Guiding skills and obedience indoors
Within the home you can practice asking your dog to find the door or find a chair. If you live with others you can set it up so they are sitting in a chair and your dog needs to find an empty one. Reward your dog with food, games, praise or patting when they get it right. If your dog gets it wrong, consider how to make it easier so your dog can practice getting it right. Perhaps you can hang some bells on a ribbon from your door handle, that way when you ask your dog to find the door, the dog can nudge the bells and you can hear them jingle at the moment they get it right. If using bells, first teach your dog to jingle the bells, rewarding for doing it right, then practice at a short distance, then putting them on the door.
You can practice obedience cues that your dog already knows: things such as “sit”, “down”, “stay” and return to “heel”. Try to incorporate it into different times of the day, in different areas of the house and with different distractions. Reward your dog when she gets it right. Does your dog tuck himself nicely under the table or chairs? If there is room for improvement you can practice that at home.
Have fun with training new behaviours. You can teach your dog some new tricks such as putting their toys away or bringing you their favourite toy. Are you able to teach your dog to identify her toys by name, such as “ducky”, “rope”, “teddy”? How about teaching your dog a “hand target”? This means the dog touches your hand with his nose or muzzle. Choose a clear and obvious way to present your hand to your dog so it looks different to how you usually have your hand. You might choose your fist, a flat palm, the back of your hand, or two fingers. Present your hand close to your dog, near her face. Your dog is likely to move towards it to take a look. The moment you feel contact (this could even be the light brush of whiskers) say a bridge word, I like to say “yes”. Reward your dog when she touches it.
A bridge word is a promise that food is coming one second later. Have your treats in a handy place like an open treat pouch or cup so you can get to the treats quickly. The best treats are pea sized, soft and tasty. This means your dog won’t get too full when training and won’t spend long to swallow them. I find small kibble the easiest to use, though it’s not soft.
A more advanced behaviour would be to teach your dog to retrieve objects – this might be your small gardening trowel you lose in the grass, a set of keys (maybe attach a small soft toy keyring so it’s easier for your dog to pick up), your white cane. If you don’t know exactly how to teach a retrieve, start by practicing on something you don’t need the dog to pick up, for example start with the inner cardboard from a roll of hand towels. That way if (when!) you make mistakes, and if the dog is confused, he’s only confused with the cardboard roll and you haven’t “broken” the future behaviour of collecting your keys.
When you’re home more, it can be a perfect time to work on any attachment or separation anxiety behaviours your dog might have. Practice settling your dog away from you. This could be in the same room but on the other side. Can you be in a different room to your dog? Can you leave the dog while you go to the mailbox or take the bins out? If you have a legitimate case of separation anxiety this can be difficult to manage alone and I urge you to consult with a veterinarian that specialises in behaviour as well as working with a force free behaviour trainer. If there’s not one in your local area, many can do remote consults.
You may have heard the word enrichment in relation to our animals. Enrichment is a word to describe ways to make our dog’s life more interesting, often within the home. Many of you will have Kongs and know how much your dog loves a Kong when it is stuffed with food. I like to freeze the Kong so it is solid and longer lasting for the dog. Ensure the dog knows how to use the food puzzle or Kong, you don’t want to make it frustrating. Just like training, you want to start off easier and increase the difficulty gradually. Many long-lasting treats and chews like a bully stick, beef tendon, deer antler or goat horn are also a favourite for dogs. There is a Facebook page run by Shay Kelly called Canine Enrichment that has lots of wonderful enrichment ideas from home-made items such as toilet rolls or bunched up newspaper in a box with treats scattered at the bottom so the dog has to search through for it. There are also a lot of food puzzles you can buy online or in shops. Always supervise any new toys and remove the toy afterwards if your dog is at risk of damaging or destroying it. Labradors are expert destroyers, hence the Kong is often a great option for those power chewers. If you feed your dog from a bowl, see if you can change that. Use your dog’s daily meal rations for food puzzles or enrichment activities so he or she doesn’t gain weight.
Did you know that when dogs have opportunities to sniff, it can lower their pulse rates? Sniffing is encouraged in pet dogs a lot more in recent years than in the past, due to more studies showing the benefits for our dogs. What does this mean for our dog guides when we actively discourage their sniffing? You might worry that encouraging your dog to sniff might increase his sniffing behaviour – so before making any changes, why not record some baseline information about your dog such as how often he sniffs. You can then introduce some opportunities to sniff. This could be in your garden or within your home, making it distinct from when your dog is working in harness. It might be that when you give your dog these opportunities, does he sniff less on his walks because his sniffing needs are being met? A snuffle mat is a popular choice for many. It can be purchased or hand made by using a rubber doormat that has holes in it and tying many strips of fabric to it. I believe it can be quite effortful, but good for those who are into crafts! The snuffle mat has many folds of fabric that you can hide your dog’s food through it, encouraging your dog to search through and sniff to find all the treats. Some people are making a snuffle ball version too.
While some people go to agility, flyball and obedience classes with their dogs, a popular new activity is called Nosework. This is where you teach the dog a certain scent by rewarding him when he responds to it, and then hide the scent for your dog to find it and receive a reward. There are some great nosework classes out there, if you’re interested you can explore if they can provide instruction remotely.