Awhile ago I wrote an article on retrieving and how to get your dog enjoying a game of fetch (with a ball or dummy). Since that time I have been asked by quite a few people how do they get their dog to find things that have been lost or just play 'Hide and Seek' to exercise their dog physically and mentally.
Hunting dogs have an inherited ability, a natural instinct which is at the front of their motivations and that is to hunt. They enjoy it and the scent of game is like an expensive perfume that they search out. But the pet dog also has hunting instincts. They may be lying a little dormant in some dogs but there is no doubt that in many dogs they can be revitalized and owners can have some fun working with their dogs hunting ability. Sniffer dogs for drugs and explosives, search and rescue dogs, tracking dogs are all taught on the basic understanding that by using their noses they will find a reward at the end of their work. With some dogs that don't enjoy retrieving that reward may be food or some other form of reward that the dog will enjoy but for dogs that enjoy retrieving the motivation to hunt is greater. One of my first dogs, a toy poodle loved the game of 'find the ball' and we would hide it all over our house. Similarly I have been working with a client who wanted her own dog this time a Polish Lowland Sheepdog to enjoy scenting out objects and in doing so not only give the dog exercise but be a source of entertainment and fun for the family and visitors.
I personally feel that dogs generally enjoy working. If their brain is not given a problem to solve or work to perform they look, like children, for something to do themselves. And that something may not be what you want. A bored mind can get into all forms of trouble. Working with your dog creates a true bond, it creates a dependency link where you together form a partnership to do a job. I have had dogs that have found my car keys for me when I have dropped them in a field. I have watched sniffer dogs being trained and worked, and the thrill at seeing these dogs put all their energies into finding items in this case, drugs and explosives, is quite an experience.
So how do we go about it? Through retrieving, get your dog keen on going out, finding and picking up objects it has seen you throw. I find a tennis ball or a soft dummy useful for this and I keep this, their retrieving 'toys', just for that purpose. I don't play retrieve with anything else at this stage. I want the dog to realize that this is my 'toy' and I am allowing him to share it with me. If the 'toy' is around all day long for the dog to pick up and play with at will, you will probably find that it is not interested in playing. Every time you send your dog for the retrieve give it the command - 'Fetch'. Once your dog is retrieving and is returning with it to you, then you can go to the next stage, which is to get it interested in fetching the object even though it hasn't seen it fall. I do this in two ways. The first way is to get down low to the ground, even sit on the ground, hold your dog close to you and throw the 'dummy' away from you, immediately covering the dogs eyes with your hand while the it is still in the air. At first you will have a little struggle, but if you have trained your dog to sit and stay when you throw objects then there will be no problem. In this instance the dog has seen the object thrown, watched the general direction and believes you when you say 'Fetch'. However it is one stage further removed from actually seeing the object hit the floor and stay there. Send your dog with the word 'Fetch' and let him work out where the object is lying. At first use a room or lawn where it is easy to see the object but gradually increase the depth of cover such as grass, so that it is not so easy to see and the dog has to use it's nose.
The second way of getting the dog to start hunting and not see the fall is to use a gateway or a doorway. Sit the dog just to one side of the gate or door where it cannot see into the field, yard or room. Throw the object into this area and let the dog watch you throw but not see where the object lands. Bring your dog now to the opening and with a clear command 'Fetch' send him in to find. The first few throws should not be too long in distance, because you want the dog to succeed quickly and build up confidence. If the dog is keen it will begin to hunt the area. Some dogs will hunt for a short time and then if they cannot find it, give up, loosing confidence. If that happens, the moment you see your dog giving up, go in and encourage and use a word to encourage it to use its nose "Find it", "Seek on" or whatever comes to mind easily and is not confusing. If you know where the object is lying then use you fingers encouraging the dog towards it. The moment the dog finds the object praise and show how pleased you are by verbally rewarding him.
By sending your dog for a retrieve with the word 'Fetch' it will learn that command, now as you make the finding of it more difficult and help it with the command "Find It", it will learn this one. Don't be too quick however to help your dog if it hunting well. If you are too quick to help you will find that your dog will start to look to you for assistance without putting effort into the search. You will be showing him where it is and all he will be doing is picking it up. Once your dog understands "Find It" you can now start to hide the 'dummy' but again make it simple to start with, let him succeed quickly. If you give your dog a cue that you are starting this game with the words "Play Lost" and then give the command "Find it" encouraging the dog to start looking, you will now teach the dog when the game is starting and he will know what is expected. I also think it is a good idea to let the dog know when the game is over "Finish" and the 'dummy' is then put away. Initially to get enthusiasm encourage the dog just enough to keep him keen but not so much that it distracts him. Make a big play of when he finds it.
Now you can gradually build up the complexity. Use a different room from the one you have been training in or a different piece of ground. Go through exactly the same procedure to start and get hunting and remember that the dog has learned the work in one place, he may be lacking in confidence in a new area. Never assume that your dog has suddenly become 'dumb'. The situation, the place, the scent, the distractions and many other things may be completely different creating a different hunting environment. If you want your dog to hunt anywhere you have to give him experience of many different environments. Working with sniffer dogs took me into many different locations and even into cars and trucks where the dogs had to search just as diligently in a very small place with cramped quarters.
You may now start to train your dog to find and retrieve specific objects. The sniffer dogs were taught to first fetch a tube with small holes in it, into this was put the substance that the handler wanted him to learn to find. Initially therefore the dog was scenting the tube but then it was scenting tube and substance in this way it then recognized that the substance smell also meant the retrieve the handler was looking for. When new substances were on the market and the dog had to find these also, it went through a refresher course with tube and new substance. Saying that, do not believe that once the dog had been taught to sniff out a substance it was no longer trained, the handlers are constantly doing search routines to keep up the training. If you have been using a dummy, try attaching you car keys to it with a rubber band and maybe wrapping a rag around the keys so they do not catch in the dogs mouth and make him reluctant to retrieve. Once your dog has found this for a few times try hiding the keys alone and see how he reacts.
You can also start naming objects, I had a friend who bought her Jack Russell so many toys you would have thought it was a pet shop. But every toy she bought she gave a name and had the dog retrieve it with the toys name "Find it - (pause) - Hedgehog", and this little dog rarely came back with the wrong item. Even when she was told "Green Hedgehog" and she had other colors. This was advanced stuff though and the little dog was the sole companion of the lady, who could give her plenty of time. But there is no reason why every dog owner should not have fun with their dog playing "Hide and Seek". Now, can you use your imagination and think how to get your dog finding and fetching the newspaper, your slippers, the leash or any other object. Everyone can enjoy these 'games'.