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Teaching Your Dog to Search

Some dogs seem born knowing how to use their scenting abilities; others have to learn how to process information taken in through the nose. Some dogs, too, instinctively know how to follow scents. Terriers and hounds, for example, are much better following scents than many other breeds.

Dog Talk

Brachycephalic dogs have a shortened muzzle and convoluted nasal passages that often make breathing through the nose difficult.

Any dog, of any size, breed, or body type can learn to find things by using his scenting ability. The dog who uses his nose naturally has an easier time than a dog who relies more on his sense of vision. Brachycephalic dogs (such as Pugs, bulldogs, Boston terriers, and French Bulldogs) are capable of learning these things but do sometimes have a more difficult time.

Teaching your dog to search means teaching him to find something he cannot see and to use his nose to find that object. To begin, you need some treats that smell good to your dog, such as pieces of hot dog or dried liver. You also need a towel.

  1. Sit on the floor with your dog. Let him smell the treat. Place the treat on the floor and quickly cover it with the towel.
  2. Tell your dog, “Fido, Find the treat!”
  3. If he immediately begins sniffing, praise him, “Fido, good boy! Good to Find It!” and lift the towel, letting him find and eat the treat. At this point in his training, reward the sniffing.
  4. Repeat for a total of five successful repetitions and take a short break.

When your dog is actively sniffing and is trying to find the treat, let him work a little harder, delaying his reward until he gets closer to the treat. If he sniffs immediately over the treat, trying to sniff it through the towel, praise and reward him.

If your dog tries to stick his nose under the towel, lift the towel to let him succeed, then praise him even more, and add a few more treats to his reward. This is the behavior you want to get the strongest reward.

Dog Talk

The command Find will always be combined with the name of an object (such as treat or ball).


If your dog is easily discouraged or is too timid to try something new on his own, place the treat under an edge of the towel. Let him find it there, and then gradually move the treat toward the center of the towel, letting him find it on his own each time.

As your dog learns that you want him to find the treat hidden under the towel, you also want him to figure out how to get that treat. You don't want him to think the trick is to sniff and then wait for you to lift the towel, so encourage him to sniff and to nose the towel. If he tries to slide his nose under an edge of it, praise him!

Some dogs will actually pick up the towel in their teeth, moving it away from the treat. Let your dog figure out how to get it himself, just don't let him get too discouraged.

When your dog is finding the treat under the towel quickly, with little hesitation, begin hiding it in different locations. Sit on the floor with a towel, a shoe, and a small cardboard box, as well as some good treats.

  1. Place the towel, shoe, and box on the floor in front of you.
  2. Turn your dog's head toward you and cover his eyes.
  3. Drop the treat in one of the items (such as in the shoe) and then uncover your dog's eyes as you tell him, “Fido, Find the treat!”
  4. Touch each of the items with a finger as you encourage him to sniff, “Find It! Good boy!”
  5. When he finds the treat, praise him enthusiastically!
  6. Do a total of five repetitions and take a short break and then try it again.
  7. Over several training sessions, hide the treat in different objects. When your dog is doing this well, finding the treat each time, begin hiding the treat farther away from him.

  8. Sit your dog with his back to the area where you will hide the treat. Or, if he keeps turning around, take him into another room and have him stay.
  9. Hide the treat in an easy-to-find spot, such as on the sofa just under the edge of a throw pillow.
  10. Bring your dog back into the room and tell him to Find the treat.
  11. Troubleshooting

    If your dog hesitates to move (he expects the treat to be close to him), walk with him toward some objects he can sniff. When he moves forward himself (perhaps when he smells the treat), praise him.

  12. When he begins sniffing, praise him. When he moves toward the treat, praise some more. When he finds the treat, be enthusiastic, “Good boy! What a smart dog!”
  13. Do a total of five repetitions and take a break.

With practice, you should be able to hide a treat while your dog waits in another room, and then bring him back into the room and he'll find it without your help.

Combining It with Named Items

You can also teach your dog to find items that he knows the name of, such as his toys and the things of yours that you have named for him. You can teach these the same way you introduced the Find command except you will give him treats when he finds these items instead of him rewarding himself by eating the found treat.

  1. Take one item, such as a tennis ball. Have your dog touch the ball, “Fido, Touch ball!” so you get his attention on the ball while at the same time refreshing him on the ball's name.
  2. After five repetitions, take the ball and hide it under the towel. Tell him, “Fido, Find the ball!”
  3. When he finds it, praise him, pop a treat in his mouth, and let him play with the ball.
  4. Repeat for five repetitions and take a short break.

After the break, repeat the exercise, except hide the ball in different places. Help your dog search if you need to, but let him do it on his own as much as possible.

Bet You Didn't Know

If a particular family member is always losing something (such as keys or the remote control), practice this trick often so your dog knows it well. Then when the item is lost, your dog can help that family member find it.

When he can find the ball when it's hidden, put it away and do the same thing with other items that your dog knows by name. This is not only fun, but it's challenging for him. He has to think, and that's always good. It's also a very handy skill. When you've lost your car keys, you can look for them but you can also use your dog's natural and learned abilities, “Fido, Find my keys!”

Finding Friends and Family

Your dog can learn people's names just as he did the names of things. Teaching the names of people is a little different than items, though, because it's tough to place them on the floor and have your dog touch them. However, you can teach your dog to recognize people by their names by playing a game.

  1. Have one family member show your dog a treat. As you hold your dog, have the family member walk into another room. Let your dog watch the person (and treat) walk away from him.
  2. When the person is in the other room, tell your dog, “Fido, Find Maggie!” (or whatever the person's name is) and let go of his collar.
  3. If your dog followed Maggie to the other room, praise him. Maggie should give him the treat as soon as he reaches her. As you follow him, continue to praise him.
  4. After a total of five repetitions, take a break.
  5. After a break, repeat the steps but have Maggie go somewhere different each time.
  6. Stop after five repetitions.

Gradually, with practice, make the searches harder. Maggie can hide in closets, behind the bed, or behind a door. Maggie should always offer a treat when she's been found and you should be following the dog, offering praise.

When your dog can find Maggie, begin all over again with another family member, “Fido, Find Bob!” Follow the same training steps.

More on: Pets


Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to Dog Tricks 2005 by Liz Palika. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Alpha Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

To order this book visit the Idiot's Guide web site or call 1-800-253-6476.


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