Imagine that you have a super power and using that super power takes anywhere from one third to almost half of your brain to keep it functioning. The super power is fun and has kept your species alive and well for centuries. Now imagine that you no longer have to use your super power. You still have it, but there isn’t anything to do with it. You would probably be bored, after all a huge chunk of your brain no longer has anything to do. You might feel unsatisfied. You would probably try and find ways to somehow use the super power, even if they weren’t socially acceptable.
Well, your dog does have that super power and it is his nose. Trying to put the power of a dog’s nose into terms a human can understand isn’t easy. Dogs have about 300 million olfactory receptors in their nose compared to only 6 million in humans. Their nostrils can work independently to figure out what direction an odor came from and they have a special feature in their nose that sieves through the odors and breaks them down sending information to the brain about what each odor is. Alexandra Horowitz, a dog-cognition researcher at Barnard College, likened it to a human noticing that their coffee had a teaspoon of sugar added to it, whereas the dog could detect a teaspoon of sugar in a million gallons of water.
The important thing to know is that your dog has a really powerful sense of smell and he isn’t using it much anymore. He doesn’t have to hunt. We don’t like lots of the things a dog does with his nose. We don’t enjoy it when the dog constantly stops during a walk to sniff and we hate it more if the dog tries dragging us to something interesting it discovered in the ditch. We don’t want the dog digging up ground squirrels or moles in our yard. We certainly don’t want him sniffing out rabbits or other furry creatures and doing them harm. And heaven help the dog who likes to go up to humans and sniff in inappropriate places (at least inappropriate in our minds). I have even had clients ask if I could please teach their dog not to go up and sniff another dog’s butt because it was embarrassing (to the human, the dog wasn’t embarrassed).
So, it is no wonder we have issues with our dogs. They often have to be bored out of their mind with nothing to do with their nose. Instead of being unhappy that your dog has this incredible super power, put it to work. Play games with your dog that let him use this nose of his.
Here are some ideas, but first a caveat. These games are to be played with only ONE dog. If you have more than one dog, don’t let them play these games together as dogs may not want to share what they find.
The Easter Egg Hunt Game: Take a hand full of small, but highly stinky treats and put them right in front of your dog’s nose. When you have his attention, toss the treats on the ground. I like to play this game in grass so it is more difficult for the dog to find the treats. Don’t point the treats out to the dog. He has a nose. I often see dogs give up on a task after a few minutes and just look hopefully at their owners. The dogs are smart. They learned that it is faster to just get the human to tell them the answer. I want my dogs to use their brains and figure it out on their own. If they don’t find all the treats, that’s ok. Once the dog figures out that interesting things to eat are in the grass, start to throw the treats farther apart. But, start small. Don’t make the game harder until your dog gets the hang of it.
If your dog loves this game, give it a name (like find). As you release your dog to find the treats say your cue word. Once the dog associates the cue word with the game of hunting for treats, you can seed your yard with treats while the dog is inside and then give him the cue and he will know that a fun game of find the treats is about to begin in the yard. Depending on the type of dog you have, this game could keep him busy for minutes or hours. If you don’t have a fenced yard, get a 20 or 30 foot long leash and let your dog hunt in a circle around you.
You can play this game inside as well.
The Food Bowl Game: Measure out the kibble you feed your dog and divide it into several small bowls. Start with just three or four bowls at first. Put the bowls fairly close together in the beginning. You want the dog to know his food is now in more than one bowl. Start to move the bowls farther apart, but let the dog see the bowls as you put them down. Watch to see if your dog starts to use his nose to find the next bowl of kibble. If he likes this game, you can start to hide the various bowls farther and farther apart so that he has to search out his dinner. This game works best if your dog is all about eating his dinner. If your dog loves this game, you can just keep adding more bowls and putting less food in each one.
The Shell Game: Get three bowls and let your dog see that you are putting a tasty treat in each one. Let him eat the treat as soon as you put it in the bowl. Repeat this several times until your dog is eagerly looking into each bowl. Then, take one treat and show it to your dog, toss the treat away from the bowls and when your dog runs to get that treat, drop a treat into only one of your three bowls. When the dog runs back, just stare at the bowls and wait to see if your dog will figure out to use his nose or to look into the bowl to find the right one with the treat. Praise him wildly for being so smart when he finds it. As the dog gets better at this game, move the bowls farther apart, put a paper towel over them, etc. to make finding the treat more difficult.
Where Is Your Toy Game: If your dog is obsessed with his toys, teach him to find them. Start with a favorite toy, and let the dog see you hide it. If your dog knows “stay” ask him to stay then show him the toy and put it just around a corner. Or have someone hold the dog if he doesn’t know “stay.” If he immediately runs to get the toy, praise him and play with the toy. Very slowly start moving the toy farther away from the dog and then slowly make it more difficult to find. Start to give it a cue such as “ball” or “toy” and say that word as the dog goes to find the object. If he likes this game, you can put him in a room, hide his toy, bring him out and give him the cue to find it and he should happily race through your house looking for it. Just go slow and build the game up so that it is easy for the dog to win.
This video shows Condor looking for his Frisbee, which is hidden in the black tub.
The Sand Trap Game: If your dog loves to dig, get some sand (such as what is used in children’s sand boxes). Designate an area in your yard that is just for the dog and build him a sand pit (the deeper you can make it the better). At first just put some treats on top of the sand, then let him see you take a favorite treat or toy and lightly cover it with sand. If he immediately goes in and uncovers this object, you can begin burying it deeper and deeper. If you give this a name, then you can put your dog in the house, seed his sandbox with tasty treats and toys and tell him to go out and dig them up.
If your dog loves to use his nose, these games will help him use some valuable brain power. Instead of having a dog that is bored and destructive you could just have a dog that is happy and content because he has the opportunity to use his nose.