How to Play the Shell Game in Nosework

by | Mar 12, 2020 | Nosework

NACSW NW1 Container search with a Newfoundland dogRecently I had a friend over to do some nosework. She has two dogs. I have two dogs. Three out of four dogs failed the container search because they alerted on a distraction instead of the target odor. What was so irresistible? Pancakes!

So, we have a pancake problem. And when I have a problem like that in nosework, I go back to a foundation game that I like to play: The Shell Game.

shell game – noun
a game involving sleight of hand, in which three inverted cups or nutshells are moved about, and contestants must spot which is the one with a pea or other object underneath.

The shell game is usually a grift, but not in nosework. Instead, it’s a fun container game to play with your dogs. You can do this game whether your dog is searching for odor, or is a beginner searching for food.

In this case, I’m using it to work on a foundation proofing behaviour with my younger dog, Billie. Billie should learn:  do not alert on a food distraction – odor always pays, distractions do not!

Here’s the set-up:

3 boxes/containers of any kind – they can all be the same type of container or different.
One hot box – that means target odor
One cold box – that means nothing
One distraction box – that means pancakes (but it can really be anything your dog finds fascinating).

How to play:

All the boxes are placed on the floor and the dog is sent to search. With each search the boxes are shuffled around so that she has to use her nose to find the correct box, not rely on where the box was previously located.

For the purposes of the video I made the distraction box and the odor box different types. That’s because if it turns out that I am a consummate pro at the shell game, you won’t be able to tell where the correct box is or if Billie is right or wrong.  I changed the distraction box later in our session to make sure that she is not simply avoiding the big white box.

If she’s right?

If she finds the target odor box, she is reinforced right at the box. That means that I reward generously right at the source of the odor.

If she’s wrong?

If she alerts on the incorrect box…well, in the video you can see what I do…I make a happy fuss about it. “What a wonderful box! How smart you are! Don’t you love that box?!”

No correcting. Nothing harsh…certainly I won’t be yelling “NO!”

But she also gets no cookies…none…and that is information for her. Watch in the video how she changes her mind about which is the right box.

Next steps?

If Billie struggles I’m going to change out the distraction for something that is easier for her. I want a challenge, but I don’t want something impossible that is going to tread on her confidence.

If she is successful then my next step is to add more boxes or add more distractions, or maybe change the type of container I’m using.

There are very few rules in this game – the key is to work with your dog’s understanding…and as always in nosework – to have fun!


About me

Dog trainer, gardener, musician, martini-lover and cook. I heart dogs 🙂