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Holiday Hide and Seek with Your Dog!

Filed in - Fun & Handy Tricks

Originally Published 12/01/2011

Staying busy and out of trouble

Experienced dog owners and trainers often note that every dog needs a job. A dog with something meaningful to do rarely gets himself into trouble.

Hunting for clothespins is a task that is easy to teach, and gives your dog the opportunity to solve a problem and complete a significant job. Once the behavior is trained, it's something you can do every day without breaking a sweat or putting aside much time, yet your dog will work really hard and will finish the exercise happy and satisfied.

Dog in front of tree

The best part is what you can accomplish with this practical behavior. With just a little extra training, you can teach your dog to find your car keys or any other item you might lose within a defined search area.

The behavior is fun, practical, easy to teach, and your dog will love it. So, what are you waiting for?

Make the connection

To start, choose a really boring room in your house, one without any distractions. Turn off the TV or radio, and pick up items on the floor such as shoes, clothing, magazines, or children's toys.

If this is your first clicker training session, click and then immediately give your dog a treat. Timing is important; you want to make a connection between the sound of the click and the treat. Don't hold the clicker like a remote control or point it at your dog. Hold your clicker hand by your side, or even behind your back, as it's just the sound you're trying to associate with the treat, not the clicker itself. Remember to give the treat to your dog immediately after clicking; don't wait too long. Treating immediately after the click is a very good habit.


Here's what you'll need on hand to train this behavior:

  • a package of clothespins
  • a clicker
  • some small, yummy treats
  • a 6' or longer leash
  • a flat collar or harness

Clothespins are cheap, easy to obtain, small enough to keep dozens in your pockets, available in different bright colors, not damaged by water, not attractive to eat (for most dogs, anyway), and can be attached to branches and other obstacles if required! But other items that meet these criteria could be used instead, including pens, key-tags, or film canisters.

Repeat the click/treat pattern a few more times in order to make the important connection between the sound of the click and the yummy treat. The click tells your dog exactly when he is doing the right thing to earn a treat.

Next, pause for a moment and ignore your dog. Wait until he starts to wonder what is going on or gets a little bored. Then drop a clothespin on the floor. Wait until your dog goes to investigate the clothespin—this could happen straight away, or it could take 10 to 15 seconds. Most dogs will investigate with their nose. Click the instant your dog goes to sniff the clothespin, and then immediately hand your dog a treat or toss the treat a short distance away from the clothespin.

If your dog doesn't investigate the clothespin within 15 seconds, pick it up and wait a moment. Then try again.

There is no need to say or do anything other than clicking and treating. Doing nothing more than this might go against your instincts or be a new way of training your dog. What you're trying to do is make very clear connections among investigating the clothespin, the click, and the treat. It should be an almost mechanical connection for the dog—investigating a clothespin leads to a click, which in turn leads to a treat.

At the end of a successful trial (one attempt at getting a behavior), quietly pick up the clothespin and conceal it in your hand for a moment before attempting another trial. Your dog may return to the clothespin on his own before you pick up the clothespin after the first trial. Click and treat that, too; it is, after all, the behavior you are seeking. Be sure to pick up the clothespin and move it after every few trials, though.

During this exercise your dog doesn't need approval, or any petting or fussing. Depending on your dog's enthusiasm, you can probably do 15 or 20 trials. Keep your sessions short; limit them to about 5 minutes. Even if your dog is a very enthusiastic worker (or eater), a longer session isn't necessarily better, and this is a pretty simple behavior to learn.


"My dog won't investigate the clothespin."

Wait 15 seconds, then pick up the clothespin and try again—and then once again just to be sure. If that doesn't spur interest, click when your dog moves toward the clothespin, or even if your dog's ears or eyes flicker in the direction of the clothespin as it drops on the ground.

Clicking in any of these circumstances is a very small step in the right direction. From these starting points, you can use shaping by successive approximation to teach the dog to investigate the clothespin. As Karen Pryor notes, "Even B.F. Skinner did not start out training animals by capturing and shaping spontaneously offered behavior. Initially, he taught his laboratory animals to press levers and accomplish other tasks by making small changes in the environment: raising the height of a bar in small increments until an animal had to reach higher, or increasing the 'stiffness' of a button so a pigeon learned to peck harder. This method was called successive approximation."

"My dog tries to pick up the clothespin."

Actually, this is not a big problem, but try to click before your dog can put his teeth on the clothespin.

The goal is to teach your dog to indicate that the clothespin is on the ground by touching it with his nose, but if he gets very close without touching the clothespin, that is fine, too. If, eventually, you want to go on to a sport that requires a "down" to indicate an article, try to teach your dog to indicate the clothespin without touching it at all. You can put in the "down" when your dog has clearly made the connections among clothespin, click, and treat.

"My dog isn't interested in the treats."

Even if your dog is a very enthusiastic worker (or eater), a longer session isn't necessarily better.

Is your dog hungry? Try to plan your training session before a meal. Use good treats, ones your dog will work for. I like to use treats that are also healthy, but if you don't mind feeding a little "doggy junk food," now is the time to do it. At least your dog is working for the treat, and the treat itself is small.

Sometimes dogs are a little nervous. Take it slow and keep offering the treats. All dogs will work for food—they tend to fade away if they don't eat!

"My dog is afraid of the clothespin."

It won't take long to develop strong connections among the clothespin, the click, and the treat. Your dog will start looking forward to the clothespin being dropped. Until then, drop the clothespin from a short height, and immediately toss or hand your dog a treat to make a direct association between the clothespin and food. When your dog looks toward the clothespin, or looks around for food when you drop a clothespin, then go back to training your dog to investigate the clothespin.

Building an indication behavior

When your dog is reliably investigating the clothespin with his nose within a couple of seconds of the clothespin being dropped or tossed a short distance, it's time to develop a stronger indication behavior. If you'd like to train for a sport or job that requires a specific indication behavior (for example, a "down," "bark," or "dig"), start training that behavior now.

It won't take long to develop strong connections among the clothespin, the click, and the treat.

If you are training solely for mental exercise and/or recreation, simply teach your dog to indicate the clothespin by touching it with his nose and then waiting at the clothespin for a treat. Perhaps the easiest way to teach this behavior is to toss the treat after you click, so that your dog doesn't have to come back to you for the treat. If you repeat this many times and are always consistent about it, your dog starts to learn to wait at the clothespin for the treat to be tossed.

Don't toss the treat like this until your dog has made strong connections among the clothespin, the click, and the treat, and is reliably and promptly indicating the clothespin.

Accidentally finding a clothespin

Your dog has learned to indicate a clothespin that has been tossed on the ground, but he can also be trained to indicate clothespins that are found out of the blue.

With your dog in another room, place a clothespin on the floor in your distraction-free room. Leave that room and re-enter the room with your dog. If the dog finds and indicates the clothespin, click and toss a treat. Make the clothespin easy to find, even leave it just inside the doorway if that's what it takes.

If the dog doesn't indicate the clothespin, don't worry. Just go back to dropping the clothespin, continuing to build a strong conditioned indication behavior.

If your dog is trained to "stay," ask your dog to stay and then walk behind a chair or around a corner. Place the clothespin on the ground, and then release your dog. If he comes to you, there's a very good chance he will find the clothespin. Click and treat if he does.

Beyond the simple area search

What has been trained so far is an area search at its simplest. In training, always start simply, then increase the difficulty at a rate that ensures that your dog will succeed. When dogs succeed, they can be reinforced, and reinforcement is what keeps dogs performing the behaviors you desire or prefer. It is vitally important to set dogs up to succeed. If your dog is not set up for success, there is nothing to reinforce and nothing useful is learned. Making a task more difficult must be done progressively, little by little, with this rule for success in mind.

It is vitally important to set dogs up to succeed. If your dog is not set up for success, there is nothing to reinforce and nothing useful is learned.

If your dog has learned to indicate a clothespin that has been dropped, tossed a short distance, or "accidentally" found in a low-distraction room, it is time for the next step. Repeat each of the lessons previously outlined, this time in a grassy area without too many other distractions.

Obviously, it is more difficult to find a clothespin in grass, because grass can hide the clothespin. But an even bigger difficulty is that grass is usually found outdoors, and there are new distractions outdoors. Choosing a grassy area that is quiet, without many people or animals around, will make this lesson easier for your dog, thus setting him up for success. Remember that a leash will stop a dog from wandering off to find his own amusement. If grass presents too much of a challenge, try training this task on a hard surface, such as concrete or pavement.

Putting the search on cue

The search can also be put on cue. Start by picking a cue. It must be distinctive and you must be consistent when using it. A cue can be verbal ("seek") or physical (a hand gesture). I use the verbal cue "looky-looky!"

Have the dog on-leash so that he can't wander off. Use the cue, then drop the clothespin. If the training has been effective thus far, your dog will indicate the clothespin immediately. Note that at this stage the cue will be completely meaningless to your dog. It will take many, many repetitions before the cue takes on any meaning.

Rules for cues

1. Only use a cue if you are at least 80% sure that you will get the behavior you want. If you use a cue and don't get the behavior, you weaken the meaning of the cue.

2. If your dog doesn't perform when cued, resist the urge to repeat the cue unless you are 80% sure that your dog will respond the second time. If you are sure, pause for a meaningful length of time before repeating the cue. If the dog still does not perform, don't repeat the cue.

Extending the search area

When your dog can reliably indicate a clothespin dropped in front of him, widen the search area by tossing the clothespin a short distance. Remember, only use a cue if you are at least 80% sure your dog will respond. Every time you increase the criteria by extending the search area or by doing something a little different, avoid using the cue the first few times. Similarly, if a new distraction crops us (for example, a person walks past), don't use the cue for that trial or wait until the distraction has passed.

You can extend the search area quite significantly by tossing the clothespin. Invest in a tracking leash (10m or 30' long) so that you don't have to run around behind your dog. The extended leash also allows your dog to get used to working at a distance.

More "accidental" finds

The dog might "find" other items. Resist the temptation to click and treat when he does this. Make sure that you know where the clothespin is so that you don't accidentally reinforce your dog for indicating an item you didn't drop or toss. Don't drop personal effects within the search area either! Since the lesson is to teach the dog to search for and indicate items that you have touched, if he finds and indicates any item you have touched, it should be reinforced.

One problem with tossing the clothespin is that the tossing action can become a cue to find the clothespin. But, you want your cue to be the only cue; you won't always be tossing the clothespin. If you have done dozens of trials as described in the steps above, then some association with your cue should be beginning to form.

Remove the tossing the clothespin cue from the picture by setting up some "accidental" finds outdoors on grass. Leave a clothespin near the entry to the search area, get your dog, and as you enter the search area use your verbal or physical cue. The dog should enjoy easy success in this way.

You will know your dog has learned the meaning of the cue when he starts searching for the clothespin enthusiastically when you use your cue.

With enough trials of both accidental finds and tossed clothespins, your cue should begin to take on a clear meaning. Then start to make the accidental finds harder and harder. You will know your dog has learned the meaning of the cue when he starts searching for the clothespin enthusiastically when you use your cue. At that point, start adding new twists, like attaching the clothespin to a low tree branch, or hiding it behind a rock or under a piece of furniture.

While these instructions were written with the idea that clothespin hunts would be outdoor activities, this behavior can be trained indoors if the weather or other circumstances prevent you from going outdoors—an excellent project for the holidays!

Happy Holidays—from Santa Dog!

For a fun twist at the holidays, Karen Pryor suggests using your dog's new skill to great effect at celebrations or family gatherings.

When guests are expected, wrap several small all-purpose gifts. Gift ideas might include books, soap, or toys such as a yo-yo that even an adult would enjoy. Don't select food items. Hide the presents—in easy or in more challenging locations, depending on your dog's skill. Be sure to attach a clothespin to each present!

The dog should either be on-leash or trained not to find clothespins until the correct cue is given. When the game begins, tell the smallest child (or most gullible guest) that "Sasha knows where Santa hid a present for you. Go with Sasha and she will take you to your present."

Unclip the leash and give the dog the cue. It doesn't matter which present she goes to first; the child or gullible guest will be thrilled. Click and call the dog back, or just call and treat, if you've reached that point. Wait until the child opens the present, or send the dog on a search for another present immediately. By the time you get to the oldest and most cynical guest, even that guest will get up and go with the dog.

There are lots of ways to stack the deck and make the game more fun or impressive. If there's a specific present for someone (maybe a small child needs a child-safe toy), put that one in the most obvious place (to the dog), or practice discovering that location ahead of time so the dog goes to it first. Be sure to select the correct person to start the game.

Have a clicking Christmas,

Karen Pryor

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Great Game

I have been thinking recently about how to develop my middle dogs excellent tracking ability - I have never done it before, but I think this would be a great way to get him and me thinking about appropriate cues! He already can tell if I am in the woods with our younger dog when he is out walking with my partner (or visa versa) even if we have gone to totally new places and in different directions at different times, but I hadn't formulated a start plan to do anything structured with this! Can't wait till he gets home now!!!

Holiday Hide and Seek

Thanks Aidan.  You just gave me an idea of how to teach my mobility service dog to find my gloves.  I already taught him to pick up my gloves when I accidently drop it.  It would be really nice if he would learn how to find my gloves which I repeatedly loose in my house :)

Holiday Hide and Seek..........QUESTION..............

I am a fairly new trainer so I just want to be sure..........
Will this game help a dog who is learning scent articles for the obedience ring? Or will it in some way confuse the dog? It sounds like a fun game to teach my mini schnauzer but I don't want to end up somehow confusing him on his scent article work. Thank you in advance for any response!


Aidan Bindoff's picture

Scent articles

Hi Jaylee, I can't imagine it would confuse anything, and if you're clicker training your scent articles then it could even be an excellent starting point with very little modification.

Think about your requirements, define them exactly and have a look at the exercise from the dog's point of view. Then break it all down into components and think about how you could use this method advantageously.




Holiday Hide and Seek


Perfect timing for this game! The weather's turned windy, rainy and cold in the Seattle, WA area and the furry kids are gettng cabin fever. And, they LOVE to "work" ... which for them means it's C/T time!

Think I'll try the party game with them, too. Thanks, Karen, for the suggestion.

Happy Howlidays to all!

Connie and the IslandZooCrew

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