The first dog to be trained as a smoke alarm was a female Labrador in 1985. This was the work of Swedish animal psychologist Anders Hallgren who, during tests, established that a dog can smell smoke up to a full minute before conventional smoke alarms. During a fire emergency, these extra seconds save lives.
It is a fact that many dogs treat heavy smoke as an intruder and respond accordingly. Many seem to instinctively know that smoke means fire and fire means danger. Smoke alarm training is about cultivating this instinct and the methods devised by Anders have now been adopted into training programmes across the world, particularly for dogs used by blind or deaf people. Training your dog as a smoke alarm is by no means an easy task. It needs persistence over a large number of sessions and can take some weeks or more likely months to achieve.
This article is our summary of the main training steps involved and should not be considered a definitive step by step guide. If you serious about training your dog as a smoke alarm, we would recommend you purchase Anders Hallgren’s book “Smoke Alarm Training For Your Dog”.
What training equipment do I need ?
You will need a smoking device. Anders recommends a clay flower pot turned upside down on a plate. Start by burning twigs or leaves and move onto small bits of plastic (e.g. electrical wire) or fabric. WARNING please use your common sense when using your smoke device. Practice in a garage on a concrete floor and always keep a fire extinguisher or bucket of water handy. Remember, you want smoke, not a bonfire !.
What steps should I follow?
We must first find ways of soliciting and rewarding the desired response from our dog, and then introduce the cue that solicits that response. As a smoke alarm, the desired response will be barking and general excitement. The cue of course will be smoke.
STEP 1 – Soliciting the Response
To solicit the response, any toy or game that results in your dog barking and creating general excitement is a good place to start. Offering a toy, then withholding it often builds up frustration resulting in a bark. Instantly reward this behaviour by giving your dog the toy or a treat. After a few sessions (remember sessions should not last more than 4-5 minutes), do the same exercise, but this time with the lit smoke near by- but not so near that it would cause irritation or allow it to be knocked over. Note that at this point we are starting to build- be it somewhat subconsciously- the association between the smoke and the game (which of course is giving us the desired response).
Continue practicing the game until your dog gets excited and barks at the sight of the lit smoke, making sure you reward this response. Over time you will be able to gradually extend the period of barking by withholding the toy for longer periods.
STEP 2 – Develop the Cue
This is, of course, smoke and developing it as a cue is by far the most difficult part of the Training exercise. Your task at this stage is to make the smoke device the signal that it is time to play. Anders suggests that this is best achieved by hiding the smoke device and the toy together. You may have to do this in stages, perhaps just hiding the toy in a box next to the smoke device to start with. As you are doing these exercises, concentrate on getting your dog’s barking to be more agitated and persistent. Do this in different places and your dog will soon build up the association that where there is smoke, there is also a toy. Practice this over a number of sessions, then start hiding the smoke device, but not the toy. Keep the toy on you, but out of sight. When they find the smoke device and bark, give them the toy and play a quick game. Again, you will need to develop this over a number of sessions.
The next stage in developing the cue is for you to take the smoke device behind a door with your dog on the other side. With a small piece of card, waft smoke under the door (or leave a small gap at the side). As soon as they bark at the smoke, reward and praise. Encourage prolonged barking by gradually holding back on the reward.
STEP 3 – Developing the Response Further
Now that your dog responds to the smoke cue, we need to further develop the response. In the event of a fire, you will need your dog to not only bark, but also come and find you. To do this, get a helper to waft the smoke under the door while you stand at a distance from the door. When the dog barks, the helper should open the door and when your dog gets to you, wait for a bark before rewarding. It is important that the helper should take no part in the training other than simply opening the door.
Over a large number of sessions, develop this further by moving further from the door into other rooms. Your objective is that your dog is able to come and find you (day and night) anywhere in the house and commence barking.
Practice covering yourself with a blanket, then moving into the bedroom and lying in the bed. This takes a lot of practice and you should be prepared to take it slowly and go back a few steps if your dog is not fully grasping what is required. Make sure you practice in different rooms and locations and keep sessions to no more than 5 minutes. As always, keep the sessions positive and rewarding for your dog
More information about training your dog as a smoke alarm can be found in the booklet “Smoke Alarm Training for Your Dog” by Anders Hallgren. If you speak Swedish, why not visit Anders website www.house-of-learning.se