Dog Training at Home and for the Home!

Misty - Lying Down

The special bond between dog and owner has been well documented. During my time working in the assistance dog industry I met many wonderful dogs and people and never ceased to be amazed at the bond and special relationship between those dogs and their owners. Each and every dog had a full and varied life supporting their owner in many diverse roles from guiding their blind owner around complex obstacles to warning their owner to the onset of a seizure.

Many pet dogs do not have the opportunity to engage in problem solving activities such as these and motivating owners to provide mental stimulation games for their dogs can be quite challenging at times. However if owners can learn how to train their dog to carry out simple tasks in the house then there are clear benefits for both parties. Apart from the obvious benefit of being able to sit in your armchair while your dog finds and fetches the remote control, there are many other reasons why such task training is beneficial.

1. Giving owners something to train within the home which benefits them directly, will encourage them to practise their general dog training skills, with the added advantage of having their dog ‘help’ them.
2. Benefit to the dog – teaching a dog to carry out complicated sequences within the home environment also provides the dog with both mental and physical activity which is often notably lacking in the lives of many pet dogs.
3. Benefit to owner – task training will encourage owners to take responsibility for learning training skills and help them to realise that they can adapt each process to any training task they wish to teach.
4. Better understanding – the dog and owner will be working together to develop better communication. The owner will begin to understand the workings of their dog’s mind and will have acquired the skills to help prevent or overcome training problems.

Accept that any mistakes made by the dog are generally a result of the confusing and misleading instructions given by the trainer.

Become a great trainer
Good dog training is dependent upon understanding the modern science of training and having the honesty to accept that any mistakes made by the dog are generally a result of the confusing and misleading instructions given by the trainer.

Being able to evaluate a training technique and question why it has not been successful then adapt methods accordingly is the sign of a good trainer. Remember all dogs and all training situations are different and so there are a number of questions we should always ask ourselves during every training session:

  • What do WE THINK we are teaching?
  • What do WE THINK the dog is learning?
  • What are WE ACTUALLY teaching?
  • What is THE DOG ACTUALLY learning?
  • Although the answer to these questions should be the same, unfortunately they rarely are. For example, imagine that you are teaching your dog to sit by the side of your left leg and that you are training this in the kitchen. Your dog appears to have understood what you want and is responding by sitting next to your left leg most of the time but when you move to another area of the kitchen he seems to forget everything.

  • What do WE THINK we are teaching? – Sit next to my left leg
  • What do WE THINK the dog is learning? – Sit next to my left leg
  • What are WE ACTUALLY teaching? – The kitchen floor is tiled and you are standing on the same tile. What you are actually teaching is to sit on a particular tile in the kitchen!
  • What is THE DOG learning? – That ‘sit’ is a very ambiguous cue and is irrelevant except when in a particular place in the kitchen!
  • Getting the best out of your training sessions
    BE POSITIVE. When training anything you should have a clear idea of what you want to achieve and this should be based on positive outcomes.

    For example, how would you convince a person to:
    a) Carry an umbrella?
    b) Stop smoking?
    c) Wear a seat belt?

    a) To keep dry – NOT to stop getting wet
    b) To stay healthy – NOT to prevent getting ill
    c) To keep safe – NOT to stop getting injured

    It is imperative that you think positively about training. A positive attitude ensures that your mind will be open to other options during the training session; a negative attitude reduces these options.

    How do I tell my dog he has learned what I am teaching him?
    You need to provide a clear and novel signal to your dog that provides him with the information ‘well done!’ The art of good training is providing information/feedback about his behaviour.
    Teach your dog that the sound of a special word (or clicker if you prefer) means ‘that was great!’ If you prefer not to use a clicker, a good word to use is ‘BINGO!’ Just as with a clicker, you will need to teach your dog to associate BINGO with something pleasant such as a tasty treat. There are lots of really good articles on how to introduce a clicker into your training regime. (

    Be prepared, have a clear plan of what you want to achieve during each training session

    Sometimes it is necessary to let your dog know that his response is not necessarily what you want. This is where the use of a word that means ‘that’s not right, try again’ is useful; this is not meant to be unpleasant but is intended to give your dog information about the current situation just as the clicker or word bingo does. Saying ‘oops’ or something similar, coupled with folding your arms and turning away from your dog for a couple of seconds will interrupt thought processes and give your dog an opportunity to try something else.

    During your training sessions you will be using the techniques of shaping which is a sequence of successive approximations. It is a process of differentially rewarding some responses and not others, in small steps. The first step will be reinforcing some response that is less than the final response you want. For example, if you want your dog to roll over you might begin by rewarding him each time he lies down. You could then withhold the reward until your dog does something else, like flopping on to his side. Again, once your dog is flopping onto his side, you could withhold the reward until he raises his hind leg or rolls on to his back and so on until you have shaped the complete behaviour of a roll over.

    Getting started
    Be prepared, have a clear plan of what you want to achieve during each training session and what the progression is towards the end point. This involves definite goal setting but also prepares you for when the dog makes a breakthrough and leaps from the first stage to the final stage during one session.

    Make sure you have enough time to complete the training session and only begin a session if you are feeling calm and relaxed. There is no point in starting if you are tired or unwell. And don’t forget you need to give yourself reinforcements for your efforts too! At the end of each successful session, have a cup of coffee, a cream cake or even a glass of wine. If you have done really well, jackpot yourself and have all three! Smile and enjoy it!

    So what are we going to train?
    Finding the remote control for the TV and closing doors are a couple of really useful things to train your dog to do. I also have a pet hate of doing the laundry so help with the washing is high on my list of priorities for my dog! Hence I have chosen these 3 tasks to start your canine home help training!

    Find the Remote Control
    Stage 1: Your dog needs to be able to bring things back to you reliably. This means that he should return to you when you ask him to. After all, retrieving is just a recall with something in his mouth.

    You will need to teach him to respond to his name whatever he is doing, this means that he should associate his name with something pleasant. Every time he looks at you, click or ‘Bingo’ and treat him, do not say his name at this stage. Very quickly you should be able to introduce his name just before he looks at you. It is worth mentioning that many pet dogs have several names, for example, Ben may also be called Benji and Benjamin, so you will need to decide which name you expect a response to. Once he is responding to his name, you should only reward him when he approaches you and is in a position for you to touch him under the chin.

    Stage 2: Now he is returning reliably, we have to be able to touch him around the mouth (as if we were taking something from him) before rewarding him. Hold one hand above his head so he is looking upwards, gently put your other hand under his chin before click/bingo and treating him, this will ensure that when he is retrieving the remote control he puts his head into your hand allowing the remote control to fall into your open hand.

    Stage 3: Your dog needs to be able to hold the remote control without damaging it, so it’s useful to use an old remote control initially. If your dog has a tendency to enjoy crunching plastic then you may need to attach something like a sticky hook to a dog toy roughly the same size and weight as the remote control and to teach him to hold the hook and then transfer the hook to the remote control.

    Stage 4: With him sitting in front of you (you may need to put him on the lead), offer him the fake remote control. Every time he moves towards it as if to take it, click/bingo and treat. Gradually shape him until he is taking the article/hook into his mouth. Once this is happening then gently take the article saying ‘thank you’, click/bingo and treat.

    Stage 5: Your dog now needs to learn to pick up the remote. With him close to you, place the fake remote on the floor. Just as you did in stage 4, every time he moves towards it, as if to take hold of it, click/bingo and treat. Once he is picking up the remote reliably you should withhold the click/bingo/treat until he approaches in an attempt to give it back to you. At this stage do not give any other cue other than ‘thank you’.

    Stage 6: Now that he is consistently picking up the fake remote, progress onto using the real thing, making sure it has the same type of attachment as the fake one. Use the same process as outlined in stage 5 and when he is reliably picking up the remote control and giving it back, you can then introduce a keyword such as ‘zapper’ or whatever you call your remote control!

    Stage 7: Holding your dog on a soft collar, get someone else to place the remote control a few feet away from you, send him using your cue word ‘Zapper’ and click/bingo/treat him for fetching it and giving it back. Repeat this, increasing the distance he has to travel but with the control always in the same place.

    Stage 8: You now need to be able to send your dog to fetch the remote control without him seeing it placed. With the remote in the same place you have been using in Stage 7 reduce the distance he has to travel at first and using your cue word ‘Zapper’ send him to fetch the remote. As soon as he is fetching the remote under these circumstances, you can begin to increase the distance he has to travel.

    Stage 9: Decide on a second place and put the remote there. Be ready to help him, as he will be a little confused when he does not find the remote in the original location. When he goes to the original location, use a visual prompt to indicate the new one and ‘jackpot’ when he fetches the remote to you. When he is consistently fetching the remote from the second location, alternate the place where the remote is and you will begin to see that he will go to the alternative location if he does not find the remote in the first place he goes to.

    Stage 10: Begin introducing other locations for the remote using the same regime and eventually he will systematically search from one place to another until he finds it.

    Stage 11: Gradually introduce common distractions, such as other people and children and eventually he will be able to bring you the remote control no matter what is going on and where it is.

    Shut that door!

    Stage 1: I find that prompting this behaviour with the use of a target stick or a fixed target, such as a small disc that contrasts in colour with the door, speeds up the process and is not difficult to fade out. Tap the target stick on the floor or hold the fixed target on the floor and begin shaping every movement until he moves his paw towards the target.

    Stage 2: When he is reliably moving his paw towards the target/stick every time it is presented, you are now going to ask him for more effort. It is sometimes helpful at this point for someone else to restrain him on a lead so he cannot move forward. Only click/bingo/treat him for really good strong pawing responses.

    Stage 3: With the door closed, place the target/stick against the door so that he will have to paw at a vertical surface. Remember to drop your standards until he is offering a strong effective paw action on the door.

    Stage 4: You are now going to put this behaviour on cue and begin fading out the extra cue of the target. Just before he offers the behaviour, give the cue word for example, ‘door’ and repeat until the cue word becomes associated with the action of pawing against the door.

    Stage 5: Your dog is now going to learn that the door will move away from him when he paws at it. Have the door only slightly ajar to ensure that he is not startled by the movement or the sound of the door shutting. You can then have the door further open.

    Stage 6: Finally, you are going to get further away from the door before giving the cue for him to shut the door. This will ensure that you will be able to ask him to shut the door from the comfort of your armchair.

    Empty the washing machine

    Stage 1: Your dog needs to be able to bring things back to you reliably. This means that he should return to you when you ask him to. Follow Stage One above of ‘Find the Remote Control’.

    Stage 2: Small articles of clothing can be prized stolen possessions and you need to be sure that he will give these items back.

    With him sitting in front of you (you may need to put him on the lead), offer a small cloth article. Every time he moves towards it as if to take it, click/bingo/treat. Gradually shape him until he is taking the article into his mouth and once this is happening, gentle take the article saying ‘thank you’, click/bingo/treat. Vary the type and size of the articles.

    Stage 3: Your dog needs to feel confident about putting his head into the washing machine. These are very strange smelling black holes and some dogs need time to become accustomed to putting their heads inside.

    Again, it is very often easier to prompt this using the lure of food or a toy placed just on the rim of the drum and gradually place the food/toy further into the drum. Click/bingo/treat as your dog puts his head in the machine, the treat/toy that is in the drum is his second reward.

    Stage 4: You now need your dog to take something out of the machine. Throw a small piece of material just inside the drum (have a game with him first), and jackpot him for retrieving the article for you.

    Stage 5: Once he is fetching an article out of the washing machine reliably, you can now add a cue to prompt the behaviour. Have two or three small articles already in the drum and let him see you place another one inside. Give the cue ‘washing’ and when he gives you the first article, give the cue again (you may need to prompt by tapping on the drum) and jackpot him for bringing the second article out. Repeat this until he will bring several articles out before click/bingo/treat.

    Stage 6: Vary the number of articles your dog has to retrieve and begin introducing different types of clothing. Remember if he has has to work hard to get a large article out of the machine you shouldn’t ask him to do anything else immediately.

    Stage 7: Begin introducing wet articles; these are heavier and more difficult to hold.

    Stage 8: Introduce your dog to the smell of newly washed articles. Leave a few small articles in the machine after a wash and ask him to retrieve them. ‘Jackpot’ him for this.

    You now have a working breed – THE LAUNDRY DOG, please do just let me know if he now graduates to doing the ironing as well!

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