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.


Rainy day game – toy search

By Sindhoor Pangal, Bangalore Mirror Bureau | Jun 22, 2015, 07.49 PM IST

Next week, I leave to Ashville to learn from Anne Lil Kvam, a remarkable woman who trained dogs to sniff out land mines in Angola. In preparation for her classes, I have been brushing up on her book “The Canine Kingdom of Scent”. So today, I’d like to present to you a game from that book that is perfect for rainy days like these – Toy Search.

For this, you will need an appropriately exciting toy and highly exciting treats. An appropriately exciting toy is one that is exciting enough for the dog to show some interest in. But not one that the dog will be so interested in that he will not want to have anything to do with you after he gets the toy. Highly exciting treats have to be fresh chicken, paneer or fish. Biscuits and dry treats just won’t do.
To start Toy Search, we first “charge” a toy. By that I mean I get the dog to learn that picking up the toy will earn the dog a treat. Start in a quiet place. No distractions. No people moving around. Sit down calmly with your dog. The calmer you are, the calmer your dog will be, the more he will be able to concentrate on what you are doing.

Step 1: Dangle the toy in front of him and tempt him to take it. The first attempt he makes to take the toy from your hand, praise and treat him (for brevity, I’ll combine praise and treat to reward). Repeat 3 to 5 times. Take a break. Start again, repeat twice and move to step two.
Step 2: Drop the toy in front of him and wiggle it around. The second he takes it, reward. If he does not do it, go back to step one. If he does it, repeat 3 to 5 times. Take a break. Start again, repeat twice and proceed.

Step 3: Hold the dog’s harness and drop the toy a few feet away from him. Let him go. When he takes it, reward. If he does not, go back to step 2. If he does, repeat 2 times and then name the toy. Naming the toy is simple. Pick a name for the toy like “Piggy” and say the name of the toy just before releasing the dog. Repeat two more times. Take a break. Proceed.

Step 4: Have someone hold him back or tether him. If he has a reliable “Stay”, you can give him that command too. Go behind a wall, drop the toy, name it (let’s say “Piggy”) and release him. When he finds Piggy, reward him. If he struggles, go back to step 3. If he does just fine, repeat this 3 to 5 times.
Step 5: Now start hiding Piggy in slightly harder places in the next room. The point is to find by sniffing the toy out, not by searching with the eyes. So hide it out of sight. If he is struggling, pick simpler places for Piggy to hide in. If he is finding it easy, get more creative. You can start introducing multiple rooms by pretending to hide in three different rooms before releasing the dog. Start from Step 1 or 2 for a new toy with a new name.

Take frequent breaks. During the break, do not engage the dog in any hyperactivity. Just allow the dog to relax. The total session should last five to ten minutes. One session a day is plenty in the beginning. Dogs need long naps after these sessions. Nose work is intense and needs a lot of rest.

Smelly Delights

Bangalore Mirror Bureau | May 4, 2015, 08.35 PM IST

Dogs don’t act on the world by handling objects or by eyeballing them, as people might, or by pointing and asking others to act on the object (as the timid might); instead, they bravely stride right up to a new, unknown object, stretch their magnificent snouts within millimeters of it, and take a nice deep sniff,” writes Alexandra Horowitz in her book Inside of a Dog. I think this creates the perfect mental image of how our dogs see the world. The power of a dog’s nose opens up a whole new world for him that we are barely even aware of. We walk past this world in complete oblivion, while our dogs perceive this whole other world and interact in it too.

I have heard estimates that put a dog’s sense of smell anywhere between three thousand to thirty thousand times that of humans. Horowitz estimates that a Beagle’s sense of smell may even be millions of times more sensitive than ours. Can you then imagine how much of a dog’s brain is dedicated to the olfactory senses.

In her book, The Canine Kingdom of Scent, Anne Lil Kvam explains, “Imagine a beach 1,500 feet long, 150 feet wide and 40 inches deep. On this beach, a dog can find two grains of sand that smell differently. Incredible, isn’t it? Dogs I trained in Angola could find land mines hidden fifteen inches under the ground that were placed more than ten years ago. A South African colleague told me of a case where a dog was able to sniff out a mine which turned out to be a hundred feet away from where the dog was. And still we continue to wonder over Rambo’s restlessness when a bitch a couple of miles away is in heat.”

It’s no wonder when our dogs step out for a walk, there is a lot they want to sniff. The outside world is a treasure trove of scents. The scents are not only interesting, but they also contain vital social information for dogs. A dog sniffs the pee of another dog and gathers information including, but not limited to, the age, gender, stress levels, health, frequency of visit and interest in mating. Dogs are highly social animals and social information is very exciting to dogs. Often dogs will pee in response to all the information they gathered from the road – leaving behind a little social signature of their own.

Street dogs often have the luxury of engaging their ever-curious snouts in plenty of sniffing and information gathering. It’s the best kind of mental stimulation a dog can get. Our poor companion dogs are deprived of this joy. Whatever scents are left behind, we wipe it clean with disinfectant. While a dog’s nose is powerful enough to sniff through it, it’s just not so much fun to be sniffing in such strong disinfectants. So they often give up sniffing at home.

That does not mean the scents have to leave their lives. We can reintroduce the scents into their lives by using a little bit of our imagination. Walks are of course great sources for scents. So allow your dog the luxury of plenty of sniffing. 

If your dog is not really sniffing on his walks, it is perhaps due to some old habits that got built in inadvertently. Such dogs need to be encouraged a little. They need to be shown that it’s okay to sniff. I do this by carrying a few treats and scattering it on grassy patches or leaf piles encountered on walks.
A dog starts sniffing for the treats and soon enjoys the sniffing even without the treats. I also bring in interesting things from the outside world, for the dogs to sniff – twigs, coconut shells, stones, toys of other dogs etc. We have the luxury of travelling far and wide, at least from our dog’s perspective. We can at least bring back smelly souvenirs to brighten their day, can’t we? 

Yoga for your dogs

By Sindhoor Pangal, Bangalore Mirror Bureau | Sep 1, 2014, 09.48 PM IST

We are all quite familiar with this concept of balance —be it the new corporate parlance of work-life balance or the old adage about all work and no play. What we are not familiar with is how this applies to dogs.

Classical training looked at keeping a dog physically fit and receptive to owner’s commands. But there’s more literature from different parts of the world that not only recognises the more cognitive part of animals’ brains, but also their emotions. We are not talking about simple emotions like anger and joy, but the more complicated ones like love and grief.

If our dog is capable of these emotions, then one cannot help wonder how much more that furry head is capable of. That begs the question, are we mentally stimulating our dogs enough? It does not take much imagination to realise how difficult our life would be if there are no outlets for our mental faculties. Would the same not hold true for your dog too?

Let me ask you to indulge me in a little test. Take a little piece of your dog’s all-time favourite food. Let your dog see that you have put the food on the floor. Quickly cover the food with a piece of kitchen towel or cloth. See how your dog solves this problem. I am quite sure that if you all wrote back to me with what your dog did, I would have as many different solutions as I have responses. Dogs are indeed smart and have a personality. 

So the next question to ask is: how do we ensure they get enough mental stimulation daily. For this, we just need to look at what are those pesky little areas where they seem to cause us inconvenience. See how they use their brain and play that back as a puzzle. For example, my Indy, Tigger, likes to tear things out. So I give her a newspaper, crumpled up with treats and stuffed into a box, which is then stuffed into a bigger box and taped up. She can go at it for quite a while and is spent at the end of it.

Another thing that dogs are so incredibly good at is using their nose. When they are born, for a few days they are blind and deaf. Even at that stage they can smell and smell well. So giving them something to use their nose is a great idea. Get them to sniff out hidden treats. As he starts getting better, complicate the game. Push his limits. He will surprise you at how good he is at sniffing out treats.

If you have a lawn, scatter treats around and let him sniff it out. It’s like yoga for a dog. Nothing calms a dog down like this particular activity. When I was studying dog behavior in Norway, I was able to witness a project called Dog Pulse. The project measured the heart rate of a dog as he went about doing his usual activities. The dog that had come in for the test that particular day was a very stressed dog. His heart rate should have been at 120, but was at 200-plus. As he started sniffing out the treats the heart rate dropped gradually to 130.

This is the amazing thing about use of brain and indulging in calming activity. It exercises our dogs in areas where they are largely ignored. And it calms the dogs too. Blindly increasing physical exercise as a response to all issues is not going to solve the problem. If a dog is mentally stressed, his mental issues need to be addressed. Calming activities like nose work help reduce some of the mental stress in dogs.