Okay we all do it. We set our keys down right beside the door, forget about them, and then spend a frantic fifteen minutes searching all over for them right before work. Wouldn’t it be nice if your dog could give you a little wink and a nod in the right direction?
I taught Rocco to find my keys, cellphone, and wallet. (My three most easily lost items. >.<) I did so using scent work, and found it was actually very easy and fun. You can too in just ten simple steps.
To teach this you will need:
1. A good attitude
2. An item you want your dog to find.
3. An easily recognizable, non-sticky scent.
4. A treat/toy/something your dog really really likes
5. And good knowledge of your dog. These training tips are based on food-motivated eager workers. If your dog isn’t motivated by the same things, or gets too excited with a happy voice, or walks off if he’s not on a leash, use your knowledge of the dog to help this training work correctly. These aren’t rules. They’re guidelines!
I used binaca breath spray because it has a strong minty smell, and didn’t leave a sticky residue on my keys. The scent also lasts a long time, and if I can still smell a vague mint smell on my keys, Rocco can definitely smell it.
Step One: Prep work.
Spray your keys, wallet, cell phone, or whatever it is you lose with your choice scent. Use common sense here. Don’t dunk your automatic door opener in a vat of liquid, test your wallet for color fastness, etc. Enclose yourself in a small room with your dog. I closed my dog in the office with me to start with.
Step Two: Introduce the scent.
Show your dog the item. Most dogs will automatically sniff anything you put near their face. Tell him, “Find it!” and immediately reward as soon as he sniffs it. Repeat this step until your dog is sniffing it on queue. You can test it to see if he’s connected sniffing it with the word/treat/toy by moving it slightly to one side. If he turns his head to sniff it, he’s probably got the idea.
Step Three: Make it a teensy bit harder.
Once your dog is solid on sniffing it on command, put it on the floor just in front of him so he has to lower his head to sniff it. Even if he’s solid on sniffing it on your hand, its possible that he won’t connect sniffing it on the ground as the same thing. That’s okay. Point at it with your fingers, jingle it, do what it takes to get even a curiosity sniff out of him. When he does reward a lot!
Step Four: And a little harder…
Move it so he has to take a step to get it. Ask him to find it, and if he doesn’t repeat the jingling, pointing, excited-voiced sounds to find-it. You will know if your dog is ready to move on if every time you ask he steps forward confidently and sniffs it. At this point you may want to teach your dog to do something besides touch it if he finds the smell. If you lose your keys in a place he can’t reach (like the key rack for instance) he may not know what to do if he can’t touch it. You can have your dog sit or down for this. My dog resolved the problem by simply getting as close as he could to the smell (standing on his hind legs) so it was pretty obvious when he’d found it.
Step Five: And a little harder…
Now drop them four or five feet away and ask for the same thing. This may not be as difficult for him, but be prepared to take a step back if he doesn’t quite get it. Don’t ever let your dog become frustrated, or become frustrated at the dog.
Step Six: The hiding begins!
By now your dog has a pretty good idea that finding means to sniff the object. If your dog does not have a reliable distance sit, you will need a helper to hold the dog for you. With your dog watching, hide the item behind something. Make it as obvious as you can. I used a cracker box, and let him see me slowly lower it behind the box. Tell him to find it, and let your helper release the dog. If he can’t find it, even though he saw you put it there, help him find it by leading him/calling him over. Lots of treats/praise/whatever makes him happy when he finds it! Keep “Hiding” it this way until he is consistently going to it.
Step Seven: Now don’t let him see it.
Close him out of the room, and hide it in a VERY easy location, but out of sight. This is where having a small room is awesome. I hid it behind me desk, and then let him back in the room. (He’s usually pressed up against the door begging to be let back in.) Ask him to find it. If he doesn’t immediately start looking, lead him towards it and praise him happily for finding it as if he had. Make him feel wonderful and genius for finding those old keys. Keep repeating, hiding in new EASY locations until he is consistently finding them himself. Don’t rush this one, a solid foundation is pretty important.
Step Eight: Teach him it can be “up” too.
Now that he’s got the idea solidly, help him to understand that when you lose your keys, you usually don’t drop them on the floor. Start from scratch on this one, by putting it up, but in a place he can see easily. (The couch, footstool, bed etc. work great for this.) Put it where it can clearly be seen at first, working with him consistently until he can find it even when it’s up. Your dog has a keen sense of smell and should be able to smell it even if it is higher than he can reach. If you haven’t taught him to sit/down/whatever when he can’t reach it, now is the time to really watch him for his own commands.
Step Nine: Teach him it can be in something too.
Show him a drawer he can easily see into. (Bottom drawer of a night stand, coffee table drawer etc.) Let him watch you drop it in, and shut the drawer. Ask him to find it. If he doesn’t get it, don’t worry about it. Just as before, lead him over to the drawer, and encourage him to sniff at it. Show him the keys in the drawer, and congratulate him for finding it. It’s okay to leave it open the first couple of times, or even just a crack. Keep at it until you both know he can find the keys even in a drawer.
Step ten: Keep it fresh!
Now your dog can find your keys/wallet/whatever has the smell pretty much anywhere. Don’t forget to keep refreshing his memory with fun find-it games, and never punish your dog for not being able to find it, even if you really have lost them. (After all, if you accidentally left them in your car, how can you blame him for not finding them in the house?) The next time you lose your keys, be grateful that you have your trusted companion to help you look!