Nose games

By Sindhoor Pangal, Bangalore Mirror Bureau | Jun 29, 2015, 09.20 PM IST

This week has been hectic for me. I am back in Ashville, North Carolina furthering my education in dog training. This time, the theme has been fun games to play with dogs. While in my previous articles I have highlighted the ill effects of playing fetch, today I want to talk about some alternative games that are enriching for dogs.

On the first day, we played a very basic game of Scent Discrimination. The dogs were systematically taught how to discriminate the scent of the keys of their owners from that of others. Within a matter of less than five minutes, the dogs were easily discriminating the keys from a set of three other keys. It was fascinating to see completely untrained dogs do this so quickly and easily. It just went to show how scent discrimination comes naturally to them. The game involves allowing a dog to sniff out the right set of keys, then rewarding the dog a few times. Then adding another set of keys into the mix, waiting for the dog to sniff the right set of keys and rewarding. Soon, you can add as many sets as you want and your dog knows exactly what you want of him and will pick out the right set with ease.

The next game we tried was retrieve. Though most of us are familiar with this game, this was actually a bit harder for the dog than scent discrimination. For a dog that had trouble picking up a toy in his mouth and bring it back, we just had to replace it with what is called a Prey Dummy — a container with treats in it. This was far less exciting for some of the dogs. But dogs like labradors and retrievers, as one would expect, loved this game.

The following day, we packed up all the dogs in cars and drove off to the woods. Our plan was to go tracking. Tracking is an exercise where a person pretends to be lost and the dog is asked to follow the scent trail to find the person. Sounds complicated, right? But our untrained dogs managed it in style.

The ‘lost’ person first starts laying out the track dragging some sausages behind him. After a few meters, the sausage is taken away. He then goes and hides in the woods. The dog and his handler then set out to look for the ‘lost’ person. The dog is initially sniffing the ground and following the scent of the sausage. But soon, the dog has caught scent of the person he is looking for and tracks the scent of the person. Eventually, the dog finds the person and gets his reward. Not a single dog failed to find the ‘lost’ person.
Anne Lill, our teacher, made it even more interesting. She added a twist at the end for the dogs who tracked the best. She made two of us walk out. One person dropped a sock along the track and turned to the right and hid. The other turned to the left and hid. The dog’s task was to pick up the scent of the person who dropped the sock and follow the trail of that person to the right. And just like that, without being told to, both dogs just knew what to do. Of course, the dogs picked for this exercise had fared really well in their initial tracking assignments. But overall, this week showed just how natural tracking and nose work is to dogs. When playing with dogs, think of how to incorporate the power of a dog’s nose into the game. The dog just enjoys it more.

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