One of the most common complaints I hear from people is “All he wants to do is sniff! He won’t listen to me at all!”. It’s not really surprising dogs like to sniff. It’s their way of gathering information about their world. Smell is often one of the biggest senses – just look at the amount of a dog’s ‘brain real estate’ that’s devoted to processing scents.
Given that it’s just about impossible to prevent your dog from sniffing, it makes sense to go with your dog’s preference rather than trying to fight it.
If you have a dog that likes to sniff – and who hasn’t – putting a word (a cue) to it can be really useful. You can then bring it under your control, use it as a reward and also teach ‘stop sniffing now’ too. Please note that sniffing is a totally natural behaviour and dogs should be allowed to sniff on walks. Putting a behaviour ‘on cue’ doesn’t mean that your dog never gets to do it unless it’s cued by you! That would be as sensible as saying that a dog can’t sit or lie down unless given the cue to do so.
A dog should be allowed to sniff to their heart’s delight if the situation is suitable (and you’re not running late!). The sniff cue is most useful if you have a dog that likes to pull towards things to sniff. By using a cue to ‘tell’ your dog he can sniff, you can reward *not pulling* with a good sniff – which is what he wanted to do in the first place. You don’t get your shoulder dislocated, and he gets to be a dog. Win-win in my book.
Here’s how to teach it:
Say “go sniff” in a bright cheery voice. Immediately throw a piece of food on the ground (preferably in short grass) for your dog to snuffle out. Use a distinct ‘pointing to the ground’ sort of gesture when you throw the treat. Repeat frequently and in different places.
Repeat step 1, but this time, do NOT throw a treat on the ground. Your dog will almost undoubtedly drop his nose to the ground to search for the ‘invisible’ treat. When he does, mark (click/yes!) and treat – feed from your hand. Repeat frequently and in different places.
Why feed from the hand? Because we’re rewarding the action of sniffing when asked. (After a while, the sniffing itself will reward the behaviour of ‘putting one’s head to the ground and breathing in’ when asked and you won’t need to mark and offer a food reward.)
While on lead, find an area your dog is almost guaranteed to find interesting (lamp post, popular grass area etc). Walk close to it but not so close your dog can reach it. Wait. If your dog stops pulling towards the area/post, cue “go sniff” (use your pointing hand signal as well) and allow access. Mark and treat for him sniffing. If he doesn’t come away on your mark, just wait him out and then feed him. Release him (“go sniff!”) back to sniff as often as possible.
Teaching ‘Let’s go’ from sniffing.
While your dog is hanging round with you (not engrossed in a sniff-fest just yet!) say your cue “let’s go!” and mark/treat when he looks at you. Deliver the treat from your hand. Release your dog back to what he was doing. (Toss a treat onto the ground after giving your release cue if he won’t leave you again!)
Repeat but gradually start saying your “let’s go” while he is more involved with sniffing; note when he has finished some tossed treats but is still hunting, then cue “let’s go”. Mark/treat when he raises his head when you give the cue. Feed from your hand and release him back to what he was doing.
Repeat step 5 but gradually introduce some movement after you say your cue: “let’s go” and slowly walk away. Mark/treat when he catches up to you. Reward generously! Once he really understands “let’s go!” you can reward him coming with you by telling him to “go sniff” a new interesting area.
I hope you can see why using these two cues in combination allows you to put a start and an end to sniffing so you can use it when you want to reward something. I use it a lot for nice walking or ignoring tempting distractions such as crisp packets or food wrappers. This way you don’t need to rely on food treats to maintain good manners: get some nice walking – give your ‘go sniff’ cue. Easy!
Given that sniffing is waaay up there in the list of “things I love to do” for most dogs, trying to prevent it just sets you up in total conflict with your dog’s instincts and natural desires. Far better to be able to use it to reward the behaviour’s you like, when you like and where you like.
Sniffing is also very, very good for encouraging your dog to relax, have some ‘down time’ and just decompress. If you have a dog that is a bit ‘buzzy‘, prone to being over aroused and generally finds chillin’ difficult, then sniffing on cue can be a game changer for them. When you find yourself in a situation that’s amping him up, take him somewhere likely to be scent laden and cue a good sniff-fest.
– Sarah and the Gang
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