This is a tale of two Mush Puppies.
Maisy came to me as an approximately nine month old puppy with an unknown past beyond “pulled from a rural AC.” When I got her, I had no specific plans for her other than being my friend and going on walks and maybe camping. I had only the most rudimentary experience with and understanding of training dogs but dutifully enrolled her in a beginner obedience class where her distractability and dog reactivity frustrated me but also challenged me to learn more. In some ways she has probably taught me more about training than just about any other single dog I’ve ever known, but we definitely focused on “serious” stuff with a positive but very directive style of training: Here is how you do this. Let me show you how to do that. We spent very little time on fun things or cute “useless” tricks, and at the time I had never even heard of things like shaping.
Squash came to me as an 11 week old puppy. I had plans to play skijoring with him recreationally and by that time I had read a lot more about training and was familiar with more techniques and theories that I was eager to use to mold his little mind. I was delighted how quickly he picked up “It’s Yer Choice” and “Look at That!” We went from one class to another more or less continuously throughout his puppyhood and adolescence and into young adulthood – puppy class and obedience, tricks class and rally, and even a for-fun agility introduction class. All while also introducing him to the harness and mushing. When I learned more about shaping and started using it more, I was amazed by how freely he offered behaviors and how quickly he could figure stuff out.
When I saw how much fun he was having, I also started taking Maisy and Pip to more classes again. Nosework, obedience refreshers, and the same introductory for-fun agility class. They (especially Pip, who Doesn’t Care For Most Things) really weren’t enjoying themselves, so I eventually stopped forcing them and stuck to the things they loved at home (dog park for Pip and mushing for Maisy).
Squash and I still play at rally class, but most of our energy these days is focused on mushing and fooling around with trick training and shaping (with all three dogs) at home. Squash is generally an “operant” dog and he’s good at shaping. Pip, trained positively but very directively in the past, has turned out to be surprisingly enthusiastic about shaping. Maisy is… still learning to learn. She’s come a long way, but the first time I tried to shape a trick with her (closing a drawer with her nose) we stared at each other for literally 15 minutes straight without so much as a sideways glance or ear flick towards the drawer for me to click. She just sat and stared at me, enthusiastically wagging her tail and waiting for me to tell her what to do. (She did eventually learn to tap the drawer with her nose but it was a long road.)
Anyway, here is where I am going with this: An awful lot of our time these days is spent doing what a lot of people (sadly, including a lot of Very Serious trainers) consider completely useless. Close the drawer. Ride the skateboard. Jump over my back. Weave through my legs. But fast forward to today and I have two dogs I am trying to do a variety of physical therapy exercises with and it turns out that some of the absolutely most useful things Squash knows that makes these exercises easier are “silly” tricks: ARE YOU TIRED? (BANG, YOU’RE DEAD for people who didn’t take their tricks classes from a pacifist), TOUCH, and ROLL OVER.
Here we’re preparing to do some core work which is something like a side crunch. The dogs need to lie on their side, then touch their nose to their hip by curling up completely sideways (that is, not sitting up and then turning around to touch.)
With Maisy this exercise is challenging because while I am trying to teach her the tricks, to get it done in the meantime I spend a lot of time luring her or physically placing and replacing her into the various positions. With Squash it is easy peasy because I just ask ARE YOU TIRED and he flops to the ground. Then I ask him to TOUCH my hand. We do the reps on one side, I ask him to ROLL OVER, and we do the reps on the other side.
Useless tricks, you say? Tell me more. No, really.
Another of their exercises is this simple stretch. Once I put this stool out, it took Squash about two minutes to figure out what I wanted him to do with it.
It took Maisy 5 or 6 sessions over 2 or 3 days to figure out the same thing. (Which I’m actually really proud of. It’s miles away from staring at me for 15 minutes, and she was even hesitantly pawing at it the very first session.) So she IS learning to learn. But you can see how much less confident she is when I step away to take the picture by her body language. She still needs a lot of cheerleading and rewarding in place as opposed to Squash, who will just hang out there for his two minutes while I go about my business.
Shaping isn’t “real” training? Wait, what? Because I have one dog who was already getting his stretches consistently while my other dog was still learning to do the exercise, and that’s kind of… real.
Don’t get me wrong. I have nothing against the classics. SIT, DOWN, STAND, WAIT, and STAY in particular are proving to be very useful. We need them for sit-to-stand and down-to-stand exercises, and for some balance exercises where I need the dogs to hold a stand. Both dogs know those, and so those exercises are easy for both dogs.
So the point of this post is not to pat myself on the back. It’s just to say, do a lot of things with your dog, because you just never know what might come in useful. Teach silly tricks. Learn new training techniques. Try new activities. Teach your dog to learn and that learning is FUN. Ignore the naysayers, because the secret is that it’s all useful. All of it. It’s always useful to learn and have fun and discover things that take you in directions you might never have imagined. It’s useful to form and nurture a bond with your dog. And someday, something might even become so concretely useful that you write about how much easier knowing those “useless” tricks makes your dog’s physical therapy.