The Find It Game

‘Find it’ is a great game for your dog.  This game is especially good because it engages their scent detection skills. The dog’s nose is vastly superior to the human nose and a large proportion of the dog’s brain is taken up with processing olfactory information. This means that when you engage your dog in scent activities and games, you are getting him to activate a large area of his brain. Scenting activities are very enriching for your dog.

The graphic refers to using Find It as a game to help your dog cope with situations where he may be a bit uncomfortable. If you want to use this game in this way, there are couple of things to keep in mind.

  1. Practice the game lots in comfortable environments so that your dog learns to love the game. Do this first – before you ever attempt to use it to help your dog in an uncomfortable setting.
  2. If you are working in a situation where your dog is uncomfortable, and your dog is unable to take food, you need to back off, give more space and find the sweet spot where your dog is still aware of the ‘Scary Thing’ but is comfortable enough to respond to easy cues (like look, touch, sit). Play the game there and as your dog gets comfortable, ever so slowly decrease distance from the ‘Scary Thing’.  You always want your dog to be in the zone where he can learn. A dog that is unable to eat, or is lunging and barking, or cowering behind you is NOT in a learning zone.  So be sure your dog is able to take food from your hand, give you some attention and do a simple cue.  These tests will help you know if you are working at the right distance or not. If in doubt, move back and put more space between your dog and whatever is causing him concern. Don’t rush the process of moving forward.  Going too fast can set things back. The process of getting close to the Scary Thing can take days, weeks or months depending on the dog.
  3. Avoid throwing food TOWARDS the ‘Scary Thing’. It is much more effective to wait for your dog to look at the Scary Thing – then mark (with a clicker or a verbal marker like  ‘good’ or ‘yes’) and toss the food AWAY from it. After your dog moves back to get the treat, he will then likely move forward back to wards you and towards the Scary Thing – now you can mark him for moving towards it.  Any time your dog takes even a small step towards the Scary Thing, mark and toss the food away. We call this process of tossing the food away ‘Treat Back’ – placing the treat back away from something that causes the dog a bit of concern. Tossing away gives the dog the relief of being able to move away from the Scary Thing and teaches him that it is his choice to engage or not. Choice gives him control. In contrast, trying to get your dog comfortable with something by tossing towards it, pushes him to do something against his natural inclination and better judgement – a bit like offering someone chocolate to touch a spider if they are phobic of spiders. He may refuse, or he may dart in to grab the treat (if the value is high enough) – but will do so with a lot of anxious baggage. The emotional state of the dog at the time he learns something will carry forward with that behaviour into future exposures. Tossing away decreases anxiety, tossing towards does not – and may even cause a brief anxiety spike.
  4. If your dog is really struggling to cope in some situations – get professional help from a positive reinforcement based trainer. There are some listed on our find a trainer page.

Won’t tossing food on the ground create a sniffing monster? This is a common concern but there are a couple of things you can to do help your dog understand when sniffing the ground is appropriate and when it is not.

  • Start the game with a clear cue.
  • Teach a solid leave it / drop it.

Even though my Cairns love to sniff, I have not found them to become obsessed with sniffing the ground by using treats on the ground. I use treats on the ground in training whenever treat placement on the ground advances my training goals and I regularly use food search games for my own dogs.  Most of the time evening meals at my house are search games with food on the ground or floor – so this is a game they know and love and it turns what would otherwise be a one or two minute meal into a good 20 minutes of companionable searching that engages them all. If anything, since I have started using treats on the ground for training and meals, my own dogs seem less obsessed with searching for food on the ground than before.

With thanks to Behaviour Vet for permission to use their graphic.