I’m often told my dog is smart. I definitely agree with that. He knows that when our walking buddy’s come through the door, it’s time to get his ball. Or when he has to tell me he needs to go outside, he hands me one of my shoes. He knows when I’m in pain and has the perfect body clock. Food time in this house can never be forgotten.
His intuitiveness and enthusiasm makes him a great service dog. But did you know that all the tasks a service dog performs for his handler, are based on a few fun games? In the next few colums. I’ll tell you how I, with help from our trainer, taught Don how to help me with my daily routine.
Tug games are an important part of a Service Dog’s training. It’s fun and it allows a pup to release a lot of energy. As they go further through training, they’re also taught to push things with their nose. The act of pushing and tugging is rewarded with something the pup likes. Usually tastey treats. The more it’s rewarded, the more they want to do it. Very helpful when it’s time to be a service dog.
Don can tug on a rope attached to a door handle to pull a door open. He can also push a drawer closed with his nose. In training, these tasks were not that difficult to accoumplish. The difficult training had been completed while he was at school. He just had to get used to me giving the commands as opposed to the trainer.
But when you have a door that opens inwards, (one that you have to push away from you), the dog is required to do two different actions. Training a dog to carry out two actions with one command, is a challenge.
When people open a door like this, they push down the handle and walk forward. It’s not that difficult and we often do it without thinking.
When Don needs to open that door, he has to pull on a rope first. With one quick, hard tug, it will cause the catch that holds the door closed to come out of its place. Then Don can push the door with his nose to open it.
I could tell him to ‘tug’ and then ‘push’, but I would have to reward him for completing both tasks. So it would take forever before I could go through the open door. Instead I wanted to say ‘open the door’. I needed him to understand this command means ‘tug and push’.
I had to teach him to do this in small steps. Training sessions should also not last longer than ten minutes. Otherwise it can cause information overload, which leads to stress and an unhappy dog.
First we practiced tug. Usually the tug command requires the dog to pull a rope towards him. In this situation, this would only mean the door stays closed. He had to learn to pull the rope downwards. For me that meant a lot of listening and touching the door handle so that I could feel when he was doing what I wanted. I could only reward him for the desired behaviour. That meant I had to be patient. I strategically placed a chair and myself in the area where we were working so that he couldn’t walk backwards. It made the learning process quicker as it was easier for him to understand what I wanted. Luckily the idea of getting cookies makes Don very enthusiastic, so completing this step didn’t require too many sessions.
The next step was to add a ‘push’ command. I would ask him to tug, reward him while holding the handle down so that the door wouldn’t fall back into closed position, then ask him to push and reward him again.
We repeated this in a number of sessions spread over multiple days. When he was confident in doing it, I stopped rewarding for ‘tug’ and only rewarded after he did both tasks. At this point, I changed the commands ‘tug’ and ‘push’ for ‘open the door’ and had him continue doing the two actions until he was confident with the new command.
Numerous sessions and a few more days later, I was able to carry out the last step of training. I no longer held the door handle down for him. He had to learn to complete these two actions quickly and efficiently so that he could get the door open by himself. This caused a lot of frustration. He really wanted to please me and really wanted the reward but didn’t understand the concept of the game. He would make squeaking noises and even sit because he didn’t know what I wanted from him.
I took a small step backwards so that I could teach him the concept of the game. I placed cookies on the floor on the other side of the door. Held down the handle so he could complete the task and he retrieved his own reward. Once he realised the door needed to be open to get the cookies, I removed my hand from the handle and let him work on it himself. It took a lot of sessions, a lot of days and even more sleep (dogs process what they’ve learned while they sleep) before he did it for the first time alone.
The eurika moment came one afternoon after a two hour nap. We had trained together until he was tired. After the long nap I decided to ask ‘open the door’. I was curious if he had remembered what we had been doing earlier. This time there were no cookies on the other side. But he opened the door anyway. He was very pleased with himself and now he opens all of the doors in the house whenever I ask.
Patience definitely pays off when training a dog. It might take a while before you achieve what you want, but it’s so worth all the effort.