Dogs are extremely contextual learners—which means to truly teach them a behavior the cue needs to be taught and practiced in as many places and as many ways as possible.
A fun way to do this is with a game called Green Eggs & Ham, which I learned from a fellow local trainer and adapted for my classes.
Like the Dr. Suess book, where Sam asks his companion if he’d try green eggs and ham “in a house, near a mouse; in a box, with a fox…” and in many other situations. When we play Green Eggs & Ham we test our dogs’ ability to do a behavior in as many different situations as we can create.
How to Play Green Eggs & Ham
Choose one or more basic behaviors that the dogs in class know pretty well. I like to start out the game with a basic sit. Then call out different challenges for the students to try.
For example: Can you sit by my side? Behind my back? If I pat my head?
You can also try playing different sounds and laying out different objects or surfaces for the dogs to perform the behaviors on.
Here’s a list of things to test…
- A recording of children playing
- A recording of dogs barking
- Knocking on a door or wall
- Shaking change in a jar or bowl
- Bouncing a ball out of sight
- A recording of a thunder storm
- A garbage bag
- An exercise pen, laid on the ground
- An agility table
- Inside a hula hoop laid on the ground
- Inside a baby pool
- On a cardboard box, laid flat, or inside an assembled one
- In the doorway
- Near another dog
- Near dog toys, either still or moving
- While the owners pat their heads
- While the owners close their eyes
- At the owners’ sides
- Behind the owners’ back
- While the owners “read a book” or hold something in front of their face
- While the owner stands behind the dog
- From a few feet away
- While another person is nearby
- In the dark
- While there’s a treat on the floor nearby
- While someone else offers the dog a treat
- The owner is sitting
- The owner is laying down
Problem Solving: When our dogs prove they can’t.
It’s extremely important when playing this game to first stress to your students that if their dog doesn’t perform the behavior it’s probably not because they don’t want to—more often, it’s because they don’t understand what’s expected OR they are too distracted.
There are two things I like to explain to things before playing.
The problem: Why our dogs “Can’t”
First, our dogs are extremely reliant on our body language to determine what to do. We often use luring to teach our dogs basic behaviors, which means they begin to predict what we want based on how we move.
Further, we talk A LOT—much of the time, it has nothing to do with how we want our dogs to behave. So they learn that often our words don’t actually mean anything.
When playing Green Eggs and Ham we change how our dogs see us, often by changing what angle they see us at—from the side, instead of the front or because we’re hiding our eyes with a book. That means they have to rely on our verbal cues alone, which makes it much harder for them.
Second, when we’re excited or afraid it becomes a lot harder to remember even things that we know really well—for example, if someone came to our door and told us a loved one had been in a car accident, we might have trouble recalling our address or what they were wearing that morning when they left the house.
Similarly, if someone came to the door and told us we’d won the lottery, we might be so excited we couldn’t remember our social security number and other important information. Noises and other distractions can make our dogs that excited or that afraid.
So how do we handle it?
If a dog and owner in class try a “test” and find the dog doesn’t do the behavior, find a way to make it a little easier. For example, add a hand signal back in or move the distraction further away. Practice a few times at this “easier” level, and then try the original test again.
Some dogs still won’t be able to do the behavior—that’s okay! Tell the owner it’s only a game; and now they know something really important. They can practice with whichever test their dog struggled with at home and try again next week.
Can you add to my list of things to test? Leave a comment with any other ideas you can come up with!