Our dogs have amazing noses that are sadly underutilized in their daily lives with us. When they want to stop and check their “pee mail” during a walk, we usually tell them to move along, and when they want to get to know a new friend by checking out the back end plumbing, we blush and tell them to knock it off. However, by restricting our dogs’ sniff time, we’re preventing them for using a sense that’s as powerful to them as our eyes are to us.
Teaching your dog to play “find the dog toys” encourages him to use and hone his very impressive scenting ability and provides a level of mental stimulation that’s unlike any other type of partner play. It’s a game that doesn’t require a lot of space, it can be played indoors or out and can be mastered by dogs of all ages. Plus, it’s easy to teach and it’s a ton of fun to watch.
How to Teach ‘Find It’
The first stage of the game is introducing your dog to the concept of finding a barely-camouflaged toy. To begin, grab a toy that you know your dog adores or, even better, invest in a brand new one so the game will be that much more exciting for him. Place your dog in a stay or of you haven’t perfected the cue while you move around, either use a leash to anchor your dog to a heavy piece of furniture or ask a friend to hold your dog.
Let your dog watch while you “hide” the toy in an obvious spot, like peeking out from behind the couch or just beneath the edge of a throw rug. Wait a few moments so that your dog’s anticipation builds, then tell him “find it” by releasing him from the stay or having your helper let go. It won’t take him long to grab the toy, but make a big deal when your dog does and have a play session with him to savor that first victory. “Find it” is a teach-as-you-go cue—since the corresponding action is obvious to the dog, it shouldn’t take many repetitions before your dog understands that “find it” means search for a semi-hidden surprise.
Repeat this “hiding in plain sight” process several times, making each hiding spot slightly more challenging. Instead of placing the toy where your dog can actually see it, try letting your dog watch as you hide the toy inside a partially closed closet door, or just outside the room where you’re playing the game. These semi-blind repetitions are foundation work for the real tests of scenting prowess to come.
Upping the Ante
Once you and your dog have gone through a number of repetitions and your dog understands the connection between the phrase “find it” and actually seeking out the toy, take him out of the room for his first blind find. To guarantee your dog’s success, place the toy in one of the spots you’ve already used during the introductory steps. Then let your dog back in the room and tell him to “find it.”
There’s a chance your dog might act confused at first and look to you for guidance. While it’s tempting to lead your dog over to where you’ve hidden the toy, don’t do it. Give him some verbal encouragement and allow his powerful sense of smell to kick in. If your dog seems reluctant (which is unlikely if you’ve done enough foundation finds) you can praise your dog as he gets closer to the hidden toy or, in a worst-case scenario, stand near but not right next to where you’ve hidden it. Avoid leading your dog to the hiding spot, as he might become dependent on you for clues.
Your dog’s first blind-find is a big deal, so celebrate the moment with a game of fetch or tug and lots of praise. Then, take him out of the room and hide the toy in a completely new spot, keeping in mind you might have to leave part of the toy visible for him as he gets used to this new facet of the game. Make sure to get creative as your dog gets better and better at finding the hidden toy. For example, place it on a kitchen chair that you’ve pushed under the table, resting on top of a door knob or tucked inside a shoe. And don’t forget that you can aim high and place the toy above your dog’s nose height on a shelf or railing. Even if your dog can’t reach the toy on its perch, he’ll find a way to let you know that he’s discovered it by sitting in front of it or barking at it.
“Find it” is a great bonding game that will mentally tax your dog after just a few rounds of play. Your dog will adore playing it, and you’re bound to be amazed by the skills contained within that adorable sniffer!
Victoria Schade is a dog trainer, author & speaker who has contributed to The Washington Post, Martha Stewart, and other publications.