Welcome to Day 34 of #100daysofenrichment and thank you for joining us on this journey!
Although our challenges are directed mainly at dogs, we want all species to enjoy and benefit from #100daysofenrichment so, please join in, adjust and adapt to help your pet or companion live a more enriched life.
Sniffing & Engagement
Saturdays during #100daysofenrichment are all about emphasising the dog in all our dogs; all about sniffing and doing dog things.
And today we are going to add something further to that; today we will be adding engagement to sniffing to engagement to sniffing…
Sniffing isn’t a problem behaviour but distractions, like irresistible smells, are often viewed as the enemy to training and attention. It doesn’t have to be that way.
Sniffing doesn’t need to be a distraction; we won’t make it a distraction because we won’t be stopping the dog from doing it.
We can allow dogs sniff, make sure they get their jollies while not having to nag them…and still have them choose us!
What is this black magic?, I hear you ask. It’s engagement!
Engagement…what is it good for?
Like all buzz words that are the talk of training-town, engagement is difficult to define. We know it when we see it, and we certainly know when we don’t have it.
‘To engage’ is defined as participating, to attract someone’s attention, and the one I particularly like, to establish meaningful contact or connection.
The important things to note here is that the dog chooses to engage, that they are working to attract your attention, and that you’re (both) developing a meaningful connection.
Engagement, for me and the dogs I work with, including my own, is about the dog choosing to engage, wanting to engage, finding me the most rewarding, over all the other things.
And that’s the key; the dog wants to be involved and to participate.
You can easily see the value of engagement…it gets you great recall, it gets you nice loose leash walking, it gets you working around distractions.
All while providing the dog with choice. The choice to engage.
When engagement happens, the dog is fighting to engage regardless of the presence of distractions and triggers and regardless of whether you have treats or toys.
Attention and focus and engagement…oh my!
Is engagement the same as attention and focus?
Well, yes and no. Great engagement will get you attention and focus, that’s for sure.
Attention probably means eye contact or something close to that. While focus may not necessarily require that the dog focus on you, perhaps on something specific in the environment.
We might teach these skills as part of working on engagement.
How ever you define it, engagement is chosen by the dog, rather than cued; engagement is not contingent on you having food rewards or toys.
The key to engagement is that you are not trying to get it, you are worthy of engagement and your dog fights to engage!
You can see that engagement is the foundation to teaching all the other behaviours; it’s what we build our relationship, with our dog, on and with.
Engagement is a two-way street
Making engagement happen starts with the human. If we want our dog to choose us, regardless of what else is going on and regardless of whether you have treats or toys, we have to work to prove that engaging with us is the best!
When the dog is engaged, choosing you regardless, he pushes into the learning and interacting process; he is more than meeting you halfway.
Here’s a clip of Decker and I, in a play-group situation with dogs of mixed age, sex, and neuter status. Decker is an entire male Am Staff (a type of “pit bull”). I have no treats, food or toys – he fights to engage regardless of the distraction level.
Link (Disclaimer: this was not intended to stress out any dog, but more so to demonstrate the ability to develop such owner-focus and engagement without the use of aversives.)
Spot the fighting to engage?!
We certainly want our dogs to be dogs, and we also need them to learn to choose us, for safety and for relationship building. Don’t think of this as an ‘obedience’ exercise or for control. This is about you both developing a connection in the real world, where distractions and worries may be difficult to avoid or control.
Choosing you keeps your dog safe, allows him to ask for guidance, and seek out relief.
Reinforcement strengthens behaviour, so your dog’s disengagement is information telling you that you are not making sufficient reinforcement available for engagement.
We tend to pile on the encouragement, excitement, food and toys trying to get our dogs to engage. When their attention wanes, we attempt to get it back by offering access to reinforcers. Ask yourself, what behaviour are you really reinforcing?
Engagement makes good things happens. Engagement means that the dog accesses behaviour they like to do. Reinforce behaviour with behaviour.
What does your dog like to do? Make that happen contingent on engagement.
Given that it’s Sniffing Saturday and we’re pretty sure that dogs like to sniff, you can see where we are going with this…
Active Engagement Exercises
When I teach engagement, I teach the dog that choosing me doesn’t mean the end of the fun, it means that the dog can go back to the fun.
I don’t ask, cue or nag the dog for engagement. They choose it and when they do, I come alive and make the magic happen.
We start by teaching the dog to disengage, and when they engage they get to go away again. Because we never become associated with stopping the fun, the dog will want to choose us over and over.
It’s never too late to start and it’s always worth it. But, it doesn’t happen over night – engagement is a journey, rather than a destination.
Level 1 Go Sniff! & Engagement
On Day 20, we started to work on sniffing on cue: Go Sniff!
If you haven’t worked on Go Sniff! just yet, start with that.
- set up using a SnuffleMat or similar, on grass or even just the floor
- take three treats
- distribute them so you know where they are, roughly
- cue the dog to Go Sniff! and allow them to eat the treats
- wait neutrally – don’t talk to the dog, don’t make eye contact, just wait
- wait for your dog to engage – they might look toward you, move toward you, make eye contact
- as soon as they do you can mark (with a YES! or click, if you do that) or just cue them to Go Sniff! again and distribute three treats as before
- bring your dog to a smelly area, somewhere they usually sniff and investigate
- allow them to sniff and sniff
- remain neutral
- if the dog is on lead, follow them to allow them to sniff about and explore
- wait for engagement
- as soon as they engage, cue them to Go Sniff! again and bring them back to the smelly place to allow them to sniff
- you can use food as in the Intermediate exercise if you like, but you don’t have to unless the dog won’t sniff
Practicing this exercise in relatively controlled conditions, and practicing A LOT, helps establish the idea that sniffing is not a treat or a forbidden activity in a training context. Sniffing is the behaviour that gets the fun happening, via engagement.
Level 2 Engagement in the Real World
Work on Level 1 exercises first. A lot. In lots of places around the house and garden, or other controllable situations.
If your dog finds it quick and easy to engage, and you can make that really rewarding, try out Level 2.
Bring your dog out for a Sniffathon. Let your dog sniff and roam and do doggie things.
Wait for them to engage. Just wait.
As soon as your dog engages, come to life. Reward them with five food rewards in a row, one after another. Have some fun with food.
Tell your dog to Go Sniff! and release them to be a dog again. Show them your empty hands and move away. Allow your dog to sniff and explore again. Repeat.
Time how long it takes for them to engage – over time, we should be seeing a reduction in that time, with lots of practice.
If you are working in a non-secure public area, please make sure your dog is safe. Use a long line and follow them, allowing them to explore without pressure.
Ask the dog!
Engagement exercises are the perfect way of asking your dog is they are ready and able to work, interact, play or focus.
Rather than nagging them with cues or trying to drag their attention back to you, let them fully engage with their world, gather information, assess safety. Your dog will learn to tell you when they are ready and able.
Create an Engagement Monster
Practicing this in all sorts of environments and amidst all sorts of distractions will help to establish this as a way of life for you and your dog.
To make sure this is fun and pleasant for all, take care with distractions and triggers. Work at such a distance that your dog is able to engage with you; if they are super focused on other dogs, people or goings on, then increase distance. Work in more controllable situations.
Playing Fun with Food games helps to boost the value of rewards and makes sure that there is a fun behaviour reinforcing engagement, not just eating.
Here’s my engagement monster and I play/train right beside wild deer (in the Phoenix Park). I make flirt pole and fun happen near distractions so engaging with me is a really easy choice!
And here we are surprised by a deer, who came running out of cover, apparently curious about our activity (a lot of people feed these deer here).
Rather than chasing a deer tens of metres away, he chooses to engage.
The deer follows us for a bit so I have his lead on, just hanging, just in case. Safety first, always.
But, regardless, he chooses engagement.
Sniffing for food
Ideally, we would like our dogs to be sniffing out their regular meals, as much as possible. But, some dogs will need a little help to get them going and we can have our dog sniffing for treats too!
Kibble is a pretty versatile food type for enrichment type feeding, and works well for this exercise.
You can add kibble in with other yummier treats and toss those. Or you can make a Training Mix so that kibble smells and tastes yummier, but without having to add extra calories or other foods, should the dog be sensitive or restricted.
You can improve the smell/taste of kibble by grilling it a little, so that it becomes crunchier and oilier. You might also soak it in stock or other flavouring.
Wet and fresh foods can be a little more challenging:
- Fresh meats and meat mixes (e.g. raw and home prepared diets) – cut up into small pieces, boiled or baked, frozen in small ice cube trays or pyramid baking mats for small individual treats.
Alternatively, you could use dried or semi-moist meats and cut them into small pieces for tossing. (Note that you feed a smaller volume of dried or dehydrated foods as they are more concentrated.)
- Wet feeds (e.g. canned foods) – frozen in small ice cube trays or pyramid baking mats for small, individual treats.
Don’t forget fruit and vegetables too, if you’re dog likes them. Frozen peas are one of Decker’s favourite for sniffing!
Now it’s your turn. Show us what you and your pets, of any species, can do with these challenges!
Post to your social media accounts, using the #100daysofenrichment so that we can find you and join our Facebook group to share your experiences, ideas and fun!
You can comment right here too 🙂
We look forward to hearing from you and your pets – have fun & brain games!