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Time for bed!

August 26, 2010

Training a dog can be so much fun for one very good reason. When the dog manages a difficult command, the feeling of success is mutual and lasts for such a long time.

Today Sigrid managed, for the first time, the most difficult command we’ve ever tried. Go to bed. It’s difficult because she needs to find the mat, go to it and lie down all by herself without any guidance of food. She also needs to leave the candy I’m holding and actually move away from it.

It took many days to teach her the command, because every day she’d get a little step closer to the goal and the next everything was forgotten. I nearly gave up at one point, but decided to hang in there just because this command is so valuable.

At first, I threw some food on her mat (I always use her breakfast for training, and cookies only for special occasions). After doing this many times, I started staring at the mat. Every movement towards the mat was rewarded with some food thrown on the mat, and it didn’t take too long before she started going there by herself.

I added the command when she walked up to the mat more often than not. It’s supposed to be said just as the dog steps on to the mat. Sigrid often didn’t get that far, but ran up to the mat, stood in front of it, and then ran back to me again. If she did that too many times, we backtracked.

In fact, I backtracked every day. I’d do the whole routine all over again: food on mat, stare on mat, command. After a while the steps at each turn got fewer and she started to listen to the command right at the start.

Then she was supposed to lie down on it, as well. I used the handsignal here not to confuse the spoken command “go to your bed” with “down”. It’s important to walk up to the mat and do the “down” command, as I noticed, or else Sigrid would just rush back to me and thump to the floor.

After long periods of training that, too, I said the command and decided to wait. I’ve noticed that Sigrid needs to think about her command before she understands it entirely, so I just sat and waited. She heard the command and walked up to the mat. She sniffed it a little, decided there was no food there, came back. I waited, eyes on the mat. No need for repeating the command, she heard it the first time so why nag? If she forgets and does something else (sits down or lies down in front of me) a little reminder is in order, but too many would just confuse her.

She walked to the mat again, looked at it more carefully, and stared back at me. She was waiting, of course, for me to walk up to her again like I’d done before. But I waited. She returned to me, turned around, walked up to the mat and lied down on it. Jackpot!

I gave her lots of candy and praise and cuddles, and then we did a few more turns. She didn’t manage all of them, but no matter. Finally I saw that she was bored (she sighs and does a little cough when she’s bored of training), so I stopped.

I don’t expect her to pull it off first thing tomorrow. We’ll backtrack, repeat, and then try that big moment when I decide to wait for her to manage on her own. It’s a difficult decision. Too early and your dog is bound to fail. Too late and… well, you’d never know, but you could end up thinking your dog just doesn’t get it.

So, Sigrid the little mutt who couldn’t even sit down when we got her, far less lie down, can now walk over to her mat and lie down all by herself. I’m so proud of her! There’s of course lots more to learn, but victories like this just makes training worthwhile.

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