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:
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?
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.
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.
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!
Scatter feeding in the garden is one idea – here are a few more foraging ideas:
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.
Here are some ideas:
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.
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!