Talking Dogs Scentwork®

dog in garden plant pot

Beautiful garden. Or dog? How to have both

We had sunshine yesterday. It was so warm I actually took my jacket off. The dogs happily mooched around the garden rather than choosing to stay indoors. All indicative of the onset of Spring. We made the most of the clocks changing by staying outdoors into the evening. We did our first outdoor catnip searches for a while. In and out of the potting shed, around the freshly cut garden borders, between the raised beds. Having dogs and having a garden needn’t be mutually exclusive. We all enjoy the garden together. So how do I do that?


The key is setting clear boundaries. At no time do I allow them onto flower beds. I reward them for staying off the beds. I remind them not to step on them if they do. I never hide scented articles in the beds. I hide them around the beds, on the perimeter, so they learn that when searching they will never find anything in the beds so there’s no point going in there. I consider my hand gestures and body movement so that I don’t inadvertently encourage or even ask them to move onto the beds. Don’t get me wrong, it’s tempting to ask them to jump up into the empty raised beds. But that’s setting them up for failure. When those beds are full of produce, the last thing I want is the dogs jumping onto it and ruining those fresh veggies. Therefore, making a clear rule that they are never allowed onto the beds keeps things crisp and uncomplicated. There’s no ambiguity.


When we’re not searching, I still want the dogs to be able to enjoy the garden with me. I don’t have areas fenced or netted off. I teach the girls, and visiting dogs, where they are and are not allowed to go. For example, I’ve an area of trees along the back fenceline. This fills with snowdrops, daffodils and tulips. It’s the first part of the garden that wakes up in the Spring. But the dogs have free range there. The terriers in particular love snuffling around in the ivy around some of the trees, checking out the fenceline and looking for rabbits that we know burrow under the trees but we have never seen yet. Ella in particular can spend hours up there having the loveliest of terrier times. I don’t worry about the flowers as they are pretty robust and cope well with the dogs trampling on them.

But I have lots of tulips in other areas that I don’t want to be trampled. To help avoid that I plant them in pots. This allows me to have a beautiful display without worrying too much about the plants being damaged. The terriers do sometimes forget and jump onto the pots, especially the ones near the little wall that they like to walk along. I simply ask the to move ‘Off’. ‘Off’ is a super useful cue to teach. ‘Off’ means don’t touch. I use it to ask them to move off the furniture. Or to prevent jumping up. Or to keep off the fields and stick to the path. Or to keep off or move off the flower beds.

Teaching ‘Off’

So how do I teach ‘Off’? Simple. I teach it as part of a pair of cues, ‘Off’ and ‘On’. I use a plastic step (for the small dogs) or low chair/bed for the larger. You could also choose a couple of surfaces, such as carpet and vinyl, grass or bark. I begin by tossing a treat onto one of the surfaces for the dog to jump up or step onto in order to eat the treat. Then I toss a second treat onto the other surface or object. The next time I toss the treats, I pair the action (I now know that the dog will follow the treat) with the appropriate word, i.e. ‘On’ or ‘Off’. After practising that a few times, I say the cue word just before I toss the treat.

In the next training session, after a couple of reminder cue followed by treat tosses, I give the cue and wait for the dog to move onto the surface/object. When she moves onto it, I then toss her the treat. Same routine when I ask her to come ‘Off’, give the cue then wait. What’s happening at this stage is that the treat changes from lure to reward.

Work at your dog’s pace

Remember, if you’re doing this with your own dog, work at her pace. Only move on from each stage when your dog is ready. One way to figure this out is that if you can be certain (as certain as you can be in predicting her behaviour) that she will follow the treat or respond to the cue, that’s the time to move to the next step.

Once you’ve taught this, you’ll find that ‘Off’ becomes a super useful cue. I use it all the time, during scentwork searches and in every day life.

Keeping ‘helpers’ busy

Going back to the garden, what to do when your dog isn’t content to watch you gardening but wants to ‘help’. She’s watching you pulling out weeds, clearing debris, pruning – and that looks fun. Of course she’d want to get involved. If your dog knows how to settle on a bed or mat, put one out in the garden beside you. That way she’s got a spot to settle in while you work. If your dog doesn’t have a reliable settle yet, take a long lasting chew out to the garden with you. Or stuff a kong or other static food dispensing toy. You don’t want anything that rolls around as that is bound to roll onto the beds. Make sure she’s had a chance to toilet, has had some attention from you in the form of a game or some training (they should both feel like a game for your dog), pop her lead on and either stake it to the ground or hook it over your wrist/ankle (I sit down to weed and plant) and give her the activity toy. This allows her to stay mentally busy without you having to give her lots of attention. The task is to for her to learn to amuse herself while you’re busy.

Only do this for short periods, say 15 minutes or so. Then finish your task and bring her indoors with you. As you practise this, you will be able to spend longer and longer with her beside you, watching without participating. She will be able to leave the lead on without attaching it to anything. And in time you will be able to have her off lead.

Garden planning

Be thoughtful about how you plan your garden to give her freedom without spoiling your hard work. If she likes to dig, give her a space where she can dig. Ensure there are clear entry and exits points to and from the garden so that she doesn’t have to cross confusing areas. For example, if you use bark mulch but also have bark paths, that can be tricky for her to make a distinction between the two. Combine this thoughtful garden planning with teaching ‘Off’, maybe add in ‘Leave’ (you can learn that on my Support Skills course) and you will be able to enjoy your outdoor space happily together. If it’s important to you, you will put in the time, effort and work into teaching these skills. I love having the dogs in the garden with me, so for us it’s always time well spent.

And remember, if you’re reading this before midnight on 2nd April 2023, you can still use the 25% off discount code MAXOUTBST25 on all the courses and products in Detector Dog School.

2 thoughts on “Beautiful garden. Or dog? How to have both”

  1. Veronica Hanson

    That’s useful, teaching on and off in pairs rather than just off and on separately which is what I have been doing without thinking it through (and failing with the off). Thank you.

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