Elly, my young lab, is one smart (big black) cookie. She tries to please me at every opportunity even though, at times, she’s damaged parts of the yard. No relationship is perfect.
Cutting to the chase, if you’re patient many dogs, even older dogs, can be taught to help you in the garden if you take the time to teach them.
I’ve taught Elly to find my house keys and my trowel. I believe with consistent practice most dogs can be taught to do this as well.
How you ask?
Well, this is how I did it: I bought Elly some YUMMY treats, which in my case were chopped up Gerber’s Toddler Graduate Chicken Sticks. They look like tiny hotdogs. (I’m a bit picky about the treats I give my dogs. However, you know what your dog likes so buy whatever he/she thinks tastes great.)
If you can, get your dog to sit. Next, hold the trowel in your hand in front of your dog’s nose and say “trowel.” Give him/her the treat immediately after you say “trowel.” Repeat this several times in a row and practice 2 or 3 times a day. You may want to touch the trowel to his nose when you say the word “trowel.” Always praise him when you work with him because you want your dog to think this is fun, and the goal is to get your dog to associate the treat with the trowel.
After working with your dog for a week or two, put the trowel on the floor/ground in front of your dog and say, “Where’s the trowel?” You may need to repeat this 2 or 3 times. If your dog understands you and wants the treat, he will put his nose on the trowel so that he can get the treat. If he doesn’t respond appropriately, go back to holding the trowel in front of him, possibly touching the trowel to his nose while saying “trowel” or “Where’s the trowel?” (The key for you is to be patient.) Always follow this by giving him a treat and lots of praise.
Once your dog understands he will get a treat for putting his nose to the trowel then you may move to the next step: While your dog is sitting, move the trowel a few feet away before asking him to find it. He should be able to see the trowel, but it shouldn’t be right in front of him. As before, always give your dog the treat and praise him after he’s responded appropriately.
When your dog has mastered this, make your dog leave the room or yard and try placing the trowel in a less obvious place without him seeing where you put it. Don’t hide it, but don’t make it completely obvious either. (I put the trowel on top of a kitchen stool, and the next time, I placed it on the floor beside the garbage can.) Let your dog back into the area where the trowel is and say, “Where’s the trowel?”
When your dog has mastered finding the trowel in a small area/range, move on to hide the trowel in your yard first in an obvious place and then in less obvious places. Always use the same phrase with your dog, “Where’s the trowel?”
Once your dog has accomplished finding your trowel, using the same method you can work on your dog finding your garden fork or whatever other garden tools you work with that you might occasionally misplace.
Elly is pleased with herself when we play this game, so much so that she will eat the treat then run back and put her nose on the trowel again for a second treat.
I’ve mentioned before that I’m not much of a photographer, but below are photos of Elly with the trowel. She doesn’t stay still for photos! Her nose is on the trowel in the second photo.
While I’ve yet to lose my trowel or my keys, when I do, I’ll call Elly to help find them.
All three of my dogs can do “tricks” but Elly is the only one I’ve worked with to find my keys and my trowel.