What could be more practical than to teach your dog to retrieve his dog dish ! Lately I seem to be gathering up dishes in the back of crates and under tables. With 6 dogs to feed I’m often in a hurry when I put down the food and don’t always have time to collect and wash the dishes right away. I usually collect them for washing a few hours later but it can be a pain trying to find them all and then have to crawl in and out of crates to get the ones that got moved to the back of the young dog’s crates. Solution ? Teach the dogs to get their dishes and save my back from dish wrangling ! My last generation of dogs knew how to retrieve the dog dishes which was such a convenient trick I decided to teach this generation. This week I started with my older dogs who have some experience retrieving other types of objects but soon I will add this to the the young dogs list of behaviors as well. Any dog can learn to retrieve if you have the patience to teach them and are willing to break the retrieve down into tiny steps.
The first step in teaching the dish retrieve is to shape your dog to touch the dish with his nose. I started by using a small cat dish to make it easier for the dogs since it was lighter weight and smaller than the regular size 2 quart ones we normally use for feeding. I held the dish at nose level while sitting on the floor so that it would be easy to click at the moment the dog hit the dish with his nose. I stayed at this step until the dog offered regular nose bumps and was getting reinforced on a regular basis. Then I waited for the dog to offer a nose bump on the edge of the dish rather than the middle, then I tried to wait for an open mouthed touch. At first the mouth was just slightly open and then later she was mouthing the edge of the dish. This is a tricky step, some dogs linger on this step for quite a while before they decide to grab a hold of the dish. Sometimes you need to wait it out, sometimes you need to go back and reinforce the nose touch for a bit before holding out for the grab. It really depends on the dog’s personality and how high their tolerance is for frustration and figuring things out.
Once the dog is mouthing the edge of the dish you are ready to add step 2. The second step takes a different approach to shaping the pick up by starting with the dish on the floor between the dogs paws.
Go back to reinforcing nose targeting in the center of the dish and delivering the treat in the dish. You might have to reset the dish as the dog usually moves it around a bit when he gets his treat. This steps works the same way as the first step, work on reinforcing nose touches to the center of the dish first and then hold out for touches to the rim of the dish. As the dog begins to offer those more regularly you can wait for ones where the mouth is open slightly and later for hesitation and actual grabs. As the dog gets the hang of this be ready to reinforce more advanced steps like actually grabbing the dish and lifting it up off the floor ! Some dogs struggle with this step and others get it rather quickly.
I like to work on both shaping the grab with the dish in my hand and from the floor because it seems to help the dog figure out what I want more quickly. I find that if I start with the dish in my hand and just lower it to the floor it’s harder for the dog to figure out what I want. If I work it in two separate steps the dog gets reinforced more frequently and is willing to stay in the game longer to figure things out.
The key to training this behavior is to do a little training at a time and practice frequently rather than trying to do too much at once. I normally do 10-20 reps at a time, take a break and play tug and then do another set. Depending on the dog I’m working with, I might go back and do another 2 sets and then quit for the day. How much you train at once will depend on your dog’s personality and age. Don’t be afraid to do more frequent short sessions to keep your dog wanting more and having fun. In no time your dog will be able to retrieve his dish and save you from crawling to the back of his crate or under the table to get it yourself. How cool is that !!