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Canine University 71 Clinton St. Malden, MA


How we train

Teaching a Dog to Think -- Part Two

When your dog's ball rolls under the couch does he sit and bark at it, or reach his paw under and fish it out ? When you're out walking your dog and he gets caught around a tree does he figure out how to untangle himself on his own or do you have to help ? When the leash gets caught under one paw as you're walking along does he lift his leg over it on his own or do you stop and fix it for him? Teaching your dog to think and solve problems not only makes him more fun to own, but helps you to learn about the way he thinks and use that knowledge in his training program.

The ability to solve problems has often been confused with intelligence but it really has more to do with a dog's early upbringing even before you brought him home. The amount of stimulation provided by the breeder or caregiver can shape the way in which a dog deals with challenges later on in life. The type of stimulation should vary from a variety of surfaces to walk on, to different obstacles to climb over, under and through. The more varied a puppy's early environment the better problem solver she becomes. I really think that the better problem solver your dog is, the more easily you will be able to teach her anything. Mental stimulation is just as important as physical exercise for the overall health of any dog old or young. So on these cold winter night ahead, when going outside is just not feasible how about teaching your dog to think!!

Edward De Bono, coined this creative approach to problem solving, lateral thinking. He gives seminars to large corporations on teaching people to become more creative thinkers and problem solvers. Most of us approach problem solving in a logical linear fashion, which works for us most of the time. However, when our linear options are blocked many of us hit a road block and lose our ability to solve the problem. When the obvious solution is not possible instead of approaching it another way we stubbornly press onward and try the same approach over and over again. How many of us have put money in a coke machine and didn't get a coke. What do we do ? We look around to see if anyone is watching, we make a face, push the coke button again, jiggle the change thing, stick our finger in the coin return, then we get angry. We proceed with hitting the machine with the palm of our hand, then our fist then some of us haul off and give the stupid machine a swift kick. We charge on in this linear fashion even though we know from past experience that our efforts will most likely leave us coke-less.

The exercises below have you set up problems for your dog to solve to achieve something he wants. Set the exercise up the first time as describe and take note of your dog's approach to solving it. Then, set the exercise up again but fix it so that he can't do what ever he did last time to solve it and again take note of his response (does he give up, get frustrated, bark at you ?). If he solves it the second time, set it up a third way and again watch his response. If he can't solve the problem after a few minutes show him the new way and repeat the exercise again and again until he learns another approach to getting the problem solved.

Ideas for Problem Solving Exercises:

  1. Set up a baby gate so that it is attached to the wall on one side but is open on the other. Put your dog on one side and have a friend hold his collar while you go on the other side and call him.
  2. Do the same exercise except put a bowl with a handful of dog food in it on the other side
  3. Put a cookie or a toy under a towel (show the dog what you're doing) then let him try to get it.
  4. Hide in a room with the door closed but not clicked shut and call your dog.
  5. Put a cookie under a see-through container and let your dog try to get it.
  6. Put a toy under an upside down laundry basket.
  7. Put a treat or toy underneath something that's too low for your dog to stick his head under (like the couch).

Choose an exercise and write down all the different things your dog did to solve the problem. If they brought about the desired result (got the cookie/toy whatever), practice the exercise over and over to help the dog develop confidence . Keep changing his options to encourage him to be more creative in his approach. If he was not successful make it very easy for him to succeed and show him how to get the end result. Continue to show him 1 way until he does it on his own, then blow his mind and show him another way to help him adapt his approach. Most of all have fun learning how to be creative with your dog and becoming better problem solvers together.