You Don’t Pay a Trainer for the Clicker; You Pay Him for the Brain
A smart dog trainer is an idea person.
I’m not bad with the basics. I’ve taught Honey to walk nicely on leash, wait for me at crosswalks, come when I call her, and lie down nicely on the rug while I’m cooking dinner.
But when I read about Shiva learning to do handstands or 80-pound Hurley learning to stand in a box, I don’t know where to begin. How do you get a dog to do something he wouldn’t expect to do on his own in a given day?
That’s where the creative trainer comes in.
We’ve been working for a long time to see if we can get Honey to ride comfortably in the Doggy Ride bicycle cart.
At the same time, we’d like to know if she could ever be comfortable with us on a sailboat. Can she walk a ramp from a dock to a moving boat? Feel comfortable when a boat shifts under a person’s weight? Will she tolerate the noise and motion of high winds causing sails, lines, and hardware to move and clank?
We’ve been getting help from a local trainer to teach us how to work with Honey and to help us evaluate if our goals for her are even possible. And it’s been so helpful.
But this past session, our trainer, Russ, suggested something that caused a real breakthrough for Honey.
We’ve been rewarding Honey for putting her head into the Doggy Ride bicycle cart. Gradually, she’s worked up to putting her front two paws into the cart and streeeetttttcccccching her body to take a treat from my hand at the front of the cart. Her rear paws are firmly anchored on the ground outside the cart and they’re not going anywhere. If the floor is slippery, she’ll scramble with her back paws to keep them from going into the cart even as she’s pursuing the treat in my hand.
If you want to know what this look likes, imagine an American tourist discovering her first “squatty potty” in a moment of desperate need while balancing a long skirt, two shopping bags, and a huge purse. It’s pretty awkward looking.
We’re also working to get her to walk on a small teeter board that barely teeters at all. Russ suggested we place obstacles on each side of the teeter so Honey has to approach from the front and can step on with both paws. No doing. She’d put her two front paws tentatively on the board but will not walk on with her back paws even though her weight is already holding the board down.
When I asked Russ if there was some way we could make her separately aware of her back paws from her front, he came up with a deceptively simple but very effective idea.
Back Paw Awareness
Russ moved a floor mat into the middle of the room. Honey walked over it periodically trying to figure out what would get her a treat. Each time her front paws were off the rug and her back paws were on them, Russ would click and treat.
It was a slow process. Honey didn’t understand what we expected of her. But eventually her brain figured it out and she’d walk over the rug and pause with her front paws on the wood floor and her back paws on the carpet.
We continued working with the rug the next day. And, after a few repetitions, I moved the rug onto the teeter board. The teeter board she had never touched with her rear paws. The teeter board I could not get her to walk forward onto after her front two paws touched it.
Honey stepped onto the rug onto the teeter board. Then she moved forward until her back paws were also on the rug. And then she moved forward again so her front paws were free of the rug but her back paws remained on it.
Progress Isn’t Linear
When I go downstairs to work with Honey again, we may not duplicate yesterday’s success. She might look like she needs to start all over again.
But that’s ok. She’s done it once. She’ll do it again.
Honey looks bolder and more confident around the crazy equipment in the house. But most of all, she looks more and more like she’s starting to have fun. And that’s a beautiful sight to see. No matter where her paws are.