Two Ways to Train Your Pet a New Behavior

dog leaning on fence
Wee Beasties trainer with black and white dog

Written by Rachel McGuire

Cocker spaniel looking at the camera

While you’re training your dog or other pet this month (you are training, aren’t you?), you might wonder how you can get them to do different behaviors.

Well, you’re in luck!

This week, we’re going to talk about two training games you can play to get your pet to do the behaviors you’d like to train. All you need is a marker word or clicker, a bag of small, tasty treats, and a quiet place to work.

Let’s get started!

The Magnet Game

In this game, we’ll use our treat like a magnet to guide our pet into position. It’s a very simple game, and when you can’t get a behavior with one of the other ways we’ll talk about, you can usually get it this way.

 

However, there is a big potential pitfall with this method, so be sure to read this whole section to figure out how to avoid it.

This game is different from the others in that the treat will be out and visible before the behavior you want has been completed.

For behaviors that need a lot of movement (sit, spin, down, etc.), you’ll take a treat and hold it near your pet’s nose, and then slowly move the treat so that your pet’s nose follows it very closely in the direction you need them to move. For example, for sit, you’ll start with the treat at the pet’s nose, and then slowly move it up a little and over their head—keep the treat low so they don’t try to back up or jump to get it. Say your marker word (“yes!”) or click your clicker when the pet reaches the desired behavior (ie, butt on floor), and release the treat for them to eat.

Other behaviors need smaller movements, especially nose or paw touches. For these, you can put the treat in your fist or under your hand, a mat, container, or other object you want them to interact with, and wait for the interaction you need. You might be looking for a nose or paw touch to your hand (like “shake” or “high-five”) or to a mat (good for teaching “wipe your paws”) or container (as in teaching to knock a container over or select one). Mark the behavior once it happens, and release the treat.

Watch Out!
If you’ve ever heard someone say “he only listens when I have a treat in my hand!” then using this method and not finishing it off may be why! Be sure to stop using a treat in your hand after five tries at most if your pet is successful, and also train more with the other methods we’ll learn later so that your pet doesn’t become dependent on you leading everything.

Finish It Up

When you use this method, it’s important to only repeat it with the treat two to three times, and not more than five. After the third time with the treat, if the pet has successfully done the behavior, pretend to have a treat in your hand for a few tries.

Continue to mark and then reward from your treat pouch instead.

If they continue to be successful, make your movements smaller until they resemble the cue you want to use, or transfer the behavior to a verbal cue instead if you want.

The Bullseye Game

This game is almost identical to the Magnet Game, but instead of leading with a treat, we’ll use a target. You can use anything for a target—Your hand, a finger, a mat, a sticky note/piece of tape, a wooden spoon, or a fancy training target like a click stick.

Training Your Target
Ironically, in the video here, I train a hand target to be used with the Bullseye Game…using the Magnet Game!

You can do the same. Offer your pet the item you want them to target, and when they approach it or touch it with their nose or paw (whichever you want them to do), mark and treat. Repeat at least ten times for several sessions, and then you should be ready to use it for the Bullseye Game.

You can repeat this for as many targets as you want. I like to have a hand target, a longer target (like a stick or spoon), and a flat place target like a mat or paw target.

Playing the Game
Now, we’ll just play the Magnet Game using your target instead of a treat. Spin is a very common behavior to teach this way—you’ll need a hand target or a longer target. Place the point of the target at your pet’s nose, and then slowly move it to the side you want them to spin toward. Mark and treat any movement they make in the direction of the target, even if you don’t get the full behavior at once. Play again, still moving slowly and see if they can get further.

Be Patient
This is different from following a treat, and depending on how many sessions you did teaching your target, it may take longer for your pet to catch on to what you’re going for. Just keep practicing. Most pets learn this game very quickly if you take it slow!

 

Great Job!
You just learned two ways to get your pet to do a behavior. Now it’s time to try them out. Remember to be patient with yourself and your pet. Training should be fun! If it’s not, end on a happy note and take a break.

How to End a Session
Whether you’re done for the day or frustrated and need a break, you should always end your session on a happy note! Think of it as the reward for the training session itself—Ending happily will encourage your pet to come back for more when you’re ready to train again.

 

Sand timer hour glass; Short sessions are best for pet training

When I end my sessions, I stop when my pet has done a rep really well and often give them whatever treats are left in my pouch (I count out the treats I plan to use beforehand so there aren’t too many!).

If they’re struggling, I end with a few reps of a trick I know they can do easily (like several hand touches, shake, etc.) so I can reward them several times quickly before we end.

I then say “all done!” very cheerfully and hold both my hands up. Then we often play or sometimes cuddle depending on who it is and what day it is! With my dogs, I also ask them if they want to go outside after we’re done, and that’s always a hit.

Take some time to develop your own end routine to make sure it’s just as fun to finish training with you as it is to train itself!

Training a bichon

How Often Should We Train?
Keep things short and sweet! A five minute session is plenty at one time. Definitely don’t go over ten minutes. You and your pet will be using a lot of brain power when learning new tricks, so going over ten minutes won’t help either of you. It’s better to do several short sessions with rests in between than to try to do long stretches.

If you’d like one-on-one help reaching your pet training or behavior goals, please contact me!

Happy Training, everyone!

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