Ready, Set . . . Find It!
Best-selling author of several excellent dog books (and ethologist) Patricia McConnell says, “Play is fun, but don’t be fooled into thinking it’s just goofy or frivolous. Play is powerful stuff, and it has a profound influence on your relationship with your dog and your dog's relationships with others of the same species.”
The game of Find It is not just an easy and exciting way to play with your dog. It also gives you a strong way to change your dog’s focus and behavior in challenging situations. A fun and familiar game provides a happy alternative to many behaviors you don’t like. Even better, it can quickly change your dog’s mood from Oh no! to Oh boy! in the presence of his triggers. And the big bonus is that your bond grows stronger the more often you and your dog play together. I’m not talking about endless rounds of throwing tennis balls.
Teaching Find It couldn’t be simpler. All you do is say Find it! excitedly, then toss a treat on the ground. Don’t speak and throw at the same time or else he won’t hear the cue. You can toss to one side of you and then the other, or behind him. After a couple of sessions, you can start hiding the treats. First, while he’s watching; later on, when he’s not watching.
When your dog experiences the thrill of chasing, sniffing out, pouncing, and eating, he’s fulfilling a natural instinct, even though it’s not exactly prey. Use soft, smelly treats so he has to employ his nose, not rely on his eyes. And be sure to toss or drop them so your dog has to move. If they bounce or roll, even better!
When you want to end the game (or any activity), always let your dog know it’s over by giving a clear signal. I hold up my empty hands and say “All done.” To prevent frustration, I then move to another location and give them something else to do.
How Find It Can Improve Behavior
1. To encourage your puppy or newly adopted dog to get into the habit of paying attention to you. When he dives for the treat and eats it, he will turn back toward you. Got any more of those? Click or mark with YES!, and then reinforce by saying Find It! and toss another one. The next step is getting eye contact. He may do this immediately or you may have to wait (silently) until he looks up at your eyes. Click that look—and immediately reward it by continuing the game.
2. To head off a behavior that you can anticipate, such as barking at a bicyclist, jogger, or another dog while on leash. How well this works will depend on how strongly your dog feels about that trigger, how far away it is and if it’s coming closer, and how delicious your treats are.
Eating turns on the parasympathetic system (rest and digest), which helps turn off the sympathetic system (fight-freeze-or-flight responses to perceived threats).
Note: For severe reactivity, please consult a credentialed positive trainer or behavior consultant.
3. To calm another dog who is reactive to yours. When your dog lowers his head to find the treats and then looks back at you, that sends a clear message to the worried dog: I’m no threat to you. I’m busy with my person. This is a perfect way to cut short the stare-down that often turns into barking, lunging, and worse.
That’s why I never walk my dogs without wearing my treat bag. Pockets just don’t work very well when you need to get your hand in and out quickly.
I recently discovered that Find It could get my dogs past a major problem on a walk: a large dog who runs back and forth in his big corner yard, barking at us furiously. My two would normally respond by leaping and barking too, and when I’m handling both of them it can be really difficult to calm them down and get around the corner. But when I started the Find It game, they immediately engaged with me, ignoring the bouncing, shouting dog. We were able to move all the way past him without an explosion. He quieted down too, since he wasn’t being riled up even more.
4. To occupy two or more dogs who may not be best friends or who may play too rough. For example, my puppy is still too pushy and rough with my 7-year-old, Scout. When I take them out in the yard, I sometimes toss treats in different directions, using their names so they are not competing for the same treasure. Foraging in the grass together engages them in a productive activity that Scout and I prefer to body slamming and wrestling.
5. To give your dog something to do on rainy or super-hot/cold days when normal outdoor activities are not possible. Using their strongest natural skill to discover hidden treats around the house is a great way for dogs to use up mental and physical energy, just like the sport of Nosework.
6. To interrupt unwanted behaviors in a positive way, instead of trying to “correct” them. (See my March 2017 post.)
These classics are two of the best books on how and why to play with your dog, available from www.dogwise.com:
—Play With Your Dog, by Pat Miller
—Play Together, Stay Together, by Patricia McConnell and Karen London
Patricia McConnell also has a DVD:
—Dog Play—Understanding Play Between Dogs and People
By Lisa Benshoff, all rights reserved