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I love having Janice and Leroy with me when I’m trying to get my house up to a normal person’s standards. I’ve often thought, though, that it would be really nice if they could pitch in and help. I began to wonder if such a thing might be possible, and pretty quickly learned that it is, sort of. After all, there are tons of cute videos online showing dogs pushing strollers, carrying newspapers, closing toilet lids and so on. So, I decided to investigate a little more, and found 5 things you can teach your dog so he can help around the house.
I’m not making any representations as to how useful these activities are; I’m just the messenger here. I’ll leave it up to you as to whether or not they’re actually useful. They sure sound like fun, though.
If you’re anything like me, laundry can sit in a basket or piled up on a chair for months, while I just wear whatever is cleanest and on top of the heap. For some reason, it’s the household task I find the most onerous. I figured it would almost certainly be more tolerable with the assistance of a dog, so I chose Leroy as my candidate for this training exercise, because he’s already a huge laundry thief; he just loves the feel of something soft in his mouth, and frequently makes off with my socks.
Now, what about the problem of sorting? It’s a myth that dogs are completely colorblind; they do see some colors. Based on what I’d learned, I knew I was in for some presorting, so I separated some of the the laundry by color, in piles on the floor (I know, I know, I vacuumed first!) and also kept several articles in the laundry basket next to me. Now I needed to name the piles in such a way that Leroy wouldn’t get confused, so I called them whites, colors, towels and jeans. I made sure that the piles were far enough apart that I could point to a specific pile and have Leroy follow the direction of my finger.
I began by giving Leroy a piece of laundry from the basket, pointing to the proper pile, saying “Take” and leading him over. Then I’d tell him “Leave it,” which is a cue he learned long ago, and once he dropped the piece of laundry on the pile, I’d give him a treat and offer praise. Soon, all I needed to do was point to the appropriate pile of laundry to have Leroy take it, leave it and then come back to me for his treat.
Since I’ve only just started doing this, I’m not expecting Leroy to be sorting laundry with just verbal cues any time soon, but we’re working on it. And we’re having fun, which for me is kind of what it’s all about anyway.
Wouldn’t it be great if you could take a pile of food out of the refrigerator and have your dog close the fridge door so you could just plonk the ingredients for your meal on the countertop without having to go back? You really can teach him to do just that, and to close cupboard and closet doors as well. You might want to get him to use his nose as opposed to a paw, though, so the finish doesn’t get scratched.
The way to do this is by putting your hand, containing a treat, down to your dog’s nose for him to sniff. When he does, say “Yes!” or whatever other praise word you generally use. You can also use a clicker if you like. Keep doing this until your dog is bumping your hand to ask for the treat, and say “Touch” as you offer it. When you figure he knows what you mean by “Touch,” hold something like a plastic container lid in your hand, and give the “Touch” cue again. Do this first so that the lid is covering the palm of your hand, and then progress to holding it by its edge.
As soon as your dog will touch the lid every time, use some double-sided tape to fasten it to a door, and give her the cue. To start with, you might need to hold your hand close to the lid. You want her to get to the point where he touches the lid hard enough that the door closes. It will happen eventually, and when it does, praise effusively and offer another treat. Soon, you will be able to remove the lid and just point to the open door. It won’t be long, either, before your dog gets the idea that “Touch” applies to anything you point to.
I love those videos that you see online where dogs are picking up all their toys and dropping them in their toy box. Picking up things and putting them in the proper place is easy to teach, but it’s best done backwards: you teach the last part of what you want your dog to do first, and then work back to the first step. This is called “backchaining.”
So, hold a piece of garbage (something like a wad of paper, that your dog won’t be interested in eating) over the trash can. Tell your dog to take it, and when he does, give him the cue to “Drop” of “Leave it.” If he doesn’t know either cue, you’ll have to teach him. This is really easy: just hold out a treat when you give the cue, and the garbage is going to naturally fall into the trashcan as he reaches for the treat.
Now, once the cue is working with the trash held over the can, move it a bit to the left or the right. Make sure it is still pretty much over the can, and give the cue “Pick up the trash.” If the item falls into the can, the dog earns a treat. If he misses the can, just say “Oops” and give it another try. Soon, you’ll be moving the trash to the point where it is not even near the can. The idea is for your dog to learn that he has to hold the trash over the middle of the garbage can and make sure that it ends up inside of it.
Once the dog is able to take the item that you have handed him to the can and drop it in consistently, begin placing it near to the floor, so that he understands that he is going to have to pick it up in order to take it to the can. Finally, start putting the trash directly on the floor. Soon, you will be able to point to something on the floor, tell your dog “Pick up the trash,” and rely on him to deliver it to the trash can.
Of course, you should make sure that you don’t drop anything valuable on the floor. Some dogs take to this exercise so easily that they just love picking things up and taking them to the trash, even if they haven’t been asked to do it. Your dog, in short, does not know that something like your watch or smartphone is more valuable than that wadded up piece of paper. He just likes taking things to the trash.
This is something that dogs used to do in obedience competitions. The handler would walk the dog around the ring, and at some point, the judge would tell the handler to drop an item. The idea was for the dog to keep on walking at heel until he was asked to get the object and bring it to the handler. This could actually be pretty useful if you’re in the habit of dropping things when you’re out for walks!
Of course, you want to use a bit of common sense. You probably don’t want your dog picking up things that could be easily damaged. This is very easy to teach, too: just use your cue from the previous exercise, and teach him a few more words. Point to the object you want, and say “Pick up the [object].” Most dogs are perfectly capable of learning several words, so in little time, you can have your dog picking up the remote control (assuming he has a gentle mouth, of course), the newspaper, your slippers and other items. He probably already knows a number of useful words, from things that you have told him on a daily basis, like “Get your ball,” or “Go for a walk,” or dinnertime. Start with objects that your dog already knows the name of, and use the “Touch” cue. Then, you can move onto learning new words by using the same cue, like “Touch, remote.”
Once your dog is consistently touching the right item in your hand, put the items on the floor, several feet apart, and stand away from them with your dog at your side. Ask him to touch one of the items. If he gets it right, then give him a treat and praise him. If he is confused, and goes to the incorrect item, don’t make a big deal out of it – just offer a cheery “Oops!” and try it again. You might find that in the beginning, your dog gets it wrong more often than he gets it right, so if that happens, just back up a bit and work with only one object for a while longer. Then add in more objects.
Once your dog is getting it right more often than not, you can add “Find” to the game, and this can be really useful! Just do what you’ve been doing all along, but say “Find [object].” When your dog goes over to the right object, give him a treat and lots of praise.
After you’ve done this a number of times, switch it again. Put your dog in a sit, and let him watch while you “hide” the object. Of course early on, he’ll see where you’ve hidden it. Again, tell him “Find [object], and when he goes to where you have placed it, give him a treat and praise him. Again, repeat many times.
Next, you want your dog to get to the point where he will find objects for you if you really have lost them. So hide things in more difficult places, and then begin hiding them when the dog isn’t watching. You might also want to enlist the help of family members, and teach your dog their names, if he doesn’t know them already. This is incredibly useful, because with your dog’s remarkably sensitive nose, if a family member should ever happen to be really lost, as opposed to simply playing the game, your dog could find that person.
If you have trouble getting your kids up to catch the school bus in the morning, why not get your dog to do it? You’ve taught him their names, so put that knowledge to good use. If someone is sleeping too long, tell your dog “Go find [person]!” For even more fun, you might teach your dog how to pull covers off people who are sleeping too long.
Some of these exercises could actually be useful. Others, like sorting laundry, might be more just fun than practical. But I’ve talked about a lot of dog training issues, to great extent, actually, in Dog Training Made Easy, and there’s no reason why it has to be just work all the time. Leroy loves sorting laundry, and I love Leroy. So if “helping” me around the house makes him feel good, then I don’t see any reason why we shouldn’t both be just fine with that!