Our Dog Pack’s Activity #1 for Sheltering-in-Place
During these times where many of us are sheltering-at-home, there are two essential things:
Human cookies this is. I am not sure what is up with craving cookies, but there is something immensely comforting about nibbling cookies when faced with waves of scary news.
Activities at home
Binge watching television is okay to a point. But after year 3, episode 15 of your current series, we need to get moving before we get sores on our bums. Walking has become the activity du jour. I have seen a parade of neighbors walking their dogs, and I never knew they had a dog: Where have those people been keeping a Malinois?? But Facebook is filled with cute memes about dogs who are exhausted after multiple walks and that does not begin to address the pain of our arthritic human knees.
As an alternative, I would like to share some other activities that do not require walking past the neighbor’s house with your dog yet one more time. I will provide one activity a week so you have time to practice before you start another game.
There are dozens of lists of dog games online. These particular games are unique because they combine tricks from the AKC tricks title requirement and activities adapted from dog sports. All of them can be done by dogs of every size and shape, but you should, of course, make sure that any specific activity is appropriate for your dog.
Also, most lists of dog games provide a cursory summary. Poppy and I will provide step x step instructions so you can proceed methodically
Today’s game is the favorite of all my dogs. Let’s get started.
Open Box Searching
This game is the first step of teaching your dog to search. It is the most widely-used method to introduce the sport of Nosework/Scentwork. However, it is fun for virtually any dog even if you never go beyond the beginning level. Five pound dogs do Nosework. Giant breeds do Nosework. Three-legged dog do Nosework. Blind dogs do Nosework.
Dogs love this game because they get to use their noses and eat. Honestly, could anything be better?
Your goal: Within a few days, your dog will be able to search a group of boxes to find the “hot” box using just his nose.
You will need to gather up a bunch of boxes. Get those shoes out of those boxes. Get boxes from deliveries out of the recycle. You can use shoe sized plastic boxes. The key thing is that the boxes need to be a size where your dog can reach comfortably to the bottom. Cut boxes down for tiny dogs if necessary. The photo below is a good size for all dogs and especially small dogs. Two of your boxes will be clean boxes. One will be your hot box. Label your hot box in some way. This will prevent contamination which we will discuss in a moment.
However, you may need to get creative. Here are two other box options. The pod box might have to be cut down to provide easy access to the bottom.
You will also need to determine your dog’s favorite food from foods that you have on hand. Hot dogs? String Cheese? Tuna brownies. Your dog needs to want to find the food so it has to be high value. If you are not sure, put one type of food in one hand and one type in another. Hold them out. Whichever your dog eats first, use that one.
Lastly, you will need to have a flat collar or harness for your dog. We want the dog to move forward freely so the harness must attach on the back rather than the no-pull variety. Collars such as a choke or prong are never used.
How to Proceed:
Find a quiet, flat place to start. It can be a room in your house, your garage, your yard. If you are outside, pavement is better than grass or dirt but use what you have.
If you have someone to help, have them hold your dog on a leash and flat collar
or harness. Let the dog watch you. If you are working alone, tie your dog up on a flat collar and let him watch you. There are no secrets while the dog is learning the game.
Start with three boxes. No closed lids on any box. Put two of the boxes on the ground about 10 feet from the dog. Not an exact measurement…These two clean boxes should be a few feet apart. Put the food in the third box. Hold the box and take it close to your dog. Let him eat small treats out of it.
Rattle the food a bit. Let him see it.
Then back away and put the box on the ground a few feet from clean boxes.
Quickly return to your dog, take the leash and let him move forward toward the boxes.
Don’t talk (the hardest thing in the world for people!). If you have done a good job of getting him excited about the food, he will find the box and eat the treats you have put in the box.
Now you can talk. Praise him profusely while he enjoys the food. As soon as he is done, gently move him away from the box and back to the starting place. Be careful not to jerk him away because that would be a mixed message.
Next, hand him back to your partner or tie him up again. Repeat exactly. Put food in the hot box. Tease the pup with it. Back away so he keeps watching you. Now put the box down in a new place. Go back and get your dog while he is still locked on boxes. Let him search.
Repeat this exercise moving the hot box each time. Keep some distance between the boxes.
To make the game extra fun, you can toss a bit of extra food in the hot box after your dog finds it. The higher value you make the hot box the better
Your dog’s enthusiasm should grow with each search. Don’t worry about obedience. This is his time to be a dog and play.
You can play this game 3-5 times each session and repeat it several times a day. Very quickly, your dog should see the boxes and get enthusiastic. This is as it should be. A friend’s Labrador used to see the boxes and just buck into the air. This is great! There is never any discipline associated with searching.
It is important to keep clean boxes clean and hot boxes hot. This is why labeling is important. Keep them separate while you are training. And, most importantly, when you put your boxes away between training sessions, do not store clean and hot boxes together. If a box gets contaminated, toss it out.
How to Progress:
After a week or two of playing, your dog will be ready for a bigger challenge. There are two ways to add to the game. First, you may add more boxes. Do this gradually, but you can build up to as many boxes as you can gather.
You can also expand the distance between the boxes so dogs have to search a larger area. Hot boxes on the outer edges are typically the hardest so save those for when your dog is asking for more.
Setting up your boxes in new areas is another good step. This can be as simple as moving from the back yard to the front yard or driveway.
If you have an enclosed area, play the game with your dog both on and off the leash.
Now the big step. Put your dog in the house or car or crate where he cannot see the boxes. Put all your clean boxes and your hot box out. Bring your dog out. He should see the boxes and go, “Game on!” Let him go to work.
If your dog is less than enthusiastic, try a new food. Remember, your dog must be interested in finding the treats(s).
If you add difficulty and your dog’s interest flags, go back to a simpler level with fewer boxes and a smaller area.
If your dog keeps looking at you, he is probably used to getting direction from you. Since we want him to take the initiative here, look at the boxes rather than at him. Extend your arms in a I-have-no-idea pose. Move your feet so he knows his can move. If he is still stuck, toss a treat toward the hot box. It does not matter if it lands in it. Let him eat it and then see if he finds food in the box. You can also start him much closer to the food box if needed.
If your dog struggles to find the hot box on a search, tap a clean box nearby. This will draw his attention to the correct area, and he is very likely to find the correct box. Don’t ever tap the hot box because this will teach him that you will find it for him.
If you have done a lot of obedience work, you may find your dog wanting to stay by your side. They get used to direction and have to learn it is okay to move ahead of you. If you are in an enclosed area, I would recommend taking the leash off and letting them work free. You can also walk them out to the box initially and let them eat the treat. Gradually they will want to get to the hot box and will move ahead of you.
People are programmed to talk and sometimes handlers chatter through a search. This only serves to distract the dog. So do your best to hush up until your dog locates the correct box. Then you can lavish the praise.
If you have any questions, you are welcome to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Put open box searching in subject line so I do not think you are selling something.
Hope you have fun. Sniffing is actually quite tiring for dogs (in a good way) because it engages their whole being. It may earn a few minutes to ice your knees or take a nap.