Training The Dog; Training Ourselves

My dog Honey gives us so much—affection, companionship, amusement.

But the greatest way she has given back to our family might surprise you.

It has to do with training her. And training ourselves.

Honey the golden retriever at the dock.

I give and I give and I give. It’s exhausting.

Dog Training On The Boat

Since we’ve moved aboard our sailboat, every day brings new training opportunities for Honey.

We expect far more from her than to sit, stay, and come.

Honey the golden retriever - will she do it?

Yep, these steps are expecting a lot from me.

In the past week, Honey has had to

We rely on basic, positive training techniques to help Honey learn new skills.

  • Break new skills into small steps.
  • Train each step one at a time.
  • Reinforce learning with high-value rewards.
  • Build confidence by rewarding success.
  • As skills are learned, make things more difficult.

You never know when the next training opportunity will come when you live on a boat. So we keep positive training techniques in the front of our minds all the time.

It helps Honey. It helps us too.

Dinghy hanging off sailboat halyard.

Heck just managing a 12 foot, 84 pound dinghy (here it is folded and hanging from a halyard) is its own learning curve.

Human Training On The Boat

It isn’t just Honey who has a lot to learn. We do too.

We only started sailing 5 years ago. And there’s a steep learning curve to living on a boat. We’ve had to learn everything from bleeding air out of a diesel engine to docking the boat in a strong current.

Luckily, thanks to Honey, we have positive training techniques in our minds all the time. And we use them on ourselves.

Dinghy on a dock cart.

You don’t expect me to move that thing, do you?

Rowing Miss Honey

When you live on a boat, your dinghy is your car.

What’s a dinghy? It’s a small boat you carry on your big boat to help you go ashore from an anchorage or mooring ball to do laundry, buy groceries, or (and this is most important to Honey) take your dog for a little break.

You’ll be astonished to see what we have planned for getting Miss Honey off our big boat into our dinghy. But for now, we just need to practice getting her comfortable riding in it.

Honey the golden retriever while dinghy is being assembled.

You want me to ride in that thing? How do I know you’re putting it together right?

And I have to learn how to row it.

So we took advantage of a sunny day to lower the dinghy, haul it across the boat yard, assemble it (it folds), and drop it in the water.

Mike with folding dinghy in water.

Well, it seems to float.

My husband carried Honey into the rear of the dinghy. I sat in the middle seat and gave her the “paws up” cue to get her to put her front paws on the seat and rewarded her with liverwurst. We spent a little time rewarding Honey for sitting calmly in the moving boat.

Eventually, we got underway.

And after a few strokes, it was obvious that I couldn’t row with a dog sitting right in front of me. Every time I took a stroke, I ended up pushing the oars into Honey’s ears.

Here’s where I wish I had video footage. Because we managed to swap everyone’s place so that my husband went from the back of the boat to the front. Honey moved with him and got yummy treats for lying calmly on her towel with her head under Mike’s seat.

Yay Honey!

Honey the golden retriever gets treats in the dinghy.

Okay, this dinghy thing isn’t so bad. Does it always come with liverwurst?

But while Honey was getting positive reinforcement, I was too.

I got rewarded by getting the boat to go forward. And by managing not to dump us all overboard.

We also kept my training basic. This was only my second time rowing the dinghy so we did it for a short time in calm waters without a lot of traffic.

And we stopped while the learning was still fun. That’s another key part of positive training for both dogs and humans.

Honey the golden retriever on the dock.

If you never leave the dock you’ll never get the liverwurst.

Positive Training Works For Everyone

Honey has become increasingly confident as she learns new skills using positive training techniques. It has been an excellent reminder to use those same techniques as we’re learning new skills too.

Our little reinforcement after successfully arriving at or leaving a dock without hitting anything is for me and my husband to give each other a high-five.

For those times we do something really challenging, like landing at a fuel dock in a 3 knot current (about 3.5 mph) while I try to lasso a piling that towers over my head to stop the boat, we’re going to need a higher value reward.

For now, Honey’s experience with positive training techniques has given a lot back to us.

We have a beautifully trained dog who is gaining skills and confidence everyday. And we’re remembering that positive training works for everyone. Not just for dogs.

Honey the golden retriever and Pam in dinghy.

Okay, whatever you say. Can I have more liverwurst now?

Your Turn: Have you ever used positive dog training techniques on yourself, friends, or family members? How has it worked out?

We’re joining the positive pet training blog hop hosted by Cascadian NomadsTenacious Little Terrier and Rubicon Days. The hop is open all week long beginning the first Monday of each month.

For December the theme is “Giving Back” – stories of how you share positive training or any other positive training post you would like!

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  1. HA, yes, every time I catch a rainy day on my dog walking route, I envision the hot, steaming cup of coffee and cuddling on the couch with my own two pups once I get home. Works like a charm and keeps me going!

    You guys seem to be adjusting more and more to life on the boat. That’s wonderful! Honey looks great in her life vest!

    • But don’t forget, RANDOM positive reinforcement is the most effective. You need your coffee maker to randomly prep a cup that will be ready when you get back from a soggy walk. :)

      And yes, everyone wears life jackets in the dinghy. If only Mike and I looked as cute in ours as Honey does in hers.

  2. Hiring a camera crew to follow you around would probably be pretty expensive, but you might look for some documentary filmmakers. It would make great footage.

    • I can’t tell you how many times we’ve said, “We should get this on video.”

      Unfortunately it’s hard to tape and be who we’re supposed to be for our dog at the same time.

      If you know someone willing to hold a camera in exchange for cockpit cocktails, let me know. :)

  3. I had to laugh at the oars going into Honey’s ears! Glad you got it all figured out. I’m sure it was quite the show for anyone that caught a glimpse of it!

    Yes, I try to use positive reinforcement here at work. Someone does something correctly, they get a gold star in an email. Candy also works well. It’s all rather tongue-in-cheek (they know this) and I don’t mean to imply anyone here is a child, but it’s fun little things like that that make people smile and strive to do a good job.

    I have yet to use liverwurst. It’s just so – well, it smells and it is greasy and in the summer I would worry about it spoiling in the heat while we are hiking. Blueberry seems to be HIGHLY motivated by these freeze-dried raw lamb treats from Sojos. It’s the one thing that can tear her away from sticks, shrubs, and horse apples and anything else we run into on the trails. If I don’t carry them, she is not as likely to ignore those things. They totally smell like lamb and don’t have to be refrigerated. Just a thought as I know you sometimes have issues with refrigeration. :)

    • The oars were hilarious. The crazy thing was that Honey just stood there and took it as every stroke the end of the oar moved her ears.

      On hot days (hot in upstate NY, that is; which means not too hot), I used to freeze liverwurst before taking it outside. But I’ll look into the Sojos lamb treats. Honey loves the flavor of lamb lunch so this might be a good bet. And not needing refrigeration is perfect.

      BTW, I bet you’re the best boss ever. :)

      • Bahahaha! I’m afraid I may have given you the wrong idea. The reason I have to use positive reinforcement at work is because I am a lowly admin assistant. Bribes are one way to get people to comply with certain things that I am just the middle man for (read: my bosses don’t want to deal with it). :)

  4. Every day is a new opportunity to learn and train!

  5. I couldn’t believe the first time I got into a row boat – what is it that makes it look so simple? It was anything but. When it was my turn to row solo we ended up going sideways into the brush more times than not. Bravo on that, it’s not something that came natural at all to me.

    Like Barbara mentioned above when I’m out on our daily walk when the weather is particularly cold or nasty I keep that warm cup of coffee or cocoa in mind – it’s my little reward.

    • And that’s why I love kayaking. Almost anyone can get into a kayak and make it go forward the very first time.

      The good news is that the second time rowing went much better than the first.

      As I commented to Barbara, it’s RANDOM positive reinforcement that has the best effect. Perhaps I should invent a coffee maker that randomly makes coffee on a timer and sell it at the Karen Pryor clicker expo.

      On the other hand, I’ve seen how some people behave when they don’t get their coffee. So maybe it’s not such a smart idea after all. :)

  6. Great post! I love learning about your life living on your boat! Honey looks like she is doing so well! I really need to get better at using positive reinforcement on the humans in my life. I’m so good with the animals but I forget about the people and I am trying to get better!

    • People are a lot harder to reinforce. They get in their own way too much.

      For example, I tried praising my husband in the middle of a good docking maneuver but he swears he can’t concentrate when I’m talking to him. :)

  7. Great post!!! It sounds like there are lots of things to teach Honey about boat life, and you’re doing a great job teaching her!!! Positive training is just perfect for the kinds of training challenges you have.

    I find that using positive training with my dog, including lots of play, makes me happier. Seriously, I am in a great mood after a fun session of positive training with both treats and play as rewards. I have used positive training on myself when facing mountain biking challenges that scare me… but I’m not quite as courageous as my Shyla!

    • I’d love to read a post about using positive training techniques on yourself.

      For me, I find that building up lots of successes and not moving too quickly is important. Just like with Honey.

      And yes, I don’t think we’d be able to do the things with Honey we have without being steeped in positive reinforcement.

  8. You guys have all worked so hard to get to this moment. It’s nice to see it paying off and how you continue to use it to grow and learn. Great post Pamela. God willing, you will be on your way to Florida soon!

  9. We get positively rewarded every time training goes right. I think we hold onto the fear and shame of things going wrong much longer than the dogs do! I’m still impressed that you have a boat dog! My dogs could not handle it!

    • ” …we hold onto the fear and shame of things going wrong much longer than the dogs do! ”

      That is so true. We definitely find the humiliation of making a mistake in front of strangers tough. It’s why boaters find docking with an audience terrifying.

      Dogs like to learn and are less likely to feel stupid (although I think some dogs might experience humiliation in some circumstances). It’s why they’re such fast learners.

  10. I haven’t thought about it too much, but in some ways I guess I do. I will often reward myself with a treat if I accomplish certain tasks. I think I just need to reward myself more along the way, but I usually withhold until the end as incentive to get things done!

    Honey’s confidence sure seems to be growing more and more with every task you give her (I hope yours is too)!

    • The hard thing for humans is to find healthy and positive rewards. Some of the ways we “treat” ourselves can be bad for us if we overdo it (binge watching tv or junk food are two I’ve been guilty of).

      But yes, Honey is far more confident than I ever expected. And we’re doing okay too.

      • My treat tends to be a glass of wine…or two…definitely not the healthiest of treats! Next after that would be some kind of sweets like cake or donuts. Again, not good, like you said!

        I’m glad you are all doing OK. Honey reminds me a lot of Sheba…timid in some ways…but strong and brave when you least expect it.

  11. Although I am always trying to advocate for animals, I am definitely learning a more gentle, positive approach. When I see something I don’t agree with, I try to suggest an alternative helpfully rather than bashing the current choice.

    Your life on a boat with a dog is so fascinating – you have some very unique training challenges and sweet Honey seems to take it all in stride!