1. Pay Attention / Find It Continued...

Exercise 1.9 - Shaping a 'Fetch Object' for Field Searches

Most dogs love to run out and fetch a ball for their owner.  Dogs are so renowned for being keen ball chasers that the pet market is full of ball chuckers, ball throwing plastic guns and there so many types of balls that you can buy for your dog; hard balls, soft foam balls, tennis balls, tough balls, balls with holes, giant balls and even mini balls for smaller mouths.  


The majority of dog owners are happy with a dog who dances in anticipation of the ball, chases after it the instant it’s thrown, maybe runs around with it for a bit, then eventually brings it back at and drops it at the owner’s feet.  


This is an informal game of fetch and while occasionally playing fetch with a ball like this isn’t likely to do any harm, repetitively chasing a ball day in and day out is a different matter and can have nasty consequences both to a dog's physical health (especially their joints if they are less than 1 year old) and to their mental well being.  


The top three reasons why ball throwing could be detrimental to your dog are:

  • Physical injuries and joint problems caused by rushing out to grab the ball (e.g. shoulder, neck and spine injuries).
  • Health issues due to over-exertion while ball chasing
  • Dogs becoming too aroused from ball chasing, resulting in hyperactivity or obsessive behaviours

So, we need to be careful but that doesn’t mean fetch games should stop altogether.  On the contrary, I’m a big fan of fetch games but they need to be played in a way that’s controlled, safe and fun.


Hopefully you already know to never play fetch with a stick, vets see many dogs with horrendous stick related injuries.  Chewing on sticks can be equally dangerous as large splinters can lodge in the mouth, causing open wounds that are prone to infection. If splinters are swallowed, the throat or stomach can be damaged.  Do Not Throw Sticks!


How Can We Make Fetch Safe & Stress Free?


  • Did I say already…never play fetch with sticks!
  • Don't use a ball thrower, always throw from your hand.
  • Roll the ball and allow it to come to a stop before you send your dog to get it 
  • Limit sessions to just a few throws (no more than five) and break them up with walking or other games.
  • Don't play fetch every day, this gives your dog a chance to mentally and physically rest from the game.
  • Don't play fetch in hot weather
  • Best of all play hide and seek games with tennis balls or toys, where your dog has to search for the ball and detect it by scent. This has them use their nose and is much better for tiring them out than simply chasing.  This is the topic we’re going to explore in this exercise and the following exercise 1.10 - Field Searches.


Teaching your dog to Fetch a Ball or Toy - Shaping & Back Chaining Method


Whether your dog is a natural retriever or not, the training process is the same.  Since delivering the ball back to you tends to be the most challenging part, I recommend starting with shaping that behaviour and then work backwards (back-chain) to the completed Fetch behaviour.


Remember: you indicate to your dog precisely which behaviour will result in his receiving a treat or other reward by “marking” the moment with a clicker or using a verbal marker (such as the word “Yes!”).  This is super important for shaping exercises.


The marker is a promise that a reward is on the way, and it gives the dog solid, instantaneous information about what behaviour he can repeat in order to earn more rewards.  


  1. Designate your dog’s most favourite toy as his fetch object.  Hold it in both hands and offer it to him, rather than throw it. If he sniffs it, mark that desired behaviour with a click! (or your alternate marker) and give him a reward.  If he merely glances in the object’s direction, mark the glance and give him a reward.
  2. In the beginning, reinforce your dog just for paying attention to the object.  In any series of “attention” trials with the fetch toy, sometimes he’ll sniff or touch it, sometimes he’ll just look at it, and sometimes he’ll put his mouth on it. 
  3. Once he understands the game, you can up the ante (this is called “raising the criteria”); you mark the behaviour and give him a treat only if he touches it.
  4. Then, later, you mark/reward only if opens his mouth (even slightly), and eventually, only if he actually puts his mouth on it, then for longer periods of “mouth on object.” 
  5. Gradually work towards holding the object in his mouth and picking it up from the floor right in front of you.
  6. With the article on the floor, click/treat him for looking at or sniffing the article, and build again from there.
  7. When he will mouth the object, move your hands a few inches away, and have him deliver it to you. 
  8. Next, gradually increase the distance between the article on the ground and your hands until your dog is picking the object up and delivering it to you from a few feet away.
  9. Next, start tossing the article a few feet and letting your dog go get it and bring it back.
  10. After a few successful toss/retrieves, ask your dog to wait (hold him gently if necessary) while you sometimes place, sometimes toss the article a few feet away. Return to his side, wait a few seconds, then release him to retrieve the object. (Vary the duration that you wait before releasing, just as you continue to vary the duration of the hold before you click and treat.)
  11. When your dog is routinely picking up the object, bringing it back to you, and reliably holding it until you click/treat, add your verbal cue of “Fetch,”, “Get it,” or whatever you plan to use. 


Don’t forget to keep it fun! This should be the best game in the world for your dog. If at any time he “quits” – that is, he stops playing the game – you may have raised the criteria too quickly, or you may have trained for too long. 


Remember that it’s always better to stop when you and your dog are having fun and winning, rather than when one or both of you are bored, tired, or frustrated.


We’re going to be using the Shaping technique for some of the activities in Section 9. Scent Detection & Nosework too.



Exercise 1.10 - Field Searches

Getting Started – Foraging!

It's part of our culture to walk the dog and provide him one or two meals a day but dogs need much more… Like us they need the right kind of physical exercise, proper mental stimulation, playtime, the chance to use their natural skills, and the opportunity to practice natural behaviour.


This is why your young dog is often active and still looking for something to do after his walk!  My routine when I get home from a walk is simple – scatter feeding time!


Scatter feeding is so simple yet your dog can use his scenting ability which he loves and it ensures he properly relaxes afterwards.  Simply find a food that your dog loves and scatter it around the garden in tiny bits and let him sniff and eat all the food engaging his mind and body simultaneously.  (Fish 4 Dogs Small Bite Sardine Kibble is the current scatter feeding favourite in my house!)


This type of engagement will use up lots of excess energy and the dog is highly likely to settle afterwards.  If you suspect your dog is a fussy eater and isn't likely to immediately tuck in, start with less food in a smaller area and make it extra special to sniff, for example, grated cheese or tiny bits of chopped meat and build up from there.

Important note: use scatter feeding before, or as the dog's meal, rather than after their meal as a full belly is not conducive to foraging!  Remember also to avoid using too much extra food.


Why foraging is so effective?

Foraging for food has been a main mission for dogs for 1000s of years.   Pre-domestication, up to a third of their life would have been focused on finding food.  If we offer them their meals in a bowl, even though they may love their food, we’re sadly missing a huge opportunity for keeping them happy.


Alongside the opportunity to find their food, foraging is an excellent opportunity for the dog to use his amazing nose.  The dog's ability to detect scent is simply incredible!


Everything in the world (including us) is made up of tiny particles and when particles reach the edge of something, they diffuse into the air.  It's that diffusion which carries scent and scent diffuses differently from different things.  So gas and vapour smell most, oil and liquid next, and then solid articles diffuse with less scent as the particles are most tightly packed. The scent that we recognise is tiny particles entering the air around the object or item.


Many food types smell quite strong. Cheese, meats and kibble are some of the strongest smelling foods there are and are therefore perfect for sniff games!


When a dog sniffs something very clever happens.  The particles enter the nasal cavity then a split occurs and air is taken different routes.  Some carries on to the circulatory system providing the body with the oxygen it needs, whilst some goes to the brain to be processed. The dog then exhales the air use through the slits at the side of his nose rather than pushing the air back out directly through his nostrils, which would also push out any incoming scent. This leaves the dog able to continually draw in scent through his nostrils and up towards the olfactory area of his brain gathering information.  All this is happening whilst the dog forages, which is why it's so relaxing and uses up so much energy!

  • Foraging for food is a natural and relaxing behaviour.
  • Scatter feeding will use up a lot of energy and aid relaxation, because sniffing is tiring.
  • Scatter feed your dog regularly (especially after a walk) with a food that motivates him to seek it out, go at your own dog's pace.  If he isn't much interested to start with just drop five bits of tasty food and build his confidence and ability from there.

Scatter feeding in the garden is one idea – here are a few more foraging ideas:

  • Hide food in a folded or rolled up tea towel for your dog to find
  • Put food directly into a box and loosely put the lid on for your dog
  • Wrap some food in paper for ripping and place a few around the room,
  • Put food at the bottom of a box and some of your dog's toys on top so he has to remove or go foraging among the toys to get the treats.
  • Pop food in each pocket of a muffin tray with a ball on top so your dog has to move each ball to get each bit of food.
  • Hide food at your dog's eye level around a room or in the garden so he really has to use his nose to sniff it out.
  • Tuck some food into a few cardboard rolls and close off at each end and hide the rolls around the room or garden for your dog to find and then open to get the food.  (I always save the toilet roll inner tubes for this – it’s one of Jim’s most favourite games!)
  • Even an empty cereal box with food in will provide foraging fun!


Field Searches – choosing a scent

Once your dog is accomplished foraging for food, we can begin to teach the basics of searching for a specific scent.  This is where the real fun begins!


The first thing to do is decide what scent you would like your dog to learn to find. For field searches out on a walk which is the subject of this exercise I recommend you train your dog to find items with just your scent on them.


A bit gross to consider but people shed hundreds of tiny skin cells every hour, and those cells smell like us.  Humans smell very strongly and your dog can easily learn to search for your scent.  This means you don’t have to worry about keeping your dog’s search items (balls / toys etc) in a special container and also if you ever drop a glove or other item out on your walk your dog will help you find it!


If you would rather choose a specific scent by all means do so but choosing a scent must be done with care because of the dogs tender nose.  There's no point asking your dog to find something that's uncomfortable for him to sniff or that's particularly difficult to find.  

Good scents to use are: vanilla, ginger, cat nip and sage.


Scents to avoid: chilli, pepper, citrus or citrus oil, perfumed items, rosemary, lavender and obviously anything toxic.  We avoid these scents because they are too strong and may be uncomfortable for the dog to work with.



Retrieving Scented Items

Retrieving comes very easily for some dogs, but for others you may need to build it up by rewarding the tiniest, tiniest foundations of the retrieve and then gradually build up his confidence and capability.  We covered this last week in Exercise 1.9.


Once you have a bit of a retrieve you can grow and strengthen it in the following ways.

  1. Hold the dog, throw the toy, say your search cue (mine is ’Search!’ unsurprisingly) and send him to fetch it.  This can increase in difficulty as the dog learns and he will also be starting to use his nose to locate the toy.  
  2. Most dogs are very motivated by the ‘chase’ part of the fetch behaviour so do play a few informal throw and fetches so he gets an extra reward of play whilst he's still learning to retrieve.
  3. When your dog can retrieve successfully start to throw the toy out of sight into more complicated areas to encourage him to use his nose more in finding his toy but don't do too much too soon though.
  4. Remember to set your dog up to succeed and raise the complexity only when he's ready.

Here are some ideas:

  • Hold your dog and throw the item just a little way into some light undergrowth
  • Hold your dog by his collar or harness then throw the item away and turn the dog around so he doesn't see it and then let him go out to sniff it out.
  • Throw the item into areas that the dog has to work at to get into and out of.  Be sure not to put the dog in any danger of course.
  • You could have an assistant help with the throwing
  • You can take your dog to an area of light undergrowth and hide some tennis balls.  You can pretend to hide 6 or 7 when you only actually hide 3 or 4 so he doesn’t find it too easy to guess where they are.
  • You can walk your dog in heel to a search area, let him see you toss the item in and then heel him away a short distance then turn around and send him back to find it (this is called a ‘memory back’)


Do consider the wind direction and any obstacles in the area when you do searches.  Ideally, there should be just light wind so the dog can stumble into the scent pool or a side wind across the hiding place into the search area.


When you start, the hides should only be a few metres from the dog.  Just go at your dog’s pace and soon you’ll be able to make the searches more complicated and at a greater distance.


Also remember that when your dog is searching he will be working hard to negotiate the area and detect the scent of his prize. If you chatter whilst he's doing this you will either be distracting him, or just teaching him to ignore your voice, just as we ignore a radio playing in the background. There are only three specific times you should use your voice during the search.

  • To give the cue at the beginning or if your dog gives pause when he's been distracted from the task at hand
  • To encourage him when his behaviour changes because he's recognised the scent and is near to the hide
  • To reward with praise when he finds his prize and brings it back to you.


You’ll notice your dog will have a specific body language change when he detects the scent of his prize.  When a dog gets a hint of the odour that he's searching for he will often close his mouth. This gives him the opportunity to get more air up into the nasal cavity. This is one of the first signs of scent recognition and can be extremely brief but as you learn your own dogs habits you may see this. 


Your dog may be seeking the item then suddenly stop. He may do a check pace and turn his nose around to point it back to where he was when the scent hit.  This is an obvious indication that the dog has scented the item.  If your dog loses the scent again he may continue in the direction he was heading.  If he has hit a scent cone or pool he will work through this with his nose to detect the hidden item and his movement will be more purposeful.  It’s fascinating to watch.


Scent travels when an item is in an area.  If it's warm the scent particles get bigger and will rise, they may even be detected above the dog's head.  A nose in the air and obviously sensing is an indication that the dog has caught a scent and is trying to work with the particles and get closer to the item. If the weather is cold scent particles get smaller and stay close to the ground so your dog may detect the scent lower down on cold days.  


If you complete this exercise – big congratulations!  You will have trained a dog that can search an area on cue and find a hidden scent!