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He’s bright, intelligent and loyal to a fault. You’d be simply lost without your German Shepherd. However, you welcomed him into your home for more than his good nature and evening cuddles. You would like to train him to be able to find things for you. Perhaps you need him to find prey, perhaps you want to train him to be a working dog who can find cash, drugs, and weapons.
Whatever the motivation, this type of training can bring with it a long list of benefits. Firstly, you could save serious time and money if you can train him to find things for you. This type of training is also an effective way to channel his energy into something productive. It will also make training him to do a number of other things easier too.
You’d be surprised at how straightforward it is to train your German Shepherd to find things for you. But you will first need to get him familiar with the item in question. You will then need to turn training into a game. German Shepherds learn best when they think they are playing a game. Positive reinforcement and tasty treats will be required to motivate him throughout.
If he’s a puppy he should be eager to please and receptive. This means you could see results in just a few weeks. However, if he’s older, stubborn and not so good at following instructions anymore, then you may need several months. Succeed and you’ll have a fantastic way of tracking down and identifying things that humans simply cannot. In addition, it’s a great way to bond with your canine pal.
Before you start training, you will need to get your hands on a few things. You will need the items you want to train him to find. You will also need to stock up on tasty treats or break his favorite food into small pieces. A tracking leash and body harness may also be required.
Set aside 15 minutes for training each day. You will start off training in the house, but you will then upgrade to a yard and local fields.
Once you have all that, just bring patience and a pro-active attitude, then work can begin!
The Scent Trail Method
Get him familiar
Spend a few minutes each day playing around with the item you want to train him to find. If it’s a duck, for example, apply scent spray to a decoy and play fetch and tug of war. You can also leave it in his bed overnight. You want him to get worked up at the mere sight of it.
Now head outside and create a scent trail with the decoy around the yard, leading to the hidden decoy. Don’t make it too difficult to start with, you want to build his confidence.
Head for the starting line
Secure him to a leash and head to the beginning of the scent trail. Point and talk in an excited voice to get him to concentrate. If he loses interest then pull him back onto the trail.
Ensure he follows it all the way to the end, it’s important he knows there is always something waiting for him if he perseveres. Make sure he gets a minute or so playing around with the decoy. Alternatively, you can hand over a tasty treat and give him some verbal praise. The happier he feels now the more eager he will be to play again.
Up the stakes
Practice this several times each week. As he gets the hang of it, you can begin to make the scent trails harder and more spread out. Eventually set them up in local fields where there will be even more distractions around.
The Fetch & Search Method
Start by playing a few rounds of fetch with your German Shepherd. You want him excited and thinking this is all a big game. Use the item you want him to be able to find.
Now tether him to something so he cannot follow you. Then instruct him to ‘sit’ or ‘wait’. Make sure he is watching you and then take a few steps away and place the item on the floor where he can easily see it.
Now untether him and issue a ‘search’ command. Give it in an up-beat voice to emphasise this is part of the game. You can then point to the item and encourage him to find it. It may take him a little while to catch on the first few times.
When he does indeed find the item, go over and show him how happy you are. You may also want to give him a treat or click if you use a clicker when you train. It’s important he also gets the reward within a few seconds of finding the item, otherwise he may not associate the reward with the action.
Make it harder
Now practice this over the next few days. However, start hiding the item farther away and out of sight. You can also introduce distractions and have him practice in fields or other houses. Simply make sure he always gets a decent reward and he will always be up for playing.
The Tracking Leash Method
Get him excited
The first thing you need to do is get him worked up by the item you want him to search for. You can play fetch, tug of war and generally mess around with it. Leaving it in his bed will also help.
Set the scene
Now create a breadcrumb trail around your house that leads to the item hidden somewhere. Wipe the item along the ground so your German Shepherd will be able to follow the smell. Also, try and keep it relatively easy to begin with.
Tracking harness and leash
Now secure him to a body harness and a long tracking leash. The harness will increase your control while reducing strain on his neck. The tracking leash will ensure you don’t lose him while still giving him the freedom he needs to follow his nose.
Lead by example
Now take him to the beginning of the scent trail and encourage him to start searching. He may naturally start following the trail as he can smell the familiar item. However, if not, German Shepherds mirror their owners behavior, so get down and pretend to follow the trail. He will quickly catch on.
Make sure he follows the trail all the way to the end and gets a generous reward. Practice this each day. The more consistently you train, the sooner you will see results. Continue to leave the item around him when you are not training, this will ensure he stays familiar with it.
By James Barra
Published: 02/21/2018, edited: 01/08/2021