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What Canine Breed is the Best for Detection?

The growing use of canine for detection highlights their versatility. However, presents a unique question which breed makes the best detection canine? This topic has long been debated. This article presents scientific data in an attempt to settle this discussion.

Canines are utilized to perform a wide variety of scent detection tasks with great success in explosives, drugs, cancer detection, tracking humans for search and rescue, and tracking animals for hunting and conservation (Polger et al., 2016). Certain breeds have been bred to excel in such olfaction-based tasks, and while the acuity with which they are able to perform them is impressive, clearly distinguishing the most effective breed requires greater systematic and comparative study.

A study conducted in 2014 compared the detection performance of four breeds German Shepherds, Labrador Retrievers, Terriers, and English Cocker Spaniels. Performance data associated with odor discrimination tasks was analyzed using a generalized linear mixed models (GLMM) with binominal distribution and logit link. The study found that German Shepherds were superior to other breeds with higher accuracy in giving correct indications than the other three breeds, with terriers performing the worst (Adamkiewicz et al., 2014).

Similar results were found in a 1997 study conducted at the Swedish Dog Training Centre. The research specifically looked at the comparison between German Shepherds & Labrador retrievers. German shepherds scored significantly higher for drive (drive is the impulse or motivation to perform a behavior or action) and sharpness. Whereas, Labrador Retrievers scored higher on nerve stability and reacted less to gun fire. It was also found that Labradors had a greater tendency to be distracted and their stamina was further from ideal (Wilson and Sundgren, 1997). When reviewing the success rates of these two breeds at the Swedish Dog Training Centre; Labrador Retrievers had a 28% success rate for becoming a detection canine whereas German Shepherds had a 29% success rate (Wilson and Sundgren, 1997).

The focus on breed selection in itself is misplaced as the behavioral and physical traits what truly impact performance. Programs that limit evaluation to only one or two breeds restrict the program’s success (Sinn et al., 2010). Programs typically develop these types of operations based-off of organizational traditions (Rocznik et al., 2015). However, to maximize efficiency of identifying suitable detection canine programs must look at important physical and behavioral traits for specific detection tasks (Jamieson et al., 2017).

Breed based selection falls victim to one major flaw.” Depending on dog breeders’ genetic selection criteria, breeds which were typically chosen for traditional traits and functions may no longer possess such qualities. Continually selecting the same breeds, without inspecting other breeds, may reduce the effectiveness of detection dog programs” (Jamieson, pg. 2, 2017). Instead the focus must remain on the physical and behavioral characteristics to determine a canines suitability for detection work. It must be acknowledged that dog breeds continue to change overtime, with the distinct possibility that they no longer possess the physical or behavioral traits they were originally bred for (Van Rooy et al., 2014).

Canines that are to perform detection work should be athletic and trainable. There are multiple physical and behavioral traits that are vital for a detection canine to possess. By selecting canines that have the following traits will increase the programs sustainability as well as their work performance. “Speed is important in any working dog field, working quickly, whilst not missing the intended targets nor exhausting themselves prematurely” (Jezierski et al., 2014). A dog’s drive is their impulse or motivation to perform a behavior or action. A canines play-drive is the desire to be entertained, which ensures the dog values a toy or play reward in exchange for performing a particular behavior. A detection dog will ideally be highly play motivated, to the point of obsession (Jamieson et al., 2017). This will ensure the dog is willing to perform hundreds of repetitions to receive their toy, which is crucial for training and work. A dog’s desire to search is referred to as their hunt-drive and is important for sustaining motivation.

A detection dog must be able to work cooperatively with humans (also known pack-drive) and follow both visual and auditory cues. Canines should be willing to work with their handler; a detection dog should have a certain degree of independence when working. Canine that are trained typically look to their handlers for guidance less than untrained dogs, which indicates independence and their problem-solving ability. The length of the canine’s snout is just as important of a trait to the determining a canine’s ability to perform as a detection sensor.


Selection of detection canines cannot be predetermined based solely on breeds instead it must be founded on the individual canine’s traits. A suitable detection canine is of medium size, with a high level of agility; possess a high play-drive; and has a high level of intelligence, with the ability to work independently. Focusing on these traits will help ensure that detection canine programs are be able to obtain and sustain a high-level of performance.


  • Adamkiewicz, E., Jezierski, T., Walczak, M., Górecka-Bruzda, A., Sobczyńska, M., Prokopczyk, M., Ensminger, J., 2013. Traits of drug and explosives detection in dogs of two breeds as evaluated by their handlers and trainers. Anim. Sci. Pap. Rep. 31, 205–217.

  • Jamieson, L. T., Baxter, G. S., & Murray, P. J. (2017). Identifying suitable detection dogs. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 195, 1-7. doi:10.1016/j.applanim.2017.06.010

  • Polgár, Z., Kinnunen, M., Újváry, D., Miklósi, Á, & Gácsi, M. (2016). A Test of Canine Olfactory Capacity: Comparing Various Dog Breeds and Wolves in a Natural Detection Task. Plos One, 11(5). doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0154087

  • van Rooy, D., Arnott, E.R., Early, J.B., McGreevy, P., Wade, C.M., 2014. Holding back the genes: limitations of research into canine behavioural genetics. Canine. Genet. Epidemiol. 1, 7–17.

  • Wilsson, E., Sundgren, P., 1997. The use of a behaviour test for the selection of dogs for service and breeding, I: Method of testing and evaluating test results in the adult dog, demands on different kinds of service dogs, sex and breed differences. Appl. Anim. Behav. Sci. 53, 279–295.

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