Most dogs love to use their noses to sniff for things including, and especially, food. Teaching a dog to snuffle and sniff for treats and putting it on cue can be one of the most simple and useful things you can teach the dog in your life. I call this behavior “find it”, but you could call it whatever you like – sniff, search, snuffle, forage, nose down, etc.
What It’s Good For
- Keeping all your dog’s four feet on the floor or ground
- Keeping the leash loose
- Walking past things like people or other dogs that may be exciting for your dog
- Creating distance from those exciting things mentioned above
- Preventing your dog from staring at other people or other dogs
- Possibly decreasing your dog’s heart rate and level of arousal (http://www.dogfieldstudy.com/en/pulse-study/at-the-heart-of-the-walk more research is needed in this area)
- Can be used to build “good feelings” about other things in the environment
- Can be used to change not so great feelings about some other things in the environment (seek help from a behavior professional if this is what you are working on)
- To reinforce other desirable behaviors (like attention, recall, loose leash, etc)
- A great gauge of how your dog is feeling about a situation and/or if your dog is able to do other training in a specific environment
“Find it” Isn’t Free
It may seem like you could simply say “find it” and drop treats and be good to go. That may be the case in a low distraction environment like in your living room when no one else is around. However, if you try to take this idea and drop it in to one of the scenarios mentioned above like walking past people and dogs, there is a good chance you are going to say “I tried that and it doesn’t work with my dog.” or “that only works when my dog is not excited.”. Saying “find it” and dropping treats onto the ground for our dog to snuffle and gobble up seems like such a simple task that we may expect it should come for free, but if we want to be able to use this skill successfully in a variety of situations, we need to teach it just like we would any other behavior.
That means, we should first teach this behavior at home when there is not much going on, and then systematically change the picture for our dog as we introduce new environments, and new challenges. As we make changes to that environmental picture, we will want to make sure we are always working at a level where our dog can be successful. First things first though, let’s talk about how to teach this skill.
How to Teach This Skill
Grab some treats, or even just a handful of your dog’s kibble. In fact, you could use all of their breakfast or dinner to teach this if you wanted. Go to a space in your home with few distractions. Put your treats in a treat pouch or in a bowl on a high shelf. Grab a few treats out of the pouch or bowl. Hold the treats in your hand. When your dog is looking at you, drop the treats on to the ground. As your dog eats those treats, you can reload your hand. Wait until your dog is looking at you again, and then drop the treats and let them scatter again. Reload your treat hand again. The next time your dog is looking at you, drop the treats in a slightly different location. Do this a few times, slightly changing where you drop the treats each time. Assuming your dog is eating the treats after you drop them each time, you can now add your cue.
So now, everything else stays the same, but you will simply say “find it” right before you drop and scatter the treats scatter the treats. If you want the words “find it” (or whatever words you choose) to be really meaningful in the future, you want to make sure that you first say the words and then drop the treats. If you do this, over time, the words will be the predictor of what is about to happen (dropped treats) and your dog will respond to the words. If you say the words and drop the treats at the same time however, the words will likely not be as meaningful as your hand motion is to the dogs. This means, that in the future, if you want to be able to say “find it” and have your dog drop their nose and look for treats, they may not be able to do that on the verbal signal alone. So make sure to pay attention to this part – say the words and then drop the treats.
Once your dogs is like “this is the greatest game ever!”, start practicing in other rooms of your house. Next, take it outdoors and practice in your backyard or on your front porch. Then, if there is a particular thing you feel “find it” could really help with in the future, you will want to look for ways to start adding that stimulus into the picture but at a level where your dog can be successful. For instance, if I know that I would like to use “find it” scatters to help my dog keep four feet on the ground when we are on the walking trail and a new person is nearby, the progression might look something like this: practice at home inside, practice at home outside, practice in an open field when people are a football field’s length away, practice when people are fifty feet away, practice when people are twenty feet away, and so on. I’m just making this progression plan up, but the idea is, you want to get a lot of successful repetitions in at the levels where your dog can be successful as you systematically inch closer to the situations that are more challenging. Whether we are talking sit, down, loose leash walking, recall, “find it” or any other behavior, one of the most common pitfalls I see people falling into is training the behavior in an easy location, and then moving to a challenging location, and thinking the skill just “doesn’t work” for that situation. the skill doesn’t work right now because it’s not been taught systematically and incrementally working toward that situation. This is true even of a simple skill like “find it”. This brings up another interesting point and thing that I love about “find it”.
The way it is explained here, this skill simply means “drop your nose and eat treats”. If you have trained for “find it” and your dog understands the skill in a low distraction environment, and you now ask for “find it” when you are out and about, if your dog cannot drop their nose and eat treats, this likely tells you a bit about their potential emotional and/or mental state about the situation you are in. You definitely aren’t in a position to ask for more difficult behaviors like sit or come, and you most likely need to think about how you can decrease distance or in some other way decrease the intensity of the situation for your dog so that they are able to focus on you again.
Teach your dog this skill and I bet it will fast become one of their, and one of your, favorites! Once your dog understands the skill and you are ready to move outdoors, you can practice with their entire meal (a few scatters at a time) in your yard. Many dogs will love sniffing and foraging for the food in the grass so you will be building your “find it” cue, and also adding some fun enrichment to your dog’s day. I’d love to see your videos and hear how you use this skill if you try this!