“Hold it” – Week 3 Training Steps


Okay, in case you need a little help with training this one – here’s the shaping steps I am using.  Dan is pretty good at grabbing things when asked because we’ve practice that in the past so we are focusing on the last few steps involving the build up of duration.

Target Behavior: When I hold an item out and say “Hold it”, Dan will grab it with his mouth and hold on until released.

Shaping Steps:

  1. Choose one item to begin the training with. Ideally it will be something that is easy for your dog to hold in his mouth, perhaps even a toy that he is used to picking up.
  2. Hold the item out and if your dog moves towards it click/treat.
  3. Next wait for an open mouth reach towards the item before you click/treat OR a sniff, lick, nudge if you can’t get the open mouth right away. The idea is that he needs to interact with the item at least a little. (No more than 3-4 interactions that aren’t closely related to grabbing with his mouth.)
  4. You should easily be able to move from open-mouth reach to actually closing his mouth on the object. Click/treat for mouth closing.
  5. Now you’ve got the grabbing part! Next build duration. Wait to click until he has held onto the object for a second or two.
  6. Slowly build up duration a few seconds at a time until you reach your goal. As you build the duration, it can help to sometimes go back and do a shorter duration so that it isn’t too predictable for your dog.
  7. Now add the cue “Hold it. Begin by saying the cue when you present the object. Click/treat for a hold behavior (at least a few seconds)
  8. Finally – repeat with lots of different objects! Sometimes you might have to go all the way back to step one, but other times you might be able to jump right to step 7. It depends on your dog’s history with holding things and the type/texture of object (among many other variables).



Toys as Reinforcers

Sometimes, a toy can be more practical or more rewarding than a food item. However, it takes practice to use a toy as an effective reinforcer. Remember – the dog decides if it is reinforcing, not you! If he isn’t interested or the target behavior isn’t increasing, then it isn’t a reinforcer.

Before you can use a toy as a reinforcer you need to understand what about the toy is exciting to your dog. There are several ways for your dog to interact with a toy:

  1. Holding the toy
  2. Chomping/Chewing on the toy
  3. Tugging with the toy
  4. Chasing the toy while you wiggle it
  5. Chasing a tossed toy
  6. Catching a toy in the air

Here’s a video example of Dan doing each of these:

Try each of these little games with your dog and see what he enjoys. Try to rank them in order and mark games your dog didn’t have much interest in with an “x”. Now, play each of them again in a brand new place and rank them – did the order change? Are there more or less “x”s?

Sometimes the type of toy alters the type of game your dog might like – for example, he might like to chomp on a ball better than catching it in the air. But he might like to catch a Frisbee in the air better than chomping on it.

List 5 of your dogs favorite types of toy and try to write down the top game for that toy.

How you deliver the toy can affect the behavior you get, just like the placement of a treat can affect the behavior. For example, if you are working on “4 Feet on the Floor”, be sure to present the toy from below your dog’s nose. If you hand it to him from above, he will be likely to jump up to get it!

Just like with treat training, you should use a reward marker for the behavior you like with toys too. You can use a clicker, the word “Yes!”, or the word “Good!” with both toys and treats. Just be sure the toy/treat is reinforcing so that the clicker doesn’t lose it’s meaning to your dog!

Another important piece of training with toys is to be sure that the toy is valuable. One way to help with this is to purchase 3-4 toys that are just for rewards in formal training sessions. Most dogs prefer new toys to the toys they play with all the time. My dog even prefers a new Chuck-It ball to an older Chuck-It ball! Be sure to have a variety in your toy reserve – a ball and several tug toys with different textures might be a good idea. That way you can add variety to the toy reward too. This is just like the concept of choosing a high-value treat for practice with distractions or difficult behaviors. I often suggest using boiled chicken or string cheese when you aren’t training at home, because these treats are extra special for most dogs!

Finally, and most important, be sure to carry out the game for a bit with your dog during each reinforcement period. Most of the time, just giving your dog the toy won’t be reinforcing and therefore won’t accomplish anything. The interaction with the toy is the reinforcer, not just the presence of the toy.

One Last Note:  What if your dog doesn’t like toys or doesn’t play any of the games? You can teach him to enjoy these things, but it will take a little practice. One strategy is to use a toy that can hold food so that you can transfer the value of food to the toy. Another strategy is to give food as a reinforcer for engaging in play (you may have to shape this in the beginning). Squeakers, fur-like material and even the scent of a toy that another dog used can all increase interest in the toy for some dogs. It is worth your while to work on building value in at least one or two of the toy-play games so that you have a variety of reinforcers in your toolbox.

Week 2 “Clean” – Toys in the Box and Next Trick

Okay, this week was much easier for us than last week.  The video below is our second training session.  The trick needs fine tuning, but he is starting to really get it.

Next Trick!

For week 3 we are going to work on “hold”.  The goal is for Dan to take and hold an object (a variety of objects will be used) until released.  I am hoping to work up to 30 seconds of duration on this one.  He can sort of  do this trick, but we have never formally worked on it and he only holds the object for a few seconds.

Also, I think I need to change my posting schedule.  It has been difficult to post on Sunday nights, so the final trick and the new goal will be posted on Mondays instead from now on.  An update and shaping plan will be posted on Thursdays.

Don’t forget to post a photo of your dog doing one of the tricks from 52 Weeks to be entered in the October raffle!


Week 2 – Toy to Box Training Plan

Okay, here is the training plan for teaching “put a toy in the box”.  I chose the word “clean” for my cue but you can, of course, choose a different word.

Goal: When cued to “clean” Dan will pick up a toy and put it in the box.

Shaping steps:

  1. Position box in front of you between you and your dog. Hold a toy over the box and ask your dog to take the toy. Once he grabs it, even a little, let go and wait for him to drop it. As soon as he lets go, click/treat.
    • Repeat until he is getting it right every time.
  2. Now place the toy next to the box. If he picks the toy up, click/treat
    • Repeat a few times to reinforce picking up the toy from the ground.
  3. Place the toy next to the box. Wait for your dog to pick up the toy and take a step or two toward the box. Click/treat for moving toward the box. To get the treat, your dog will need to let go of the toy J.
    • Repeat a few times to remind your dog that the box is important.
  4. Now, when you place the toy next to the box, wait for your dog to pick the toy up and drop it over the box. Click/treat for dropping it over the box.
    • For the first few repetitions, even if the toy doesn’t go in the box you should click/treat.
    • Then, require that the toy land in the box before your dog can earn a click/treat.
  5. Next add the cue.  As your dog picks up the toy and heads for the box say “clean” then click/treat for dropping it in the box.
  6. Once you have gotten this far, you can begin to place the toy further from the box or in random locations around the box.

Note: From step 3 on, if your dog makes a mistake, take the toy back and put it back in the same place on the floor. For example, if you are working on step 3 and your dog picks the toy up and drops it without moving, simply put the toy back in “start” position. This way, he won’t get in the habit of picking up the toy, dropping it near the box, then picking it up again and dropping it in the box. Instead it will he will learn the smoothly and deliberately pick up the toy and put it in the box on the first try.

“Crossed Paws” and Next Trick!

It turns out, we picked a tough trick for the first week, at least for Dan.

We are getting very close, but the behavior isn’t quite on cue yet. We will keep working and have it soon.

Here is a photo of Dan practicing with the paw target:

Dan Crossed Paws

I thought for the follow up this week, it would be fun to talk about what challenges we ran into when practicing this trick.  So, here we go.

The first thing we struggled with was the target – Dan’s nose touch behavior is much stronger than his paw touch behavior. So, we had to go back and review the “paw” behavior before we could begin with this trick.

The second challenge was that the place I had to hold the target in him to touch with his paw looked very similar to his cue for “bang”. This was another place where we had to go back and review – “bang” vs. “paw”

Third was getting Dan to lie down in an upright position. We have done TONS of practice on his “relaxed down” where he rolls his hip and tucks one paw. This has helped a lot in situations where he needs to calm down a bit, but in order to perform the “crossed paws” behavior easily, he needs to have his hips square and both front paws out straight. To practice this, I simply worked with him on our ottoman. It was narrow enough that he had to do an upright down rather than a relaxed down or he didn’t fit!

As you can see, Dan’s training history really determined where we had to start. What challenges did you face when teaching this trick?

Don’t forget to share a photo of your trick on my Facebook page for an entry in the October drawing!

Also, it is time to announce the trick for Week #2:

I have been coming up with some themes for tricks and the first one I want to work on is carrying, putting things in, and picking things up.

I am going to start with Putting a Toy in a Basket (Can you see where this one is going? Hopefully we can get to “Dan…pick up your toys!”)



Crossed Paws – Training Steps

Okay, here is the first training plan for 52 Weeks.  Crossed Paws!
Dan and I are at step 5 right now, hopefully will get through 6 and begin 7 today.

Goal: When cued to “cross” Dan will cross one paw over the other in a down position.

Shaping steps:

  1. Click/Treat any paw movement from a down position.
  2. Paw movement from one paw only; ignore movement from the other paw.
  3. Place a target just in front of the moving paw. Click/treat for touching the target with a paw (ignore touches from other paw or nose touches).
  4. Begin to move the target a little, just an inch or so toward the stationary paw. C/T for target touches.
  5. Put the target on top of or on the other side of the stationary paw (you may need to experiment to see how far you can move the target each time for your dog). Work up to placing the target on the other side of the stationary paw. C/T for target touches with the moving paw.
  6. Now your dog should be crossing his paws to touch the target! Begin to add a little duration. Count to 3 before you C/T.
  7. Take away the target and wait. You may have to go back to C/T for an approximation of the paw cross, but your dog should offer it (be patient!).
  8. When your dog is offering the paw cross on his own without the target and can hold the position for 3 seconds, you are ready to add the cue. (See Handout, “Adding a Cue to Any Behavior”)
  9. You did it! To make the behavior stronger, work on generalizing (location) and adding distractions
    1. Practice in 3 different locations.
    2. Practice with 3 different distractions.

Project 52 Weeks

As a professional dog trainer, there are times where I am so busy with clients’ dogs that training my own dog falls by the wayside. When I do work with Dan, we are often working on a long-term goal – an agility skill, working on calmness around other dogs and people, etc.

I have been thinking about ways to focus more on simple fun with Dan and also to teach him some skills, tasks, or behaviors that I haven’t taught before.

Sometimes I will get on a roll and teach Dan a new trick, but this really only happens a few times a year. When we do this, he learns it quickly – in a week or less! He is happier because he’s gotten some focused, fun attention and it’s easy to practice indoors in the winter when he might otherwise not get enough exercise.

Putting these thoughts all together, I have decided to start “Project 52 Weeks”. I am going to teach Dan one trick/skill/behavior/concept per week for the next year. And, I want you all to try it with me!

Here’s what I will do:

  1. Sunday evenings I will post the behavior of the week.
  2. Tuesday mornings, I will post the training guide/shaping steps
  3. Thursdays I will post Dan’s progress and the following Sunday when the new trick comes out, I will post a video of the last trick.

Here’s your part:

  1. Sunday evenings, look at the behavior of the week – try to come up with a training plan
  2. Practice it Monday/Tuesday
  3. Tuesday you can look at my training plan and compare it to yours. Modify yours as you like and keep practicing!
  4. Sunday, post a video of the final behavior (or the progress you’ve made) on my page. Everyone who posts a video will have his or her name entered into a monthly drawing to win a cool dog book, toy, or treat. The behavior doesn’t have to be perfect in order to post a video, just a start.
  5. If you aren’t able to do it every week, that’s okay – join us when you can!

The main event will take place on my Facebook page, but I will post a weekly update on the blog too so you can all follow along with what’s happening.

Sunday, September 27th will be the real start date with the first drawing taking place October 31st. We will get a head start on the first week with the trick: Cross Paws in a Down like this adorable Boxer.

Paws Crossed

Week 1: Paws Crossed

Hope you can join us in learning some fun new tricks with your pup!


134 Pieces of Kibble

When Dan was a puppy, I used kibble from each meal for his training sessions. Sometimes we used up his whole meal this way, sometimes just a handful.

Lately, I have noticed that my current habit is to just dump his food in his bowl and move on to the next task in my morning/evening pet care routine. Dan eats in about 2 minutes and then is on to something else.

Recently, I decided I really should be doing a better job of using a meal to enrich Dan’s life. I am always telling my clients about toys like the Kong Wobbler or the Buster Cube and we have every version of these food delivery toys I could find. But I had been slacking on using them myself. So I started giving Dan one meal a day in a food puzzle toy. He LOVES it and it keeps him busy for at least 15 minutes, even with toys he has used many times.

Last week, I also got back on track with using his dinner for our evening training sessions.

How many pieces of kibble are in your dog’s meal? Naturally, the number of pieces varies with size of kibble and cups of food given. Dan’s kibble is sort of big – about the size of a small grape. And he gets one cup of food at each meal.

I decided to count the number of kibble in a cup, just out of curiosity. There were 134 pieces of kibble!

On Monday, I only used about half for training. We sat on the front porch, I read my book, and we practiced “check” as dogs walked by. Dan did wonderfully, a dog even barked at him and though he struggled with it, letting out a growl, he maintained his composure and relaxed. The same dog went the other direction a little later and he barely noticed! This is major improvement for Dan. Dogs on the other side of the street he just watched calmly, though alert, and when I asked him to “check” he looked at the dog and looked back at me! before I clicked. This is the first time that he has offered to look back at me on his own. I simply delayed the click a half a second and he just did it. Such a good boy. But this is due to our practice of this behavior over the last year – we have probably practiced “check” hundreds of times with many different dogs.

On Tuesday, I decided to just go for it and use all the kibble. I wanted to see how long it would take to use it up. We practiced loose leash walking in front of the house in addition to practicing “check” with passing dogs and other distractions.  Do you have a guess at how long it might have taken us to use 134 pieces of kibble?

18 minutes. Yup. That means on average, Dan got a treat every 8 seconds. Now that’s a high rate of reinforcement!

If you had 134 treats to use in 18 minutes, what would you use them for? I challenge you to try to use your dog’s kibble for training at least a few times per week. It is an easy way to make it part of your day and your dog will LOVE the attention he gets during training.

Herding with Dan

This past weekend, Justin and I took Dan to his very first herding lesson. We all had a blast!

Dan saw some sheep in a pasture before we even started slowing down to turn into the drive and you could just see his face light up.

We arrived early and while we waited our turn, we practiced relaxed downs in the backseat of the car. He did great. In this type of situation, a new place that seems exciting, many times Dan will react to other dogs even from the car. The German shepherd who went before us walked by our car and although Dan was very aroused, he didn’t bark and was able to “check” (look at that) and remain focused on us.

The lesson began with our instructor working Dan. This was great fun for Justin and I to watch. There was a minute or two where Dan was barking, anxious, and just running in big, uncontrolled circles. His hackles were up; he was clearly on edge. However, he soon relaxed a little, his hair went down, his face relaxed, he stopped barking, and started to move in a more controlled way. It seemed as though he finally started to think about what was going on instead of just exploding! Our instructor started teaching him to turn away so that he would begin to move back and forth, bringing the sheep toward the handler, rather than just circling. Soon he had Dan taking the sheep exactly where he wanted. It was beautiful to watch.

Then it was my turn. Yikes! Poor Dan!! I have a LOT to learn.

The idea is that you turn your dog away from you by moving into his space, putting pressure on him, and when he turns you relax that pressure and let him do a quarter circle or so away from you around the sheep. Doing this back and forth teaches him to bring the sheep toward you. When you go the wrong way, the pressure is not let up as a reward, so basically your dog isn’t getting his reinforcer! I did this to poor Dan several times before the instructor provided more help and you could really see his behavior change. He became more frustrated, driving at the sheep harder and more aggressively. When the instructor stepped back in, Dan immediately relaxed again, doing his job as asked. When it was my turn again, I finally was able to move the right way. Although it wasn’t very smooth looking, it felt better and I was glad to be able to give Dan some resemblance of a reward. Good thing dogs are so forgiving!

I have to say, this was one of the best experiences I have had in dog training in a very long time. Dan and I have practiced so much impulse control, relaxation exercises, and loose leash walking – while these are necessary skills, they are all about fighting Dan’s instinctual and natural behaviors to run, chase, pull and bark. It was such a treat to get to embrace his natural abilities and see him just thrive in that environment.

Not only was it fun to watch Dan doing what he is meant to do, it was eye-opening to be the “student” again. I really know very little about herding. I just know the general goals and rules of herding trials. I have watched herding trials and been around sheep in several different environments, but watching and doing are two very different things!

I will be honest, it was very frustrating to do the wrong thing and feel like I couldn’t figure out how to do it correctly. This only lasted a few seconds before our instructor saved us, but that feeling is a really good one for any teacher or coach to experience regularly because, chances are, your students are feeling that way too!

Kay Laurence, a well-known dog trainer and speaker at the annual conference that my graduate school hosted, always talks about how important it is to her to always be learning something new. The last time I saw her, she was taking a glass-blowing class. I didn’t really understand that at the time, other than just for the sake of learning, but I was still in school. The experience of trying something that I had no idea how to do reminded me that learning is HARD! Getting to that successful moment was so important for me and extremely reinforcing.

We can’t wait for our next lesson!

Here’s a short clip of Dan doing his job, just a few minutes into our lesson:

What’s In A Click?

What’s in a click?

Well – nothing! Until you build the value into that noise, it means nothing to your dog.

How to build value in the click?

Before you can start to use a clicker, you have to introduce it to your dog. Here are the steps I like to use:Clickers

  1.  Take the clicker and click it a bunch of times before you go get your dog. This gets your “clicks out”. So many people want to play with it when you first hand it to them that this is always the first thing I do with my students ☺ After this you should never, ever click without giving a reinforcer afterwards.
  2. Now, get your dog and a handful of treats. You can use his kibble if you want to (and if he likes it).
  3. Click without moving your hands at all. Then pick up a piece of kibble and give it to your dog. Repeat until you have used up your handful (maybe 20 times).
  4. Now, when you dog isn’t looking, try to click. If he looks toward you, he’s got it. If not, do step 3 again until he’s got it.

*Important Note – even though your dog is just learning what the click means, you can still reinforce unwanted behavior when clicking and treating in this exercise.  It doesn’t matter much what your dog does during this exercise, as long as he isn’t jumping/barking/trying to steal food from your hand/etc.  Only click if he is doing something you wouldn’t mind him doing again.*

NOW, what’s in a click?

Once you have introduced the clicker, here’s what it can mean:

  1. Marker or Bridge: “That is exactly correct!”  The moment you click captures the behavior your are reinforcing.
  2. Positive Reinforcer: “Oh boy a treat (or other reinforcer) is ready for me!” Every. Single. Click. Should be followed by a treat or later another reinforcer. But it has to be a reinforcer, so start with treats. More on that in another blog.
  3. Cue or Discriminative Stimulus: “Better go get the treat!” The dog should orient toward the place where the treat comes from. This might be you, a spot on the ground near your dog, or maybe the treat comes to your dog so he shouldn’t move at all.

So, the click is a great communicator and in just that one little moment, your dog gets all of this information.

Why a click?

Some people are hesitant to use a clicker, after all it is one more thing to carry and try to hold onto with a dog’s leash, treats, poop bags, keys, etc.
But, the clicker is an excellent tool because:

  1. It is super fast. Your words are slow, but the click is quick. Just like your wiggly puppy. This makes timing the click much easier than timing a verbal bridge.
  2. It sounds like nothing else. It is only used in training. Verbal praise can often get overused in everyday interactions, but the click is saved for times when you definitely have a reinforcer available. This gets your dogs attention!
  3. It cuts through other noises quite well. In busy environments with noisy traffic, crowds, or barking dogs, the click is easy for your dog to notice.
  4. It helps the trainer (you) to pay attention to what you are trying to reinforce. Since it is such a pinpointed stimulus, you are likely paying more attention to try to get that click to happen at just the right moment.

Your backup clicker

A clicker is not magic. It is just a tool. There are places where it is the best tool and other times where there are better tools. And times where you forget to bring your tool!

Because of this, I always teach a verbal marker to use as a “backup clicker”. I use the word “yes!” and I say it in an enthusiastic, punctuated tone that is almost the same every time. Differently than my dog would hear me say “yes” when I am talking on the phone, chatting with my husband, or while telling him he is “suchagoodboy”.

Some people use the word “good”, “bravo”, or make a clicking noise with their tongue (this is what I do with the cat).

Whatever you choose for your backup clicker; teach your dog the meaning of this noise just like you did with your clicker. Then you will always be prepared if you need a different tool or leave your clicker behind.

So, go get your clicker (most pet shops have them), and start building value.  Then teach your dog something new!

Happy Training,