A pet-savvy person recently commented that as much as she adores her sweet rescue dog, “He’s dumb as a post.” Is it true that some dogs are lacking in the I.Q. department, or could it be that dogs with little opportunity for enrichment simply aren’t equipped to utilize their canine cognition? In other words, is the dog stupid or is the trainer? Just so you know, I’m siding with the dog…
“It’s the basic concept of learning how to learn,” says two-time American Kennel Club National Obedience Champion Petra Ford. According to Ms. Ford, “Dogs that grow up in less-than-ideal situations may never realize that their actions impact how others relate to them. If you help them to understand cause and effect, you’ve empowered them to learn. It’s not hard to do, and it’s fun!” Here are a few suggestions:
First, create an avenue for interspecies communication — remember, dogs don’t speak English! To get the message across, the most common pet-friendly method is to form an association between a simple sound or gesture and a reward. In most cases, food is the universal reward, but anything dogs really like such as games or squeaky toys can work too. The sound or gesture, also known as a marker, becomes the bridge that connects the dog’s behavior to the incentive. In a nutshell, you’re telling the dog, “You’ve earned a cookie for doing something momma really likes!” Markers in the form of gestures such as the “thumbs up” or “okay” hand signals are usually reserved for deaf dogs. Sound markers can be verbal such as the word “yes” or can result from a device such as a plastic cricket that chirps when depressed.
To begin, choose your marker and reward; let’s say your marker is the chirp from a plastic cricket and your reward is a small piece of cheese. When your dog is hungry, have a cache of cheese bits in one hand and the cricket in the other, then simply depress the cricket, and upon hearing the ‘click’, give your dog a bite of cheese. It’s important that the click sound occurs before feeding so that the dog begins to anticipate the reward upon hearing the sound. After a day or so of “click and treat,” you should notice that the dog has come to expect a treat when the click sounds; if so, congratulations! You’ve established a clear-cut system of communication. Let the journey begin!
Next, establish the concept of initiative with a simple exercise called targeting. Since dogs easily associate their owners’ hands with the offering of treats, it’s not hard to get them to purposefully seek out a hand; hence, the hand becomes a target that the dog indicates, usually by touching the palm with its nose. Here’s how: put a cache of treats in your pocket so that one hand is empty while the other hand holds the cricket. Show the dog your open palm; chances are, he’ll move towards it thinking there’s a treat being offered. When he does, click, and then pull a treat from your pocket and feed. Your goal is to get the dog to touch your palm with his nose. Sometimes it happens by accident, and that’s okay; it won’t be long before your dog noses your hand with purpose! Repeat the sequence a few times with your hand in the same position, and then move your hand slightly to the side. If the dog actively seeks your palm with his nose, he has demonstrated a learned connection between his initiative of seeking and touching with your positive response of a click and reward.
Expand the targeting behavior from having the dog nose-touch your hand to having him bump the end of a stick with his nose. Purchase an inexpensive dowel from a hardware store, or locate a stick in your backyard that’s approximately three feet in length. Some dogs initially may be frightened of a dowel or stick, so begin by laying it on the floor and toss a few treats near it. Let the dog eat the treats, then pick up the stick and toss a few more treats on the floor. If the dog is unconcerned, then proceed with the target training in the same way as the hand targeting. Hold the stick motionless. If the dog looks at the stick or makes the slightest move towards it, click and reward. You’re essentially building on the dog’s past success with hand targeting to establish a similar stick-targeting behavior.
Why teach the dog to nose-bump the end of a stick? There are several important reasons: first, it builds the dog’s confidence in his abilities; second, it expands the dog’s expertise at transferring knowledge of a concept from one situation to another; finally, targeting is useful in teaching many of the tricks that dogs exhibit on stage and screen! For example, teach small- and medium-sized dogs to weave between your legs by taking one step, standing still, and offering your open palm at the dog’s nose level in the space between your legs. When the dog targets your hand at the ‘v’ made by your legs, click and reward; gradually expand your expectation into the dog walking between your legs in order to touch your palm and earn his reward. An alternative for large dogs would be to teach them to crawl through your legs; be sure to place your hand at ground level as you proceed. On the other hand (pun intended), stick-targeting is great for teaching dogs to crawl since it eliminates a lot of bending; in addition, targeting to a stick is extremely helpful when working on tricks that require distance such as climbing on an object.
Obedience Champion Ford says, “There’s no end to what your dog can accomplish once learning begins.” She should know. In addition to winning national honors in the U.S., Ms. Ford and her black Labrador named Tyler came close to earning the international title at Crufts, where they placed second in the Obedience World Cup after just missing the overall top spot in 2010. Ms. Ford and her best buddy, Tyler, will vie for the international title once more on Sunday, March 11, 2012.
For further information on clicker and target training, be sure to read Karen Pryor’s gem of a book Don’t Shoot the Dog. For information on Ms. Ford and Tyler, visit www.aquadogrehab.com. To learn more about the Crufts World Cup, visit the Obedience at Crufts website.
Many thanks, zootoo.com.