Friday, January 31, 2014

Keeping your dog mentally stimulated

Mental stimulation is very important for most dogs.  I say most because there are a few dogs out there  (you probably know at least one) that really would rather you just let them lie around dreaming of chasing rabbits all day.  But that probably isn't your dog, especially if your dog comes from a breed type that was created for helping people out in some way.  Today I'm going to present how to get your dog to retrieve different objects by name.  Earl is learning to retrieve a small fire extinguisher, but it will probably be another month before he can retrieve it.  Earl doesn't yet enjoy retrieving heavy objects, but he likes to bring his toys or his fire helmet.   He is learning that his different toys each have a name, although he might never have as many toys as the famous Chaser the Border Collie, who learn the names of her 1200 toys.  (But hey, don't feel too bad for him, he's got an entire herd of little goats to play with.  And me too.)  Anyway,  by teaching the name of one toy, and then one more and gradually adding more he has learned the words:  Ball, Big Ball, Rope, Frisbee and Helmet all have corresponding objects. In time, I will introduce "Extinguisher" to him, but for now we are perfecting the retrieve on more traditional objects.  One baby step at a time.

Teaching a retrieve:

A retrieve really has four distinct parts.   These are:

  1. Get the object
  2. Pick up the object
  3. Return with the object
  4. Drop or give the object
To get a good retrieve,  you need to teach "Take" and "Give".  Get your dog's tug toy, or rope, or even a knotted up old tea towel.  Playfully tease him with it by wiggling it around in front of him and then behind his head until he grabs it in his teeth.  Say "Take it".  Play tug for a few seconds,  and once he gets into it, offer him a bit of meat, cooked meat and say "Drop it!"  Repeat this about 6 or 7 times.

To teach the retrieve,  start with the most basic retrieve with the most desirable item possible.  Yes I am talking about a small piece of meat.  This will get him understanding the meaning of "fetch",  "get it" or whatever you choose to call this behaviour.   Show the dog the treat, and toss it a short distance away.  Saying "Get it".  Repeat about 6 times.

Now, take a tennis ball  (yeah, I meant the cheap fuzzy kind- these are bad for dogs, I know, but you aren't going to be using it long.)  If you can find a fuzz free hockey ball, that's better, but don't sweat it if you can't find one or aren't willing to mutilate one.   Using a box cutter, very carefully cut a one inch slit in the ball.

In front of your dog, insert a piece of meat into the slit, playfully tease him with it and toss the ball a few feet, saying "get it".  When he goes and gets it, if he doesn't bring it back to you right away,  tell him to drop it, and remove the treat from within it and give it to him, telling him what a great dog he is.   Repeat this a few more times until he "gets" it.  Then up the ante and throw the ball further.  Once he really and truly knows to bring the ball back to you to get you to remove the treat for him, quit loading the ball.  He will still get a treat when he brings it, but from you, not the ball.  You can phase out the rewards to every second retrieve, and then every third then every fourth, etc, when your dog is really clearly enjoying bringing it to you.

Practice throwing the ball every day for about ten days.  When he really enjoys this game, try this:

In a distraction free environment:  Put the dog in a stay, so he can watch you.  put the ball somewhere  a few feet away that he can see it.     Now release him and tell him to get ball.  Of course you will reward him with a food reward when he brings it.  Next increase the distance, and gradually increase the difficulty of finding it ( put it around a corner, behind a piece of furniture, etc.)

Teach your dog the names of different objects by starting one at a time.  Put the ball and one other toy  on the floor in front of the dog.  Say "Get Ball"  and reward the dog when he easily gets it.  After he drops it or gives it to you, say "Get rope (or whatever the other toy is called)"  point to the rope.  When he gets it, praise and reward like crazy.  Repeat this a few times.  Alternate back and forth between objects.  When he really knows these two, you can add in another object (it could be a remote control for the TV, or a slipper, or a leash).  Proceed as before.  Don't hurry,  it can take several training sessions to learn the associations between the objects and the noun for them.  Keep adding more in.

Always keep it light and fun.  Training should be a positive and rewarding experience for everyone involved.