Find It is the very first behavior every dog should learn, in my opinion. It’s versatile, easy to teach, easy to do, easy to maintain, and can be used under all kinds of circumstances in all kinds of places. It’s not on the list of traditional basic obedience skills like Sit, Down, Stay, and Come, yet we can probably get more mileage out of Find It than any other behavior.
Find It looks something like this: You say, “Find it!” and your dog stops what he’s doing and scans the ground with his eyes and nose for bits of food.
What’s it good for? Everything! It’s especially useful as a management tool while the dog learns new, more appropriate behaviors.
“Find It” can be very effective at stopping a dog in his tracks and redirecting his attention. A well-timed “Find it!” can interrupt him just long enough for you to do whatever you need to do – clip his leash on, close the gate, remove something from his reach, etc. – to gain some control of the situation. The following are some of my favorite applications for Find It:
JUMPERS – I use Find It to help manage dogs who like to jump up on people they meet on a walk. Before the dogs have a chance to get their paws up, they’re asked to “Find it!” Their attention is immediately focused on the ground rather than on the person. When they’re done finding and eating the bits of food from the ground, they’re in a better state of mind to learn how to properly greet someone with all four paws on the floor or in a sit position. For the enthusiastic door-greeter, tossing food away from the entrance with a playful “Find it!” – every single time someone walks through the door – has the added effect of teaching the dog to hang back whenever the door opens, because he learns that often, the really good stuff happens a few feet away!
NIPPERS AND GRABBERS – Tossing food on the floor rather than delivering it from your hand helps to remove your dog’s attention from your body. Mouthy dogs quickly learn that the good stuff is more readily available on the ground rather than from our hands or pockets. It works well for sweater grabbers and pant-leg tuggers, too! With the dog’s attention diverted toward the floor rather than on us, he’s now in a better position to be rewarded for his good behavior.
PULLERS AND LEASH TUGGERS – Playing Find It while teaching a dog to walk politely on leash can be great fun for both you and the dog. It can be used to draw the dog’s attention back toward you when he begins to pull ahead. It’s also a handy trick when you need to quickly divert the dog’s snout away from the leash if he looks like he wants to initiate an unwanted game of leash tug. Dropping some treats on the ground immediately next to you (the “yummy-stuff zone”) and inviting your dog to “Find it!” will draw him back toward you; then you can resume walking together while rewarding him for walking politely next to you.
DISTRACTED DOGS- When a dog is very distracted or maybe even mildly concerned with what’s going on around him, playing Find It can give him something fun and specific to focus on, helping him to keep busy and feel safe. You don’t need lots of room. You can toss treats on the floor within the range of the dog’s leash and invite him to “Find it!” I’ve used this game in the waiting room at the vet clinic, sitting in group training class with a fidgety dog while the instructor speaks, and while walking by a house with a dog barking at us through a fence (to encourage my dog to disregard the barking and to keep moving forward).
JUST FOR KICKS – As an activity all on its own, Find It can be an extremely satisfying game that can be played anytime, anywhere, indoors and out. In fact, the more you play Find It in different locations and contexts, the faster the dog’s response to the “Find it!” cue becomes, helping the cue to grow more useful and reliable in sticky situations.
Scenting games (activities that involve the dog using his nose to locate things) can be very tiring for dogs. If your energetic dog is just learning to walk nicely on leash, try engaging in a short Find It session with him before taking him out for a walk; it can help to calm him considerably.
How to Teach Your Dog to “Find It!”
Here is how to teach your dog this highly useful behavior:
In a quiet space with no distractions and plenty of treats in your hand, toss a treat to the ground, not too far from you, and say, “Find it!” Make sure your dog sees you toss the treat. Let him go to it and eat it. Repeat several times.
Now, after you’ve tossed a treat and said, “Find it!” – and while your dog is making his way toward that treat – quietly and secretly drop another treat on the floor. You don’t want the dog to hear it land, if possible. When your dog has eaten the first treat and starts to return to you or looks back toward you, say, “Find it!” and remain as still as possible. Your dog may just stare at you, waiting for your hand to move to toss another treat. Repeat the cue (“Find it!”), walk toward the treat on the floor, and tap-tap-tap your foot on the floor next to the treat to draw your dog’s attention to it.
While he dives for that treat, once again toss another treat to the ground without him hearing it. When he looks toward you, say, “Find it!” and remain still. By now your dog may have played the game long enough to have figured out that the treat is probably on the floor, and he might direct his search there. Give him a few seconds to find the treat on his own. If he does, that’s great! Toss another treat close by while he eats that one, and say, “Find it!” when he’s done eating the first one.
If, instead, he continues to look at you rather than directing his gaze to the floor, walk toward the treat and tap-tap-tap your foot again next to the treat while saying “Find it!”
When it looks like your dog has caught on to the game, you can toss many treats on the floor (one after another) in various directions and continue to coach him with your voice to “Find it!” as long as there are treats on the floor. Be enthusiastic – it’s a game!
To end the session, and to let your dog know there are no more treats on the floor, show him your empty hands and say, “All done!” In time, your dog will recognize this to mean the game has ended and he can stop searching.
With practice, your dog will become an expert at seeking and finding treats on the floor. Feel free to increase the level of difficulty by hiding treats in spots you don’t mind your dog sniffing around, like under furniture, beneath cushions, behind floor plants, on a low shelf, or inside a shoe. Playing Find It in grass is especially fun and tiring, and can be a convenient way to slow down a speed-eater.
Once your dog understands this game and will readily search for treats that you toss or hide in your home or yard, take the game out into the world. Start in low-distraction situations at first, until his response to your “Find it!” cue is so consistent and strong that you can use the behavior to counter the type of behavior challenges discussed at the beginning of the article.
Stay alert for opportunities to use this fun “game” to prevent your dog from jumping up on people, grabbing his leash, or dragging you on walks. In no time at all, you will find that he’s become far more attentive to you, as he looks for opportunities to play Find It, instead of amusing himself with activities that are less enjoyable for you!
Nancy Tucker, CPDT-KA, is a full-time trainer, behavior consultant, and seminar presenter in Quebec, Canada. She has written numerous articles on dog behavior for Quebec publications about life with the imperfect family dog.