Using Your Dog’s Powers for Good (and maybe even something useful!)

One of my dogs, Vesper, is half German shepherd. One of the prominent breed characteristics of the German shepherd dog is “loyalty,” which most people assume means they’re obedient and trustworthy. My read of “loyalty” means German shepherd dogs always want their long snouts all up in your business, and they watch you like a hawk in case you’re about to do anything that might involve them–which is pretty much everything. This makes them pretty darn good candidates for service dogs of many types, and you’ll see quite a few GSD guide dogs, mobility dogs, and psych service dogs.

My German shepherd cross isn’t a service dog, but she really, really wants to help. Her other cross-breed is Australian kelpie, another working breed, and as a result she’s very smart, driven, and willing. The flip side of that? If I don’t give her something to do, she’ll figure something out on her own. When dogs get creative, people are very rarely pleased with the solutions!

While Vesper isn’t a service dog, I’ve accidentally taught her some tricks that are either extremely useful, or look like service dog tasks. Because she loves helping out, these tasks are highly rewarding to her. I rarely reward her for doing them with anything but praise and scratches on her chest, but she does the jobs with enthusiasm and speed. I didn’t expect any of these behaviors to come in handy, but taught them all as tricks; Vesper’s love of being useful simply shined through. They became some of her favorite things to do, and as a result I can ask for them pretty much any time I need them.

Go Find Your Kong: Vesper loves interactive food toys. When she was young she got all her kibble out of this or this. She figured out that if she picked up the food toy and threw it, the kibble came out faster. This was fine for the most part, but if there was one final piece of kibble in the toy that she couldn’t get she would throw that food toy for hours, determined to solve the puzzle. Eventually I taught her that if the food was hopelessly stuck or if her toy was empty, she could trade the empty toy for a treat, I would even open the toy up and give her what was stuck in there, too. Because Vesper is smart, she figured, hey, if this food toy is worth a cookie, then I bet all of them are, right? She began bringing me any food toy she could find, and after a while it became a ritual. I put a verbal cue on finding and bringing me her food toys, and she would search the house for them and bring what she found to me in the kitchen so I could clean it and put it away.

I don’t feed kibble anymore, but that just means we use Kongs and Toppls regularly. They get chased under furniture, left in crates or out on the deck… and since I fill them with fresh-made dog food or raw meat, they need to be cleaned after every use. But all I have to do is stand in the kitchen and ask Vesper to “find your Kong” and she’ll hunt until she’s positive they’re all picked up. Meanwhile I’m doing the dishes or making coffee.

How useful is that? I love how this came out of a negotiation between me and my overenthusiastic dog. Instead of taking away a toy that she was banging into furniture and walls, I asked her to trade with me. Because she’s smart and willing, it turned into an extremely useful behavior that I ask for at least once every day.

Can You Get That For Me?: Vesper was a little nuts when she was a puppy. Busy is a good word for it–she never stopped moving and never stopped thinking. I did a ton of tricks with her to keep her mind busy so that she wouldn’t eat my house or burst out of a plate-glass window. One of the things we worked on was learning how to pick up all sorts of different objects. Again, I shaped this just for fun, as something to keep my puppy’s brain busy. Dogs don’t naturally like to pick up just anything; they have preferences, and some objects are hard to pick up. We worked on all sorts of stuff, including delicate things that she needed not to damage and slippery things that she would have to try pretty hard not to drop. She liked this game a LOT and got quite good at it. As a result, Vesper is happy to pick up pretty much anything I ask.

And sometimes even if I don’t ask.

The first time I dropped my keys as we were getting ready to go to agility class and she picked them up and handed them to me, I was stunned. We had been working a lot on picking up small objects that week, so she just saw it as part of the game we had been playing anyway. But my hands were full and we were in a hurry and it was actually helpful to have my dog pick up my keys from the floor and hand them to me. Woah! And she was so pleased with herself!

Now she does it all the time. If I drop the cap to my water bottle, I don’t stop to bend over. “Vesper, can you get that?” She’s usually following me around the house anyway, so she’s happy to comply. She picks up dropped shopping lists and jumps into the bushes by the front door when I lose my clicker over the deck railing.

Put That Away, Please?: Vesper was obsessed with socks as a puppy. They smelled like feet! They were soft and chewy! You could shake them until they were dead! It was cute at first, but I knew that some sock-loving dogs ended up in surgery to remove socks that were blocking their intestines. I didn’t want to end up there.

So I taught V that socks paid good money. If she picked one up, I praised her and we ran to the cookie jar. She started hunting for socks to bring them to me so she could get paid. If I folded a basket of laundry and didn’t put it away, I would slowly stack each folded pair of socks next to the cookie jar as Vesper stole them from the basket to trade them in.

Eventually I got tired of moving socks from the kitchen to the hamper. If Vesper liked this game so much, let her do the work.

So when she brought me dirty socks, I would praise her, get out a cookie, and lead her to the hamper. At first she dropped the socks next to the hamper–hey, her aim was as good as my ex-husband’s! But after a while she figured out how to flip them up and into the hamper, and then she didn’t need me to lead her there anymore. She could bank socks in the laundry hamper and come to me for a biscuit.

Now at night I hand Vesper my socks and tell her to put them away for me. She takes them one at a time to the hamper, doing a slow wag the whole way there, and comes back to get her eyes and ears rubbed in thanks.

What I find interesting about all these behaviors is that they weren’t intentionally trained. They mostly started as ways to accommodate troublesome behaviors that Vesper already offered. She found the behaviors rewarding (or else she wouldn’t have done them!) so asking her to simply not do them would be hard for a young dog with impulse control issues. Instead we turned the impulse into something else, and the results were pretty excellent.

As caretakers of animals we tend to think about our dogs’ behaviors on our terms. Do I like this behavior? Is this annoying? Is this dangerous? I found success with Vesper because instead of shutting down the behavior, I found a way to negotiate with her.

It’s hard to train “no.” When you say “don’t do that,” the dog’s path is blocked. They look for another way forward–and often, their solutions aren’t what we expect or desire.

When we instead say, “hey, try this instead,” the dog is immediately offered a path forward that we’ve already planned and approved. And if the “instead” still includes some aspect of the behavior they enjoy, even better! They get to use their preferences for good instead of evil, and everyone wins.

Since Vesper loves helping out so much, I’ve started teaching her a few other useful tasks. She’s working on bringing me my slippers, opening and closing drawers, and putting recycling in the bin (it’s even got a foot-pedal she has to work). She treats these tricks like jobs, and seems so much more satisfied by them. Like I said, everyone wins!

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