Raising Sage

The First Year in the Life of a WonderPup

Category: Clicker training

Growing up?

It’s been a while since I posted. I’ve been pet sitting for the last month and a half. Sage has been staying with my younger sister. I admit to a human frailty: I was a little worried that Sage would bond to my sister more closely than she has to me. That doesn’t seem to be the case, though. We did go through a puppy manners class together and it seems to have bonded Sage and I pretty well. It goes to show that even dog trainers need to be reminded once in a while of the advice we give our customers. I always advise new puppy or dog owners to take a basic or puppy obedience class to better bond with their dog. Obviously my advice is sound because it worked for me!

So Sage and I are now both home. I like to take my dogs with me when I go for a bike ride. They generally run alongside either on a loose leash or on one of the many bicycle attachments available out there. Unfortunately, my favorite attachment is the Springer but it doesn’t fit on the bike I have. So Sage and I had her first bicycling lesson yesterday. I had her on a 6′ leash on a combination of her regular collar and a prong collar. The prong collar was to prevent her from pulling out of the regular collar or from pulling too hard if we got to the point where I could actually get on the bike and take a little ride. We didn’t get that far but that’s okay.

I pulled the bike off the front porch and set it up in the yard so that when I brought Sage out we were all ready to get started. At first, Sage took one look at the bike and stopped dead, doing the “What the heck is that?!” crouch typical of an Aussie who is a little nervous. I let her drop back and went on down to stand beside the bike with it between us. When Sage expressed any curiosity or interest in the bike, I clicked and tossed a treat on the ground near the bike (about 2-3 feet away). Within just a few moments, Sage was standing willingly next to the bike and even going so far as to dive under the bike to grab treats when they bounced there. At that point, I figured it was time to start moving. I never actually got on the bike but we managed to get out of the front yard and down to the corner of the block a few steps at a time, me clicking when Sage was near the pedals of the bike and saying a disappointed “Oh, no” when Sage tried to get in front of the bike. Sage is still a baby at 6 months so even if I get her to the point where I can start actually riding the bike while she jogs alongside, we won’t be going very far. There’s a park with a bike path just a few blocks away from where I live. My goal by the time Sage is a year old is to be riding leisurely over to the park and back.

One other piece of advice that I pass on to my students is that a dog needs as much mental exercise (or more) as they do physical exercise. A mentally tired dog is a lot less likely to get into trouble than a dog that is simply physically tired. By training Sage to run with the bike without the benefit of a bike attachment, I’m hoping to supply her the opportunity to use her mind–which is truly a thing of beauty.

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Clickety-clickety-click–Good girl!

So I’ve decided to use clicker training in order to preserve this dog’s creativity. Sage, of course, isn’t interested in my discussions of training theory. She’s much more intrigued by the practical applications. We started out tonight by avoiding the most common mistake clicker trainers–especially new ones–make: Teaching sit as the initial clicked behavior.

It’s not bad to teach sit, in fact, it’s almost compulsory. But the first few behaviors you teach with clicker training become the default behaviors for your dog when clicking, a fact that I was roundly criticized for by my younger sister because I taught a foster dog that she eventually adopted to back up as his first clicked behavior. She found it very aggravating when working with him years later because he would back up when he was frustrated.

So for Sage’s first behavior, I decided to teach her that she has a butt. More precisely, I decided to teach her that she could move her butt independently of her front end. It took ten click/treats total before she was moving her rear end three steps to the left. It took five additional c/t for her to move her rear end three steps to the right. Now, being that she’s a puppy and fairly new to the game (for all training should be in the spirit of a fun game), she hasn’t a conscious clue what she’s being reinforced for. That’s all right. We’ll get there in time so there’s no rush to put this on command right now. Tomorrow, we’ll work on a different behavior.

-O-

Yesterday, Sage watched me play fetch with Lacey and Missy. Last night, she brought me a tennis ball. I tossed it for her and she retrieved it, not once but several times. Perhaps her previous family played fetch with her but I think it’s much more likely that she learned by watching the other dogs play. I’ve seen her pick up other behaviors by merely observing the older dogs (sitting at the back door to go out or come in, for example). I’ve had other dogs who learned by observing (example: Ricky the Papillon learned to open his crate by watching humans do it, there’s no other explanation.) It stands to reason. Dogs in the wild have to learn somehow and observing other dogs perform behaviors must be one of the ways. Trial and error can be very difficult to survive but watching some other dog try something and succeed or fail is much more life-sustaining.

So today I tried to teach her to tug. I’m wanting to be able to use tugging as a reinforcement while we are training. She didn’t seem all that interested in the game but we’ll keep working on it. I have the feeling her teeth may be bothering her so she might be more enthusiastic later on. Usually, pups go through teething at about 16 weeks (4 months) but she could be starting early. I’ll be happy to see those needle-sharp baby teeth go though it does mean she’s growing up.

-O-

One of the most important aspects of clicker training is that you need to plan out what you’re going to do in each session. That said, you also need to be flexible. For example, tonight with Sage I wanted to work on reinforcing her for being in “heel position.” She was so distracted by the fact that I was standing (apparently I’m only supposed to sit when she’s around) that I decided to work on the movable butt. Both are goals of mine so it wasn’t a hardship to switch out one goal for the other but it does demonstrate that flexibility in training is important.

Sage exploring the backyard.

Sage takes time out from her busy schedule of playing to search the backyard.