Christmas can be a messy affair. And with even more need for online shopping and presents having to be posted, this year could produce more rubbish than usual. But look again, from your dog’s perspective. And suddenly what you see as Christmas rubbish turns into scentwork gold.
Look closely at what you actually have. You may have cardboard boxes of all shapes, sizes and densities; packing materials such as bubble wrap, corrugated cardboard or shredded paper; gift bags; wrapping paper; padded envelopes; plastic carrier bags. Don’t turf this precious scentwork equipment (known as rubbish by the uninitiated) in the bin, save it for searches. Pile it into a binbag and put it in the shed or the loft or under the bed. Whenever you receive a delivery, save not just the box, but any packaging inside.
And on Christmas morning, as the children, or you, tear into the presents, save the used wrapping paper. Also save packaging from toys, electricals, gift sets, etc. These provide potential hides of various levels of challenge. For example, you might be lucky enough to receive a new phone. This usually means a high quality lined box, within which are plastic inserts and compartments that are perfect for hiding scented articles and making a pretty challenging find. Or maybe there’s a toy in a box with cardboard or polystyrene packing under and behind which you can secrete an article.
Of course, you must still take care to ensure there isn’t anything that could harm your dog. Safety checks aren’t just for Christmas. You must always check for hazards before searching. Look out for little packets of silica. You definitely do not want your dog to find and swallow them. Though usually non-toxic, they don’t break down in the body and can cause blockages, nausea and vomiting. Look out too for the plastic twist ties. These often contain metal which can be sharp and so can cause damage if swallowed. Plastic cable ties should also be removed.
And check to see how sharp the edges of plastic inserts are. Sometimes the edges are much sharper than they look so check them from the perspective of your dog’s nose sliding along them. If you think this precious organ could be cut, reject them as search items. Plastic bags are useful, but always ensure that your dog can’t get her head stuck inside and that she isn’t tearing and eating any of them. Tearing and ripping most items used in our searches are fine, but eating the shredded material is not.
As I was writing this post I received a parcel. Perfect timing or what? I took some pics to include in this post as an example of a great scentwork box and packing combo. But then, as I typed, I heard a loud bang. Luckily my dogs are not worried by such noises, but we did all stop what we were doing to see what the noise was. A few seconds later came a second bang and I realised it was coming from the box. The inflated plastic packaging (use to keep bottles intact) was bursting, I assume due to the change in temperature from the delivery van to my home. So if you receive such packaging, do NOT use it in your searches. The bang of it bursting could be enough to scare your dog and make her worried about searching. Or if you’ve stored it for later, it could give you all quite a start – especially if your dog is noise phobic.
Once you’ve gathered your treasure and checked for hazards, you can begin to plan how to use them in your searches. Here are a few suggestions:
By hiding the scented article inside bubble wrap, which is placed inside a box, which is then put into a plastic bag and then into a gift bag, you have made a challenging 4 layer find. If each layer is sealed with tape, you’ve increased the challenge significantly. By changing the number of layers, the material of the layers, the size of the article and the material of the article, you can adjust the challenge level to suit your dog’s experience and skill level.
You can layer empty hides too. So, you’d make the 4 layer find as described above, but without inserting the scented article. If you’ve several of these blank hides as well as the target hide, you dog has to work hard to ensure she has checked each object in the search area thoroughly. If you only used layers when there is something to find, your dog might well learn that it’s not worth checking less densely packed objects.
Gift bags are wonderful for allowing you to add height to your searches. A cute search is to hang gift bags on every door handle in the house. Add a scented article, layered or not, to one or two of the bags. This is an easy way to turn your whole house into one big search area without lots of preparation, mess or fuss.
If your dog has an active indication like mine, make sure you put your foot against the door or hold it as your dog removes the bag from the handle. You don’t want the door to slam, or unexpectedly open as she tries to pull the bag down.
After Christmas you can use the Christmas cards as line-up searches. Place them on a line on the floor, sitting up or laying flat. Ask your dog to work along the line to identify which card has been scented with the target odour, or contains a scented article. There’s more information and video clips of how to teach line-ups in the Kitchen and Hall sections of the Stay at Home Scentwork Course. If you want to add some height to this search, you can hang the cards along a length of string at your dog’s nose height. Give it a nudge at the start of the search so that she’s a swinging, moving, line of cards.
Why not use your Christmas stockings as search items? Fill them with the used wrapping paper and set them out in a line or hide them around the house to see which ones contain scented articles. Or put any small boxes and padded envelopes inside, just as you would for postal searches (go to the Baggage Searches course to find out more about Postal Searches.)
It’s a wrap
Take the used wrapping paper and wrap up some of the boxes. This is a sweet search that can be made simple or tricky depending on the density of the box, size of the article, thickness of the wrapping, etc. If your dog is already a seasoned scent worker, why not put some of her favourite toys into a few of the boxes to see if you can tell the difference between her indication on a toy and on the target scent. This is a great exercise for you as the handler. Really looking at what she’s doing, to observe how her behaviour changes is to understand the difference between interest, investigation and indication. You might want to get your phone out to record these searches. Often it is only by being once removed from the search that you really see what is happening.
Mix it up
Don’t forget that you can have all of these ideas mixed into your searches. You could do a giant house search which includes layered finds, hanging finds, lines-ups, stockings and wrapped hides. Or pick and choose different ones to include. Change the challenge, increase the duration, and keep your searches surprising and fun. For more ideas on search design, get my printables or sign up to my online course (which includes the printables)
The whole family can get involved, hiding articles, and being entertained by our scentwork stars. Have the children hide the articles. But be warned, they can be very devious hiders! Or help a child work with the dog to locate and search filled stockings. Ask your friend, your partner, to place a hide so that you can search blind. Or if you’re on your own, set up some searches that let you and your dog get engrossed in the search, working together as a team and enjoying the celebrations when your dog successfully locates the targets.
Scentwork is the ultimate winter warmer when it comes to working with our dogs. We can do it without having to leave the house. We can stay warm and dry indoors, and still give our dogs a creative, enjoyable outlet. Scentwork helps dogs put their energy into something mentally and physically pleasurable and positive.
And you know what? Even on days when you just want to veg in front of the telly crunching crisps, munching mince pies and glugging Gluhwein, you can still give your dog the opportunity for a little light scentwork. Take a handful of kibble or treats or cut up sausage/cheese/turkey/ carrots and mix them into a box of packaging/paper/etc. Make sure the box is low enough for your dog to reach inside and then leave her to forage happily through it to find the tasty little nuggets.
However you are spending Christmas, make time to do what you love, and to give your dog the opportunity to do what she loves. Be kind to yourself, to others and to your dog. And as Claudia would say ‘Keep on sniffing!’ (I’m sure that’s what she says, right?)