Monthly Archives: August 2013

The nose knows (Fun scent games for your dog)

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.

Kids and Dogs: A failure to communicate

Last night I went to a wiener roast that included a lot of my extended family. There were eight children under the age of 10 and four dogs; two of which had never been there before or met the other dogs. Because it was a wiener roast there was food everywhere. I got out of the vehicle and my stomach lurched. To the dog trainer in me, this looked like a dog/kid disaster waiting to happen or possibly a dog/dog disaster, but I felt it was more likely the dogs would figure out how to coexist rather than the dogs and kids.

kids and dogsStatistically I know kids are far more likely to be bitten than adults. The Centers for Disease Control says kids between 5-9 years old are especially at risk and that boys are twice as likely to be bitten than girls. Many of those bites are to the face and the vast majority of those bites are from dogs the kids know or at least dogs everyone assumes are ok to be around kids.

The following is an excerpt from an ASPCA article entitled Teaching your Dog how to Behave Around Kids: “Although dog bite fatalities are extremely rare and most bites don’t result in injury or medical treatment, children are the victims of half of the estimated 4.7 million dog bites in the United States every year. One study estimates that about a third of these bites are delivered by the family dog. Dogs often bite children on the face or neck, and these bites sometimes result in permanent scarring or disfigurement. Irrevocable emotional damage is often done as well. Many parents consider any tooth-to-skin contact with a child a major breach of trust—perhaps even grounds for euthanasia—and some people develop lifelong phobias of dogs after being bitten during childhood.”

The ASPCA has a pet recommendation guide based on a child’s age, and dogs don’t even make the list of recommended pets until children are 10 years old. But, kids and dogs are part of our way of life. Everyone wants “a puppy for the kids to grow up with.” We want a dog to protect us and our children from harm. We expect the dog to understand that our children are just being kids and shouldn’t be harmed for their transgressions.

So, why do dogs bite kids? First, this is by no means some scholarly scientific paper. These are just my own observations. But, what I tell clients and what feels right to me is that dogs bite kids because dogs are dogs and kids are kids and sometimes they have a “failure to communicate.” As a matter of fact when I see dogs and kids interacting I often hear the voice of Strother Martin in my head as he says to Paul Newman’s character in Cool Hand Luke, “What we’ve got here is (a) failure to communicate.”

For example, last night my four-year old nephew had a Woody doll. And this is a toy he loves – a lot. He was sliding down a slide and Woody was being flung all about and in one arc Woody came close to the face of a boxer. The boxer looked at Woody, not as the beloved toy of a 4-year-old, but as a super awesome amazing tug toy that just flew near his face. Obviously, the boxer thought someone must surely want him to play with this toy. The boxer grabbed the toy, the 4 year old let out a howl and pulled back. I’m sure the boxer imagined that a game of tug was now in order, but the four-year old only saw a dog trying to take Woody. The four-year old charged at the boxer screaming and kicking. Luckily, enough adults were present to stop the four-year-old from hurting the dog and to stop the dog from hurting the four-year old. Nothing bad happened except some hurt feelings on the adult side as everyone tried to decide who was at fault – dog or child.

Whenever I talk to a client who is upset because their dog has either bitten a child or growled at a child I always get the same picture as what I saw last night between my nephew and the boxer.

  • A dog sound asleep on a couch with nowhere to go when a 5 year old approaches and smacks the dog on the nose because the 5 year old wants to be on the couch.
  • A dog hunkering under a kitchen table while eight nine-year-old girls crowd in the kitchen for a birthday party and someone decides the dog should be in the festivities and reaches under the table and grabs the dog to drag it out from under the table.
  • A dog on a leash on the Monon when a 6 year old waving an ice cream rushes forward to give the doggie a hug.

In these three examples the dog did bite the child involved. Luckily, my nephew was not bitten, but what would have happened had he pursued the boxer hitting the dog in an effort to save Woody?

You could say in the above examples that the parents should have been watching the child. Or that the dog should have inhibited its bite. (depending on which side of the issue you feel most strongly about). But, what I think is that it is hard to be a parent and watch your child 24/7. When I was watching all of those little kids running around last night, there was absolutely no way someone could be on top of the situation every single second. And is it fair to ask a dog to do something that it isn’t asked to do with any other species?

If a horse bites a person, very few people freak out. If a chicken runs at a child to scare it off or if a goat butts a child to get it out of the way, people accept the fact that farm animals are just acting as animals. If a cat bites someone, most people seem to just say, “well, it is a grumpy cat, the person shouldn’t have been petting it.”

When a dog bites, especially if it bites a child or other family member, it is “man’s best friend” biting. It is Lassie biting Timmy. It is unthinkable.

Which is why I try to tell everyone who attends my Learn to Speak Dog class that they have to be their dog’s advocate and try to make sure situations such as the above just don’t happen because the dog always loses. In the three examples above where the dog did bite the child, the dogs were all euthanized. It was just too traumatic for those parents or dog owners to think they owned a dog that could possibly injure a child.

The purpose of this post isn’t to provide an answer because I don’t think there is an answer, short of making sure dogs and kids never interact, which isn’t fair to the thousands of dogs and kids that have no issues together. But, hopefully it helps you think and remember that your dog has teeth and no matter how wonderful you think he is, the correct answer in his mind may be to sometimes use those teeth.  And if you are a parent, to realize that a dog should not have to put up with a child hitting it, shoving it, hugging it or dragging it. While some dogs may put up with this behavior, it doesn’t mean the dog is enjoying it or that every dog will behave the same way.

And remember, it didn’t end well for Luke in the movie — a failure to communicate can be devestating.