At the beginning of 2015 I committed to working with Hermione on her nose work skills; if for no other reason, but to interact with her and give her an outlet for her energy. Every morning for quite some time now, Hermione and I play "find it" with her breakfast. It's been a really good addition to our routine. It's been a game that can take anywhere from five minutes to half an hour, depending on what kind of time I have to dedicate that morning. If I want a shorter game, I hide greater amounts of kibble each time I have her search, but if I want it to be more challenging and go on for longer I hide just one or two kibbles at a time..
This isn't the first time I've tried to be disciplined enough to work on nose work with her, but the first time I tried, I failed miserably. I think I tried to take too big of steps too quickly and ran out of ideas too soon. I also didn't understand what skills I was trying to work on with her, but this time around I have done more research. One important skill is obviously the sniffing part, but problem solving and the drive to "hunt" or search is also equally as important. This was something I figured out on my own after hours and hours of reading articles by various trainers and watching videos. A lot of what I read just told you what to do and that information wasn't very thorough either. By watching and reading as much as I did, I was able to put the pieces together and figure out these skills. I'm sure there are more, but I think three to start with is quite enough.
Knowing this, I have different goals for Hermione than before. It's not just about her sniffing things out in a box and then adding more boxes and letting her sniff. I thought that was it. I just wanted her to learn how to sniff and as soon as she figured out how to sniff things out in one box I'd add more to increase the difficulty for her and make it more interesting/challenging for her. I think she still enjoyed the training before, but now she's even more enthusiastic.
So, what am I doing differently to achieve our three, what I like to think of as, foundation goals?
Well, I started with the sniffing. Maybe this wasn't the right place to start, but I started here because I didn't realize at the time that there were other skills we needed to work on. I had noticed that if Hermione could see the treats or kibbles she would just use her eyes. A trainer recently told me that this apparently doesn't matter and that the important part is to encourage the hunting drive which I took to heart, but I still wanted Hermione to sniff. Putting things in boxes wasn't cutting it. She could hear it or see the box and automatically ran to the box, usually skipping the trail of kibble I had laid out for her to "follow" to the box. Then, I saw a random video where that person was using a towel. It got me to thinking that I should try a towel.
I got a small hand towel and initially hid quite a few kibbles in one place under the towel. This new idea seemed to work great. Not only did Hermione start sniffing, but because the search area was so tiny I knew when she hit the hidden kibbles and I could click to mark her behavior. As the days went on, I made the hide and seek game under the towel more challenging. I'd hide less kibbles; I'd put one kibble under each corner of the towel so she would have to keep searching; I'd fold the towel in half so it was harder to smell. Hermione loved it. She'd circle around her fan tail waving, her little sniffer working over time. I could actually hear her sniffing which she had never done before. She was learning to sniff and I think it was turning on her hunting drive as well.
Once we had been using the towel for a while and she seemed to understand that she should search an area and not just check one spot, I thought I'd try building on her problem solving skills. Again, we started off slowly. I started placing a kibble on top of the towel and one under a distance aways to get her used to the idea that what she was searching for wasn't going to be where she assumed it to be. I was also worried that she would only search with that particular towel, so I got a second one that was a different size and material. At first I placed kibble under the original towel and with every search moved them closer to the new towel which was laid out on the floor as well. Eventually, I was hiding kibble only under the new towel and then both. She needed a little encouragement at first, but she soon realized that she was supposed to search both areas.
For more problem solving I placed some kibble in her bowl and covered it with the towel so that she would have to figure out how to get to the food. I added new hiding places too like a small cardboard box, a few food storage containers and even my slippers. The key was for me to remember where I had put the kibble and praise her whenever she searched and found the hidden treasures. Today I saw some great improvement in her problem solving skills that she did all on her own.
As usual we started off with our towel search area. I placed just two or three kibbles under the towel to warm her up. I've noticed that she searches for longer now and so sometimes while she is searching I'll drop a kibble or two when her back is to me into the towel or under it. That way, she is rewarded for her continued searching. She seemed a bit fidgety this morning. She was breaking her sit stay which has been improving with this new exercise as well. She wouldn't wait for me to hide her kibble and I'd have to put her back in a sit and try again. She was just too excited. A definite thought didn't exactly cross my mind, but I remember half thinking that she may be ready to try something a bit harder. I wasn't sure what, so at first I just would put out one random kibble for her to find nowhere near the towel. Well, I say nowhere near, but the area really isn't that big yet. I don't think she's ready for a five foot radius or anything. As I randomly placed kibble I noticed an over turned dust pan. Kira must have knocked it down. Not sure if Hermione would get it, I put a little pile of kibble just at the edge of the dust pan. When I told her to "find" she searched her towel first, but quickly moved away; her nose working. She found the kibble and was so excited. I brought her back to sit and decided to up the stakes again.
This time I put a pile of kibble underneath the over turned dust pan. I also placed some kibble in the same spot as before to help her be successful. She searched her towel again, sniffed around me and then moved away. She found the first pile of kibble too quickly for me to say anything and the next thing I knew, she was in army crawl position, front paws and head thrust under the dust pan digging out her prize.
We had a party. Honestly though, I think the find is enough of a reward for her. She loves it. In fact, if I love on her too long and don't hide things fast enough she starts yelling at me.
I did it again without her hint pile and she searched and searched. She eventually followed her nose back to the dust pan and was on her belly head and paws thrust under the pan again. At this point, there weren't very many kibble left so I decided to do something a bit easier to make sure we finished on a successful note.
I had her sit and hid a few kibble in and around the towel. She began searching and as she searched I would sneak kibble into her search area to keep her searching. The funny thing is she showed me up when she followed her nose to my closed fist at my side and whacked me with her paw.
She had nose worked her way to my hand full of kibble. That wasn't my plan, but I guess she's no dummy.
Wondering if it was a fluke or if she had seen me grabbing the kibble, I tried again. This time I hid a few kibble in the towel and purposefully held on to the rest of the food in my closed fist. She searched her kibble out on and under the towel and sniffed a circle around me. Just as before she sniffed her way to my fist and hit my hand.
I think my dog is smarter than me, or maybe she's just smarter than I give her credit for. It's so exciting to see her work and see her figure things out. I have to be careful that I don't move too quickly in my excitement. For example, even though today was so successful, tomorrow I shouldn't expect her to search the whole living room for one kibble hidden under a couch cushion. Tomorrow we'll probably just work with the towel and maybe the dust pan, but we won't do anything new until she shows me she's ready. I think I'm beginning to understand her needs and in that way I will be a better trainer for her. In the long run, she will be more successful and hopefully continue to love the "find it" game.