Those of you who train dogs may know what I mean about this. You can tell when your dog finally “gets it,” when the light bulb goes on. If they could talk it would be something like: “Ooohhhh, THAT’S what you want me to do.” (Maybe its like this with kids too…some of you moms and dads out there can tell me more.)
I do not underestimate how hard this can be for dogs. Years ago, at an orientation to training session required before my first beginning class with my dog at the time, the trainer had one of the class (me in this case) leave the room, and the group came up with something they wanted me to do, and when I came back, I had to figure it out using only a click to shape what I was doing. (Shaping, for those not in the dog world, is clicking when the dog starts to approximate what you want, and you keep refining that.) I was so incredibly frustrated trying to figure out the simple task they had in mind that I have permanent empathy for dogs trying to understand what we’re looking for. (Try this exercise at home, or not…up to you!)
Gracie has had a few light bulb moments lately, two of them a big relief to me.
Potty training…Lordy, that has been a total pain in the rear. You may remember that I put Gracie in “jail” some months ago to try to get her to stop pottying in the house. She was either in her playpen, on a leash in the house with me, or outside. After a month of that (very tedious for both of us) she was good for a couple weeks, and then said “Screw it. The weather’s yucky and peeing and pooping inside is easier.” Sigh.
The day she peed once and pooped twice within five hours, despite two potty breaks, it was back to jail time. But I could tell she just wasn’t getting it. Treating her for pottying outside wasn’t getting through to her either. In desperation I decided to clicker train her on potty duties. For peeing or pooping outside she got a click and then a treat. After a few days, by George, she got it! She is so clear on what a clicker means that you could see her finally understanding. “Ooohhh, that’s what you want.” Yes, Gracie, and thank you. She’s been reliable for about a month now. Paws crossed that I haven’t jinxed myself by writing that.
The other area that has been a real challenge is the “leave it” command. She completely understands that if we are training, leave it means leave it, and she leaves it. Outside of training, she was clueless. Especially with sticks and other outside objects. (Dogs are, as any trainer will tell you, quite literal about things. If you give hand commands, and use the hand other than the one you’ve trained with, the dog probably won’t respond.) If she is going to successfully pass the tests to be a therapy dog, she needs a rock solid “leave it” command. If there’s a pill on the floor, for instance, I need to be able to say “leave it” and have her obey.
So we started training “leave it” using sticks. At first she started leaving them for the moment, but thought maybe she could pick one up as we started to walk again. Not quite there, Gracie. But after a little bit of time, the light bulb went back on. “Oohhhh, you mean I can’t pick it up at all??” That’s right Gracie. Good girl Gracie.
She is such a quick study in so many ways. At class last week we had to learn “paws up,” for therapy dog training. She started with getting clicked and treated for putting her paws up on a small box. After about 10 times of that, she had it…you could almost see the light bulb going on. Within about five minutes or less, she had learned to put her paws on a chair and then on my lap. She’s a smart little dog. As one of her trainers has said, I have to work hard to keep up with her. I’ve spent months teaching her NOT to put her paws up on my lap when I’m at the computer…now we both need to refine “paws up” to something she does only when invited. She’ll figure it out. The light bulb will go on sometime soon.