Fuzzy friendship

Fuzzy friendship
Harpo waits, on his toes, hungrily surveying a cardboard box full of multicoloured plastic balls. I’ve thrown three small biscuits in with the balls, Harpo’s job is to find and eat them. He’s my six-year-old chocolate Labrador, and he likes this game. On the command “Find it”, he plunges forward, tossing the balls out of the way, shoving his nose into the gaps, inhaling great nosefuls of air to scent the location of the biscuits. Snorting like a truffle pig, he unearths the tiny pieces of food. I cheer him and he comes over for a fuss and another biscuit.

I’m spending the morning with Caroline Dunn, a retired dog trainer who’s offered to show me scent-based games anyone can do with their pet dog. Most of the dogs Caroline works with are high-performance “professionals” (she’s a training consultant for the National Search and Rescue Dog team based in Kent, who are regularly deployed to search for missing people, particularly those with dementia), but there’s growing interest in “nosework” as a way of addressing dog behaviour issues, as well as a great owner-pooch bonding activity.

Olfactory exercises

Put simply, nosework lets your dog do what he was designed to do, beating boredom and burning energy. It doesn’t require lots of time, expensive equipment or a special location. Wherever you are, you can play nose games, and your furry friend will love you for it. “If you’ve got a dog with a lot of energy you can take him for a three-hour walk and he may still be raring to go. Give him a task that requires him to think, and he’ll be tired after 15 minutes,” Caroline explains. And giving a dog a job he or she can excel at delivers profound benefits in confidence and doggy contentment.

The next task Caroline sets is a step more advanced – teaching Harpo to tell me when he locates a scented item that isn’t itself edible. “Remember we’re not teaching the dog to scent, he can do that himself – Harpo’s nose is 100 times more powerful than yours. What we’re teaching him is to tell you that he can smell something and to show you where it is.”
Caroline produces a dry redbush tea bag and waves it at me. “They’re highly scented, cheap, replaceable, and not toxic to dogs. Catnip works well too – anything that you can readily get your hands on.” Redbush tea is not interesting to Harpo in the way dog biscuits are. The challenge of this exercise is to teach him that if he finds the teabag, he’ll get a food reward, which is interesting.

I start off getting Harpo to touch my hand with his nose in exchange for a morsel of food. We’ve been practising this for a while, and it’s familiar to him. What changes today is that I sit the teabag in my hand, and change the instruction word: “Search”. He gets a clear “yes!” and a morsel when he noses the teabag in my hand. Then I dangle the teabag between thumb and forefinger.

Harpo touches my hand, then looks at me expecting his biscuit. It doesn’t come. I can almost see the cogs in his brain turning, trying to work out what he has to do. He bobs his head up, grazing the teabag with his nose. I mark the moment with a sharp “yes!” and the biscuit is rewarded. It may have been accidental, but it doesn’t matter. He head-bobs the teabag again, a biscuit appears, I’m smiling and he’s wagging.

Next I move the teabag to my knee and give the same command. He touches my hand once, twice, tries a third time, then touches my sleeve, then sits down, a furry frown on his face. Never before have I so desperately willed him to be clever. Then he sees the teabag and gives it a nudge with his nose. Yes! This dog is a genius. We go back and forth, moving the teabag from hand to knee, then to the grass next to me, making sure that he understands that “Search” means “find and touch the teabag”. We finish on an easy one and take a break.

What we’re doing, Caroline explains, is air-scenting to discriminate different scents. Tracking requires more skill from the handler and involves following the exact path a person has taken. As we get back to “Hunt the Teabag”, Caroline encourages me to be really precise with my marker word, “Yes”. Accuracy on my part will help Harpo understand far quicker. Caroline takes over the exercise for a few repetitions and it’s immediately clear that her precision and praise yields better results from Harpo. Back with me, and we start to move the teabag between locations so there’s a trace of smell before placing it down and commanding Harpo to “Search!”. He seems to get it, sniffing to check each spot, but falters before the final location.

I want to help him by pointing, but Caroline stops me. “It’s easy to distract a dog with inaccurate signals, and you don’t want him to rely on you to tell him where to sniff,” she explains. “Don’t repeat the command. If he loses interest or gets confused before he makes the find, just pick up the teabag and reset the exercise, perhaps to an easier version.”

My job is to keep the motivation high, and to finish when it’s still fun for both of us. Harpo is looking a bit bleary and it’s time to stop. We do two more teabag touches to end on a good note, and he gets the rest of the dog biscuits in my pocket. Harpo snores on the car ride home. We were training, on and off, for about 50 minutes and he’s as dog tired as if he’d done a whole-day hill walk.

The following morning we do more teabag games. Harpo has remembered what we did and immediately grasps the next stage, gleefully searching our garden for teabags. The next step will be to find the right teabag from a selection. Then in more challenging environments, or across longer distances. We won’t be called up as professionals any time soon, but there’s now a world of smell-based bonding we can discover together.

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