Dog’s Eye View: One step at a time
March 10, 2016
We humans are pretty good at visualizing the end of a sequence when we want to accomplish a task. If we’re knitting a sweater, we picture the end product. If we’re building a house, we can see what it will look like when we’re done. I think we tend to think our dogs can do this, as well. This difference in perception can stand in the way of training success.
One example of this is a fairly universal desire to teach our little buddies to fetch something. What we tend to do is throw a ball across the room. The puppy may chase the ball if he sees it moving but may just mouth it or play with it and walk away. He really has no idea you want him to bring it back and hand it over. I often find myself saying to new dog owners, “Just take baby steps.”
If we teach this behavior “backwards,” the first thing the puppy needs to learn is to put the ball in his mouth. Make sure the ball or toy is the right size to fit comfortably in his mouth.
Here’s what I do: I sit and hold a ball about one half inch from his nose. When he sniffs the ball, I say, “Good boy,” as I immediately give him a treat. If he mouths the ball, I say, “Good boy,” as I immediately give him a treat. If he takes the ball in his mouth, I say, “Good boy,” as I immediately give him several treats.
Each time, immediately after he takes the ball and before he spits it out, I will hold a treat right at the end of his nose, and when he releases the ball to my waiting hand, I give him the treat. I like to have eight out of 10 successes of actually taking the ball in his mouth and releasing it before proceeding.
After his eight to 10 successes, I’ll toss a treat near him on the floor and say, “All done,” in order to signal the exercise is over, then get up and take a break, allowing the puppy to play and sleep. I’ll resume training again later in the day or the next day.
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After the break, I will not reward him for just sniffing or mouthing the ball. I will only reward him for taking the ball in his mouth and releasing it into my hand. I can now put a word/cue — such as “fetch” — in place when he is in the process of actually taking the ball. I can also say a word/cue for letting go of the ball, such as “out” or “give.”
In order add some distance from the ball to the puppy’s mouth, begin by holding the ball about two inches from his nose and repeat the above sequence. When he’s getting the idea, you can increase the distance to five to 10 inches, so he needs to step forward. You can also begin holding the ball closer to the floor. Remember — don’t take a big leap and start tossing the ball or moving too far away. Help him be successful at each distance before moving a little farther away.
Now, gently roll the ball in front of him a couple of inches. If he’s been successful so far, he’ll probably start to pick it up and return it to your waiting hand. From here, you can gradually add more and more distance. Keep using treats and take breaks, so he can process the new skills and keep it fun.
In order to help him generalize his new skill to different environments, start teaching him in your living room, kitchen and then, outside in you yard. This process can take days or longer. Just as with people, each puppy learns at a different rate. A puppy’s skill depends on the owner’s skill, as well. Remember to use treats, be patient and take baby steps.
Sandra Kruczek is a certified professional dog trainer at Total Teamwork Training, LLC, with more than 30 years of experience.
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