Ah, poopsicles, my current competition for Willie and Maggie’s attention. It’s too bad that their primary outdoor object of interest is, well, poop, because searching for something in knee deep snow is a great way to keep dogs entertained. (Luckily, we have a vast armory of treats that make it easy to reinforce our Recall or Leave It cue, and avoid being licked by dog whose breath smells like a sewer. We just have to watch them like hawks.)
But watching Maggie plunge her nose into the snow, a nose that could clear a 200 acre dog park of poop in an hour, no matter how deeply buried in snow, reminds me how important scent is to dogs. Not to mention how snowy winters give dogs less opportunity to use their noses. And this is an opportunity that feels especially important to me right now, because 1) It’s too slippery to work the dogs on sheep except for the simplest and most essential of chores, 2) It’s been too slippery to let the dogs play much outside at all, and 3) It’s too cold and icy and snowy to exist without wondering why you live in a freezer compartment that keeps getting defrosted, then refrozen, then defrosted, then refrozen. . .
Oh, wait, sorry. Got distracted.
I’ve written before about the importance of letting dogs use their noses in Take Your Dog on A Sniff, and I’m not alone in my belief that dogs need to use their sense of smell to be truly happy. Marc Bekoff just posted a good read on the topic in Psychology Today, and Companion Animal Psychology posted about the same study by Duranton and Horowitz that suggests dogs who use their noses are more optimistic than others. (I am not convinced of the author’s conclusion however, but my logic requires more space than I have here. Perhaps for another blog, or in the comment section for those who read the study?) Alexandra Horowitz wrote her fantastic book, Being a Dog, about scent as the center of a dog’s world view. Susannah Charleson and Cat Warren wrote two of my favorite dog book/memoirs, Scent of the Missing and What the Dog Knows — about dogs using their remarkable sense of smell to locate missing persons or their bodies.
But what are we nose-challenged primates to do about our dog’s need to use its nose to explore the world when it’s covered in a blanket of ice and snow? Here are but a few ideas to allow them to do that.
Check out some resources: Dogwise has an entire section on books related to Nose work for Dogs.
Play Find It: It’s easy to teach dogs to use their noses to search for something. Just start by putting something a few feet away that you know they love and saying Find It. Gradually put the object (dogs on stay of course) farther and farther away, eventually completely out of sight. Initially lots of dogs will use their eyes to find the toy, but most quickly learn to use their noses. It’s great fun to watch them do it, and a window into a world that most of us primates don’t get to enjoy. There are lots of variants to this game, including laying a scent trail (scented pieces of paper for example) leading to a tennis ball with the same scent. Basically you’re teaching your dog to learn to track, which is much of what they use their noses for on their own.
My favorite variant is in Suzanne Clothier’s great article on Scent Games for dogs. She calls it “What a Klutz!”. She suggests dropping something behind you while on a walk. Make it easy to find for you too, i.e., don’t lose your keys. Go a few feet, and then stop, and look concerned. Say Find It as you walk back searching for it. Give the dog some room as you get close, but don’t hesitate to bring it to your dog’s attention (an inadvertent kick of the object for example) without “finding” it yourself. Gush with exuberant praise when your dog sniffs the object, vary the objects and gradually make it harder and harder. (I liked this article by Suzanne so much that I printed out and am taking it home to remind me of fun games to play with the dogs.)
Play Find Me! Basically another variant of Find It!, except this time you are what’s hidden. Have someone distract your dog and go hide somewhere close by. Have a party when your dog comes to find you, starting easy and gradually making it harder. Of course, for some owners, this might be an opportunity to nap while your dog appears to care less where you are and snores on the couch. If that’s the case, do what we do–actively teach your dog to “Find _____”. I’ve taught Willie “Where’s Jim?” and he’ll immediately stop and look for Jim. It’s come in handy for more than just games, because I’ll use it as a distraction when I need to refocus Willie’s attention. I just used it a few days ago when Willie was herding the vacuum cleaner (quite effectively I might add). I just said “Find Jim” and he left me and said vacuum alone and went to find his favorite guy.
Discriminate between scents. The simplest version is a kind of Find Me game, in which you have food in one closed fist and nothing in the other. Present both to your dog (switch sides often), and open whichever one he sniffs first. Obviously he get the food if he sniffs the one with food, but if he chooses the empty fist, simply open it, close it back up and ask him to try again. Eventually you can graduate to real scent discrimination, which involves letting your dog sniff a scent, say a cotton ball with lavender on it. Ask them him then to choose between cotton balls of lavender and orange oil under upturned cups. This can get really tricky for scent-challenged primates, who do things like scenting the orange oil cotton ball with fingers that just touched lavender. But people in Obedience Competition do it all the time, so check this out if you’d like to learn more.
Tonight I’m going to play the Klutz game (Jim might say I do that all the time), and drop my glove on our walk. Next job is to teach Willie and Maggie to pick it up, dust off the snow, and then find the matching glove that I actually lost track of sometime in November.
And you? Your favorite scent game? (We’re excluding the smell of Cinnabons in an airport. No fair to the dogs.)
MEANWHILE, back on the farm: Here’s the weather recipe from south central Wisconsin–Start with a truckload of snow, then stir in large quantities of sleet/freezing rain. Put in the deep freeze so that everything is icy. Place 12 inches of snow on top of the ice, then sprinkle with sleet to taste. Put back in the freezer so that your mixture is icy on the top, then pour on rain and rain and rain and rain. Once everything is soaked sopping wet, dust with an inch of snow and refreeze again…I think you’re about caught up.
I’ll just add that avoiding a flooded house by shoveling, scrapping and hacking ice from 9 to 10 PM on a Saturday night is not my particular idea of a good time. But then, really, otherwise we would have been reading in bed, and think of the exercise we would have missed.
But here’s the good side, from a walk the BCs and I took after it had snowed enough on top of the ice to make it walkable. The wind was howling at about 40+ mph, so I can’t say it was blissful, but it sure was beautiful.
But no wonder then, that I’m posting more photos from our trip to Costa Rica, where the weather was, uh, a little different.