Thursday, January 8, 2009

12. Problem Solving in Service Dogs: Playing Mind Games

One of the best things you can do for your service dogs is play games with him/her regularly. By offering a variety of mind, tug, retrieve and chew games and toys, you not only are reinforcing foundation behaviors that you use everyday, but you are making your dog more intelligent by exposing him to different challenges.

In an earlier blog, I talked about shaping and targeting. The more different types of targeting (hand, stick, object, nose, paw, hip etc) and shaping behaviors your dog knows how to do, the quicker he will be able to learn new skills.

Here is a game that Jessie played for the first time as I filmed it. You can see how quickly she figures out the problem, then she appears to invent her own version of the game. She also enjoys balls and eating treats so this combination was a great one for her. Each time she plays it, she focuses on a new approach. That is the sign of intelligence!

Notice that she also becomes more particular about where she places the ball (back into the cups). I think she does this because her attention to detail has been built with retrieving small items to my hand (such as picking up a dime and dropping it into my cupped hand, taking clothing from the dryer and and placing it in the laundry basket.) If I wanted to turn it into a shaping game, I might start clicking her for placing the balls into the cups to get the treat.

I could also turn it into a scent discrimiation game by placing a treat in only one cup and see if she could figure out which one. If she chooses wrong, there is no treat fro her and she must keep trying.

The other bonus of playing games is that we can build tolerance to frustration (patience or whatever you want to call it) in our service dogs. Jessie could have gotten frustrated but instead she tried other ways to solve the problem, then rewarded herself with a play with the ball.

We did 6 trials that took about 10 minutes. Easy work (on my part) for such good payoff.

Here is another vidoe with some simple ideas for challenging your dog.

If you are handy, here is one to try:

Your Turn!
Below is a video of a dog that lacks problem solving skills. How would you use the clicker to shape the final behavior of him getting his toy out of the trash can? (In case you can't see it, his toy is inside a mesh trash bin that is taller than he is. The owners are trying to get him to knock it over and get it out.)

Please add your ideas to our comments!

I’ll be adding more such games as I discover them!