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Speaking of Pets: Using playtime to train your dog

By Joan Merriam
Special to the Daily
Playing games with pets can often double as training exercises.
Special to the Daily

Even with things opening up, we’re all still home a lot more than our dogs are used to, but that also means extra playtime. While all games are fun for dogs, some can also be great training exercises.

Before you start, remember to always use positive reinforcement—that is, rewarding your dog when they do what you want, not punishing them when they don’t. At the same time, use a positive, cheerful tone, even if your voice is a basso profundo that sounds like it came from the bottom of a cave. By smiling when you speak, you can create a lilt in your speech that sounds happy.

Using a dog clicker really helps in these exercises, but if you don’t have one, just make a clicking sound with your tongue or say a specific word.

So, let’s take a look at two examples of fun and useful games that can help you deal with your pooch’s problem behaviors.

Find it

Hold a stash of tasty treats like bits of cut-up hot dogs behind your back with one hand. Say “find it,” and toss one treat a few feet away, then give a click just before your dog eats it. Call him back, and do the exercise several more times.

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Now, toss each treat a little further and in a different direction each time until he learns to associate the words “find it” with getting a treat. Then, next time you’re out walking and something scary or aggravating comes toward you, just play the “find it” game, dropping the treat just beside you. Your dog will naturally shift his attention from the scary thing because he knows a treat is coming, and you will have changed his emotional response by changing his behavior.

Targeting

Here’s a game that takes advantage of the fact that dogs explore the world with their noses.  

Again, have those yummy treats in one hand or a treat pouch. Hold out your empty hand at the level of your dog’s nose, then click and give a treat when she sniffs or touches your hand.  Repeat this several times. If she stops touching, rub the treat on your hand and try again.

Eventually, she’ll realize she can prompt a click and a treat just by giving your empty hand a nose-bump. When that happens, say “touch” as you offer your hand, then give them plenty of praise and a treat when they bonk her nose into your hand.  Try modifying it to keep her interested: put your hand in different places, or give her the treat after the last of two or three “touch” cues in a row.

The next time your dog shows signs of fear or aggression, hold out your hand and say “touch.” Again, because she can’t focus on two things at once, she’ll automatically take her attention off the thing that’s bothering her and put it on you instead.

These games work only if you’ve repeated them frequently over an extended period of time. Also, when you’re out in the world, keep your dog far enough away from the scary or bothersome thing (or person) so his brain can switch from “afraid” or “mad” to “happy” and “play.” In time, his behavior will change because he’s learned to associate the bad thing with something good: a treat.

For more information about training games, go to Pat Miller’s Peaceable Paws website. A professional dog trainer for 40 years, Pat includes a number of excellent resources on her site.

Now, get out and play.

Joan Merriam lives in northern California with her Golden Retriever Joey, her Maine Coon cat Indy, and the abiding spirit of her beloved Golden Retriever Casey in whose memory this column is named. You can reach Joan at joan@joanmerriam.com.


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