Formation of an Olfactory Search Image for Explosives Odours in Sniffer Dogs*


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    This research reports portions of a doctoral dissertation submitted by Irit Gazit to the University of Tel Aviv.

Irit Gazit, Department of Zoology, George S. Wise Faculty of Life Sciences, Tel-Aviv University, 69978, Israel. E-mail:


The term ‘search image’ refers to an animal's heightened ability to detect a specific cryptic prey, after experience with that prey. Formulated in 1960 by Tinbergen (Archives Neerlandaises de zoologie, vol. 13, pp. 265–343), the search image concept has been the subject of much research, albeit almost entirely based on visual search cues in birds of prey. Given the theoretical and practical importance of this concept for foraging or searching in general, we set out to investigate whether dogs could form olfactory search images for explosive odours. Seven experienced explosives detector dogs were first tested for their ability to detect 30 g of the explosives 2,4,6-trinitrotoluene (TNT), RDX + polyisobutylene + di(2-ethylhexyl)sebacate + fuel oil (C4) or pentaerythritol tetranitrate (PETN) placed in various containers randomly distributed along a 300-m limestone track. In consecutive stages of the experiment, we altered the relative percentages of the three explosives. The results showed that the percentage of TNT containers detected by the dogs increased in trials that followed placing of a high percentage of TNT relative to other explosives and decreased in trials that follwed placing of a relatively low percentage of TNT containers. The percentage detection of C4 and PETN was not influenced by their relative abundance at any stage. Overall, these results suggest that dogs can form an olfactory search image that might aid in prey/target detection.