Summer is a great opportunity to spend some time working with the family pooch to keep his or her mind stimulated. Whether an old grey-muzzle or just a young pup, all dogs can benefit from some continued education. Mental stimulation helps keep our dogs happy and healthy, and staves off behavior problems caused by boredom. These five skills are simple foundation behaviors that can be used to build all sorts of creative tricks. In fact, these skills are part of the repertoire of most assistance dogs!
Whether an old grey-muzzle or just a young pup, all dogs can benefit from some continued education.
What: Fido looks at you.
Why: Showing attention means Fido is ready to find out what’s happening next, or to see how you are reacting to something in the environment and what you expect from him. This is a great way to head off potential issues, and a dog paying attention and seeking information from his owner is less likely to make his own (sometimes inappropriate) choices!
How: Some trainers like to train a cued “watch me” command, but I prefer this to be a more organic occurrence. One easy way to start is to simply acknowledge your pup whenever you see him looking your way. Depending on what your pup loves, that acknowledgment can be a treat, a pat on the head, some play time, or a simple “Good puppy!” Another opportunity is when getting ready to go outside. Stand at the door with your pup on leash and simply wait. Don’t say anything. After a moment or two of staring at the door, he’s going to wonder why it isn’t opening yet, and he will look up at you (“Mom, what gives?”). As soon as he looks to you, tell him what a good boy he is and open the door to continue on your way.
Encourage eye contact whenever possible, especially in the face of distraction. Your pup will learn to “check in” frequently when playing or while walking on leash, keeping him much more in tune with you!
What: Fifi moves her body backward or away from something.
Why: Backing up helps teach body awareness (great for gangly adolescent pups!), as well as self-control (backing away from dropped food or other items).
How: Start with Fifi on leash and position yourself next to a fence or wall with Fifi sandwiched between you and the wall. Have treats on hand, and be prepared with your verbal reward mark (“yes!”) to let her know when she’s on the right track. Walk forward a step or two so that she is standing rather than sitting, and then take a step or two backward. Encourage her to step backward with you rather than turn around by keeping her sandwiched against the wall or fence. As soon as you see her move a foot backward, mark the behavior with “yes!” and give her a treat. Move forward a step or two, then take one or two steps backward again, repeating
As Fifi starts to get the hang of it, increase your steps backward, encouraging her to keep up with you. Once you can reliably predict that she is going to step back with you, add in the cue word “back” just before you change direction. Work your way toward getting a solid 5-6 steps of backward motion before you start moving away from the fence or wall. It’s common for dogs to swing their hind end sideways once that barrier is removed, so be prepared to selectively reinforce for a straighter path, and not reinforce the crooked attempts.
This behavior takes time to master, but it can be a great bonding exercise. Throw this trick into the mix when out for a walk, and Fifi is having a difficult time staying with you to encourage her to pay attention.
Hide & Seek
What: Fido seeks out his hidden human(s).
Why: Hide & Seek builds enthusiasm and helps strengthen recalls (coming when called), and is a great way to burn off energy during bad weather.
How: Start with pup and human(s) in the same room, and each person should have treats with them. One person gently restrains Fido, while the first “caller” kneels down and excitedly calls Fido to “come” (note: kneeling is a much less intimidating body posture than bending over). As Fido approaches, tell him “yes!” and allow him to eat kibble from your hand. Meanwhile, the other hand should gently hold his collar (“come” is not complete until you have the collar in hand). Then the next person calls Fido, and repeats the process.
Once the pup has gotten the hang of this round-robin style of recalls, each person can begin stepping backward after each successful recall. This results in a small increase in distance for each repetition. Eventually, family members will begin stepping slightly out of view, and Fido will have to really listen to figure out who is calling him (and from where). This game can also be recreated outside within a fenced area (or with Fido on a tether or long-line), starting with the round-robin version, and gradually building distance.
What: Fifi touches a specific object with her nose.
Why: Targeting behaviors are great for teaching patience and persistence, and can be useful in positioning your pup. You can even use targeting to help teach your pup to walk in heel position, next to your leg!
How: Pick an item to target (I like to use a small piece of duct tape), and have some peanut butter and bite-sized treats on hand. Place the target at nose height (on a wall, a door, in your hand, etc.), and smudge a bit of peanut butter on the target.
When Fifi goes to sniff or lick the peanut butter, mark her behavior with a “yes!” and follow it with a treat. Every time she goes back to sniff/lick/touch that target, she hears the reward mark (YES!), and gets a small treat. In no time, the peanut butter will be gone, but she will go back and “bump” that spot to earn her reward. As she starts to get good at it, you can move the target around a bit. Take baby steps here: a little higher, a little lower, a little to the left or right. Lots of success is important in the beginning. Once you can reliably predict that Fifi is going to bump the target when presented with it, then you can add in the cue word “touch” just before she does it. In no time at all, Fifi will look for that target whenever you tell her the magic word, “touch.”
What: Fido touches a specific object (like your hand) with his paw.
Why: Paw is useful for giving Fido something specific to do when greeting people, as well as to help him learn self-control.
How: Some dogs are naturally more likely to use their paws than others (some prefer to use their nose), but this same technique can work for both. Trap a small treat under your hand on the floor. Fido can smell the treat, but can’t see it. He will likely nudge your hand with his nose or use his paw to try to get to the treat. Hold out for that paw! As soon as his paw touches your hand, mark the behavior with a “yes!” and let him get to the treat.
In the beginning, he may be quite enthusiastic and may be likely to use a digging motion with his paw. As much as possible, try to select and reinforce a calm and gentle paw instead of an excited, digging one. As he starts to get the hang of the game, you can hold the treat in a closed hand, and slowly work your way towards moving your hand higher and higher off the floor.
Once you can predict when Fido will touch your hand with his paw, add the cue word “paw” (“shake” or “high-five” are other common cues) just before he does it. Then work toward having him “paw” your hand without the treat in it, and delivering the treat with your other hand when he is successful. Ultimately, the goal will be to have Fido sit and “paw” rather than jumping to greet humans.
All of the above mentioned “tricks” can be used to build other behaviors, or come up with your own fun ideas! Whether teaching your pooch to "dance" on his hind legs, spin in a circle, or any other move you have in mind, the process you follow will be the same:
Find a way to encourage your pup to offer an approximation of the behavior you have in mind.
Mark that behavior with “YES!” and follow with reinforcement.
Add the cue word once you can reliably get the behavior to happen.
Increase expectations in small increments (baby steps).
Use this process, and you will find that Fido or Fifi becomes a pro at the training game. Your pup’s tricks will only be limited by your imagination!
Article originally published in Women's Lifestyle Magazine, June 2018.