If you are a dog lover and witnessed the obedience class in a dog show, then you must have seen a dog retrieving the hanky containing the Judge’s smell out of 20 other similar handkerchiefs placed in a circle! Not only hankies, some trainers reach such perfection that the dog retrieves hidden bunch of keys or any other object. Mind you a dog usually hates the idea of holding and carrying a metal in his mouth. Yet the constant practice makes him carry it to the handler ungrudgingly.
How does all this happen? Can a family pet learn all this are the questions often dog lovers ask me. In one my earlier blogs ‘Nose in the air’ I have described the sniffing powers of a dog. Thus it makes sense that a dog is able to sniff out things that we can not because of his enhanced sniffing powers. But one might ask how does he get the scent? Well every second you shed millions of microscopic cells from your body which carry your scent. These minute cells float in the air and your dog is able to sniff them out. These cells are like your nano-identification cards for him. Any scent has two positions. Either it is in the air or on the ground. It is like a funnel in the air or like a horizontal tornado. Dog moves his head from side to side and walks about trying to locate the focal point of the tornado. Such uncanny is his instinct that he is able to pinpoint the exact location of the source of the scent. If he is able to do it he has reached his target.
Dogs can also make out the difference between a living scent and a dead scent. Means scent from a living being or a dead object like a handkerchief. The moment the Judge at the dog show places the hanky close to his body, usually by pushing the hanky inside his undershirt and keeping it there for some time, the cells of his skin carrying his scent are transferred to the hanky. Thereafter the hanky is not touched by anyone else with fingers. It is held with a forceps and placed at the desired spot with many other similar hankies. Dog is given the judge’s scent by placing his palms together close to dog’s nose and then immediately asked to ‘go fetch’. Dog goes and circles the hankies and picks out the one with the judge’s scent without much effort.
Usually sniffing and retrieving training is given by professionals to their snifer dogs. The snifer dogs perform a variety of tasks like locating a criminal, locating a cache of drugs and arms, persons buried in avalanche or under collapsed buildings etc. But of late in the United States dogs trained to sniff have been put to a new use. That is to sniff out the bed bugs. So precise is a dog’s sense that he can locate even a single egg of a bug! Though in India this kind of job has not yet been assigned to dogs but I am sure if it is done dogs and their handlers have a great scope of employment!
For a domestic dog scent work becomes a further tool to develop a still closer bond between the owner and the dog and also gives a greater possessive instinct to the dog. Once a dog is trained to sniff and retrieve it becomes a great game, because it is a game that matches his instinct to ‘chase, sniff and kill’ and finally carry the prey to the leader. For some dogs it becomes the ultimate reward. They will obey any command once they are hinted that afterwards they will get a chance to retrieve.
Teaching a dog to sniff and retrieve is comparatively easy. As it is expected that before doing so you have already taught your dog the basics of Heel, Stay and Fetch. If you are sure of it then here is how you should go about it.
Take the dog to a quiet corner of your compound. Let him go around you clockwise and sit on heel position. Hold his ball in both palms and rub it well. Make the dog stay at a spot, while you walk away and hide the ball out of his sight. Now go back to the dog, stand in front of him and place your both palms close to his nostrils. You can give him a command ‘Sniff’ or ‘smell’ or any word you prefer. Only condition is that the command must be preceded by his name. Thereafter pointing in the direction where you have hidden the all, ask him to go, fetch. He will go running and sniff around and locate the ball within no time and return to you with a gleam of pride in his eyes. Praise him a lot on successful completion of the mission.
Repeat the exercise by gradually making the hiding spots more and more difficult. Soon you should reach a stage when you may hide the ball in advance and then call the dog to you anywhere in the house and make him sniff your palms and ask him to go fetch or seek. He will sniff around and locate the hidden ball.
Gradually you may try objects (his toys) other than the ball. And finally you can try with handkerchiefs of same size, shape and color. One of them should carry your scent. The others need not be touched by fingers. They have to be placed in position with forceps and even the one containing your scent should be placed by an assistant with the help of forceps. Place all the hankies in a circle. Let him go and seek. If the dog has picked up the game he will go and pick the right hanky and retrieve.
If you have noticed from the day one of training till now all the commands are linked. As I said in the beginning one has to teach the dog like teaching a child. A child is first taught the alphabets and then learns to make words out of them and finally learns to make sentences. Similarly a dog first learns the basic commands of come, sit, down and stay. Gradually he learns more and more difficult commands of heel and fetch and then sniff.
As the training advances dogs bond with the master becomes stronger and after learning to retrieve and sniff and retrieve his attachment with the object also becomes deeper. This leads to his learning the commands of ‘speak’ and ‘guard’.
Read more about the command of speak in the next blog.
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