COUCH TRAINING
By Deborah Jones, Ph.D., copyright 2001

Unfortunately, I have recently found myself somewhat incapacitated with an ankle injury. Not from doing agility, but simply from walking out the back door! Of course, I was right in the middle of a heavy show schedule as I’m halfway through Copper’s MX, and that came to a screeching halt. I tried having someone else run him for me, figuring he’d enjoy the chance to get out and play, but that didn’t work very well. Apparently, he believes I am a necessary component to the activity.

While I certainly didn’t feel much desire to engage in any type of exercise, my dogs did not agree. They didn’t mind laying around the house for a few days, but started to get bored fairly quickly. I decided that, in self-defense, I needed to keep them occupied.

Luckily, because I am a relatively lazy trainer, I had already designed some training exercises that require very little effort on the part of the handler. I call it ‘couch training’. The beauty of ‘couch training’ is that the dog does all the work. All I needed was a clicker, along with treats and toys for reinforcers. If I had been more mobile I could have put two of the dogs away while working with the third. Instead, I had the two non-working dogs practice stays while the third one trained. The dogs were randomly rewarded with a treat tossed at them for staying. They could then move to a different place in the room for another stay. I would only work for a few minutes at a time with each dog, then switch.

These exercises are easiest with a dog who is already experienced with clicker training, but they can be done even with novice clicker dogs. Make sure your dog understands the click/treat or toy connection before you begin teaching specific behaviors. Most of these exercises are useful as warm-ups and cool-downs for obedience and agility.

Some ‘couch training’ exercises include:

Treat Recalls. Toss a treat and encourage your dog to chase after it and to ‘get it!’ Click when your dog reaches and eats the treat. Then call him back to you, showing him another treat. Click and treat when he returns.

Fronts. Start by tossing a treat as in a treat recall. When you call your dog back to you, use a treat to lure him into a front position (sitting straight in front of your feet, looking up at your face) when he returns. The handler can be sitting for this exercise. Hold the treat just in front of and centered between your knees.

Left side/Right side. Toss a treat as in a treat recall. Then ask your dog to come and touch your left or right hand (held out at your side). If you can sit in a chair you can ask the dog to move into a basic heel position on one side or the other.

Distance Sits & Downs. Toss a treat as in a treat recall. When your dog finishes the treat and turns back towards you, give either a sit or down verbal cue and hand signal. When your dog responds, click and toss a treat off to the side and BEHIND your dog. Don’t worry if your dog returns to your before he responds. Continue always throwing the treat behind the dog after the click. He’ll soon figure out that it’s better to respond quickly at a distance than to return to you, as the treat is always delivered at a distance.

Spin (left & right). Use a treat to lure your dog into a spin to either the left or the right (work on teaching one direction at a time and give each a different verbal cue). When your dog begins to follow the lure, click and give him the treat. You should soon be able to lose the lure and simply use the hand motion to induce the spin.

*Synchronized spins are fun when working with more than one dog. I ask all three dogs to spin. Those who comply quickly and in unison each get a treat, those who don’t get ignored.

Back-up. Hold a toy that your dog loves to chase. Show it to him and just wait. When he makes any movement, no matter how small, backwards, click and throw the toy behind him. As your dog gets the idea, require more and more backwards movement before you click and toss the toy.

Look Back. The ‘look back’ is actually a ½ spin. You want your dog to turn 180 degrees and then move in that direction. I teach this by tossing a toy over the dog’s head and directly behind him. When your dog begins to anticipate the toss and turn before you’ve actually throw the toy, you can add a verbal “look back” cue. This is a very handy cue to use when you want your dog to turn and take the agility obstacle directly behind him.

Touch/Target. Once your dog has learned to target, you can start generalizing the idea and apply it to any number of objects. The go-out in the Utility class of obedience can be taught as a ‘touch the target at a distance’ exercise. Start by showing your dog objects that are fairly close, use a hand signal to focus your dog’s attention on the object, then send him to ‘go touch’. Try sending your dog down a hallway to a target at the end. I’ve also used the stakes in the garden fence in the back yard as targets.

Speak. Teaching your dog to speak can be very positive. If you get the behavior on cue you can use ask your dog to speak in situations when you want him to loosen up and get more excited. I teach speak by getting the dog slightly frustrated, then waiting for him to make some noise that I can reinforce. For example, toss a favorite toy for your dog a couple of times until he’s excited about the game. Then simply hold the toy and tease him with it “do you want this?! Do you?!” Most dogs will try a number of behaviors, eventually becoming vocal. Reinforce this by throwing the toy and starting the game again.

Give me 5. The basis of this trick is teaching your dog to touch your hand with his paw. This is a basic targeting behavior. It works best if the dog is sitting first. Reinforce any paw movement at first, then more and more movement, then moving the paw closer to your hand. I have taught ‘give me 5’ with one paw, then ‘other 5’ with the other paw, then ‘10’ with both paws at once.

Sneeze. This is a behavior that you have to capture in order to train it. I suppose you could find some way to compel the dog to sneeze, but that doesn’t seem very nice. I discovered that my little dog was likely to sneeze when he first looked upward. This gave me a chance to catch and reinforce the behavior a couple of times. Somehow, I trained him to sneeze while I'm eating at the table. Probably because he knows that I’ll give him a bit of my dinner if he does. Now I’m working on getting the sneeze in other settings.

Who’s First? With more than one dog you can practice speedy responses to cues. Give a cue for a behavior that is well-known to all the dogs (sit, down, spin, etc.) and reinforce the first dog to respond. Then give a different cue and continue the game. It’s amazing how much they will speed up their responses when they see another dog getting goodies!

I had some suggestions from members of the Clean Run e-mail list about training while somewhat immobile as well.

Lauralyn Johnson from Orange, CA suggests teaching your dog a “go” cue. Hold the dog by the collar and get him excited by verbally ‘revving’ him up. Then throw a toy and release the dog, encouraging him to “go” and get the toy. Lauralyn also suggested teaching “out” in the same way; throwing the toy laterally away from the dog. She also suggested sitting in a chair without arms so that you can practice having the dog move around behind you to switch sides.

Noreen Scelzo of Newbury, MA suggested a training activity typically called ‘101 things to do with a box’. Using boxes of different sizes and shapes, you can reinforce your dog for a number of behaviors such as 2 feet in the box, back feet in the box, sit in the box, put your head in the box, etc. I really liked Noreen’s suggestion to “go to the package store and buy a case or two of beer and wine. Drink the contents and leave the boxes all over the house.” Now THAT’S a training method I can live with!

Robin Ohrt from CT suggested teaching the dog to weave through your legs. If you have the space, Robin also suggested putting a very low jump in the living room and teaching your dog to go jump, then wrap around the posts on one side or the other and then return to you.

Carol Mock from Columbus, OH mentioned teaching target discrimination. This is an exercise in which you have two similar targets: one is designated as hot, the other cold. You reinforce the dog for going to and touching the hot target, and ignore him for going to the other. (This is actually how I begin teaching scent discrimination). Carol also suggested teaching your dog to discriminate agility obstacles by name. If you have equipment set up in your back yard this is something you can do without having to move around too much. Send your dog to different obstacles with hand signals and verbal cues only.

I’d like to thank each of them for taking the time to send their great ideas.

When you are a bit more mobile, but not back to running, you have more options. This is where I am now. You can practice start line and table stays. This is also a good time to practice sending to the table from increasing distances. Tight jumping sequences are also doable with a slower handler. Tight discriminations can be practiced with the handler in a number of different positions around the jumps/obstacles. Going back to some basic moves and groundwork can only strengthen your performance when it’s possible to run again.

These ideas are good not only for handlers with injuries/illnesses, but also for those long winter months when the weather limits our activities. Many of these exercises can also work for training in apartments and other small spaces. I’ve found that my injury hasn’t forced me to stop training; it’s forced me to train more creatively.

 

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