It’s that time of year again. The days are crisp, the nights are cool. The trees dress up in vibrant oranges, yellows, and reds. And my dogs’ poop becomes impossible to find amidst the leaves on the ground.
I can be 3 feet away, watching one of my dogs do their business, and by the time I reach for a poop bag, I can’t find the poop to bag.
I know it’s there. I just watched it happen. But the leaves on the ground are of similar color, and like a twisted version of Where’s Waldo, my dog’s droppings are camouflaged and a challenge to discover.
Unless I’m walking in my good shoes. Then I’m guaranteed to find the feces. By stepping in them.
With this in mind, I taught all three of my dogs to point out their poop. Tucker is the best. He’ll find his leavings — and also that of his brother and sister. He’ll even do it unasked. Lilah will show me hers as well. Jasper is a bit inconsistent. I think he wants to stay as far from the smelly stuff as possible. He’s a bit of a princess.
It’s such a useful skill to teach your dog. Here’s how I did it, and how you can too. I started in the summer when it’s easier to see brown against green.
I always praise my dogs for pooping. “Good dog!” I’ll say. And give him or her a treat right after the deed is done.
I did this when my pups were puppies, but I stepped up the game and made sure to do it again. I worked hard to be there when business was conducted, so I could mark the behavior with a “Good dog!”
It was a little easier if it happened on a walk, but if the dogs were in our fenced in back yard, I had to guess who was the most likely pooper and stick by him or her.
Then, I encouraged the depositor of the item in question to stick around while I cleaned it up. If he got closer, he got more praise, and treats. If she sniffed it, I would mark the behavior by saying “Yes!” Just like clicker training, my dogs have learned that “Yes!” means whatever they just did was a good thing, and they’re likely to get a treat if they do it again.
Here’s a video of me encouraging Lilah to sniff. You’ll hear me say, “Yes,” and “Good girl.”
It didn’t take long for the dogs to realize that sniffing their stuff was a rewardable act. Soon I began to reward only the specific behavior I was looking for: some kind of sniff or nose pointed very directly and very close to the poop.
Once the dog began to sniff consistently, I gave the behavior a name: Show Me the Poo.
Now every time one of my dogs performed correctly, they were rewarded, and I added the name to the praise. I didn’t just say “Good dog,”and “Yes,” I also added, “Good Show Me the Poo.” While that makes no sense grammatically, it made sense to Lilah, Tucker, and Jasper.
I began to name the behavior as the dog was doing it. I didn’t wait until after the sniff, but started saying “Show Me the Poo” while the dog was showing me her poo. It began to seem more like a command, with a direction followed by praise afterward.
Eventually, I didn’t have to stick by Tucker’s or Lilah’s side when they did their business. I could be farther and farther away and just call out the command and follow them to the prize.
It didn’t take a lot of time training to this command. I was as consistent as possible, and the training only took place when (and I’ve been waiting this entire post to say this) poop happened.
Watch how Tucker helps me find poop that would have been completely camouflaged.
Here are a few additional tips to help you teach your dog to find the treasure before you step in it:
- Use positive reinforcement. Never scold or punish your dog if he or she doesn’t do what you’ve asked.
- Use a clicker or a marker word like “Yes” to indicate to your dog the desired behavior.
- Take your time. It took months for my dogs to get it, and even now I can tell Jasper doesn’t like the task. He may never be consistent, but I’m still trying and rewarding. In the meantime, Tucker often points out Jasper’s poop, so we’re good.
- Don’t carry one dog’s poop in a poop bag (which can happen if you’re with multiple dogs) when you’re working with another dog. It can sometimes be confusing for the dog to know what to smell.
- Be consistent. If you only ask the dog to find the poop when it’s hard to find, she won’t learn.
- Be patient. Let the dog lead you.
- Once the behavior is solid, try the command in a different location. For example, if you’ve been practicing in your yard, try it on a walk. Don’t be surprised if you have to re-teach and reinforce the behavior. Dogs often learn behaviors based on a location; it’s why a dog will sit and stay just fine at home, but may not respond when you’re at the vet.
- Have fun! Make it a game, and help your dog enjoy it.
About the author: Susan C. Willett is a writer, photographer, and blogger whose award-winning original stories, photography, poetry, and humor can be found on the website Life With Dogs and Cats. She lives in New Jersey with four shelter cats (including Calvin T. Katz, the Most Interesting Cat in the World) and three dogs (all rescues) and at least a couple of humans — all of whom provide inspiration for her work. In addition to Life With Dogs and Cats, you can find more Lilah, Jasper, and Tucker (and the rest of the gang) on Haiku by Dog™, Haiku by Cat™, and Dogs and Cats Texting™.