4 February 2011

Article search and retrieve

The dog’s sense of smell is thought to be around 100,000 times better than our own with an estimated 40 times more brain area devoted to analysing odours.   Scientific studies reveal that dogs can detect chemical solutions at just one to two parts per trillion, and human finger prints that are up to two weeks old.  It’s no wonder that dogs are used to detect explosives, drugs, gas leaks, termites, people, cancer, diabetes, seizures, and even when cows are in oestrus (season/heat).

Article search and retrieve is a great way to put your dog’s extraordinary olfactory ability to good use.  This simple exercise requires the dog to search out hidden articles bearing your own scent and bring them to you. 

If your dog is a willing retriever, you’re half way there already and the dog can be worked without a long line.  If your dog hasn’t learnt to retrieve yet (e.g. she chases after a ball and catches it but won’t bring it back to you) work this exercise with her on a long line initially (50-100ft) so that you can use the line to prompt and encourage her return once she has found the article, and prevent her from losing interest or running off.

You will need: 
  • Your dog  
  • A long line if she has not yet learnt to retrieve
  • Her favourite food tit-bits
  • Her favourite toys
  • An outdoor area with some long grass or undergrowth, a pile of leaves or hay

Step 1
Play with your dog with her favourite toy, throwing it for her to fetch, but not too far away – keep her close and engaged in the game. 

N.B. If she is a reluctant retriever, when she has the toy in her mouth, with an open palm gently ‘bump’ the end of her muzzle but don’t grab the toy – keep your hand open.  After a few playful ‘bumps’ she may start to push the toy into your hand.  Keep ‘bumping’ every time she does this until she releases her hold and places the toy on your open palm – she’ll most likely grab it back within a split second.  With a little more patience and with your palm remaining open, the time between her releasing the toy and taking it back again should increase, so when there is a big enough gap, start to throw the toy back towards her mouth before she grabs it from your hand.  You can then gradually increase the distance that the toy is thrown as by this point, she will be wanting to bring it back to you because she has learnt that by doing this, the game is much more enjoyable and lasts much longer.  If this method doesn’t work, encourage her to drop the toy by swapping it for a treat, keeping her close so that she drops the toy into your other hand, not on the ground several feet away.

Step 2
Throw the toy into the long grass/undergrowth/leaves/hay, and let your dog go after it.  If it is a still day, it doesn’t matter in what direction you throw the toy.  If it’s windy, throw the toy into the wind so that the scent is carried back towards the dog.  When she reaches the toy, if she knows ‘FETCH’ as a command, great, use it.  If she doesn’t, as you see her grab the toy in her mouth say ‘FETCH’, so pairing the action of picking the toy up with the word.  Encourage her to return to you with the toy and then pile on the praise – have a close-quarters game with the toy so that she gets it back after bringing it to you, give her a treat and some fuss.

Step 3
As step 2, but hold her back for a few seconds as you throw the toy, before releasing her.  Holding her back will engage the 'opposition reflex' and so encourage fast, forward movement when you do release her.  Don’t tell her to sit or wait, just hold her back.  The focus is to get her to really enjoy the game and not be in the slightest bit worried about breaking away from you to go and search.

Step 4
After a number of successful retrieves, throw the toy into the grass/undergrowth/leaves/hay again whilst holding your dog back, but this time, turn her around in a close, full circle before sending her away.  She will probably still go directly to the toy – this is what you want.

Step 5
As step 4 but turning her either a little more or less than full circle, so that when you send her away, she is not facing the direction in which the toy was thrown.  Once she is reliable at this stage, you can make the exercise more challenging by walking her away from the area and then back again before sending her in, and sending her in from different distances and angles too.

Step 6
What you have been working up to – a blind search and retrieve!  Up until now, although you have been increasing the challenge of finding the toy by turning your dog around and sending her in from different distances and angles, she has always seen where the toy has been thrown.  Now it’s time for the real work to begin, and for her to use her fabulous nose to full effect.  Leaving your dog in the car, house, kennel, etc, go and place the toy out in the grass/undergrowth/leaves/hay.  Fetch your dog, bring her near to and downwind from the toy, and release her.  To begin with, praise her when she gets near to the toy.  Gradually fading out this praise with each search will encourage her to rely less on your direction, and more on her nose.  When she does find the toy, celebrate her success with her – praise, praise, praise, have a game with her, give her a food tit-bit, smile and laugh with her! 

N.B. If your dog searches for too long without finding anything, she may become discouraged and lose her focus (unless she’s a spaniel!).  If you notice this happening, quietly and out of her field of vision, drop another article near to her so that she can easily find it and so succeed in her search.   Celebrate the find and then end the training session – a dog must always succeed, every time, in order to be motivated to want to do the exercise again and again.   It doesn’t matter if she doesn’t locate the original toy or article so long as she fetches something that you have touched – it is still an article with your scent on it, and finding articles laden with your scent is the name of the game.  She must believe that when you send her to search, she will find something, always, every time, without fail.  Some dogs need heaps of verbal encouragement while they are searching to keep them motivated and focused, whereas others are distracted by constant chatter – experiment with this to learn what suits your dog best.  Encouragement isn’t the same as praise – encouragement needs to maintain the dog’s focus and excitement and also bear a relevant meaning to the task at hand, for example, ‘GO FIND!’, ‘FIND IT!’ or ‘SEARCH ON!’. 

Maintaining the challenge
Once your dog is successfully relying on her sense of smell to find the toy, maintain the challenge of the article search and retrieve by placing the toy in a different place each time (if you are using leaves or hay, you will need to make several piles) and by introducing objects behind and under which the toy can be hidden.  You can introduce other articles for search too – your wallet or gloves for example. 

Tilly says KEEP IT FUN!

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