Dogs are valued for their odor detection capabilities in a vast range of fields. They help to find hidden and elusive targets, such as explosives, narcotics, missing persons, and invasive or endangered species, amongst an extensive list. In all these roles, dogs are required to find real target odors that vary somewhat from those with which they were trained. For example, dogs might be trained with an explosive mixture or certain explosive compounds, and then must be able to find homemade explosives of differing compositions or manufacturing processes. This ability, to respond to similar odors in the same way as they would respond to the originally trained odor, is known as generalization. A failure to generalize can result in dogs missing targets in working scenarios. Although generalization is usually desired to some extent, dogs must also discriminate against related odors that are not targets. Therefore, research that investigates factors that can influence dogs’ tendency to generalize, and conversely to discriminate, can inform training strategies to improve detection outcomes. However, this field requires further research with greater application to practical training.
Generalizing to target odor variations while retaining specificity against non-targets is crucial to the success of detector dogs under working conditions. As such, the importance of generalization should be considered in the formulation of effective training strategies. Research investigating olfactory generalization from pure singular compounds to more complex odor mixtures helps to elucidate animals’ olfactory generalization tendencies and inform ways to alter the generalization gradient by broadening or narrowing the range of stimuli to which dogs will respond. Olfactory generalization depends upon both intrinsic factors of the odors, such as concentration, as well as behavioral and cognitive factors related to training and previous experience. Based on the current research, some training factors may influence generalization. For example, using multiple target exemplars appears to be the most effective way to promote elemental processing and broaden the generalization gradient, whereas increasing the number of training instances with fewer exemplars can narrow the gradient, thereby increasing discrimination. Overall, this research area requires further attention and study to increase our understanding of olfactory generalization in dogs, particularly detector dogs, to improve training and detection outcomes.