Training

Brain Games for dogs!

Nourishing and exercising our dogs' minds is just as important as nourishing and exercising their bodies. Tiring them out mentally is equally as wonderful for them as tiring them out physically. Just doing one without the other isn't likely to keep them as happy and well-rounded as they deserve.

So how can we exercise their minds? And when should we do it?

The "when" is an easy one... whenever you can! On a rainy day when your pup isn't in the mood for a walk (just gets their business done and zooms back inside), that's a perfect opportunity to work on some brain games. Or instead of watching a half-hour sitcom, practice some mental exercises instead (and then you can both relax on the couch for the rest of the Netflix marathon together). Or if you work from home or are doing some other tasks around the house, you might be able to multitask and keep your dog busy and out from underfoot while you work!

Check out 2 Paws Up dog treats by Madison  here .

Check out 2 Paws Up dog treats by Madison here.

Now for the fun stuff... how to do it!

There are so many different ways you can help keep your dog's mind working and learning. And they can vary in terms of how active you need to be during the game (some of them will allow you to multitask if necessary).

First off, Ruby's favourite thing is to work for treats - specifically hotdog pieces! She has learned so many tricks and commands because of how badly she wants that hotdog. That's how I taught her to be such a patient model when I photograph her, how to run to me and get in the "heel" position, to back away from me, play dead, spin, sit pretty, weave through my legs, etc. So getting some yummy treats (or you can use toys as a reward if that's more motivational for your pup) and working on tricks is a great way to get them thinking and learning. As always, start small/basic with the tricks and build on them once you've repeated them enough to get reliable results. If your pup is getting confused or frustrated and isn't understanding, try disecting the trick a little and see if you can teach a simpler version of it first. It's no fun for your pup if they can't understand what you want and they can't earn that treat. Set them up for success by ensuring that they can understand what you want.

The moment they do the correct behaviour, you're going to "mark" it. This can be done verbally with a "yes!" or a "good!" or you can use a clicker instead. And then treat them! If you and your dog really love working on tricks together, you can even work up to earning your Trick Dog Certifications (you can check that out here).

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Another game Ruby loves to play is Find It, which is basically Hide'n'Seek but with treats. Your pup will need to know the Stay command for this one while you hide the treat. Or I suppose if the room has a door you could close it and leave them outside the room until you're ready to let them in. Our version goes like this: I bring Ruby to the mat by our front door and ask her to sit and wait. I go into the living room (which is out of her eyesight) and hide one piece of hotdog somewhere. Then I shout "Find it!" and she comes charging in and has to search for the treat. As soon as she's found it, I say "good!" and then bring her back to the mat to wait while I hide another. This game helps her practice her nosework and learn to find things by scent and not just look for the treat with her eyes. You could build on this after a while by requiring her to come back to you and sit after she finds the treat, or maybe even go all the way back to the mat! The more you rehearse what you want them to do, the more they'll catch on and probably try to do it on their own before you ask.

Ruby also has a wooden toy that she enjoys, but she's too smart for it already. It's a flat rectangle with 8 sliding covers that conceal hollow compartments beneath. So I can hide treats in some of those compartments and then she has to use her nose or paws to slide the compartments open and find the treats inside. The compartments do have a peg that sticks up to move the cover easier. But when you first introduce this game, the dog doesn't even know that there are compartments, or how to access them, or which direction the covers might move. It looks easy to humans, but it's fun to watch them try out different strategies until they discover the secret!

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You can make your own variations of that type of game - you can put treats inside an empty 2L bottle and have your pup roll it around the house until they figure out how to get the treats out. I've seen some people take 3 or 4 of those bottles and cut a hole on either side so that they can slide a wooden dowel through all of them (almost like you stabbed all 4 with one sword!)... then they attach that piece of wood to something more sturdy that holds it in place. Now the bottles can swivel on that dowel and the dog needs to get them upside down in order for the treats to fall out! You can see a picture here. There's also a "snuffle mat" that I've seen people make, where it's a little rug with ruffles all over it, and you can drop treats into it so they're hidden and they have to be sniffed out and retrieved!

I would recommend joining the Facebook group "Brain Games for Dogs" for more great ideas from other pup parents!

What games does your dog love to play? And what treats or toys get them most excited to work with you? These kinds of games are a great way to bond with your dog while also exercising that awesome brain of theirs!

How to Teach Tricks

So you have a new dog and you want to teach them some commands. Or maybe you recently adopted an older dog and need to work on training. Or maybe you've had your dog for a while but haven't put in the time to really work on commands and now you're ready to get to work. No matter the reason, every dog benefits from learning new behaviours, bonding with their person, and learning the power of positive reinforcement!

 
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Ruby's favourite thing is to work for treats - specifically hotdog pieces! She has learned so many tricks and commands because of how badly she wants that hotdog. That's how I taught her to be such a patient model when I photograph her, how to run to me and get in the "heel" position, how to back away from me, play dead, spin, sit pretty, weave through my legs, etc. So getting some yummy treats (or you can use toys as a reward if that's more motivational for your pup) and working on tricks is a great way to get them thinking and learning. For every trick or command you will want to start small/basic with the tricks and build on them once you've repeated them enough to get reliable results. If your pup is getting confused or frustrated and isn't understanding, try dissecting the trick a little and see if you can teach a simpler version of it first. It's no fun for your pup if they can't understand what you want and they can't earn that treat you're holding. Just think how frustrating it would be for you if you couldn't understand the language someone was speaking and couldn't get what you wanted. Set them up for success by ensuring that they can understand what you want from them.

Since they can't speak English, we need to learn to speak (and think) Dog instead. Learn how to read your dog's body language to understand their moods and when they're happy or frustrated or nervous. Learning to think like them means that we need to see things from their perspective and understand the stepping stones that might be required to build up to a trick or command. It may seem like an easy trick to us, but your dog has no idea what you're asking, so you need to break down the trick into steps and start at the very beginning. You also want to get the dog to do the movement themselves instead of you using your hands on them.

 
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For example, to teach "sit", you don't want to just push their bum down (even gently) because they didn't do the work. They didn't get to feel their muscles move and put their bum on the floor, and they didn't get the benefit of the thinking process that gets them there. What you want to do instead is lure them into the position with the treat so that they end up doing what you wanted (even though they didn't know it at first). So you want to hold the treat in front of them and then move it upwards and back over their head towards their tail. If they follow the treat with their nose, they'll end up leaning backwards and sitting. It may not happen on the first try - they might try other ways to get the treat, like turning sideways, or pawing at it. But just say "nope" and start over.

The moment they do the correct behaviour, you want to "mark" it. This can be done verbally with a "yes!" or a "good!", or you can use a clicker instead. You want them to know exactly which thing they did was the good one. So if you're teaching "sit"... the moment their bum touches the floor, mark it and then treat. Through repetition they will recognize that moment as being the goal, and they'll be able to get there quicker.

Still using the example of "sit", you want to use the lure technique for a while at the beginning but don't use the word "sit" yet. Just lure, mark the good behaviour, and treat. Once the behaviour is consistent and they start sitting right away when you move the treat up, then you can start giving the behaviour a name. So you want to say the name while luring, then mark the right moment, and treat. This period may last several days or training sessions (you also want to keep each session short and sweet - don't overdo it, and always end with success). Continue the luring and using the command name for a while and then try just the command name without the lure. If they don't get it yet, continue with the previous phase until they make the connection and you don't need to lure them anymore.

Once you can phase out the luring, you want to also avoid bribing. When your pup knows the command name, you don't need to dangle a treat as a bribe. Teach them that they should do the command even if they can't see a treat waiting... and as soon as they do it, the treat appears! Because eventually, you want the command to be reliable enough that they'll do it for praise if you don't have treats handy. Their reward can be a pat on the head sometimes, once they're very consistent with the command.

 
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Other things that you can build on are duration and new locations. Dogs aren't very good at generalizing, or understanding that something in one specific scenario is the same even if it happens in a different scenario. For example, let's say your dog knows how to follow the "sit" command when you're in your living room and standing facing each other. But if you were to go outside for a walk and ask them to do the same thing on the sidewalk, or when you're standing side by side... they might act totally confused. They don't seem to understand that it's the same thing as before because it all looks so different. So once you get consistent success with a command, you want to start practicing it in other places so that they understand "sit" can happen anywhere.

You can also work on duration, as I mentioned. So asking for a "sit", marking the behaviour the moment it happens, but then waiting 1-2 seconds before giving the treat. Then tomorrow maybe you wait 3 seconds before giving the treat. The marker is still happening at the right time to confirm they did it correctly (very important), but they have to be a tiny bit patient for the reward. You can build this into a longer stay, or you can practice moving around or walking away, etc. But remember, if your dog gets frustrated, you may have rushed and done too much too soon. Back up a step and go back to where they were having success. Then move forward in tiny steps when they're ready.


I hope this was helpful in getting started, and learning how to think more like a dog when training them!