When Is A Trick Not A Trick?
By Michael Russell
Teaching any trick to a dog is relatively easy if you break the trick down into the separate steps or components that the dog must know, then methodically go about making sure that the dog knows each component. For example, in the “play dead” trick; the sequence of behavior that the dog must know for this common trick is in this order: the “sit”, the “down”, the “roll-over” and the “stay”. Once all of these are taught to the dog, then they must be put together. Once you have taught all of the parts of the trick and the dog will play dead on command, it is always a cute trick to change the words from “play dead” to “bang! You’re dead”, combined with pointing an imaginary gun and pulling the trigger.
Assistance dogs must learn numerous “tricks” and this is exactly how the behaviors are taught. For example, an assistance dog often must know how to turn on a light switch. First, he must know how to “go to” whatever place the disabled person wants him to go, so this would be one of the components of the behavior. Secondly, he must know how to “touch” something, in this case, the light switch. He can “touch” with either his nose or his paw. He must furthermore know which object to touch. Usually a behavior such as turning on a light switch will be combined with a nice bit of peanut butter on the light switch, when he learns to nose the switch, he is instantly rewarded by getting a chance to lick the peanut butter just above the switch. In the case of turning on the light switch, there are only a couple of components to the trick. The end command would be simply “go turn on the light”. Often he may need to learn to retrieve or pick up items off the floor. In this case, he needs to learn to “go get” something. This can be broken down again into steps. The steps to this would be “go out” and “pick up” and “bring back” and “give”. Each of these should be taught separately and then chained together.
If he needs to learn to open a door, such as a refrigerator door or a closet door, he needs to learn to pull or tug on a rope. He also needs to learn the command “back up” for after he takes hold of the rope (which is attached to the knobs of doors in houses where the disabled person lives) then he must back up to pull the rope and open the door. So in this order he must “go out” to the door, he must “take hold” and “pull” the rope and he must “back up”.
Most tricks are no problem once the dog knows how to take a treat and wants to take a treat. It is a common mistake to assume that the dog will always take treats. This is not always the case. There are dogs who are too suspicious of people or are not turned on by food. There are also owners who do not wish their dog to take treats by hand, for fear they will accept food from strangers. If the dog does not take treats as a reward, a person can always teach the dog to understand the meaning of a clicker used as a positive incentive for performing a behavior. Then simply use the clicker as a reinforcement rather than the treat. (You can always combine clicker training with a positive reward such as a toy or a vocal reinforcement rather than a food treat.)
Furthermore if you have a dog that will not respond to treats and your hands are too clumsy or your timing is not right to use a clicker as a reinforcement, then you can always resort to just using your voice! “Good dog” for some animals is just as much of a reward as a treat.
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