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Teach Your Dog To Be A Sniffer Dog

Did you know that dogs have up to 300 million olfactory receptors in their noses, compared to about six million in humans. And the part of a dog’s brain that is devoted to analysing smells is, proportionally speaking, 40 times greater than ours. To put it plainly, they can smell 10,000 to 100,000 times better than us.

Knowing how powerful dog’s sense of smell is, we have trained them to help us sniff out explosives, drugs, contraband, blood, truffles, diabetes, cancer, and now COVID-19, just to name a few. OK, don’t get excited! We’re not going to teach our dogs to sniff out those items. We’re going to teach them to smell things we normally find at home (at least to begin with).

The purpose of this exercise is to embrace our dog’s natural behaviour, hone their skill, stimulate their brain and build a closer bond with your dog. A 20-minute sniff exercise is more enriching than an hour of just physical exercise.

With Bowie’s help, I’m going to show you step-by-step on how to teach your dog to be a sniffer dog. Are you ready?? — Read the following steps before watching Bowie’s video.

STEP 1 – Choose a household or personal item, preferably not food or your dog’s treat. We want to give the high-value treat as a reward when your dog sniffs out the item. For beginner dogs, an item that has a strong or unique smell may be a good start.

If you decide on your dog’s favourite toy to sniff out, make sure you have a higher value treat to reward – it could be a roast chicken, cheese or playing tug-of-war or catch-and-throw with your dog (if your dog is not really food motivated). For this exercise, I’ve chosen a teabag for Bowie to sniff out.

STEP 2 – Have the high-value treats handy (lots of them!). We want to mark the behaviour and reward your dog immediately for doing it. If you’re used to click-training, have your clicker ready. If not, we can just mark the behaviour by saying a short sharp ‘YES’.

STEP 3 – Teach your dog ‘the rules of the game’. Hold the item in your hand (in Bowie’s instance a teabag). As soon as Bowie’s nose touches the teabag, mark it with ‘YES’ (or a clicker), and treat immediately. Do this a few times – switch hands, have the item hidden in your hand, and gradually introduce the name of the item (eg. Tea Tea). If you think your dog is getting a hang of it, we can move on to the next step.

STEP 4 – Ask your dog to ‘Sit’, ‘Drop’ or ‘Stay’. Place the item on the ground away from your dog where your dog is still able to see it. Then command your dog to find it. In Bowie’s instance, I would command ‘Bowie, Find Tea Tea’. Other common commands are ‘Where-is (name of item)’, ‘Search (name of item)’ or you can make-up your own words. Mark it and treat lavishly when your dog succeeds. Start with a short distance and gradually increase.

Bowie is already familiar with ‘Find-it’ command. But if your dog has difficulty understanding what you want, show them what to do. Guide your dog to the item whilst reinforcing the command. When your dog sniffs out the item, mark the behaviour and treat lavishly. We want to set up for success every time and have FUN, so if it means doing it slowly, it’s completely fine.

STEP 5 – If your dog aces STEP 4, let’s ramp up the difficulty. Ask your dog to ‘Sit’, ‘Drop’ or ‘Stay’ where they can’t see you hiding the item. Then command your dog to find it. Don’t forget to treat your dog lavishly when they succeed.

As your dog progresses, you can make the hides more and more complex. You can put the item inside a sealed container and hide it. You can ask someone else to hide the item, or you can hide it in an environment unfamiliar to your dog. Make sure that you build it up slowly and your dog is really understanding the game and is enthusiastic about playing it. Keep each exercise short and FUN, and always praise and treat your dog lavishly when they succeed.

Handy Tip #1
If you teach your dog STEP 3, 4 & 5 in multiple different sessions, it’s important to refresh the previous step until your dog is confident with the rules of the game. Even when they understand the game, I would always repeat STEP 3, 4 & 5 quickly to build the excitement.

Handy Tip #2
Air movement affects how the scent travels. Ideally, you want to be downwind when you send your dog to find the item – meaning the wind should be in your face when you look in the direction of the hidden item. Otherwise your dog will have to go past the item until he/she is downwind before hitting on the scent.

To help you with this exercise, we’ve made a video showing each step. Good luck and have FUN! x