Ah, the dream of a well-trained dog. I am sure when we adopted Rusty and Torchy we had visions of how they would be well-mannered and perfectly trained dogs. After 7 years, one DVM degree, and one in-progress trainer certification, plus a lot of studying from the best of the best in dog training and behavior, my dogs are still a work in progress, and so am I. Here is the moment when those of you with slightly crazy dogs (I mean that in the most loving way) breathe a sigh of relief because even the vet with a passion for behavior is still learning. And those of you with easy going dogs are thinking, “Seriously what is so hard? They practically train themselves!” (and the rest of us hate you just a bit).
Step 1: offer your hand for your dog to sniff
My dogs are very high energy dogs, and they have their own personalities, likes, and dislikes. Just like people they have things they are great at and things that cause them trouble. I am always learning to play to our strengths. There are however a few basic things that I do believe a dog should learn how to do reliably. Most of those are well known staples in the training industry. Sit, stay, and come are the bread and butter of training.
In my professional opinion, the most useful behavior is none of those, although they are important behaviors. My favorite behavior is touch. It is now one of the first behaviors I teach the dogs (and cats) coming to me for behavior consultations. Every behavior I teach can be broken down to 3 basic components. The cue, the behavior, and the consequence. Touch has the following steps:
- Cue: say the word “touch” and present an object, usually my hand.
- Behavior: the dogs nose touches the palm of my outstretched hand
- Consequence: The dog gets something fabulous. Like a treat or a toy.
Step 2: Your dog approaches to sniff your hand
You may be wondering what makes this very simple behavior so simply fabulous. For one, it is very easy to teach. Especially if I have a nervous dog. All I need are treats that are really tasty and smelly (hot dog anyone?) and your dog (or cat) will put his nose to my hand to sniff. He has just earned his/her reward. I don’t have the hot dog in my hand when I extend it out, but since I start giving treats the moment I walk into the exam room, I usually smell pretty tasty. For dogs that are new to training, or have had bad experiences with training, this is an easy behavior to get them some great wins and start building a foundation for training.
Touch is also great for teaching timing. I use a lot of marker training. This means, when the dog performs the correct behavior, I use a word or a sound to indicate it was the correct behavior. The marker is usually a clicker, but I will change that if needed depending on the dog and owner I am working with. Touch is great for teaching timing to owners because you can feel the moment your dog’s nose touches your hand. At that moment, you click or use your marker word.
Step 3: Your dog touches your hand with his nose. Click here if marker training.
The other reason I love touch is because it is a calm quiet behavior that can divert a dog’s attention from something unpleasant or scary. As a vet I am always wanting to make my patient's visit as pleasant as possible. If I have a dog who has learned this behavior, I can have the owner cue touch and reward the dog throughout my physical exam. I can also use this behavior to move dogs around the clinic who are fearful of the veterinary environment. We touch and treat for every step. This commonly occurs when trying to get a dog on the scale who has decided it might be some sort of dog eating machine. With a dog who knows how to touch we can get them up onto the scale without having to put them on it and they become more likely to get up on their own in the future.
I also use touch during training plans with dogs who are fearful of objects or people. I can transfer the touch cue from my hand or the owners hand, to the scary object. Then what was once scary, becomes another way for the dog to earn his or her favorite treats or toys. This is a highly effective technique and should always be incorporated under the supervision of an experienced professional who has your dog or cat’s entire behavior plan in mind as well as the safety of everyone involved.
Step 4: Toss a treat for your dog. Repeat
So if you are looking for a fun game to play with your dog or cat (yes, our cat friends can do this too!). Get out there and teach your pooch to touch!
Stephanie and her family moved to Indianapolis from Texas in 2015. She and her husband John have been happily married since 2010. They have a one year old son named Jack. They share their home with two dogs, Torchy and Rusty, and two cats, Timmy and Kit Kat. Stephanie has a BS in Animal Behavior from Southwestern University and a DVM from Texas A&M University. She is an associate veterinarian at VCA Animal Hospital o f Plainfield and has a special interest in veterinary behavior. Stephanie is passionate about being a wife, a mom, and a veterinarian. She loves spending time playing with her son, cooking with her husband, training and playing with their two dogs, and snuggling with her cats on the couch. When taking time for herself, she enjoys yoga, running, reading, and the occasional massage . The views expressed in this article are Stephanie's and do not necessarily reflect the views of her employer.