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I just finished teaching a two-day workshop at the Humane Animal Welfare Society (HAWS) of Wisconsin. It was 1.5 days of lecture on topics ranging from training animals across species, to the pitfalls of punishment, to the importance of body language and unconscious visual cues that affect a dog’s ability to learn the behaviors you want. This was followed by a 3 hour Circus School for Dogs.

The dogs arrive for a fun workshop to learn tricks ranging from touch a target with your nose or foot, to somersault. People worked in groups of 3 and, on average, started the dogs in their group on 3 tricks. Their humans learned how to continue the training of these tricks, as well as other tricks. Ralphie the Papillon was especially excited.

First, the trainers need to practice their treat speed so they can reward their dog with appropriate timing and place the reward in a location that will enhance their dogs’ ability to learn.

Next is a shaping exercise. This Aussie learns by trial and error that her owner wants her to step in the box. The owner free shaped the behavior by first rewarding looks towards the box, then rewarding stepping towards the box, and so on until the dog reached the goal behavior of standing in the box. This dog has been shaped a lot in the past so it only took about 5 minutes for her to figure this game out.

Chance the German Shepherd was also shaped to perform a behavior. He learned to jump through a hoop using the same method of rewarding behaviors in successive approximations (Meaning, rewarding behaviors he could easily do and then training behaviors closer and closer to the goal behavior of jumping through the hoop).

This Springer Spaniel is learning to look in the direction that his owner points. Teaching this trick relies on good timing from all three trainers and consequently makes a good training exercise for all involved. When the trainer in front of the dog clearly points to the right or left the person in that direction must deliver a treat instantaneously so that the dog learns that the pointing means a treat is going to appear from that side. If this occurs consistently, the dog will automatically learn to look in the direction of the pointing because he will anticipate that the pointing means a treat will be coming from that direction. This is a form of error less learning.

Having the dog touch a target with his nose can be used to teach many different tricks. This lab is learning to touch a target behind him in order to shape a “Spin”.

Another behavior that can be used to teach more complex tricks is to step on objects on cue. Here, the yellow lab is learning to step on a board by targeting him onto the board then giving him several rewards while standing in that position. Once he will consistently step on the board, we will click and treat before he touches the target with his nose, so that he can learn that it is the stepping behavior that we are rewarding. We can then move the board around and then move to other objects for him to step on so he can generalize the behavior.

One trick that can be shaped with stepping is riding a skateboard. This black lab picked up quickly how to step on the skateboard while walking in order to make it move!

Towards the end of the workshop, the trainers get to learn how to lure their dogs in order to teach some really fun tricks! A handstand is shaped by having the dog stand on a box and place their front feet on the ground. The dog starts on a small box and works up to taller and taller boxes. Soon the dog will be able to lift its hind legs onto a wall, then learn to balance without an object behind them at all.

A fun lured trick is a somersault. This is taught by placing a treat between the dog’s legs so that he will readily stick his head between his legs. When he’s consistently doing this whenever the treat is placed in one position, the trainer systematically starts holding the treat further and further back so that the dog gradually learns to shift his weight onto his front legs and eventually roll forward. This trick works easier for dogs with long legs who are comfortable rolling onto their backs.

Bella had fun at the workshop and can’t wait to practice and show off all her new tricks!


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