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Brainwork for Dogs

Training your dog is more than just sits and downs, it is also about the mind – mental stimulation and cognitive development.

I took a course recently that explored dogs’ cognitive abilities. Skills such as counting, reading, matching objects, and distinguishing shapes and colors are all within the realm of possibility. In order to have success, they need to complete multiple repetitions and the handlers must train “clean”, ensuring clear lines of communication with the dog. Other concepts explored included teaching your dog the concept of choice, as well as how to imitate actions performed by the handler. When these requirements are met, dogs have been able to excel at these skills in class settings! The discovery of these hidden canine abilities comes from years of research into our dogs’ learning capabilities.

The concept of choice was demonstrated as it applies to cooperative care. Cooperative care means having your dog actively participate in their handling, grooming and veterinary procedures. In the example provided, a dog was introduced to its choice in being brushed. The following is an outline of the procedure:

  • Treats were added to a pot

  • When the dog looked at the pot, the owner would feed the dog a treat from it.

  • Eventually, the dog began to understand that looking at the pot provided treats.

  • Next, the brush was introduced slowly. The dog was rewarded from the pot for tolerating the brush in its space. This continued until the owner got to the point of actually brushing the dog.

  • The dog was brushed until they looked away from the pot at which point the brushing would stop.

  • Then when the dog looked at the pot the owner gave them a treat and resumed brushing.

In this way, the dog was taught to cooperate in their own care. They could choose to opt out of the brushing by looking away from the pot, or they could start the brushing again by looking at it. Looking at the pot provided reinforcement, even if it also involved a procedure that was a little uncomfortable.The option of choice is quite powerful when it comes to situations that we are uncomfortable with and need to slowly adjust to. By providing an opportunity to turn the uncomfortable sensation off, the dog is empowered to participate voluntarily in their care.

As humans, we have a tendency to apply human characteristics to our dogs. Some of them are correct while others are not. Imitation is often thought to be a human concept, however recently it has been explored in the dog training world as a different method of training behaviors. In the course, this is what students worked on. Dogs were taught to repeat a behavior demonstrated by the owner; for example, sitting on a bench or touching a toy.

The dog was first taught three behaviors and the verbal names of those behaviors (e.g. sit, spin, down). Next, the owner performed the behavior they wanted from the dog, and said the word "copy" before saying the verbal cue. After several repetitions of this, the owner removed the verbal cue for the behavior and only demonstrated the behavior before asking the dog to “copy”.

Further studies have compared the method of shaping to this method of imitation. Studies have found that in many cases it is at least as effective, and in some cases more effective at teaching behaviors.

This is an interesting new concept and I thought it might pique interest for some of you!

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