Mental stimulation is very important in everyone’s lives, including our pets. Training is a great way to help your dog reach his mental stimulation quota each day. It also helps to burn off some energy while in the comfort of your own warm home.
Sometimes, however, just working on the same behaviors can get boring for both you and your dog. It’s important to remember that training is dynamic. There are so many ways to use it and it can be so fun once you open your mind to this idea. One training game I love to play with my dog is “101 Things to Do with a Box”. During this game you use a training technique we call shaping. Basically, shaping is a process of building a behavior by selectively reinforcing approximations that build up to the goal behavior. “101 Things to Do with a Box” is a fun way for both you and your dog to become better trainers and trainees. It teaches your dog to think and to search for new ways to earn reinforcement.
Step 1: Find a box! Any box will do.
Step 2: Armed with treats and your marker word, start the game. Mark your dog (say “good”) for looking at the box, then treat. If your dog walks towards the box or touches the box even by accident, mark and treat. You can throw your treats close to the box or in the box, and mark when the dog goes close to the box to get the treats. You do not need to speak to your dog during this game. You are telling him enough just by marking for any box-related action.
Step 3: Now that your dog understands good things happen when he is near or on the box, you can start shaping fun behaviors. This can be a new session, or in the same session. Remember that, as fun as this game can be, it is also tiring, so only play for a few minutes at a time. We want to keep the game fun and cause minimal frustration for the dog.
At first we will just reward for any and all fun behaviors happening with the box. Reward the dog for stepping in the box, for pushing the box, pawing the box, mouthing the box, smelling the box, dragging the box, picking up the box, thumping the box — in short, for anything the dog does with the box.
Remember to say “good” while the behavior is going on, not after the dog stops. As soon as you mark the behavior, the dog will stop, of course, to get his treat. But because the word “good” marked the behavior, the dog will do that behavior again, or some version of it, to try to get you to say “good’ again. You do not lose the behavior by interrupting it with a treat, and you may end up in a wild flurry of box-related behavior. Great! Your dog is already learning to problem-solve in a creative way. If you get swamped, and can’t decide which thing to mark, just jackpot and end the session. Now you have something to think about between sessions, which leads us to:
Step 4: Have a plan. Think of a behavior that you would like your dog to do with the box, and shape it by marking small steps that will work up to the final goal behavior. Here are some ideas:
There are so many options with this game! Have fun with it and allow your dog to get creative.