Useful Behaviors: Answer the Phone

Once a dog has learned to sit, come, fetch, and stay, and perhaps do a few tricks, many pawrents stop training new behaviors. It’s easy to stop with the basics, but ongoing training yields many rewards. Dogs learning new behaviors throughout their lives are happier, calmer, and can even help with chores around the house. Armed with just a clicker and a bag of treats, you can teach these useful behaviors to your dog. This is the first of a series.

Answer the Phone

If you don’t mind getting a little drool on your cordless phone, your dog can learn to bring a ringing phone to you. I don’t recommend teaching the dog to fetch the cell phone, unless you use an older model rather than the sleek, stylish phones in style currently. The slippery texture of most cell phones makes them hard for dogs to carry.

Start by teaching the “take” and “drop” commands. Hand a toy to your dog, and click when he takes it. Offer a treat, and click again when he drops the toy to take the treat. After the take and drop behaviors have been reinforced over a few sessions, put both on a cue by pairing commands with the behaviors, and slowly tightening your criteria to reward both “take” and “drop” only when the cue has been given.

Next, you’ll need to refine “drop” by teaching “give.” Hold your hand out as your dog drops his toy and click as the toy falls into your hand. Give the “drop” command only the first few times you try this, so as not to confuse your dog. Then start reaching out your hand in the same way, but without the cue. Your dog should drop the toy into your hand, having been rewarded for doing so. Click and treat. Finally, pair the behavior with a “give” cue.

Okay, now you’re ready to start working with the phone. You may want to wrap it in gauze at first, to make your dog’s job easier, and limit the phone’s exposure to drool. Hold the phone out in the same way you’ve been holding out the dog toy, and give your “take” command. Reward any effort to take the phone from you, even if it’s just a sniff and a brief mouthing. Continue to reward any progress toward picking up the phone, slowly tightening your criteria until you’re giving a click and treat only if your dog puts the phone in his or her mouth. Give a jackpot (several treats at once) and extra praise when the dog finally picks the phone up and holds it for a few moments.

After your dog has learned to take the phone on cue, place it on the receiver, and place both next to you no higher than the dog’s eye level. Give the “take” command, tapping the phone. Some dogs will pick it up from the receiver right away; others will need clicks and treats for licking and mouthing the phone again to build confidence and encourage them to pick the phone up. When your dog will pick the phone up from the receiver, move the phone and receiver back to where they normally sit, and practice cueing your dog to take the phone from the receiver in its normal place. Start introducing a separate cue specifically for taking the phone, such as “take phone,” or “get the phone.” Remember to practice “give” along with taking the phone, so you don’t find yourself with a dog who takes the phone and runs!

Once the dog understands that your new cue means he or she ought to pick up the telephone, and that give means to return it to your hand, start cueing him or her from a slight distance. Send your dog to get the phone from a couple of feet away, and slowly increase the distance until you can send him or her for the phone from the other side of the house and he or she will get the phone, bring it to you, and put it in your hand in exchange for a click and treat.

 As a final step, have a friend call your house, and cue the dog to pick up the ringing phone. Some dogs will balk at fetching this suddenly noisy object! If you are hearing-impaired or want the dog to automatically fetch the phone if it rings, you can teach the dog that the ring, not your spoken phrase, is a cue to bring you the phone.

Congratulations! You now have a dog who’ll bring you the telephone. You’ll never run for a ringing phone and miss the game-winning touchdown again!

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5 Responses

  1. Terry
    | Reply

    A friend of mine did this years ago and the result wasn’t good. The dog learned how to pick the phone up and did so. However one day they weren’t home for a long time and the dog picked the phone up and kept the phone in his mouth for hours, he stood in a pool of drool. It seems the phone rang hours before they got home and dog did what he was trained to do, waiting for someone to take the phone. I’d be very careful what you train your dog to do, what might seem cool at first might be harmful or cruel later on. 🙂

  2. Jelena Woehr
    | Reply

    Terry,

    What a very remarkable dog your friend must have had! Very, very few dogs will hold a behavior for a matter of hours despite their own discomfort. That dog might have had the aptitude to serve as a working dog in some capacity, whether a service dog or some sort of law enforcement K9.

    If one has a dog that is apt to respond to cues even when nobody is around to reward him, and holds behaviors for hours until released, it’s absolutely necessary to train a release cue, which is often useful anyway. In this case, had the owners suspected he might hold the phone for hours to his own detriment, they could perhaps have trained him to bring the phone and put it down near a person, rather than holding it until it was taken from his mouth.

    This is certainly the exception, not the rule, with this behavior. People with hearing impairments have trained phone-answering cued by the ringing telephone for many years without that type of hiccup in the training process. Many behaviors, particularly in service dogs, are cued by things other than a direct command from the trainer. I wouldn’t worry with most dogs about training phone answering, but if you happen to have a dog who will continue a behavior for hours seeking a single reward, train the behavior to include an automatic release like bringing the phone to a basket next to the couch if no human takes it from him.

    -Jelena

  3. HART (1-800-HART)
    | Reply

    Sometime I myself need something more than a “clicker reward” to answer phones 🙂 and would find it much more practical if my dogs could open the fridge door and bring me a beer.. But, then with my luck .. they’d probably bring me the salad dressing

    (that’s an inside joke – they love brocolli, cauliflower, red peppers, carrots, etc.. )

  4. Tina
    | Reply

    This is right up there with my son teaching his dog to use the toilet.

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