Long before you pull out the tracking flags, dust off the utility articles or decide that your dog needs to learn how to use his nose, he’s busy using his nose to explore his world. The sense of smell is functional at birth, and from the moment he’s born, your dog lives in a world rich with scents. All you need to do is teach the dog specifically how you want him to use his astonishing olfactory powers. The easiest way to accomplish this is through games. The Scent Work Games presented below are suitable for any breed at any age from 6 weeks on, but we recommend strongly that these games be a regular part of your puppy’s development. All of these games stress reliance on his nose, not his eyesight.
To avoid confusing your dog, we recommend you choose one word which indicates food or dog toys (we use “SEEK”), and a completely different word for objects with human scent or people themselves (we use “FIND IT”). In this fashion, the dog is always clear about WHAT he’s looking for with his nose and will not confuse food scents with human scent. One of the most common problems with using food to teach scent discrimination or tracking is that you must ultimately teach the dog that the food is not what you really meant at all!
This is the simplest of all games. With food or a toy in only one hand, present both closed hands to the dog. Ask him, “Which one?” You may improve upon this game by insisting he touch with a paw or scratch lightly at the correct hand before receiving his treat, or simply have his nose bump your hand. If he gets it wrong, show him the correct hand but DO NOT give the treat! Just try again. Add lots of dramatic flair to this – dogs love a good show.
This one is great fun for the dog. Show your dog a treat (preferably crunchy) or his favorite toy, and then place it out of his sight but easily accessible in a dark room. Tell him to SEEK – follow him in to listen for his success which you will praise enthusiastically. Obviously, the rewards for the dog are multiple – he gets a treat or finds his toy plus a very happy handler. If using a toy, be sure to reward his find with some play before starting again.
When multiple treats or toys are used, this particular game helps to build persistence and trust in the handler. The dog may initially find only 2 out of 3 treats, but he quickly discovers that persistence in searching when you give the SEEK command pays off. He learns to believe you – there really is another one there!
You can increase the difficulty of LIGHTS OUT by hiding the cookies in less accessible places (like in a shoe, or placed on a low shelf.) This can be practiced outdoors as well as in your car, or a parking lot or anywhere else!
HIDE & SEEK
This is a doggy favorite best played at night or in a darkened house initially. Partially open closets are great (closed closets may not allow sufficient scent to escape), as are shower stalls/tubs with the curtain drawn, standing behind an open door, crouching behind a bush, standing very still near a tree (dogs, like all predators, distinguish movement much better than stationary objects) or sitting on a picnic table or laying across your car’s trunk, or wherever!
To add to the dog’s eagerness (or in the event that you are unable to sneak away or can’t leave the dog), have someone hold the dog. They should be verbally exciting to the dog, asking, “Where did she go? What if she gets lost? Can you FIND her?” and release the dog with a FIND IT command.
Give the dog a chance to work it out, but if he passes you more than twice, give him a “clue” by making a noise AFTER he’s passed you the third time. A good clue is a distinctive but brief sound, such as clearing your throat or a short whistle that does not allow the dog to find you by using his hearing, but helps him target the general area you are in for further investigation with his nose. However the dog finds you, tons of praise is to be heaped upon his head, and of course a treat or two never hurts. Toy motivated dogs will delight in a game of fetch or tugging as a reward.
As the dog gets more skilled at HIDE & SEEK, you can increase the difficulty of the game by throwing a blanket or tarp over yourself, not moving until the dog actually touches you, or even hiding in an area that the dog can smell you, see you (or part of you) but cannot get to you. This is useful for teaching a scratch or bark alert if desired (commonly used in drug work/search and rescue training). ALWAYS praise the dog generously for his brilliance.