Tootsie’s taken a back seat lately, given all the sheepdog work I’ve been doing with Maggie and Willie lately, so I decided it was high time that she and I did something extra fun together. I was inspired in part by a book and a DVD related to scent games. After all, Toots is a spaniel, and even seven years in a puppy mill couldn’t destroy her love of following her nose.
I first watched much of Jane Killion’s DVD Puppy Scent Games, after having been impressed with her Puppy Culture DVD, as I wrote about in a blog about Puppy Culture. This new DVD, Puppy Scent Games, includes Jane’s upbeat and thoughtful attitude, but it became clear early on that it was focused on starting a puppy on tracking. If I wanted to start a puppy tracking, this would be a great video to watch, but I was looking for something a bit more general.
I looked in my library and found Anne Lill Kvam’s The Canine Kingdom of Scent: Fun activities using your dog’s natural instincts. This Dogwise book gives step-by-step instructions in teaching a dog to search for treats, then objects, retrieving lost objects, tracking training and scent discrimination. That was more in line with my idea for scent games for Tootsie, so I started right away on the first exercise, “Search for Treats,” confident that if Tootsie ran the world, this what she’d do all day long. In between naps. I should say here that Tootsie already has learned to search for treats, because all the dogs play “Treasure Hunt” while Jim and I take a few minutes to lounge outside late in the evening. I toss a half a cup of kibble in a fenced area, close the gate and let the dogs search while Jim and I relax near by. It’s a win/win–we relax outside, and the dogs get rewarded for using their noses. Even kitty Nellie comes and joins the hunt.
However, I wanted to see what it was like to follow the steps in Kvam’s book, so Tootsie and I went outside this morning and got started. As instructed, I put Tootsie on leash and tossed 2-3 treats a few feet in front of her, ensuring that she saw them fall. I let go of the leash and let her run to find them. Because I used cat kibble and did this on a graveled driveway, I knew that Tootsie would have to use her nose to find them, because visually they faded into the driveway, and were hard even for me to see. She ran immediately toward the area where the treats fell and put her nose down. Of course, with Tootsie, this includes sweeping the driveway with her ears. But she found the treats and enthusiastically ran back to me, tail and hindquarters wagging back and forth joyfully.
Next, we repeated step one, but this time I threw the treats one at a time, being careful, as instructed, to stay silent. She didn’t find them all, but that’s apparently common, and so I repeated the exercise and threw treats into the same area again.
I then increased the number of treats tossed (4-5), and threw them a bit farther, repeating this step a couple of times. Tootsie often didn’t find all the treats, even when I could see one and her nose was within inches of it, but given that she found many and was clearly thrilled about it, I wasn’t concerned. (However, I had to struggle not to help her, which Kvam’s strongly advises against.) The next step is to begin putting the behavior on cue. Tootsie already knows “Treasure Hunt,” but I decided it’d be fun to teach her a new cue, and so said “Find It,” which is Willie’s cue for searching something out. (It was easy to teach Find It to Willie [here’s a video of Willie searching for his toy], I began saying the phrase when he was still sound enough to retrieve. If I threw a toy and he didn’t find it right away I’d just say “Find It” and he’d keep searching. Soon I expanded that to hiding a toy on purpose, as a way to exercise his mind and body without straining his injured shoulder.) But Tootsie is not a retriever–understatement–so I’ll do it by linking the cue with searching for treats. Works for Tootsie.
Kvam stressed the importance of giving a dog breaks, and at this point we’re told to let the dog rest (no other training at this time, just napping or free walking). Toots is complying, she’s sacked out on the couch as I write this, but soon we’ll go out again and continue onto the next step–tossing more treats a little farther away, gradually increasing the distance. My guess is that the distance is going to be the challenge for Tootsie, so I’ll go slowly on that aspect of training.
Whatever happens, I’m happy to have a new game to play with Tootsie. As so many have argued eloquently, “nose work” is one of the best things you can do for a dog. It allows them to use a natural ability that we so often squelch (See “Take Your Dog on a Sniff”), it’s great mental exercise and it’s easy for us to teach. That’s perfect for me and Tootsie right now–between helping Maggie become more comfortable with dogs anywhere outside of a sheepdog clinic or trial, training Maggie to be competitive in sheepdog trials and continuing working Willie to keep him happy, I don’t have a lot of training time or energy left. Nose work is a win/win for all of us.
I highly recommend The Canine Kingdom of Scent. I love the author’s perspective (very positive, thoughtful about not pressuring dogs, step-by-step instructions with reminders not to push or go to fast), the instructions are clear and the book contains a good range of activities. One caveat: It does not include instructions on what to do when your cat begins playing with the dog’s leash. Basically, we ended up with a game that delighted all three of us–Tootsie got to find and eat treats, Nellie got a new play toy and I laughed so hard I could barely stay on task.
There’s another book that I’ve seen that teaches scent discrimination for utility obedience work, Simply Scenting, by Dawn Jecs. I’ve never done formal obedience competition work and I haven’t read the book. If you have, let us know what you thoughts. I loved another book, Fun Nosework for Dogs, by Roy Hunter, but lent it out and have never replaced it. Time for me to do that I think, if I remember correctly it’s a great book. Have you read it? Any other scent game-related books or DVDs you recommend? I’m all ears. Or should I say, nose.
MEANWHILE, back on the farm: Maggie and I were in our second trial last Friday, another well-run and beautiful sheepdog trial at the Cedar Stone Farm in Cambridge, Wisconsin. (Thank you Merry!) My goal was for us to improve on our last runs, and we did. We still have a long way to go, but I was crazy proud of Maggie–she backed down an almost impossible ewe whose lamb was in a pen behind us, and who had no intention of moving around the course without serious resistance. It took Maggie some time to back her down, so we ran out of time again and lost all our drive points, but I still was truly proud of her. Maggie is brilliant at reading sheep, staying in contact with them, and moving them at a perfect pace, but her challenge is confidence when there is a lot of pressure, so I was very pleased with her even if the score wasn’t very good. The second run was our best yet, she got 46/50 points on her outrun/lift and fetch (fyi, that’s really good, especially since the sheep were hard to “lift” because they were being held in place with corn) and we finished the drive and were about to pen when we ran out of time. But it was her best run ever, and most importantly, she came off the course like she owned it. I, of course, don’t know what she was thinking or feeling, but I had such a strong sense that 1) she really likes trialing and 2) afterward she felt more confident, or proud, or some canine version of that. She seemed so relaxed and cuddly that night, it felt great to see her so happy. My goal for our next trials (none coming up soon) is simply to get better and better.
Willie even got to work at the trial, moving the sheep into a holding pen for another competitor who ran several different dogs in the same class. He needed to attend to them rather than stay to move the sheep from the run after his own into the holding pen, so I volunteered and Willie got to work some sheep without any pressure. The only problem came when I sent him to pick up the sheep 40 yards in front of us, and he, unbeknownst to me, had his eyes on another group of sheep, 250 yards away, awaiting the next run. Willie sprinted away, and in a few seconds it became clear he was going long. Eeeeps, messing up the sheep for the next run is not cool. Luckily, after I realized what was happening, he took his stop whistle and redirected onto the right sheep. Whew!
Closer to home, the peonies are all gone now as are all the flowering bushes. We’re in a bit of a flower lull, but the day lilies are budding and there will be lots of flowers in a week or so. Here’s a peony that cropped up by surprise after I cleared an area of honeysuckle. What a lovely discovery!
In honor of Maggie’s trial work, I went up the hill with her to get a shot of her working the sheep. Whoops, the memory card was still in my laptop. So much for that idea. So I worked Maggie for practice, and then went back up with Willie to get him some exercise. You can see that here I asked him to stop while the sheep darted toward the gate behind me. Look how big the lambs are!