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How to Train Your Dog to Find a Lost Pet

Editor's note: You may have heard of search and rescue dogs that find people, but there are search and rescue dogs that find pets, too! Read on for information about pairing with your own dog to become a rescue team.

Single scents

Consider this amazing fact: Every single animal has its own unique scent. Every single mouse, every single cat, every single dog has a special and individual scent. Each animal's scent is more unique than a fingerprint!

Judy and Mellie Searching

Photo courtesy of Pet Search and Rescue.

In traditional Search and Rescue work, trained search dogs sniff out missing people following each person's distinctive scent. Search and rescue dogs are called out to search for a wide range of missing people, including Alzheimer's patients and hikers lost in the wilderness. No two people have the same scent, and no two pets do either!

Working as professional Pet Detectives (hold the Ace Ventura jokes, please!), our highly trained search dogs at Pet Search and Rescue use their incredible scenting ability to sniff out lost pets via the lost pet's unique scent. The search dogs' specialized training is geared toward a wide variety of lost pet environments, from urban to rural. One day search dogs could be looking for a missing dog that jumped out of a moving car's open window on a busy highway, while the next day's target could be an indoor cat that slipped outside in a rural desert community. There are many specialized behaviors that we teach our search dogs, but basic training starts with a fun game inside our homes with our own pets.

Try playing at home

You can start with the same fun game at home to teach your own pet to find a lost pet. The game described below is especially useful if you have a shy cat that likes to hide—perfect for the inevitable hiding game when it is time to take kitty to the vet!

Dogs love this game, too. The game is a perfect choice to build a dog's confidence, a great way to channel energy for a dog that loves cats or dogs, and/or a fun playtime game. This game can also be a good "job" to give your dog partner. Many dogs really want and need a job to keep them engaged and out of trouble!

Remember that one of the most important training tips for any project or goal is to keep it FUN! If your dog stops having fun with the training, take a break and try later. Or, consider how to adjust the training to fit your dog's needs and learning style more closely.

Best Breed?

One of the most common questions we are asked about our search dogs at Pet Search and Rescue is, "What breed are they? Bloodhounds?"

All dogs have the ability to sniff out everything from treats to your lost keys, missing dogs to missing people. Chihuahuas to Great Danes and every pooch in between can have fun using their nose. (Dogs with olfactory issues may need to use visual or auditory clues for the game.) There is a chihuahua in Japan that is a contraband detection dog; a doberman pinscher is a search dog in San Diego, California. We use rescued dogs primarily, most often mixed breed. One southern California team works two dogs, a German shepherd, golden retriever, and Rhodesian ridgeback mix and a Labrador retriever. Our Ohio team works a rescued bloodhound along with a bluetick coonhound.

Necessities

To begin, you and your dog should already be comfortable with the "click means treat" idea and should have had lots of practice, too. For some great tips about clicking successfully, check out Tia Guest's article How to Practice Clicker Mechanics.

Timing is important when training with your dog. Practice each step without your dog first, making sure that you understand the directions and timing before you add your dog to the mix.

Your dog should also be comfortable with eye contact or holding attention. If your dog isn't used to working with you as a team in this manner, consider starting with clicking and treating for eye contact and for simply paying attention.

To begin the training game, you will need the following:

  • Treats
  • Dog Partner (the dog you want to teach to find the hidden cat, dog, rodent, or reptile!)
  • Target Pet (The dog, cat, mouse, snake, etc. that you are going to search for. This pet should be relaxed and happy confined to a safe and comfortable crate, carrier, or cage.)
  • A crate, carrier, or cage for the target pet. (If the target pet is not completely comfortable inside the enclosed area, start by training your target pet!)
  • Clicker
  • Target stick, wand, or plastic lid

At the start

Before beginning any training, remind yourself that the primary goal is to set up your dog partner for success. A good way to start a training session is with a few "click means treat" reminders to get your pooch's attention!

There are three steps to teaching your dog to find a pet inside the house:

  1. The first step is to teach your dog partner to understand what you are looking for.
  2. The second step is to teach your dog partner how to find the pet you are looking for.
  3. The third step is to teach your dog partner to communicate with you that they found the pet (called the "alert").

When you and your dog partner have mastered the basics, you can refine the behavior and add in some fun variations.

Fun Elements to Add

  • If you have multiple pets, name the different pets and vary the pet that needs to be found. First "Find Fluffy," then "Find Fido," then "Find Spot," and so on. It can be challenging for partner dogs to ignore the "easier" pet to find (like the cat in the living room versus the cat hiding in the back of the closet). If your partner dog offers the wrong pet, ignore the find or simply say thank you and ask for the right pet's name again as a reminder. Do this only one time. If your partner dog offers the wrong pet again, go back to the beginning of the training sequence and begin again to reinforce all pets' names.
  • Try closing the door of the room where your target pet is hiding, and work with your partner dog to "alert" on the door first. Remember that if you "seal" the area where the target pet is hidden, very little scent can escape. This can be very challenging for a dog to sniff out. If your dog partner is having a tough time, consider cracking the door.
  • Add directional commands, asking your dog to search "right" or "left," to check a particular room like a "living room" or "basement." When you are considering new areas to hide and search, keep in mind that some chemicals are disruptive to your dog's scenting ability. If you have just cleaned an area, it may be more difficult for your pooch to complete a search. Cigarette smoke is also damaging to a dog's olfactory nerves.
  • Add a supplemental cue beyond the target pet's name when you want your dog partner to search for the missing pet. We like "Search" or "Find Fluffy." You can also add a dramatic beginning, instructing your dog to "Save the day" or go on a "Mission" to "Find Fluffy!" It may take lots of practice before your dog partner gets the connection between the command cue and sniffing out Fluffy—practice is key!
  • Try expanding the search area to outside, but make sure both your target pet and dog partner are in a safe, enclosed area or on a leash.
  • To really challenge your dog partner, move to a friend's house and use the friend's hidden kitty as the target pet. You can even ask your friend to hide the target pet so neither the dog partner nor you the trainer know where the pet is hidden. What a wonderful mystery to solve together!

Step 1: What are we looking for?

Dog indication

Photo courtesy of Pet Search and Rescue.

Start is by naming the pet you are looking for so that your training dog knows that name and associates it with what you are looking for. Either name the type of pet "kitty," or use the pet's actual name "Fluffy." At Pet Search and Rescue we like to name the type of pet; "kitty" and "doggy" are the most common. For rabbits and other small critters we use "fluffies" or "furries."

When you have decided what to call the target pet, start using that name with your target pet. Use the name to call the target pet at meal times: "Here kitty, kitty, kitty" or "Here Fluffy." Dog partners are smart and can often learn the names of pets quickly.

Another way to teach dog partners the name of the target pet is to use "targeting." Check out this video on paw targeting for tips. For targeting exercises, you can use a target stick or wand (we use a plastic lid) and teach your partner dog to touch the target stick with a nose or paw. Click and treat!

Once your dog partner has the idea of the target stick, use it to teach the name of your target pet, along with names for other pets and items. (Our favorite is "dish" or "bowl" to teach a dog partner to bring the food dish at feeding time.)

Put the target pet inside a carrier or cage. This is an important step, especially if the target pet is shy. It is best to keep everyone involved safe! Your target pet should be comfortable in a cage or crate, so you may need to start by training your target pet to be comfortable in a cage or crate.

Use the target stick to teach your dog partner to touch the cage or crate holding the target pet. Then, remove the stick, click and treat the behavior of touching the cage or crate that holds the target pet. When your dog partner has a reliable touch of the confined target pet, add the target pet's name.

The training sequence would be:

  1. Learn how to use a target stick.
  2. Place target stick on cage or crate with target animal. (Click and treat when your partner dog touches the target stick on cage or crate.)
  3. Start to move the target stick farther away from your dog partner, so that your dog partner touches the cage or crate prior to touching the target stick. (Click and treat when your partner dog touches the cage or crate when reaching for the target stick.)
  4. Remove the target stick, and click and treat when your partner dog touches the cage or crate.
  5. Once your partner dog is reliable with touching the cage or crate, add the name. (You say "Fluffy," dog touches the crate with Fluffy inside, you click on the touch, and you treat right away.)
  6. REPEAT until reliable.

During this process, reward the target pet inside the cage or crate for being calm in the confined space.

Step 2: Searching for the target pet

When your dog partner understands the game of touching the crate or cage using the target pet's name, the next step is to add the "3 Ds"—Distance, Duration, and Distraction. Start with distance to teach your partner dog how to search for the target pet.

Go into a room in your house, close the door, and place the target pet in the room. Place the target pet in a room with limited or no distractions. Remove as many objects (toys on the floor) as possible. Leave the room and then invite your partner dog into the room with the hidden target pet. Some people like to use a leash and harness or collar. We like to start the game without a leash, but if your dog needs help with attention or distractions, a leash could be a good idea.

Upon command ("kitty"), have your partner dog touch the crate with the target pet inside. Click and treat. Move the target pet around the room, increasing the distance between your partner dog and the target pet. Try putting the target pet in a closet (leave door open), under the bed, on a chair, etc. These variations teach your dog to search out the target pet.

This step is where your partner dog learns to use the sense of smell, to start to sniff out the hidden pet. Don't try to speed up this step, as it is the most important step! Just have fun while you move the target pet around. Don't make the game too hard, and don't try to trick your partner dog. If your dog partner is confused or frustrated, take a step back and review another fun behavior or return to the step before the dog partner became confused. Remember, keep it fun!

Remember, keep it fun!

If your dog is having trouble finding the target pet, be patient and just let your dog look or figure it out. If a partner dog is particularly confused at Pet Search and Rescue, we show them the hidden target pet the first few times. If the partner dog is very food motivated, we switch to luring and put a smelly treat right by or on top of the target pet's crate. This usually does the trick!

Adding Duration (how long the pet is hidden and how long the partner dog must search) and Distraction (other pets, favorite toys, etc.) are more complicated behaviors and should be added after your partner dog learns the game.

Step 3: Found!

The final step in teaching your dog partner how to find a target pet is training an alert. The alert is a linked behavior, connected to the dog partner finding the target pet. Most dogs will have an alert naturally. An alert, the key to knowing that your dog found the target pet, might be any of the following: tail wag, touch (especially after using the targeting exercise), jump up, bark, excitement, or showing some other behavior.

You can click and treat this "natural" alert, rewarding an offered behavior. Alternatively, you can teach a "trained" alert, sometimes called an "indication behavior." In this example, the alert will be the dog partner turning toward you and sitting down.

Add the alert once you have a reliable "find" of the target pet in a variety of rooms. Your dog partner should expect you to click and treat reliably once your dog partner touches the crate or cage with a nose or paw (as you have trained the dog partner to do).

dog scent work

Photo courtesy of Pet Search and Rescue.

The next time the dog partner finds the target pet, pause before clicking and treating. This gives your dog partner a chance to start turning toward you in expectation of a click and treat. Wait for your dog partner to start to turn (usually starting with an adorable turn of the head, as if the dog is saying, "Hey there, are you sleeping on the job? You are supposed to click and give me a treat!"). Once your dog partner offers a turn toward you (even just a look or turn of the head), click and treat. Continue with this linked behavior, reinforcing finding the target pet and turning toward you for the treat. Very quickly the partner dog will get the idea to turn back for the treat.

The next step is to ask for the desired behavior, in this case having the dog partner sit down. After the dog partner finds the target pet and turns back for the treat, give the "sit" command. Offer the reward once the dog partner is sitting down.

Note that some dog partners will continue to touch the crate or cage before turning and sitting down. At Pet Search and Rescue we often ignore the touch element at this point, because in real life the target pet is usually outside a crate and it won't be necessary for dog partners to touch the pet. Some of our search dogs only touch when the pet is confined, and skip the touch when the target pet is roaming, simply returning for the treat and the trained alert.

It's important to practice hundreds of times—in different rooms and hiding the target pet in different locations—the final behavior combinations: asking your dog partner to find the target pet, searching for the target pet, finding the target pet, turning, and, finally, sitting down.

Remember to keep training sessions short! Practicing a few times is plenty. If your dog gets distracted or bored, it is time to take a break. Always try to end a training session on a good note, ending with a success.

Favorite Hiding Spots for Training

  • in the closet
  • under the bed
  • behind the sofa
  • in the laundry hamper or basket
  • under the bathroom cabinets
  • inside the empty bathtub
  • on top of the kitchen table
  • behind an open umbrella
  • Use your imagination, but always make sure the hiding place is safe for the target pet!

Once your dog has completed the complex sequence of behaviors, make sure to offer a huge jackpot celebration. It's the perfect time to tell dog partners how smart and brilliant they are, and to act silly with them. If you know that a dog partner has a favorite toy, treat, or game, use that as a big reward.

An ounce of prevention

You have heard it many times, but it is true: an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. While searching for lost pets can be fun and rewarding, keeping track of pets and ensuring their safety are the most important goals.

Use collars, tags, microchips, restricted play space, and similar tools to minimize the chance of losing a pet. Accidents do happen, though, so it is a good idea to be prepared. A trained search and rescue dog and a plan of action can be very good ways to prepare. Other suggestions I offer include: knowing your neighbors, introducing your neighbors to your pet, updating tag information, putting a "Rescue pets" sticker on house windows, and using GPS locators for "flight-risk pets."

Ready, set, go!

The next time you are headed to the vet and you can't find your shy cat, your beloved pooch can help sniff out the kitty! Your own dog partner can join you in becoming a pet detective (your deputy?). With some clicker training basics, and beginning with a game at home, the two of you can progress through the target identification, search, and alert processes together.

It is extremely rewarding for both partners when a search and rescue human/canine team learns to communicate and find success. Don't be surprised if you are overwhelmed by feelings of pride and pleasure when you and your dog partner work together positively in this activity you both adore.

Happy hunting—let's see what you can find!

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About the authorn/a

Paw vs nose targeting

Hi Annalisa,

 

Grat article, thank you! I was just wondering what is the rationale behind using paw an not nose targeting in the training?

Thanks,

 

Mirkka

 

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