gun oil in an appropriate container, get the dog to sniff it, drop a treat in, and “I sniff and I eat my treat. I sniff, I eat my treat; I sniff, I eat my treat”, and then we store that scent of gun oil in their scent library as soon as they get that association classically conditioned. And we can go all the way back to Pavlov’s bell where dogs were classically conditioned to expect food, these dogs are classically conditioned to realise that the scent of gun oil, for example, gets something great for them. It’s all on force-free friendly training - it’s all fun.

Georgia - Okay. Then basically, if they smell that any time they’ll be like: oh boy, here comes a treat?

Rob - Yeah, exactly right. Then we teach them what to do when they find gun oil; we’re just teaching them and indication because they need to know “when I sniff this scent, I need to do something for you. I need to tell my daft fat dad that I’ve found something” so we ask them to either do a freeze on all four feet on the ground staring at the contact scent, or they might sit. Or worse case scenario, or best case scenario if they find something like explosive, they need to step back a little way and stare right at the area where they’ve found it so that the handler can deal with that problem.

The first thing we do is classically condition the scent. Next of all teach them what to do when they find it: the indication which takes us a long long time time. And after the indication then we can introduce the super sexy search stuff.

Georgia - And how does the super sexy search stuff work?

Rob - We gradually, gradually build search. I use a lot of equipment; for example pots and pipes and I’ll put them in long linear lines and I’ll move the contact scent from one pipe to another, move it around, and he’ll sniff along the lines and he knows what to do when he sniffs. He knows what to do so he’ll stand with his nose in the pot and freeze.

Then we’ll add two rows, and then three rows, and then I might move the pots and pipes to different levels, different surfaces. And then, eventually, make the gun oil smaller, and smaller, and smaller so it’s just on the tip of a cotton bud - a tiny tiny amount. And you can imagine with that little bit of cotton bud, we could hide that anywhere in a room and the dog could come in and start to search in that room, and get some fantastic results.

There are facts that are out saying a dog can find one trillionth of a gram of TNT whilst he’s searching and that’s an unbelievable measurement.

Georgia - What are the various different reasons people train dogs to smell?

Roy - It can be a vast vast amount of reasons. We’ve got the enrichment, we’ve got the fact that when a dog is searching and he’s sniffing it releases dopamine in the brain, so they love it; that’s just great. So that’s your family pet dog enjoying life as much as he can enjoy it.

But lets deal with it on how dogs can help humanity. I trained an epilepsy alert dog that can give the handler 20 minutes notice upon an epileptic attack. We all know about diabetes alert but, more interestingly than that, I’m working with an excellent charity at the moment, Bravehound, which are a Scottish veterans charity and they deal with our veterans that have given so much in their lives back to us. So they’ve gone to Afghanistan, Iraq, Northern Ireland; they have given their all, and now they’re back and some of them of them suffer from PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder).

These guys have nightmares and daytime anxiety attacks and, together with Bravehound, the UK college of Scent Detection are working on a research project that involves training the dogs to recognise the scent of nightmares. And when that scent of a nightmare sparks of thought processes in the dog, so the scent of the nightmare becomes the antecedent - something that makes that dog do something - the behaviour. The dog gently gets up onto the client’s chest and every so gently licks his neck or does whatever we have trained the dog to do to appease that client. Then the consequences are the client is woken up, the nightmare stops, he’s got his best buddy alongside him, and then the dog goes back to sleep. The clients can go back to sleep with the confidence to know that if this nightmare happens again, he’ll be woken up. Some clients won’t go to sleep because of this nightmare fear and to put yourself through sleep deprivation is torture.

Georgia - Right. For these nightmares: do we have any idea what the smell of a nightmare actually is?

Rob - I would love to just put my cards on the table and say it must be some kind of mixture with cortisol for the stress hormones or adrenaline, but I think that mixture is unique to the person so the dog has to be trained on that person. What we do is we take sweat samples and the person tells us I had a dreadful nightmare last night, these are my sweat samples, and we work off those sweat samples.

Georgia - So you have an individual nightmare profile for someone. And then has this been shown then that this does work that the dog can sense the difference between a nightmare and just a normal sleep and be a nice dream?

Rob - Yeah, absolutely. Our clients in the past have shown it does work. Yes, it is successful. It’s happening in America; I’ve been across to Oregon in the USA. I’ve a charity working for me in Oregon doing exactly the same thing. And eventually, what I hope to do is share the knowledge. The UK College of Scent Detection: we’re sitting around and I think one of us, one of the brave guys in the college has got to put pen to paper and write a paper on this. We’ve got to share it.



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