Border Collie Training: Working with herding breeds
Border Collies struggle in urban environments when they’re not given appropriate outlets for their intrinsic desire to herd. We see so many Collie owners desperately relying on a ball chucker to tire their dogs out, but what is this really doing to the dog?
It’s sadly very common to see Border Collies transfer their herding instincts into chasing anything that moves, be that cars, children, bikes or even shadows.
What these beautiful dogs need is access to engage in herding in a way that is controlled, fun and harnesses their natural instincts. They can learn to herd while increasing their ability to recall from a distance, engage with their human, and enjoy more freedom safely.
If you are working with herding breeds or considering doing so, then this will revolutionise how you empower owners to understand their dogs so that they can live healthy, happy lives together.
Understanding breed history
Whatever dog breed you are working with, understanding breed history is critical. Over thousands of years, we have shaped our dog’s behaviors according to the jobs they were bred for.
While the dogs you work with may now be living their lives in pet homes, there is a strong
possibility that what lies beneath problem behaviours is linked in part to the breed’s natural instincts. What you’re really seeing is a dog performing breed-specific traits in a different environment, like a Collie trying to herd kids at the local park.
Border Collie Breed History
Border Collies are, of course, a herding breed. Herding is about stopping and controlling movement. They were bred to work alongside their shepherd to gather a large number of animals together and then control and drive those animal’s movements.
So when working with herding breeds, we need to be mindful of the characteristics that go along with being a successful herder.
Herding breeds are quickly aroused to meet the need to go from zero to 10 in the flick of a switch. If a sheep breaks from a herd, a Border Collie needs to respond immediately and stop and control the movement of the one that’s running away.
The hunt sequence used in working dogs is wired into pet dogs too.
For Border Collies, the part of the herding sequence that is most relevant is to eye, stalk, chase, and grab.
It’s intrinsically reinforcing for Border Collies to do these behaviours.
Border Collies need to be environmentally sensitive and aware of all the things that are going on around them so they can work with their handler at a distance while protecting their own safety and security.
When we think about all of these traits that are essential for them to perform their job of controlling the movement of sheep or livestock, we can see how and why behaviour problems can often show up in domestic environments for the breed.
For thousands of years, we’ve been creating a high arousal, easily frustrated animal that likes to be able to control movement and gets very, very easily upset if they can’t do that. When a Border Collie isn’t able to perform the eye – stalk – chase of the hunt sequence, their innate need to fulfil those behaviours is stifled. And this often shows up with lunging, barking, nipping or chasing things that aren’t safe.
They’re hugely environmentally sensitive, have a very close bond with their handler, and have enormous energy to complete the task they were bred to do.
A Collie’s early life experiences were likely to be on a farm, in kennels and spent watching their parent’s work with their shepherd and the sheep. They had little to no exposure to homes, people, streets, cars and all the things they’re confronted with in an urban environment.
It wasn’t important that they were super friendly to everybody that came into the farmyard or that they could cope with traffic. It was imperative that they had the endurance and natural herding ability, and quick action to instantly do everything that the farmer needed.
It’s possible to have an urban domestic Border Collie, who lies down by your fire at night or gets snuggled up on the sofa with you, with the right training and lifestyle considerations. A Border Collie can be perfectly happy, well-nourished, and a beautiful member of the family.
But we need to know what to avoid and what to do to bring out the very best in them.
Are you paying attention? What is your dog doing right now? Do you know?
Perhaps she’s in the room with you snoozing by your side just like my terrier girls? Or perhaps she’s taken herself off to bed in another room like my lab? If you have other folks at home with you, she could be with them and so you don’t actually know what she’s doing. Unfortunately, too many people don’t know what their dog is doing, even when they are right there with them. Being attentive is an active choice and to become good at it, you need to practise. Really observing your dog, not just watching her, is one of the most important and transferable skills you’ll learn in scentwork.
Coming up . . .
How would it feel?
Stay out of it!
Not my business
Decide to be attentive
Let’s up our game
I was reminded of this whilst waiting at the vets. Ettie had a follow up appointment and the poor vet was running late. Our practice is inside a large pet shop. As we sat in the waiting area on the first floor of the store, I could see the whole pet shop laid out before me. I could see the front door and all the customers arriving, browsing and leaving. And I can’t tell you how stressful this was!
Watching non-trainers with their dogs is rarely fun. (TBH, this applies to watching some trainers too, but I’ll leave that for another post!) One of the few upsides to COVID was that veterinary patients had to wait in cars rather than waiting rooms. But today, I was trapped in the biggest waiting room ever. “So why was is stressful” I hear you ask? In a nutshell, it was witnessing the disconnect between dogs and their people.
How would it feel?
Before I go any further, imagine you had to watch somebody doing your job when they have zero skills or experience of it. I’d bet good money that you would find it uncomfortable and be itching to intervene to show them how to do it properly. Or more efficiently. Maybe just to do it better. Now imagine that you have a whole warehouse full of those people muddling along. Next, imagine knowing how to help and support those people to be better able to do the job – but not being able to help. That is where the stress comes in.
One customer arrived at the automatic doors with his very young English Bulldog puppy. Putting aside my instant and ever present question when I see brachy dogs (brachycephalic meaning short nosed or flat faced, commonly used to describe dogs with ‘squashed’ faces such as English and French Bulldogs) of ‘Why did you choose a dog who has deliberately bred to be deformed?’(you can read more on my thoughts on this in a previous post) And further wondering where in his research of the breed he though “Yes, let’s make sure he’s docked too.’ Putting all those judgements aside, I watched this man taking his little pup out for his first trip to the pet shop.
That he was in the pet shop with his puppy made my heart melt. He wanted to care for his little bully, and buy him all he could ever want. Once he’d negotiated the whoosh of the doors, which luckily stayed open most of the time as other customers bustled in and out, he met his first big challenge – another dog. An excited poodle mix bounced onto the pup. Pup tried to back away but was prevented from moving by a stack of shopping baskets and by his person who tightened the lead. Now he was trapped. The boy with the poodle mix kept moving forward, allowing his dog to keep jumping and sniffing and interacting with the puppy. The man with the puppy maintained the tight lead and watched as his pup was subjected to the attentions of the other dog.
4.Stay out of it!
By now I was positively sweating, almost holding on to my chair in an effort not to run down the stairs to help the puppy. But the situation was none of my business. It had nothing to do with me. Hand on heart, I can’t say that if I’d already been down there beside the pup that I wouldn’t have intervened. But I wasn’t, so I stayed put.
5. Not my business
Eventually the poodle mix left the shop and the pup could continue on his way. Except that this was a big new place, scary things could happen there, as he’d already discovered, and the floor was slippery. But that was to the man’s advantage as he was able to slide his pup along the floor by pulling on the lead. After a mix of sliding and stumbling along, they eventually made it to their destination – the toy aisle. I watched as the man tried to find a toy that his puppy would like. He took toy after toy off the shelf and squeaked it and/or shook it at his puppy. The pup ignored them all.
What the man didn’t see was that as he was selecting toys from the upper shelf, the pup had time to investigate those on the lower shelf. Each time the man tried to engage the pup with a toy, he distracted him from choosing his own toy from the accessible offerings. Had he been paying attention to his puppy he’d have been able to see his puppy’s preferences.
And that’s the crux of this example. The whole trip to the store could have been very different had the man been mindful of his puppy. The pup’s body language was really good, really clear. And you didn’t have to be an expert to understand much of what the pup was saying. Backing away from something means the same for most mammals. It’s a way to increase distance. To make time to assess the situation to decide if it’s safe to move closer, to interact. But folks often don’t notice this even in human-human interactions. If somebody moves into my space, i.e. moves closer to me than I’m comfortable with, I will move back to increase the distance between me and them. But often, the person again decreases the space oblivious to my reason for moving.
6. Decide to be attentive
Paying attention to body language isn’t difficult, but it must be an active decision. The person might have been distracted and thought the queue was moving forward and that’s why I’d moved. Or they could have been more comfortable than I was when it comes to standing close to strangers. With the pandemic I do think that people are more aware of social distancing than ever before. Is this to do with health or with reading each other’s body language though? I’d guess the former.
As the puppy backed away from the other other dog, the man could have allowed the pup free movement. He might then have discovered that if given space and time, the pup may well have chosen to move forward to interact with the friendly dog. But he was never given that option. Maybe (almost definitely) the man didn’t know what to do in the the situation. If he had taken a moment to really look at what his puppy was doing and think about why he might have been doing that, he may well have figured out that he should let his puppy back off.
7. Be mindful
In many situations, all it takes is mindfulness. Observe. Be aware. Be thoughtful. Put yourself in the same situation to see how you’d feel. If the boy with the dog had jumped on the man with the pup I wonder if he’d have stood still and allowed him to paw, push and jostle him? Would he have felt comfortable with this interaction? Would it have been something he’d hope would happen with the next person he saw or would he have avoided similar interactions in future?
Observing dogs is my passion. And puzzling as it may be to me, I do acknowledge that not everyone shares this fascination. However, if you have charge of an animal, it is your responsibility to care for it. This means putting in some work to learn their language.
It requires effort to stay alert and aware of how different environments and situations could or do impact your charge. The only downside to this is that once you do start paying attention, you see miscommunication and disconnect all around you.
And that is distressing. But it’s the price you pay for working on having a wonderful relationship with your dog.
8. Vital communication
I see this in scentwork all the time. It’s part of what we do when we work together with our dogs for common cause. The whole search is a two way conversation, played out mostly with body language by both parties. Not paying attention to your search dog is to let her down, to fail to fulfil your side of the partnership. So often it’s that fleeting moment when the handler turns away from the dog that she indicates and the moment, and target, is lost. Failing to respond to an indication can confuse the dog. ‘Maybe my handler doesn’t want to know about the scent after all?’ Or in the worst case ‘Maybe I’m not looking for the correct scent, I’m not sure what I’m doing’
Observation is also about safety. Maintaining safety and security in the search area by getting ready if the dog is about to jump onto something. Maintaining security by letting the dog know you’ve always got her back, will always be there to support her mentally as well as physically.
Being mindful of human body language and communication signals is just as important for the dog as for us. If the dog doesn’t pay attention to what we are saying she might never access part of the search area and so may not locate the find. It might mean that she expends all her energy before the search is complete and so may inadvertently limit the number of finds. Without learning to observe us during searches, and practising that skill, the dog will be a less efficient and successful scentworker. And vice versa.
9. Let’s up our game
So let’s up our game and really pay attention to our dogs, especially when out and about. Let’s help them have wonderfully positive interactions with other people and dogs and places – on their terms. Let her back off. Don’t let her invade other’s spaces. Support her with your voice and with treats and touch to help reinforce great interactions and avoid and/or repair negative ones. Remember, you don’t have to be an expert, you just have to pay attention!
There are many reasons why you should not get a service dog. They are expensive to train.
They require a lot of work, energy, time and effort. You always must think and be responsible for the dog. You will constantly have to fight for your right to access.
People will stare at you and discriminate against you. You might even have to give up certain things you love.
All that said, I would not exchange my service dog and everything that comes with him for anything in the world.
My name is Hesmé Cronjé and I have autism, multiple mental health conditions, a seizure disorder and fibromyalgia.
I have had my fair share of challenges regrading my health. I struggle to cross a road by myself, go shopping, communicate and generally functions in a neurotypical society that is not made to accept people with my conditions.
There was a time when I would come home from school and cry until I fell asleep.
I thought I would never be able to be independent. But my service dog changed that. My service dog gave me confidence. My service dog gave me a chance at “normal”. My service dog gave my hope for a future.
I went from having a seizure a day and being so overwhelmed with anxiety that I felt like I could barely breathe to someone who is advocating for myself, and others like me.
A service dog opens a world that once seemed so far out of reach to disabled people. We get to truly live!
My dog saved my life and continues to do so, but he also taught me how to live and thrive. I am happy and hopefully. And for that I am eternally grateful.
One of the saddest things in private practice is witnessing the joy and delight of a new puppy turn to sorrow when, a few days after its purchase; it succumbs to a horrible disease like parvo virus or distemper. What makes it especially sad is that these diseases are preventable with correct vaccination.
A growing trend appears to be for breeders to vaccinate their puppies before selling them – presumably to save on veterinary fees. This “saving” may be very short-sighted. Breeders are not adequately trained in the proper handling and administration of vaccines, nor are they trained to diagnose disease in its early stages. Vaccinating a puppy that is not completely healthy renders the vaccine ineffective and may actually exacerbate illness. There is also the dilemma that the veterinarian faces with the rest of the vaccination programme for the puppy viz. to ignore the first vaccine done by the breeder and start again, or to trust and hope that the first vaccine was done properly. Over vaccinating can also be harmful.
Furthermore any person performing a veterinary act for financial gain (e.g. vaccinating puppies and charging for it) and who is not registered with the South African Veterinary Council is in contravention of the Veterinary and Para-veterinary Act No 19 of 1982 and as such is liable for prosecution.
A puppy that has been vaccinated by a veterinarian will have a legitimate vaccine book or certificate showing proof of vaccination. This book or certificate will be a printed document with the veterinary practice details on the front cover and the veterinarian’s signature and practice stamp in the appropriate place inside. It will NOT be a photocopied or type written document on cheap paper or card.
Puppies from pet stores are especially prone to developing disease a few days after being purchased. These puppies have often been sourced from all over the country and transported under great stress to the pet store. Here they are grouped together increasing their exposure to infectious diseases. Legitimate pet stores will offer to cover the costs of any illness which may develop within the first two weeks of purchase.
In summary the following points may be helpful when purchasing a new puppy:
If the first vaccinations have already been done, ensure that they were done by a veterinarian. Make sure there is a legitimate vaccine book with the veterinary practice details on it. Do not fall for any excuses like the vaccine books are still coming. The books are issued immediately with the first vaccine.
If you are paying for a pedigreed puppy make sure you receive the papers with the puppy. Do not fall for any excuses like the papers are still coming. Also ask to see the pedigree papers of the parents.
Legitimate breeders work closely with their veterinarian – ask for the veterinarian’s details in case your puppy has problems and your veterinarian needs to contact the breeder’s vet.
Virtual training has increased since the Covid 19 lockdowns as an option for some types of training.
Virtual training is where the course is delivered online through platforms like Zoom and The Smart Dog Training Platform You can take the course at home or work and interact and learn through a virtual platform whether on a laptop, tablet or smartphone.
Virtual training is not for everyone and you need to have a good internet connection but it does allow you to learn without travel and you still have the advantage of the course being taught by an instructor so you can ask questions. The instructor can break the group up into smaller groups using break-out rooms so you can still have group discussions, feedback can be done individually without others hearing. At The Smart Dog we have a virtual training platform and digital test system to make virtual training work really well.
The advantages of virtual training are:
You can be anywhere in the world when you take the course
No travelling to the course
Still benefit from training with a live instructor and other students
Access to course downloads
Fully accredited training
Ask questions when you want
Still have the benefit of a structured lesson rather than self-study
For more information on any format of training to suit your needs, please contact us by phoning 081 270 4672, or email: email@example.com
Toilet roll tubes can be used is lots of unexpected ways. One of the most useful hacks I discovered many years ago was to use them to store plugs and chargers. You pop the chargers inside the tubes and then sit the filled tubes in a drawer or box. This stops them getting tangled up, making it easy to lift one out without having to wrestle with the others. And if you write on the tube what the charger is for then you can put an end to rummaging blindly as you try charger after charger into your device. Simple, cheap, practical.
Search 1 – Beginners
What I learned from these searches
What I hope Ettie learned
Search 2 – Intermediate
What I learned from these searches
What I hope Ella learned
Search 3 – Experienced
What I learned from these searches
What I hoped Cherry learned
And those are three words that I live by when it comes to scentwork equipment. If you’ve read any of my previous blogs about making up scentwork tins or using boxes in searches, you’ll know that I’m a big fan of using whatever is around is rather than spending money on fancy equipment. I believe that it’s better to invest in excellent training rather than throwing money away on ‘special’ boxes. Quality training and the correct harness are essential purchases. Everything else is gravy!
I thought you might find it useful if I detailed three ways to use the cardboard innards of toilet rolls in scentwork searches. Each search can be adapted to your dog, your target scent, your style of working (e.g. passive or active indications) and your team’s skill level. Never forget, that scentwork is a team activity. That means that you need to pay attention to the skill levels of both the handler and the dog. I’m going to showcase searches at three levels: beginner, intermediate and experienced. You can vary every factor so that it fits with your search goals, but here are the basic set-ups for each search.
Search 1 – Beginners
I really like this cute search. And so did Ettie! This search uses only the toilet roll tubes and a scented article. I set it up indoors because it’s quite a windy day today. But if you’ve a sheltered outside area you could do it there too. All I did was scatter the toilet rolls on the floor. Then I picked one and inserted a scented article. (Ettie searches for catnip scent.) I pushed it right in so that there was no visual clue to it’s contents. Then I placed it back amongst the empty unscented rolls.
The goal of this search was for Ettie to distinguish the target tube from the others using her nose. By using identical objects for her to search I could confirm that she could successfully find the target scent. The only thing distinguishing the target tube from the others is the scent. When Ettie found the target she was free to rip up the tube to get to the scented toy, play with the toy still in the tube or bring it to me to release the toy from the tube. The choice was hers.
Toss the tubes into the area. Then if any are too close to the others I can move them to increase the distance. I want each tube to have it’s own little area so that Ettie has space to move around them. I also don’t want the target tube to be touching, and so contaminating, it’s neighbours. Finding the scent without the article can easily cause confusion and disappointment for beginner dogs.
Once you’ve inserted the scented article into the tube, do not touch any of the other tubes. Again, this could contaminate them with the target odour.
Place the target tube according to your search goal. Do you want to build confidence? Place it close to the entrance to the search area facing onto the dog. By placing the tube so that the open ends point towards the dog as she enters, there is more air flow in her direction and so she is more likely to hit the scent quickly. Placing the tube so that the cardboard acts as a barrier between dog and scent can make it trickier. We are talking small amounts of difficulty changes, but in scentwork, small changes can have big results. And don’t worry if the dog moves the tubes as she’s searching, you can only do so much!
Once the dog finds the target, always play outside of the search area. If you want to reuse this area for more searches, you want to keep contamination to a minimum. By playing outside the area you can be free to enjoy the game without worrying about the toy or the tube touching ‘clean’ tubes or flooring that remain in the area.
Do NOT reuse tubes. Once an article has been placed in a tube, throw the tube away in your outside bin (you don’t want your dog indicating on your indoor bins!) These tubes are free so you can afford to chuck them straight into the recycling after each search.
What I learned from these searches
That Ettie is no longer a beginner when it comes to free searching. Her indication is strong and confident. Next step, increase duration and directed searching.
The first search reminded me why it’s useful to record searches. Ettie exuberantly shook the mouse. You can see this if you pop over to my Instagram account. So much that the toilet tube that contained it flew off into the search area. I had no idea which one was the contaminated tube. But I was able to review the footage and remove the correct tube before the next search. Had I not been recording, I’d have had to remove multiple tubes in order to ensure I’d not left the contaminated one in the search area.
What I hope Ettie learned
That when she hits the scent not to doubt herself. And to be fearless when it comes to accessing the scented article from whatever it’s been hidden in.
Search 2 – Intermediate
This time I’m using the toilet rolls as an additional layer for the finds. The more layers, the smaller the scent picture. Scent moves in air. If that scented air has to travel through several layers the target odour takes longer to reach the surface and escape the hide. It can also be a little weaker as it loses scent particles as it moves through each layer.
The amount of loss and the delay in emerging depends on the material of the layers. Thick plastic will hold scent inside. But it can move easily through fabric. The fabric will also absorb lots of scent making the picture bigger. While the plastic will absorb hardly any and so will continue to make the scent picture small. However, once the dog hits the scent in the plastic and accesses the article, the scent will be strong and reinforcing. This really helps dogs understand that tiny amounts of scent can lead to bigger pictures and the scented article itself. In the small amounts of catnip we are using, experienced dogs are not generally influenced by the volume or density of scent. But for dogs learning to work with varying amounts, this can be a real confidence boost.
This search was for Ella. I thought I’d use cheese as my target scent so that you could see that these searches can accommodate whatever scent you like. Plus while Ella will happily search for catnip articles, she prefers to hunt for edible finds!
To make a layered hide, I squished some cheese into a couple of the toilet roll tubes. Then I placed the tubes inside other boxes I’d been saving. (If you wanted to make this a little trickier you could close the ends of one of the tubes over.) Then I placed it inside a single box making a two layered find. This should be quite a simple find as there is lots of air circulating both in the box and in the tube.
With the other one, I squashed the tube flat. Then I placed it inside a box that already had multiple layers with in, making a two – five layered find depending on where Ella hit the scent. If she turned the box over and hit the scent from the underside of the box, it would be a two layer: box bottom + one side of the tube. But if she hit it from the top of the box it would be five layers: box lid + thin plastic + cardboard + thin plastic + toilet tube. If I folded the tube over I could increase the layers even more.
All the boxes were placed at floor level. I wanted to give Ella every opportunity to access the finds with minimal help from me. Note: locate v access: I will always work with the dog to support her as she searches for the finds. But once she’s located them, whenever possible, I encourage the dog to dig in and get the finds, i.e. access them, herself. This can add to the pleasure of the reward, builds confidence and prevents the dog from stepping back expecting me to provide waitress service. However, I am always ready to step in to assist if she can’t quite reach the finds.
This search aimed to help Ella sniff deeply through layers in order to locate the finds. I wanted to give her multiple opportunities hence setting up a multi-find search. I also wanted to encourage her to dig into the hides to access the cheese. This action reinforces the pleasure of finding the cheese by giving confirmation that small amounts of scent still result in strong rewards.
Soften the cheese in your hands before placing it inside the tube This will warm it and make it stickier so that it doesn’t simply fall out of the tube if the hide is moved.
Use a small amount of cheese, 1cm cubes are ideal for Ella. If your dog is less experienced, use bigger cubes, or more experienced, use less.
Try not to use your thumb as you place the cheese into the tube. It will likely be greasy and cheesy after picking up and softening the cheese. It’s an easy mistake to press your thumb onto the outside of the tube as you press the cheese to the inside. If you do you contaminate the outside of the tube.
Make sure you wash your hands after squishing the cheese in place. In a perfect world this would be after you’ve placed it into the tube and before you put the cheesy tube into the box. But whatever your circumstances, try to keep contamination to a minimum.
As before, do NOT reuse tubes. Or contaminated boxes. For each search, use fresh equipment. Cardboard is cheap and plentiful, so no need to risk confusion by reusing them.
What I learned from these searches
That since having her upper front teeth taken out, she finds it tricky to eat the cheese from the tubes. She tried but without those teeth to scrape it out she struggled. Therefore I happily stepped in to rip the tubes and give her access.
On the first search she quickly located the hide but was confused not to find the cheese directly inside the box, but inside the tube too. It was clear that when I helped her to get into the box to get the find, that her issue was not in fact accessing the box, but locating the find within the box. With some assistance she figured it out.
To help clarify that the tubes could be hides too, for the next search I went back a step with the tubes. I hid the find just as I had for Ettie. By sticking the cheese inside the tube and placing it on the floor amongst the other tubes and boxes, Ella was able to reinforce her discovery from the previous search. After she found the cheesy tube she continued the search and quickly located the third find through all the layers. I’ll post the third find on Instagram.
What I hope Ella learned
That the target scent might be inside something that she would dismiss if she relied on visual confirmation. That I will always support her to access the find but that she is capable to digging into boxes, etc. more than she first thought. And that even without her front teeth, she can still eat the cheese!
Search 3 – Experienced
This time I’m using the tubes themselves as the scented articles. I cut the tubes into strips and hoops. Scenting up whole tubes would be way too easy for an experienced dog. But if this is your dog’s first time searching for scented cardboard, then start with whole tube and make the pieces smaller as her skill and confidence grows. Then I popped them into the scentwork tin to soak up the catnip scent.
I also cut up some of the other tubes. Those pieces I would leave unscented.
As I mentioned earlier, it’s a windy day here. Cherry is experienced and loves to work outdoors, so setting up some outside searches would be perfect for her. I placed multiple finds in each search. I also placed multiple unscented pieces in each search. Some of each were placed in plain sight, and some were hidden out of sight. I hid them at various heights, high and low. As with Ettie and Ella’s searches, there were no high or slippery surfaces in the search areas so I conducted all three searches without the girls wearing their harnesses.
My goal for Cherry, my experienced dog, was to test to ensure she was indicating on the target scent and not just assuming because she found something incongruous to the area that it was automatically the article. I wanted to check that she was indicating on the scent rather than the tube pieces
Cut the tubes up before opening the tin. You don’t want to let too much catnip scent into the air while you prepare the tubes. So keep the lid on until you’re ready to add the tube pieces.
Prepare these articles the day before you want to do the searches. This will give the tubes lots of time to soak the scent.
Cut up more tubes that you intend to use. That way you’ll have some in the tin for next time too.
Mark the unscented tubes so that you can double check which ones your dog is indicating on.
If this is the first time you’ve done searches with this goal it’s useful for the search to be known. That means you know which ones are scented and which are not. This helps ensure that you don’t reinforce the dog for retrieving or showing on the unscented items.
What I learned from these searches
That we need to practise this more! Cherry spotted one of the unscented cardboard rings early on in the search. She half heartedly mouthed at it but when I simply responded by asking her to ‘Find it’ she moved on. She quickly picked up the scent of one of the finds and was able to happily search on to locate the scented cardboard. It is clear to see the difference between her interest in the unscented and scented cardboard when comparing both behaviours so close together. Another advantage to recording searches. I’ll post a quick video of this on Instagram.
Later in the search she hit the target scent and when tracing it to source she saw the unscented cardboard again. She moved to pull it off the branch (both scented and unscented tube rings were hidden in a couple of shrubs that stood side by side.) As I knew it wasn’t scented I was able to give a quick ‘ah,ah’, repeated the ‘find it’ cue and she continued on to find the target, ignoring the unscented ring.
At another point in the search she almost casually lifted an unscented piece of the tube off the fence. No indication, no usual behaviour when she finds the target. It was almost as if she thought she should take it just in case. With more practise on the skill she will be able to ignore unscented dummies like these with much more confidence.
So there it is. Three very different uses for something that you’d most likely just toss into the recycling. The lowly toilet roll tube can now take a new status in your scentwork world. Simple, cheap and practical. And look at what me and the girls learned from these searches. So valuable and so much fun! These resources are super versatile. You are only limited by your imagination. So start collecting your toilet tubes today.
What I hoped Cherry learned
Not to people please. To have the confidence to move on from something that looks like a find even if it doesn’t smell like one.
Now it’s your turn
If you do any of these searches with your dog, I’d love to see them.Send pics/videos directly to me at firstname.lastname@example.org
For many, 7 years old is the threshold for seniority. Look at dog foods, age charts, health advice. Seven is very often when adult dogs are labelled senior dogs. But if you delve a little deeper you will soon discover that deciding on when a dog is a senior dog might not be that simple. Those who have calculated how old a dog is in comparison to people long ago realised that simply taking age as the marker was insufficient.
Small v big
Small dogs tend to live longer than giant dogs. Jack Russell Terriers and Chihuahuas can live as long as 20 years, Shih Tzus and Pomeranians up to 16 years. Whereas Great Danes and St. Bernards do well if they make it to 10 years old. Therefore, to compare a 7 year old Jack Russell to a 7 year old St. Bernard isn’t a useful comparison.
But when you look at breed specifics, you’ll see a big difference. The average lifespan of most dogs is around 10 years, with mongrels living to around 14 years. But you need to look at more than just size. Looking at those breeds in the middle of the size chart, you’ll also see some big swings in life expectancy: Labradors -12 years; Springer Spaniels – 14; and Border Collies – 16. So you can see how much more is involved than you might first think when ascertaining when your adult dog has become a senior dog.
So even though Ella has reached the 7 year mark, it’s safe to say that she is not a senior dog. But big sister Cherry is a senior. As a Labrador Retriever, she hit senior status when she was about 8 years old. She turns 10 next month and she has started to slow down a little. She gets a bit stiff after lots of exercise, her joints click when she stretches and her muzzle is just starting to show signs of greying. But as anyone who has met her will attest, she doesn’t appear old.
And this is where I think we could improve our expectations and attitude towards senior dogs. Senior doesn’t have to mean senile, sluggish or sickly. And is definitely shouldn’t mean shelved. In my time as a Customs Drug Detector Dog Handler, it was almost an automatic assumption that once our detector dogs hit 7 years, they’d be retired. Partly, and this is my own observation, this was due to injury or illness. We just didn’t know enough to take good care of their joints. Jumping up and out of containers, aircraft, lorries and cargo every day will take a toll on shoulders, elbows and more. We didn’t know to add joint supplements to their diet or to support their weight as they landed (see my downloadable guide on choosing and using a harness.)
Viewing dogs as retired or ‘past it’ when they are still healthy and lively is to risk wasting precious years. Years when they could be out exploring the world and enjoying new experiences. To cosset Ella now would be to deny her a full life. Don’t get me wrong, I believe that joint care, weight management and positive mental challenges are not just for senior dogs. They are are for all dogs to help maintain good health for as long as possible. While adopting these measures as seniority looms is better than nothing, looking after our dogs throughout their lives should be the goal. Simple measures such as not letting your dog become overweight, keeping her warm before and after exertion or exercise, and teaching her new skills from puppyhood to maturity will help maintain quality of life long after she passes into the senior section of her life.
I was as guilty as the next person in assuming that senior dogs preferred a quiet life. My dogs usually accompany me whenever I teach scent workshops. About 8 years ago, during a workshop lunch hour I suddenly realised that Megan was my only dog to whom who I’d not taught scentwork. I was appalled at this realisation. And so I immediately set up some searches for her so that she could get involved in this glorious activity. And oh my, how she loved it. Her whole being lifted as she worked out the game and enjoyed both the process and the rewards. You can see for yourself how much she enjoyed it if you sign up for my Senior Scentwork course in which she takes the starring role!
My 13 year old (she might even have been 14!) girl learned a new skill, one that helped so much in her final months. I lost her at 15 years old (good old mongrel) but I knew that right til the end she had a wonderful life. Providing mental exercise becomes ever more important as our dogs are able to do less physical exercise. I see this a lot with dogs of all ages who have suffered injury or illness, or who are no longer able to compete (e.g. agility) at high levels. Their body might not do all they want, but their minds can. To be full of energy but not have access to a positive outlet for it is surely a cruelty?
Talking Dogs Scentwork® has always been, and always will be, a fully inclusive activity. No dog is excluded. Every dog is welcomed and supported to reach their own individual goals. The ability to design searches that are appropriate to each dog is one of the cornerstones to this inclusivity. Small changes can make big differences. Ensuring that dogs don’t need to jump up or dig. Eliminating slippery or uneven surfaces. Providing appropriate finds and rewards all contribute to making scentwork fun for all dogs, pup to senior, fit to limited.
Sign ups for seniors
While Puppy Scentwork is one of my most popular courses, enrolments for Senior Scentwork fall far below. This makes me sad as I wonder just how many senior dogs are being inadvertently written off as ‘too old to learn something new’ or ‘too old to want to do scentwork’ or ‘too old to be able to search’. Of course, lots of dogs learn the scentwork skill when they are young and so can carry those skills over to their senior years. But I do worry for those who haven’t learned young.
This is the start of a New year and maybe it could be the start of a new activity? Maybe you will have that sudden realisation, just as I did all those years ago, that your senior dog is waiting to get involved, to have her turn in the search area and to start sniffing! Or maybe you are already on the case and have taught your dog scentwork now, in readiness for senior status. Let’s embrace our senior dogs. Don’t let them slip away, wasting those later years. Give them opportunities to thrive and explore and to live good lives right til the end.
Puppies spend a great deal of time playing, chewing and investigating objects. All of these normal activities involve puppies using their mouths and their needle-sharp teeth. When puppies play with people, they often bite, chew and mouth on people’s hands, limbs and clothing. This kind of behavior may seem cute when your puppy is seven weeks old, but it’s not nearly so endearing when he’s three or four months old—and getting bigger by the day!
What to Do About Puppy Mouthing
It’s important to help your puppy learn to curb his mouthy behavior. There are various ways, some better than others, to teach this lesson. The ultimate goal is to train your puppy to stop mouthing and biting people altogether. However, the first and most important objective is to teach him that people have very sensitive skin, so he must be very gentle when using his mouth.
Bite Inhibition: Teach Your Puppy to Be Gentle Bite inhibition refers to a dog’s ability to control the force of his mouthing. A puppy or dog who hasn’t learned bite inhibition with people doesn’t recognize the sensitivity of human skin, and so he bites too hard, even in play. Some behaviorists and trainers believe that a dog who has learned to use his mouth gently when interacting with people will be less likely to bite hard and break skin if he ever bites someone in a situation apart from play—like when he’s afraid or in pain.
Puppies usually learn bite inhibition during play with other puppies. If you watch a group of puppies playing, you’ll see plenty of chasing, pouncing and wrestling. Puppies also bite each other all over. Every now and then, a pup will bite his playmate too hard. The victim of the painful bite yelps and usually stops playing. The offender is often taken aback by the yelp and also stops playing for a moment. However, pretty soon, both playmates are back in the game. Through this kind of interaction, puppies learn to control the intensity of their bites so that no one gets hurt and the play can continue without interruption. If puppies can learn how to be gentle from each other, they can also learn the same lesson from people.
When you play with your puppy, let him mouth on your hands. Continue play until he bites especially hard. When he does, immediately give a high-pitched yelp, as if you’re hurt, and let your hand go limp. This should startle your puppy and cause him to stop mouthing you, at least momentarily. (If yelping seems to have no effect, you can say “Too bad!” or “You blew it!” in a stern voice instead.) Praise your puppy for stopping or for licking you. Resume whatever you were doing before. If your puppy bites you hard again, yelp again. Repeat these steps no more than three times within a 15-minute period. If you find that yelping alone doesn’t work, you can switch to a time-out procedure. Time-outs are often very effective for curbing mouthing in puppies. When your puppy delivers a hard bite, yelp loudly. Then, when he startles and turns to look at you or looks around, remove your hand. Either ignore him for 10 to 20 seconds or, if he starts mouthing on you again, get up and move away for 10 to 20 seconds. After the short time-out, return to your puppy and encourage him to play with you again. It’s important to teach him that gentle play continues, but painful play stops. Play with your puppy until he bites hard again. When he does, repeat the sequence above. When your puppy isn’t delivering really hard bites anymore, you can tighten up your rules a little. Require your puppy to be even gentler. Yelp and stop play in response to moderately hard bites. Persist with this process of yelping and then ignoring your puppy or giving him a time-out for his hardest bites. As those disappear, do the same for his next-hardest bites, and so on, until your puppy can play with your hands very gently, controlling the force of his mouthing so that you feel little or no pressure at all.
What to Do Next: Teach Your Puppy That Teeth Don’t Belong on Human Skin
Substitute a toy or chew bone when your puppy tries to gnaw on fingers or toes.
Puppies often mouth on people’s hands when stroked, patted and scratched (unless they’re sleepy or distracted). If your puppy gets all riled up when you pet him, distract him by feeding him small treats from your other hand. This will help your puppy get used to being touched without mouthing.
Encourage noncontact forms of play, such as fetch and tug-of-war, rather than wrestling and rough play with your hands. Once your puppy can play tug safely, keep tug toys in your pocket or have them easily accessible. If he starts to mouth you, you can immediately redirect him to the tug toy. Ideally, he’ll start to anticipate and look for a toy when he feels like mouthing.
If your puppy bites at your feet and ankles, carry his favorite tug toy in your pocket. Whenever he ambushes you, instantly stop moving your feet. Take out the tug toy and wave it enticingly. When your puppy grabs the toy, start moving again. If you don’t happen to have the toy available, just freeze and wait for your puppy to stop mouthing you. The second he stops, praise and get a toy to reward him. Repeat these steps until your puppy gets used to watching you move around without going after your feet or ankles.
Provide plenty of interesting and new toys so that your puppy will play with them instead of gnawing on you or your clothing.
Provide plenty of opportunities for your puppy to play with other puppies and with friendly, vaccinated adult dogs. Playing and socializing with dog buddies is important for your puppy’s development—and if he expends a lot of his energy playing with other puppies, he’ll feel less motivated to play roughly with you. Consider enrolling your puppy in a good puppy class, where he can have supervised playtime with other puppies and learn some important new skills!
Use a time-out procedure, just like the one described above—but change the rules a little. Instead of giving your puppy time-outs for hard biting, start to give him time-outs every time you feel his teeth touch your skin.
The instant you feel your puppy’s teeth touch you, give a high-pitched yelp. Then immediately walk away from him. Ignore him for 30 to 60 seconds. If your puppy follows you or continues to bite and nip at you, leave the room for 30 to 60 seconds. (Be sure that the room is “puppy-proofed” before you leave your puppy alone in it. Don’t leave him in an area with things he might destroy or things that might hurt him.) After the brief time-out, return to the room and calmly resume whatever you were doing with your puppy.
Alternatively, you can keep a leash attached to your puppy during time-out training and let it drag on the floor when you’re there to supervise him. Then, instead of leaving the room when your puppy mouths you, you can take hold of his leash and lead him to a quiet area, tether him, and turn your back to him for the brief time-out. Then untie him and resume whatever you were doing.
If a time-out isn’t viable or effective, consider using a taste deterrent. Spray areas of your body and clothing that your puppy likes to mouth before you start interacting with him. If he mouths you or your clothing, stop moving and wait for him to react to the bad taste of the deterrent. Praise him lavishly when he lets go of you. Apply the bad taste to your body and clothes for at least two weeks. After two weeks of being punished by the bitter taste every time he mouths you, your puppy will likely learn to inhibit his mouthy behavior.
Be patient and understanding. Playful mouthing is normal behavior for a puppy or young dog.
Because mouthing issues can be challenging to work with, don’t hesitate to enlist the help of a Certified Dog Trainer
Avoid waving your fingers or toes in your puppy’s face or slapping the sides of his face to entice him to play. Doing these things can actually encourage your puppy to bite your hands and feet.
Do not discourage your puppy from playing with you in general. Play builds a strong bond between a dog and his human family. You want to teach your puppy to play gently, rather than not at all.
Avoid jerking your hands or feet away from your puppy when he mouths. This will encourage him to jump forward and grab at you. It’s much more effective to let your hands or feet go limp so that they aren’t much fun to play with.
Slapping or hitting puppies for playful mouthing can cause them to bite harder. They usually react by playing more aggressively. Physical punishment can also make your puppy afraid of you—and it can even cause real aggression. Avoid scruff shaking, whacking your puppy on the nose, sticking your fingers down his throat and all other punishments that might hurt or scare him.
When Does Mouthing Become Aggression?
Most puppy mouthing is normal behavior. However, some puppies bite out of fear or frustration, and this type of biting can signal problems with future aggression.
Puppy “Temper Tantrums” Puppies sometimes have temper tantrums. Usually tantrums happen when you’re making a puppy do something he doesn’t like. Something as benign as simply holding your puppy still or handling his body might upset him. Tantrums can also happen when play escalates. (Even human “puppies” can have tantrums during play when they get overexcited or upset)! A puppy temper tantrum is more serious than playful mouthing, but it isn’t always easy to tell the difference between the two. In most cases, a playful puppy will have a relaxed body and face. His muzzle might look wrinkled, but you won’t see a lot of tension in his facial muscles. If your puppy has a temper tantrum, his body might look very stiff or frozen. He might pull his lips back to expose his teeth or growl. Almost always, his bites will be much more painful than normal mouthing during play.
If you’re holding or handling your puppy and he starts to throw a temper tantrum, avoid yelping like you’re hurt. Doing that might actually cause your puppy to continue or intensify his aggressive behavior. Instead, be very calm and unemotional. Don’t hurt your puppy, but continue to hold him firmly without constriction, if possible, until he stops struggling. After he’s quieted down for just a second or two, let him go. Then make plans to contact a qualified professional for help. Repeated bouts of biting in frustration are not something that the puppy will simply grow out of, so your puppy’s behavior should be assessed and resolved as soon as possible.
When and Where to Get Help A trained professional can help you determine whether or not your puppy’s mouthing is normal, and she or he can guide you through an effective treatment plan. If you suspect that your puppy’s biting fits the description of aggressive or fearful behavior, please seek consultation with a qualified professional.
Anyone who has seen me setting out a search at a workshop knows how seriously I take it. Boxes are moved a couple of centimetres to the left or right. Baskets are moved so that they are further apart. Chairs are carefully positioned to ensure they do the job. And that’s the crux of it – every single item in the search area has a job to do. And my job as trainer is to make sure it is in the perfect spot.
It wasn’t until I really watched handlers placing finds at the Scent 4 – Environmentals workshop that I began to appreciate the specific skill that is setting out a search. So many elements are at play, it’s easy to get it wrong.
First and foremost is safety. I’ve seen some terrible decision making when it comes to the safety element of the search. As a delegate at scent workshop I once had to step in to dissuade another delegate from hiding the scented article behind a boiling hot urn. From his reaction, I could see that he had never even considered how safe or not searches could be. As a trainer we have a statutory duty of care to our clients. But as people we still need to care about others, both human and canine. I knew as a delegate that it wasn’t my place to give advice. But I also knew that either, or both, dog and handler could be severely injured had I not taken action.
So safety is paramount. Not just to prevent injury, but also to avoid anything that might make the dog think twice about scentwork. And this is where setting out a search can make or break the dog. Too hard and she might give up. Too easy and there’s no fun, no game. How do you determine what challenge level you should choose? Your starting point is the skill levels of the dog and of the handler.
It’s very often the case that the skill levels of dog and handler don’t match. They are the same at when they begin scentwork. But when taught well, the dog’s skills quickly move ahead of the handler’s. From that point on, the handler has to manage both her skill level and the dog’s. She needs to ensure the dog has enough challenge and that the handler doesn’t have too much. This assumes that dog and handler are starting at the same time. Often when the handler has worked with other dogs, her skills will remain at a higher level until much later in the process when once again the dog make overtake her. It’s not a competition between dog and handler. Skill levels are just a reflection of what each has learned and what each needs to know next.
Skill levels sorted, now it’s time to set goals. In my blog post at the start of June, I talked a lot about goal setting. About how I hate them and I love them. In scentwork, setting goals is what gives your search structure and purpose. The goal could be to tire your dog out on a rainy day. Or it could be to raise a particular skill level. Or it could be to go back a step to help the dog practise a skill that she’s not 100% with yet. Don’t get caught up in thinking all goals are about increasing the challenge, about pushing forward. It’s just as important to ensure that each step of the journey is solid and steady before pushing onwards and upwards.
It’s in the detail
Once you have an idea of your goal, it’s time for the detail. Do you need to create a bigger search area or a smaller one? More distractions, or fewer? Increase the scent picture or decrease it? Remember, it’s best practice to only change one element of the search at a time. You want to set your dog up for success. For example, if you are setting out a search to encourage your dog to locate finds that are above her head, do not decrease the scent picture at the same time. Do one or the other, not both. Once you’ve taught the dog to search higher, then you can decrease the scent picture.
Setting goals and then planning in detail what you need to do to reach them allows you to think more about the search from your dog’s perspective. Assuming that changing an element that is pretty inconsequential to you will have the same non-effect on the dog is to set your dog up to fail. Think about all the elements that make up the search and how each of those affects the dog and how she works. Environment, distractions, temperature, materials, time. All of these elements, and more, come together when you set up a search. The more aware you are of each element, the better your results will be.
A great way to really practise this is to work with another scentwork fan. By setting up searches for each other you learn to ask the right questions. You have to find out what the handler wants to achieve, maybe how she wants to achieve it, what she doesn’t want, what her dog finds easy or difficult, what needs to change and what needs to remain the same. This conversation allows everyone involved to make a plan. Practising this with another person allows you to learn what to ask yourself when you are working alone. When you’re with another search team, you can stand back to see the results of your pre-search planning. You can see how it works in practice. This is not always as easy when working alone. But if you set up your phone or camera to record your searches you can review how the plan went.
When I ran a Masterclass on setting the perfect search, one of the goals set was with Bev and her spaniel Purdey. Bev’s goal was to teach Purdey that she could ask for help. She’s a strong worker, and confident in finding the target scent. But the issue was that if she couldn’t access it, she wouldn’t ask Bev for help, she’d just move on to locate the next find. It was important not to negatively impact Purdey’s confidence, while simultaneously making the find tricky enough to access that she needed help.
So we set up a search using a medium sized find. She was already locating very small articles so by going up a size we ensured that she would be really confident that she had located the find. We set the hide at ground level so that there was no issues around jumping up and so that she could definitely access the find with Bev’s help. This was important because if Bev stepped in to help when Purdey asked, but then Purdey couldn’t reach the find herself, the assistance would have been fruitless and Purdey might not have asked for help again.
So we placed the find inside a plastic flower pot which was hidden under a cardboard box. You might be reading this thinking that’s a really easy find. Lots of air flow, good sized scent picture, minimal access issues. But that’s the point. For polite Purdey, moving the box in order to access whatever was beneath it was out of her comfort zone.
We also put out a couple of other finds that she could access easily. This was to maintain the balance of her asking for help when needed but still being happy and confident to get to some finds herself. The goal was not to have a dog dependent on waitress service. It was to have a dog who asked for help when she didn’t feel able to access finds herself. Ultimately, reaching this goal was the next step along the road to building Purdey’s experience and confidence to become bolder when it comes to moving objects around and rummaging to gain access.
Breaking large goals into smaller goals is often the best way to get great results. Setting out a search that allows the dog to learn the lessons ‘herself’ is what builds confidence and determination and success.
Caught on camera
The photo you see in this blog is the moment when Purdey did as we hoped she would – she located the find and when she couldn’t get to it, rather than moving on she stopped and look right at Bev. She asked for help. Bev then stepped in and moved the box up a bit. Purdey then moved in, pushing under the raised box and snuffling into the plant pot to retrieve the article. We were all delighted! And as a bonus I managed to catch it on camera.
I’ve brought the information from the Setting the Perfect Search Masterclass together now in a set of printables. These downloadable and printable information sheets are packed full of all the steps you need to start setting out well planned and designed searches for your dog. I’ve worked hard to make them easy to follow, but have also included a guide to using the charts to make doubly sure. You can get the Search Setting Solutions pack by heading over to my shop.
The skill of setting up appropriate searches for your dog is just as important as learning the skill of handling or reading your dog. So take the time to learn it, to practise it and to value it.
Author of article is Pam McKinnon of Talking Dogs Scentwork UK
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