A question of snooping ...
Snooping permitted? Why, of course it is! If by snooping we mean utilising the canine's extraordinary powers of smell, we're thus opening up a new world of discoveries where human and dog can embark on the path to becoming a successful snooper team.
First off, let's have a closer look at professional sniffer dogs. They cooperate closely with their humans, working as customs and police dogs, as hunting dogs, rescue dogs, as mould-detector dogs and mine-detector dogs. In each case, it is their excellent nose that allows them to become indispensible helpers. Yet almost any dog could theoretically carry out these important tasks – if it had been trained from early youth.
The stars among sniffer dogs include the Bloodhound, the Beagle and certain varieties of Spaniel. This doesn't mean, however, that other breeds or types of dog are inferior in the olfactory department. Even a dog with the worst possible sense of smell will still have the potential to awe us humans with its abilities.
Dogs are not just equipped with an excellent sense of smell, they also thoroughly enjoy 'sniffing things out'. That's the reason why we often have a problem out on walks, when our dog constantly sniffs anything and everything he comes across. Sometimes it can be hard for us to get through to them, so lost are they in their world of interesting smells. However, we can also take advantage of this passion for investigating with their noses – in other words, their 'snooping' can be of great benefit to them and to us.
This book covers a lot of ground and will suggest many exciting sniffing ideas to try with your budding snooper dog. We begin with some fun nose games, and move on to suggestions for interesting activities requiring longer and more structured training, using concepts similar to those used with hunting or rescue dogs. In particular, the elements about telling different smells apart, the 'blind retrieve', and 'dragging and tracking' will be useful for utilising the instincts of dogs with a passion for hunting.
As well as enjoying lots of fun and games, this training will also improve our dog's levels of calm and obedience. In addition, for working and mixed breeds in particular, an activity only becomes worthwhile if the dogs feel they are doing something important. We should therefore endeavour to give an air of seriousness to our dog's training.
Before we begin, we will take a further look at the canine's incredible sense of smell.
The dog's sense of smell
While the human olfactory organ is comprised of five million smell receptors, the dog – depending on the breed and type – has up to 200 million receptors. The surface area of a dog's nasal lining is about 85 to 200 square centimetres; a human's is only five square centimetres. If you also take into account that about ten percent of the dog's brain is reserved for the processing of olfactory information, you can imagine how much greater the dog's powers of smell must be compared with the human's.
Dogs take in a huge quantity of different smells simulataneously, filtering the interesting ones in order to pursue them further. When a dog follows a particular trail, he can smell microscopically small dead skin cells or squashed microbes, no matter if the trail is several hours or even days old. The micro-organisms' state of decomposition can tell him whether a trail runs from right to left or from left to right. He is able to smell such a scent trail as clearly as we would be able to see it had it been marked with luminous paint. Try to imagine that!
Nose work is extremely tiring for dogs. The high breathing rate involved – up to 300 times per minute – increases their pulse frequency and body temperature. This is exhausting for a dog so, particularly early on in his education, it would be advisable to keep the training sessions shorter in duration. You will, however, notice your dog's stamina and powers of concentration will improve steadily. This also has a positive effect regarding other aspects of his behaviour – for instance, you might notice an increase in his ability to concentrate on you, despite the presence of external stimuli. You might also find he doesn't get nervous or stressed as easily. This is because his brain, as well as his body, is becoming fitter and healthier.
How does a dog learn?
The tasks our dogs learn when doing nose work are often difficult and complex. Not every dog learns the same things in the same way. While dogs who mainly rely on their eyes, such as pastoral breeds (think of a Collie herding sheep) will swiftly benefit from watching; 'action' dogs such as terriers often learn quickly by trial and error. Others – above all sensitive, emotionled dogs, such as Irish Setters – feel most comfortable and will understand quicker if the first steps of a new exercise are conditioned very clearly. Think a little about your dog, and try different training approaches to discover which approach suits. This is an exciting process, and at the same time will allow you to get to know him better. This will benefit you in terms of your everyday routine, because if you understand which training approach is the most appropriate for your dog, it will be easier and quicker to teach him new things. In addition, you will be able to find explanations for some of his (perhaps previously mysterious) behaviour. When we train a dog, however, we should remember that in stressful situations he may develop a 'block', which makes it impossible for him to learn anything. For this reason, you should avoid exposing him to too much stress. This can be triggered by external stimuli, such as the weather, certain smells or other dogs, but also if your dog feels under pressure simply because he doesn't understand what you want him to do.
Nose work: going by instinct
Let us consider the fact that in doing 'snooping' games, we are actually working with our dog's instincts. That's why nose work offers an ideal opportunity – particularly for bored dogs or those with a strong instinct to hunt – to happily tire themselves out while at the same time decreasing their urge for adventure and hunting. Nose work will address various canine instincts – the tracking instinct, the flushing instinct, the retrieving instinct, the mental and physical activity instinct – depending on which snooping task we set.
For the sake of completeness, we will have a brief look at the individual instincts concerned. Then it will become obvious what opportunities the various snooping tasks offer for utilising the dog's natural instincts (and help with problem behaviours).
The tracking instinct brings to the fore the dog's desire to pick up a track and follow it.
The flushing instinct requires the dog to work with his nose in the air without picking up a track. At the same time, the dog uses his eyes and ears.
A dog with a pronounced prey instinct doesn't just want to pursue his prey, but also catch it.
The retrieving instinct makes our dog pick up the found objects and carry them away. The aim of our training should therefore be – if possible – to encourage him to carry the prey to us.
And finally, nose work also gratifies the dog's activity instinct, because our dog has to run, climb and crawl in order to find the prey object. This is great for particularly lively and vivacious dogs – they don't have to aimlessly rush around the countryside any more, but are required to use their brainpower instead in order to follow a plan towards a set goal.
All these instincts are addressed by the search tasks; after the training they will decrease for a short while, so that even highly instinctively-charged dogs discover a satisfying state of inner calm. And finally, training with the instincts rather than against them produces a deep bond between human and dog, which will, last but not least, lead to a more obedient dog.
Tips and tricks for expert sniffers
No matter what kind of snooping tasks our dogs are supposed to carry out, with the right knowledge you can help them to work quickly and with success.
Particularly when training outdoors, you have to take into account the wind direction, temperature and humidity.
Generally, working against the wind will assist the dog, but this may not always be what you want. We can use the wind direction to greatly influence his style of working, in a positive as well as negative way. As we shall discover, this is especially significant for the blind retrieve and for dragging and tracking work. The same applies to the strength of wind. Strong winds dissipate smells over a large area, and our dog will be more likely to search with his nose in the air. Slight winds will have the dog search with his nose on the ground. The higher the temperature, the more difficult it is for the dog to carry out his task, because these miniscule organic traces will decompose much quicker when it's hot; in addition the dog's nose dries out much more quickly. The greater the humidity levels, the easier it is for the dog to be successful in his search. You should offer your dog a drink at regular intervals to make up for the loss of fluids and to keep his nose moist for an improved ability to smell. While observing your dog at work, you will discover some exciting things. Have a look at whether he is working with his nose to the ground, with a half-raised nose, or with his nose in the air. Does he walk in large semi-circles or small ones? Does he move swiftly away from you, or is he frequently 'asking' whether he is still going in the right direction? All this defines his working style, enabling you to better understand your canine friend in everyday situations too.
There is one other small detail you ought to bear in mind: older dogs and dogs with a very short nose have a diminished sense of smell. Pick stronger scents for them so they will still enjoy doing nose work.
Always send your dog off on a search from the heel position. This ritual will facilitate his work, while at the same time training his impulse control. This means the ability to wait calmly before the start of any working action, which also applies to other life situations in general – for example, not to dash off on a whim, but to wait for permission instead.
Training with scents
There are lots of possible scents, but not all are equally useful. Sniffing coffee, for instance, can be very unappealing to dogs. They also tend to have an extreme dislike for certain perfumes. Smells they do like include camomile tea; any type of meat or chicken broth, aniseed oil (very diluted) and 'game' smells. Artificial game aromas are available from fieldsports retailers. But beware – I would only work with these as part of an anti-hunting training programme, when the objective is to offer a dog with a pronounced hunting instinct an alternative to tracking game in order to convert him to more harmless smells in the course of his training.
When working with scents, remember some smells that seem normal to us might be unpleasant to the dog. In this case, don't be surprised if he doesn't want to sniff a particular substance, and instead tries to avoid this smell. If you're under the impression that your dog 'doesn't understand' or 'doesn't smell anything', the real reason for this might well be that a particular scent is too unpleasant or too strong for him.
When introducing a new scent, you should dilute it a little bit more with every subsequent training session. This keeps his interest levels high.
Training with game substitutes
Think carefully about whether you use hare furs, duck feathers or other types of game substitutes for training, especially if you want to avoid giving your dog ideas about potentially searching for these. However, there is one exception: again and again we meet dogs who come for anti-hunting training who can only work up any enthusiasm at all if game substitutes are involved.
Properly deployed, they often provide the only access to dogs with a strong hunting instinct. If you can do retrieving or nose work with such a dog, you have finally found something that will at least come close to offering an alternative to real game. However, before too long you ought to make sure that he will also get excited about hot dog drags and retrieving dummies, and use the game substitute as a mere bridging device. You can also use the game substitutes for dragging and the blind retrieve, about which we will read more at a later stage.
When doing more challenging nose work with our dog, there are some training aids which we will need to use more frequently.
This includes the water bottle, which we offer to our trainee more often than usual because sniffing is thirsty work, and a moist nose is better at picking up smells than a dry one.
Treats are the perfect tool for motivating a dog during training. However, they should not smell better or stronger than the object that the dog is supposed to sniff out.
Apart from the short lead, we also frequently need a long one, and this should be a field or drag line. Depending on the terrain and the dog's speed, a length of about five to ten metres has proved most appropriate. Make sure that the lead's diameter reflects the dog's size and weight.
If you are using a collar, this has to fit the dog well; not be too loose, but not too tight either. You should be able to slip two fingers between the collar and the dog's neck.
A harness is a better choice than a collar for dragging and tracking exercises, because in this instance the dog is allowed to pull on the Lead. If he was wearing a collar, this would not be good for his health.
If your dog likes neither toys, nor standard dummies, as a last resort you can use a food dummy as a search object. Every now and again – as a jackpot – the expert snooper is allowed to help himself from the food dummy (with your assistance).
The eyes during nose work
Why is it interesting to know what a dog sees with his eyes, when we're dealing with nose work? It's simple: because our dog doesn't close his eyes while sniffing. If we want to achieve certain training goals, the dog's vision can either help or hinder, depending on how we structure our training.
Dogs are not completely colour blind, but see the world in a similar way to those humans who suffer from red-green blindness. They are able to see some blue tones, but to a dog most colours present themselves as black, white or grey.
By choosing a search object of a particular colour, you might be able to determine whether the dog will use only his nose, or whether he will use his eyes as well. For example, if you take a blue-green search object, our dog will find it – especially in the grass – by using his eyes. If, on the other hand, we opted for an orange coloured object, this would almost be invisible to him, and the dog would have to find it by using his nose. If we have our dog search for a white sock, we might put it on dark floor tiles, because a quick success would give him self-confidence early on. Later, we put the white sock on a white carpet, and our snooping ace has to deploy his nose.
We should definitely make use of this knowledge for doing nose work as well. In the cup game (see page 34), what good is it if your dog only ever lifts up the blue cup when searching for treats because it sticks out prominently next to the two brown ones? It's no good at all – so to begin with you should use cups which are the same colour. If your dog is already a seasoned sleuth, you can use one blue cup to lead him up the garden path, thus making his task more difficult.
It is also important to know that dogs primarily see objects that move, as they prioritise anything that is in motion. We can use this in order to steer our dog's instincts. If a dog is highly instinct-driven and over- motivated during training, we don't throw objects that he has to search for later, but instead we slowly place the object on the ground while he's watching, or else we don't let him watch at all. But perhaps your training partner isn't in the mood for searching? Maybe he only has very weak instincts? In this case, throw the search object in a high arch trajectory into tall grass or behind an obstacle. In addition, you can accompany this action with a sound. The movement makes the object come 'alive'. You'll see his interest in it will increase in leaps and bounds.