Saturday, November 28, 2009

Two Belgians and a box

I'm not sure what normal people do on Thanksgiving night but I'm pretty sure it isn't teaching their dog to sit in a little cardboard box. Few people have accused me of being normal and Thanksgiving night was pretty quiet at our house, so I decided to take a page from Tammy's book and teach Phoenix and Jamie to put all four feet in a box, using a clicker and cookies.

When the Farmer asked what I was doing, I gave him a quick intro to shaping behaviors, markers and positive reinforcement. He gave me a look that said, "I married a crazy woman." I am very familiar with that look. 

I'm happy to report Phoenix mastered box-sitting in two sessions. (Time to get a smaller box.) After three sessions, Jamie is happily swatting the box with his paw.

No, that doesn't mean Phoenix is smarter than his bro (I haven't had to haul Jamie to the vet to get stitched up after crashing into a rotary hoe), it just means I've shaped some other behaviors with a clicker and Nix clearly understands how the program works. Earlier this summer he learned to sit in a PVC box, although that was substantially bigger and didn't have sides. Jamie, on the other hand, did not experience much clicker training during his trialing career and is still working through the why's and wherefores of how it all works and why won't you just give me the cookie NOW!

Actually, Jamie's first box training session consisted of him picking up the box and bringing it to me 24 times. Yep, 24. I counted. Finally he got disgusted and just sat and stared at me. He finally adjusted his sit, moved one paw closer to the box (yes, probably by accident), got clicked and cookied and we ended the session.

Truth be told, Phoenix's first session started out pretty much the same way. All he wanted to do was fetch the box. Who taught these dogs to retrieve everything?! The difference between him and Jamie was that he figured out much more quickly that fetching was not going to be rewarded and started experimenting with new behaviors. We ended the first session with his two front feet planted firmly in the box.

Nix's second session included a lot of other experimental behavior, much of it involving his teeth. At one point I was pretty sure the game was going to be over until I could find a new box but a little duct tape worked wonders. 

Jamie's second session still involved a lot of fetching, although not as much, and some very tentative experimenting with other options. By his third session, he didn't even try fetching the box and soon started pawing at it.

I'm sure some die-hard obedience people (along with the Farmer) are thinking "What is the point of all this?" Well, it's just plain fun for one thing. Knowing you're never going to be judged and scored on your dog's ability to sit in a box takes all the pressure off so you don't have to get all tense and freaky obsessive about it, which I admit to doing with obedience exercises from time to time. But mostly I am doing it to make my dog think. I want a thinking dog no matter what venue we're training for. I want a dog who is willing to keep trying even if he's not getting a reward for every little thing.

Do I use a clicker to teach everything? No, of course not. But it's a valuable tool and one I want to work with more this winter. I know a lot of people don't "believe in" clicker training but I suspect they've seen it used poorly or just don't understand how it works. I've seen trainers use leashes and collars poorly, too, but in the right hands, they can produce magic results. 

So the next step is to down-size Phoenix's box and keep working with Jamie to put one paw in the original box. And to come up with some new tricks to teach over the winter. One thing I've started has been teaching "Bounce" on a verbal command. I say it and Nix goes leaping around like a crazed jumping bean. He has even incorporated it into the left finish which is very cute but horribly crooked at this point. We have a lot to work on this winter.


  1. Lacking a proper sized box, I decide to shape Taz the Terv to jump in the laundry basket. (OK, so I had to remove some clean, but still un-folded, clothes first. Don't ask how long they'd been there.) I set the basket down in the kitchen and pick up clicker and treats. Taz runs off toward the living room, our usual indoor training location.
    Monty the cat jumps in the basket. I click him, but am not convinced he's thrilled with the dog treats I have on hand. I remove Monty from the basket and put him on the stove next to the treats. Turns out he does like dog treats.
    Finn the cat jumps into the basket. I click him -- I know he likes dog treats, as this cat will eat anything. (Roses, earphones, tomatoes, really, I mean anything.)
    With some difficulty I manage to remove Finn from the basket and take it to the living room, where Taz learns to put two feet in in fairly short order. By the end of the session we've gotten all four feet in a couple of times, lots of bounces where the front feet go in and then come out as the back feet go in, and a cute pivot where he leaves his front feet in the basket and moves around with his back feet.
    I think the main advantage of shaping is that it's so amusing. Coretta, my Berner, who was introduced to the clicker much later in life, also has a much harder time coming up with things to do than does Taz, who was started with a clicker as a puppy.

  2. I just love shaping things :) It's especially fun to see the difference in how dogs think things through and then to really seem them get confidence after they really get the game!

  3. Lynn, I love the laundry basket idea. That would be a whole new concept, a box with tall sides. We'll be trying it!

    I really have to screen your posts from Phoenix or he gets started on the whole cat thing again!

  4. These kind of shaping sessions are great for those horrid midwest winter nights. I don't use a clicker 100%, but my dogs understand it - I love it, it teaches dogs to "learn how to learn". I haul it out when they reach a logjam in learning a certain behavior. It just seems to help the dog make sense of something and re-dedicates them to getting it right. When they get that one click that unleashes the jackpot we are on our way again!