If competition isn’t your thing, you can do a simpler activity at home with your dog that we call Nose Games. You can do just the easy parts – hiding treats in a room while your dog watches – or go all the way to the advanced stages, where your dog can find missing pets and people.
Not long ago we had a client in our Nose Games class with her 8-year-old son. The family’s enthusiastic 20-pound Terrier mix ultimately learned to find the boy when he hid in the woods!
In Nose Games, you teach your dog to look for and find hidden objects when you ask her to. This is an exceptionally useful activity, as it uses lots of energy and can tire out even a very active dog. Also, it has very practical applications as well – including helping shy or fearful dogs gain confidence. And dogs love it!
We start with treats, since most dogs will happily look for food. You can eventually ask your dog to look for hidden objects (such as favorite toys, or your lost keys) and even hidden or missing humans and other animals!
1. Start by “hiding” treats as the dog watches, in the dog’s plain view.
- Have your dog sit and wait/stay. (If she doesn’t know wait/stay, have someone hold her leash.)
- Walk about six feet away, show her a treat, remind her to stay, and place the treat on the ground.
- Return to her side (remind her to stay!). Turn and face the treat, then tell her “Search!” (If she won’t get up until you release her from the stay, say “Search!” and then give your release cue.) She should run right out and eat the treat. Repeat a half-dozen times.
2. Next, “hide” the treats in really easy places, while your dog watches.
- Have your dog sit and stay. Let her watch you “hide” a treat in plain view (behind the leg of a chair, by a waste basket, etc.).
- Return to her side (reminder her to stay!). Turn and face the treat, then tell her “Search!” She should run right out and eat the treat. Repeat six or so times.
3. Ask her to sniff an item that has the scent of a treat and add a cue, such as “Scent!”
- Have your dog sit and stay. Let her watch you hide several treats in plain view.
- Return to her side (remind her to stay!). Turn and face the treats, rub one of the treats you’re using on a paper towel, hold the towel in front of her nose (don’t let her eat it!) and tell her “Scent!” (Don’t worry if she doesn’t appear to sniff it.)
- Then tell her “Search!” She should run right out and eat the treats. Repeat six or seven times, asking her to sniff the item that contains the treat scent and giving her the “Scent” cue before each attempt.
4. Hide treats in locations that require a little more effort to detect.
- Have your dog sit and stay. Let her watch you hide a treat in a harder place (behind a chair leg, etc.).
- Return to her side (don’t let her get up!). Turn and face the treat, do “Scent!”, then tell her “Search!” She may have more difficulty finding this treat. Don’t help her! This is where she starts learning to use her nose. If you help her, she won’t use her nose – she’ll learn to wait for you to tell her where it is. If she truly can’t find it, reset, and hide it in an easier spot. Make sure she watches you! Repeat a half-dozen times.
- Gradually hide the treat in harder places, having her “Scent!” before each set. “Harder” spots are on top of things, inside of other things (like a shoe, or on a shelf in a partially opened cupboard or closet), or inside open containers on raised surfaces.
- Now hide multiple treats, in easy and challenging spots. Have your dog sit and stay. Let her watch you hide two to three treats in somewhat easy places (behind a chair leg, etc.).
- Return to her side (don’t let her get up!). Turn and face the treats, do “Scent!,” then tell her “Search!” She may have more difficulty finding multiple treats. If necessary, indicate an area by spreading your arms and saying “Search here!” Don’t point to the treat! This is where she really starts using hers nose. If she truly can’t find it, reset, and hide it in a slightly easier spot. Make sure she is watching you! Repeat a half-dozen times.
- Gradually hide treats in harder spots, having her “Scent” each time before you send her.
5. Hide the treats when the Dog is Out of the Room; NOW IT GETS REALLY FUN!
- Put your dog in another room. Hide two or three treats in somewhat easy places.
- Bring her back to the room, have her “Scent!” then tell her “Search!” She may have more difficulty finding multiple treats. If necessary, indicate an area by spreading your arms and saying “Search here!” Don’t point to the treat! If you help her, she won’t use her nose. If she truly can’t find it, reset, and hide it in a slightly easier spot. Repeat a half-dozen times, doing “Scent!” each time.
- Gradually hide treats in harder spots.
6. Generalize “Search” to Other Objects. Start with her favorite toy!
- Generalize her “Search” behavior to other objects as you desire, starting with a favorite toy. Rub the toy on the paper towel, and start back at Step 1, placing the toy in plain view and move quickly through to Step 5.
- Next, use less favorite or neutral objects. For humans, rub the human’s scent on a paper towel (have them rub their neck with the paper towel). Then have the human hide, in an easy spot at first (let the dog find the human in plain view, then watch the human hide behind a barrier, or around a corner, then through Step 5.)
7. Teach your dog to perform a specific behavior that will indicate when she has found something.
- Pick a behavior that your dog already knows well, or teach her a new behavior like “Speak,” “Down,” “Touch with your paw,” etc., that you want to be the indicator behavior. Teach her a new cue for that behavior, by saying (for example) “Mark!” and then cueing the behavior.
- With your dog watching, put a treat in a box with holes in it, or out of her reach, so she can find it but not get to it.
- Tell her “Scent!” and “Search.” Follow her to the treat, and when you can tell she has found it, tell her “Mark!” and cue her indicator behavior if necessary (if she doesn’t do it on the “Mark” cue). Repeat until she starts to automatically offer her indicator behavior when she gets to a treat that she cannot access herself.
- Stop following her to the treat, and invite her to come back to you to offer the mark behavior, until she comes to you automatically to mark.
- Then add other objects, and eventually increase the difficulty by having her out of the room when you hide your objects or humans.
- Now you have a dog who can find a lost child in the woods, and come back and use her mark to you to tell you she has found him!