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.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Rainy Day Fun

We all have days when we can't get our dog out for a good run.  Sometimes we're recovering from an injury, sometimes the dog is recovering from an injury.  Sometimes the weather is just too cold and miserable for even the most dedicated human or canine athlete.  It's hard on an injured youngster of any species to lie around and rest up, but rest is mandatory for full recovery from any injury.  A lot of the time, keeping a dog mentally stimulated with games will help the dog to manage to get by with less exercise.  Here are some ideas that might help to keep your dog relatively sane while he recuperates.

  1.   Make feeding game by putting at least some of his meals in a toy such as a Kong wobbler,  Buster Cube, or one of the many other toys that are designed for this purpose.  If your dog is on a raw diet, stuff his meals into rubber Kong toys, or bones that have no marrow left in them and freeze them solid.  This trick also works for dogs on kibble diets, but you change the stuffing technique slightly:

What You Need to Stuff a Kong:

  • A kong appropriate for your dog- red is for average chewers and black is for strong chewers
  • Some canned dog food
  • a bit of garlic sausage, or pepperoni (get the version meant for humans, not the mystery meat kind sold for dogs)
  • Some kibble  
Start at the tiny hole in the end by stuffing a little sausage into it.  Now turn the kong over and put a acorn sized bit of sausage int the Kong.  Next put a tablespoon or two of canned food, add a handful of kibble.  Add another layer of canned dog food and then some more kibble.  Continue like this to the top 1/2 inch and finish with canned food. Then stick the whole business into the freezer for a few hours until it is frozen solid.

  1. Some Fun Games:   


  • Do this exercise in an environment with no distractions.
  • Start with your dog in the sit or down position.
  • Say "Stay" like you mean it.  Use a hand signal like this one to help your dog learn a visual cue.
  • Step back from the dog about two feet.  Wait about 3 seconds. Reward with a "Good Stay" and give him a handful of yummy pea sized treats.  If he gets up, simply and quietly put him back into the position he was in when you started and try again, this time for a shorter period of time (always go back to the last success, and work your way up from there)
  • Work your way up to a longer stay in increments of seconds,  and then minutes. 
I like Emily Lartham's take on teaching stay.  It's highly effective and fun for the dog and human too.  Here is one of her videos on the subject. 

Find It! 

Find it is a starter for a lot of searching and retrieving "work".  Not all dogs will excel at it, but it's worth a try, especially if your dog is a hunting, hound, or working type of dog or just a Jane of All Trades type like Esta and Alice.   Start with just finding the hot dog treat, and then  work up to finding it under clothing or objects.  Once he's good at finding hotdogs anywhere, anytime, under objects, then just find the objects and get the hot dog as a reward.  

I like to use good quality (i.e. with less crap in them) hot dogs to train this. Dry treats won't do the job at all.  Cut the hotdog into half inch pieces.  Start with your dog in a stay position in a non distracting environment.  Rub the hot dog on the palm of your hand.   Put the hot dog on the floor or ground about ten feet away from him.  Release him but hang onto him or otherwise briefly keep him from going to get the treat.   Gently cup the hot dog scented hand close to the dog's nose and say "Find it".  Now release him to go and "find" the hot dog.  Help him if he needs it.  Celebrate when he finds it like he found you a stack of gold bars.  Do this about 6 times.

When your dog can find the hot dog in a super easy situation, you are ready to up the ante a little and add some challenge.   Put the hot dog bit on the end of a stick, or tie a string around it.  With your dog in the stay, drag the hotdog along the floor, and hide it to some easy hiding spot behind an object like an open door, or a couch or chair.  Be sure to  take any stick or string off the hot dog so your dog doesn't accidentally eat it.  Make sure the hiding place is not too difficult.  Now release him and give him the "Find It" command with the cupped, scented hand again.  Show him where the "trail" starts and help him find the stashed hot dog piece.  Repeat this until he easily finds it. Gradually make the "trail" longer and the hot dog a little harder to find each time.  I will write more on advancing this skill to retrieving object when I get back to this.  

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Training Tip of the Day

Training Tip of the Day

Attention Training:

All training starts with getting your dog's attention.  Attention training teaches your dog to look at you, pay attention to you, and  trains him to get into that habit.  Good attention training will make your dog genuinely interested in what you want him to be doing, instead of all the wonderful smells and delightful elements of a distractingly fabulous world.   It's a great start to great teamwork, so pay attention to how to attention train, and teaching your dog anything else will be a breeze!


A treat pouch full of pea sized morsels of roasted and chopped meat or sausage.  Try so keep treats fragrant, simple and healthy
A clicker:  Clickers make teaching attention training a little easier.  Easy is good, you want to always set the dog up for success.
A non distracting environment.  An unoccupied room in your house like a bedroom, office, library, or if you live alone it's probably easier.

Situate yourself in front of the dog.   Get down to his level.
If your dog isn't trained to associate the sound of a clicker with a food reward, then you need to do steps 1 to 4 first:

  1. Click and simultaneously give a food reward. Start by using a small handful of food. Repeat six to 10 times.  Every few times offer more that one treat.
  2. Click wait a second (count to 1) before giving the food reward. Repeat five times
  3. Click wait 3 seconds before giving a food reward.  The idea is to develop distance between the click and the reward.  So the click starts to mean a reward is coming.
  4. Now wait tip the dog looks at you before you click and reward. Catch the behaviour right as the dog begins to turn his head towards you.  The first time give him a bunch of treats.  Praise. as you do so.
  5. Don't prompt!  When your dog has this behaviour figured out, you can add his name, and as soon as he starts to look at you click and then reward.  Once he is paying attention you can move on to start shaping some really cool tricks.
Start each training session with a few minutes of attention training.  It's like a warm up for athletes. Keep it light hearted and fun.  If the dog screws up, or shuts down, he's not getting it.  Back the training up to his last successful action and repeat it a few times, acting thrilled that he gets it.  Then start shaping the new behaviour in tiny increments.  You want to keep it fun for him so he'll love working with you better than anything else.  To keep it fun for him,  let him succeed and reward each success with your joy and  some great treats .  When he learns the behaviour, phase the treats out because his real reward will be working as a valuable member of a team.