One of my favourite activities is to find new places to visit with my dogs. It’s something I crave during lockdown. I love the change of scene. The fun of experiencing a novel route, whether following (or trying to follow) predetermined paths. Or going off piste and exploring new woods, beaches and estates brings so much more to the walk than the safe, predictable routine of our regular romps.
And I know my girls enjoy these adventures because they get busy, trying to take in all they can, and invariably this means sniffing. Cherry becomes giddy, running and exploring much more than her usual sedate, sensible self. She appears to have a big grin as she urges me to keep up and join in with her joy. Ella is nose down, snuffling into new undergrowth seeking out new creatures on which to pounce and predate. And Ettie runs between the two, trying to catch as much of the other girls’ sniffs as she can!
Sniffing is a skill
Ella did not always do this. She loves to run, and run far! But during our time together I’ve engaged her in retrieving games, recall games, sniffing games. Probably the first sniffing game I ever taught her (and Cherry and Ettie) was ‘Find it!’ for titbits. This helped her learn that sniffing was rewarding and that I was an integral part of the game. As her confidence grew, she understood that being close and checking in with me was always worthwhile. Then she started more intense sniffing on walks. She has learned that tufts of grass are more rewarding than mown lawns. And that early morning walks offer way more scent than mid afternoon ones. She has developed a fabulous ‘mouse pounce’ as she bounces down slopes after her precious creatures. And I have encouraged this.
I understand that this might seem counter-intuitive. Why encourage behaviour that appears on face value to be problematic? For a start, she loves it. And anything that she loves, and is safe, is to be encouraged. I have the control skills in place to bring her back to me or interrupt the game. I don’t reinforce or encourage the behaviour with large animals, only with small creatures. And she has never caught a creature – which is important to me as I wouldn’t want to see any harm come to the mice, voles and whoever else she sniffs out. I’ve seen mice and rabbits dart away when she’s on the hunt, but she never sees them! She is too involved with her nose and sniffing to be bothered with the actual creatures themselves.
A few years ago she started to dig during these hunting trips. And this I also reinforced. Terriers dig. And again, as long as it was safe for her, I wanted to give her more digging opportunities. As with sniffing and hunting, I made sure that I could interrupt the behaviour and ask her to move on when required.
While Ella has always been a sniffer, Cherry is a different kettle of fish. Teaching her that she can sniff for fun, without an end goal, just for the sheer enjoyment of sniffing, is an ongoing project. She is task oriented. Always waiting for instruction, looking for cues and clues that it’s time to work. If, during a walk, I sit down, have a break, Ella will busy herself with sniffing and exploring. Cherry will stand still, stare at me and wait for instruction. I once timed how long she’d wait. 20 minutes is her record and I only stopped timing because she was getting cold. But gradually, she has learned about recreational sniffing.
Teaching by boring!
In contrast to Ella, if I tried to reinforce Cherry when she was sniffing, she would stop sniffing to see if there was anything else I was going to ask her to do. Or reward her for – I’m not sure which. Therefore, I bored her into sniffing for fun! I didn’t play with her, practise tricks or teach new behaviours. Instead I appeared to ignore her – much easier said than done.
At first it took a long time of her to figure out that I wasn’t going to engage her in any tasks or games. She kept looking at me, waiting for something to happen. Eventually when all her attempts proved fruitless, she would start sniffing the ground and beginning to explore. After a short time of her exploring independently, I would smile when she looked at me and toss the ball a few times. Then on the next walk, we’d do the same again. And now, during our walks we have periods where she can be off duty, when she can switch off from any tasks I might set, and just sniff and explore without an end goal.
Sniffing is essential
I wonder how often you let your dog engage in recreational sniffing? Is it something you’ve thought about, perhaps encouraged? Or is it something you’ve seen as an issue, something to be discouraged? I’d urge putting in some controls, maybe some rules, that would allow your dog to sniff in such a way. You could teach a ‘time out’ cue that means go off and do your own thing (mine is ‘Go play’), work on reliable recalls and encourage safe sniffing as part of your dog’s relaxation repertoire. But please, allow your dog the time and space to sniff. Don’t deprive her of this pleasurable, positive stimulation. This physical and mental information gathering activity is more than recreational, it is essential.