Teaching Old (Woman with) Dogs New Tricks

I was chatting to a colleague during the week and asked how her ‘puppy’ was doing. He is still quite young, but as he is an Italian Mastiff, his youthful exuberance is only exceeded by his body weight, which is probably equal to hers.

She told me that she had been attending a workshop to learn how to train him to seek out scents – like a sniffer dog. She could not take him with her as he would have caused chaos, and apparently over half the owners who attended the workshop were in the same boat. The aim of the classes was to teach the owners so they could train their dogs to approach three boxes, and identify the one with the scent they were after by sitting down next to it when they found it.

I pictured my two. I quite often hide treats for them around the house, but those are eaten when found. They do have a trick which they love to do, where I hide a treat in front of them (usually under the covers as we are on the bed) and they have to wait until I give them the command, ‘FIND IT’ then they both dive in.

The tricks they know are quite simple: sit, shake paw, lie down, roll over, bark & hide your face. In my mind’s eye I pictured a row of identical boxes and the two of them working their way up and down the row, then sitting, proudly in front of the target and waiting patiently to receive their reward.

‘That sounds so cool!’ I said. ‘How is it done?’

She explained the process to me. The tricks  I have already taught my dogs are pretty much simple one-step tricks. The sniffer dog trick is more complex and so you have to break it down into simpler phases to build up the behaviour.

‘First,’ she said you get some Vegemite.’

Vegemite is a foul-smelling food that Australians use to punish their kids. Actually it is a very popular spread, similar to Marmite, a yeast-based extract with a strong salty taste and very high in vitamin B. It is not for the faint-hearted. I have Marmite in my cupboard and occasionally look at it if I am feeling run down and consider spreading it on toast before reaching for a Berocca instead. It has a potent smell that is unique.

‘Then,’ she continued, ‘You let them sniff it and get them to sit. When they sit, you reward them so they learn to sit when they smell Vegemite.’

‘Right,’ I said.

‘Next,’ she said, you smear some Vegemite on a box and let them go to it and sniff it. When they sit, you reward them.’

‘Got it,’ I said.

‘Finally,’ she said, ‘you put two boxes down. One with Vegemite and one without. When they sit by the Vegemite box, that means they have indicated the scent.’

‘That sounds brilliant!’ I said.

‘Yes!’ She said, ‘I have all these little pots with handles and different scents that I can hide around the house and he will go and find them. Keeps him amused for ages.’

I was pretty excited. This seemed achievable, although she did not explain exactly how she got from the Vegemite to the different scents and I may have forgotten one of the Vegemite steps in my excitement. Still, I am not someone who ever allows a lack of detailed information to get in the way of trying something, so this morning I reached into the cupboard for the dusty jar of marmite and we started.

I started with Lucy, because she is the brighter dog, but pretty soon Archie was angling to get in on the action because he could see there were some snacks involved. This will no doubt be the first mistake when I look back on this in a few days’ time and wonder where it all went wrong. If I was a patient and methodical person, I would have rechecked the steps by researching it online, then locked one dog out of the room at a time and trained them separately, especially as Lucy gets very competitive and Archie gets very hungry.

The other slight problem that I have is that their default position is sitting, so I called the dogs and they came and sat looking at me. Hmmmm, this had not come up in the conversation. I stood with my finger covered in Marmite looking down at a pair of expectant faces.

I walked a little away, then called Lucy so she came and before she did anything else, wafted the marmite under her nose and gave her the command, SIT. Bingo!  I gave her a treat, then went to call Archie, but he was already sitting in front of me again, having watched Lucy’s success and figuring that he pretty much had to sit to get this job in the bag.

In the end I circled the living room about twice, backwards. Each time they arrived, smelt the Marnite and then sat. By the look on Lucy’s face, she has the same feelings about Marmite as me, but Archie has the ability to overlook the inconvenience of the wafting finger and just sit, looking at me patiently and waiting for the stupid woman to give him the snack.

They have been through this routine three times today. I would like to think they are getting it, because I no longer have to give the SIT command, but I won’t be sure until I get to phase two, I guess. Which may be tomorrow. Or may not be. The problem is I am always so impatient while teaching them, which is why I have stuck in the past to one-step tricks. Oh well, I will just have to try and be patient, and I guess if I manage to see this out, the dogs will not be the only ones in the house to learn a new trick.

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