Food games are easiest and most obvious to the dog learning to sniff for fun and relaxation. Foraging is such a natural behaviour that most dogs love it, and naturally know how to do it. Food fulfils a primary need and tasty food is motivating and interesting enough to merit a little sniff effort. The beauty of food games and foraging is that we can start the dog off so easily, that he can’t possibly find a way to get it wrong. For dogs with very little confidence we can scatter a few bits of tiny food on a hard surface for them to gather. Grass is a great place for food scattering too.
Foraging is so adaptable and can build excellent confidence and conviction. It is also mentally tiring so works perfectly to help a dog relax and ground any excessive mental energy he may have. Successfully finding hidden food in increasingly complicated tasks is also a great self-esteem boost. Any dog that succeeds in a task once will start to feel like a success, and if we repeat their opportunity to succeed over and over again, they will become optimistic about their capabilities. The dog who succeeds regularly will expect to succeed, which is wonderful to see.
I recommend that you consider taking half an hour out of your day most days and using it to focus entirely on helping your dog to forage. Shut yourself in a room with a number of props and problems – leaving your dog outside the door. Examples of suitable props may be old towels, safe recycling, old socks, boxes and a vast array of potential hiding places. Then spend ten mindful minutes hiding food within your dog’s capacity to sniff and retrieve it. Be really wise and focus on the task itself – and you will benefit too because that ten minutes of switching off from everything else in the world can be an excellent way to unplug and just enjoy the moment and the task you’re doing. Then let your dog in the room and watch how much he enjoys himself. In the summer the garden is a great place to do this too – the heady mixture of grass and tasty food scent will be really enjoyable for a foraging dog.
When your dog gets used to foraging at home you can begin to offer the opportunity out and about too. As a totally relaxing activity, introducing foraging on walks will bridge a gap for the dogs who feel safer at home than out in the world. Just by dropping a few treats for finding, now and again on walks, you will be helping your dog to relax and using their natural foraging behaviours.
Dogs will use their mouths when they become stressed or worried. It seems to be an innate need that they have. Which is unsurprising as it’s their main communicator, their main defence and they often find themselves in situations that they didn’t (and probably wouldn’t) choose. Think about when your dog gets worried, but not overwhelmed – does he bark, growl, would he snap if a worrying thing came too close? It’s perfectly natural for all of those things to occur even if it’s not socially acceptable for us humans. By providing some foraging opportunity we offer not only the relaxing sniff, we offer a chew activity and all of those can be a much better option than allowing your dog to get worried about something in the distance. Another thing we can do on walks is carry something like a bigger chew that our dogs can bite chunks off, then if our dogs get a little worried we can offer it, just snatching a couple of chunks off the end of a chew is enough to help some dogs calm and ground their energy.
Food and Fear
There’s a point where no dog will take food, even the tastiest variety and that’s when they begin to experience stress beyond which they can cope. There can be only a moment between a dog who is happy to bite at a chew you are carrying and one who is barking at a trigger, but the difference is that the barking dog has gone over his ability to cope – he is beyond his current threshold. When they go beyond the coping threshold, dogs will not be interested in food because, in their view, their life is at risk. A snack is the last thing they want. The thing this dog needs most is distance from whatever he is focussed on or scared of..