Monday, January 4, 2010

Give A Dog A Job!

I recently boarded and trained a 7-month old German Shepherd puppy named Piko. He had A LOT of energy, even after taking him on 3 walks a day (bike rides, mid-day fetch games and/or swimming, AND off-leash walks). I quickly figured out that it wasn't more exercise he needed, but mental stimulation.

Piko was too smart for a Kong toy. No matter what I stuffed in it, he ate all the contents within minutes. He would then eye my household items to see what else he could chew on to keep his mind occupied.

So I decided to teach him some service dog tasks. I am just starting to learn about using a clicker to shape behavior, so it was exciting for me too. Piko was already good at fetching balls - he could do it all day. And he also liked to play tug-of-war. So we worked on a couple of things that took advantage of those skills.

During the several days that Piko stayed with me, I worked on getting Piko to pick up my neighbor's newspaper at the mailbox and deliver it to her doorstep. He easily picked up the newspaper (which I praised him for), but the tricky part was getting him to carry it all the way down the driveway instead of stopping and chewing on the newspaper! I strongly reinforced him with praise for picking up and carrying the paper, and redirected his attention or asked him to "Leave It" if he dropped the paper prematurely and started chewing on it.

Having him drop the paper at my neighbor's door was easy. I had already taught him the "Leave It" command, and that's all it took for him to drop it. Once he dropped it, I made sure to praise/click/treat as we walked away from the newspaper - otherwise he started chewing on the newspaper! He is a puppy after all.

I also taught Piko how to open the refrigerator door on command. Since he already enjoyed playing tug-of-war, I started out by waving an old shirt around his face until he started mouthing it, and clicking and treating that. I then waited for him to pull the shirt. After clicking and treating him several times for pulling the shirt, I tied the shirt to the fridge door.

I waved the shirt around his face again until he pulled the shirt and opened the door (click and treat). Next I pointed to the shirt and said Open (instead of waving the shirt around). Piko was so smart that he immediately pulled the shirt and door open. We repeated this several times to reinforce the command and behavior, and we practiced this every day.

People often call me about their puppy or dog's problem behaviors, such as destructive chewing and digging. Sometimes the dog needs more exercise or training, other times the puppy is just being a puppy, while other times the dog is in need of more mental stimulation. Whatever the case may be, it's fun to figure out what kind of talents a dog has and teach him or her to utilize them in a useful or fun way. Some dogs might be good at service dog tasks, others might be good at scenting and tracking (search and rescue), while others might be good at agility.

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