Training your dog to search

Your dog can learn to search for human scent whether you decide to go into search and rescue or not. It is a fun game for any dog that likes to retrieve, and it gives you and your dog an enjoyable activity you can do together – a game that can grow in complexity and challenge as you both learn. This “fun searching” can be done indoors or out, so even in the worst weather you can play search games with your dog.

Dogs search naturally but it’s up to you to introduce your dog to what you would like him/her to search for. You can start this many ways (you may even come up with your own version of the game!), but one way is by hiding the dog’s favorite toy. At first you make it very easy…not much more than a fetch. The toy or article may be “hidden” in plain sight. As the dog learns the game you can hide the toy where he/she cannot immediately see it and when your “hides” become gradually more difficult your dog will use its nose rather than his/her eyes to locate the toy.

Begin by playing a few rounds of fetch just to get the dog excited and warmed up. Then clip a leash to your dog’s collar, and either tell him/her to “sit, stay”, or tether the dog to something so he/she can’t follow you. Show the dog the toy in your hand and walk a few yards away. Place the toy on the ground in plain sight where the dog can see it (make sure the dog sees you place the toy), and walk back to your dog. Take the end of the leash in your hand, and command the dog to search (“search”, “seek”, and “find it” are common commands). If the dog will go out and fetch it without hesitation, then immediately release your hold on the leash and let the dog go fetch the toy back to you.

If the dog has difficulty understanding what you want, keep hold of the leash and run with your dog to the toy. Let him/her fetch it. You can then run backward and encourage the dog to follow you with the toy in his mouth. Stop, take the toy, and praise your dog. Stay at this level until the dog understands the game and will run out and fetch the toy without your help.

Next you can try to increase the difficulty by hiding the toy slightly. Follow the same steps as above. Show your dog the toy in your hand, leave the dog, and go out to place the toy several yards away. But this time, place the toy next to a bush, or in a clump of grass, or next to the corner of a building or other object in your yard…any place that is a direct line from your dog to the toy, but where the dog cannot immediately see the toy from where he/she is sitting. Give your search command and let the dog fetch the toy back to you. If the dog has trouble finding the toy, then start over with a slightly easier “hide”. Make very sure the dog was watching you when you placed the toy.

As your dog progresses, you can make the hides more and more complex. Increase the distance or the difficulty, but not both at the same time. Take it slow and try to ensure your dog is successful and having fun. Always praise your dog enthusiastically every time he/she brings the toy back to you and you can reward the dog with a few rounds of fetch after each successful find.

As the hides become harder for your dog, you must learn how the wind affects your dog’s success. The dog, who is by now using its nose to locate the toy, must rely on the wind to bring the scent of the toy in his direction. Ideally, you want to be downwind (the wind should be in your face when you look in the direction of the hidden toy) of the toy when you send your dog to find it. Otherwise the dog will have to go past the toy until he/she is downwind of it before he/she will “hit” on the scent of it.

Finally you can have someone else hide the toy while you wait with your dog. Make sure the dog understands this new aspect to the game by decreasing the difficulty of the hide for the first few tries. If your dog is not successful, make the hide easier, or “hide” it in plain sight again. You can then work back up to more difficult hides once the dog understands.

Stand silently with your dog while your helper shows the dog his toy and then walks away to hide it. Make sure the dog watches the helper. If the helper has to get your dog’s attention while he/she hides the toy, they can call out your dog’s name and wave the toy in the air. It is best that you don’t verbally encourage your dog to watch someone else…they will likely turn and look at you instead. So have the helper call out the dog’s name and allow the dog to see the helper hide the toy. Wait until the helper has returned to you, then give your dog his/her search command and release the dog to go fetch the toy.

Once your dog is really understanding the game and is clearly enthusiastic about playing it, you can take the game one step further. That is to have a yourself or a helper hide the toy without the dog seeing it done, and then sending the dog in the direction you want him/her to go – letting them find the toy on their own. For this to work, the dog must understand the command to search and must believe that when you give the command that something is indeed out there for him/her to find. You must also understand and use the wind. Always send your dog to find the toy from a location downwind of the hide.

Air movement, terrain and temperature all affect scent molecules.  They influence how the scent travels and how long it remains viable.  Dog handlers must fully understand these factors to assist their dogs.  CSDA members train in all weather conditions and varying types of terrain (both indoors and out).