For we have spent the past four and a half years with Serena, a Shepherd/Lab mix, whose independent German side overshadows her compliant retriever side when it comes to bringing balls and sticks back to Laurel and me (see “What you’re missing if you don’t have a dog” for details of my Buddy Ball travails).
Lately we’d noticed that Serena had become even more retrieving-resistant than usual. Partly this was due to the allure of spring smells, notably the scent of newly active field mice, gophers, and other denizens of the fields that adjoin our dog exercise area. And partly it seemed due to dog laziness.
Whereas previously Serena would “retrieve” (in our experience this word always should appear in quotation marks when used in connection with a dog that has significant German Shepherd breeding) a ball or stick a few times half-heartedly before deciding there were more interesting things to do in her dog life, now she either would run right by the thrown object on her way to greater pleasures, or would collapse in feigned exhaustion as soon as she reached it.
Since Serena still needs to lose weight, and I’m having difficulty stopping myself from sneaking bits of cheese into her evening meal (notwithstanding the vet’s advice and Laurel’s admonishments), bringing her already deficient retrieving skills back up to their usual “D” grade level was important from a health standpoint.
Also, from a “who’s the top dog?” standpoint. A long time ago I accepted my role as Serena’s handmaiden, but Laurel—who knows much more about dog training than I do—correctly recognizes the need to show Serena who is in charge in our three-animal pack (I know that I’m #3; the battle is between Serena and Laurel for the first and second spots).
A mere half-hour of dog training on our lawn proved that, just as in politics, a little bribery goes a long way in getting the behavior that you want. This was the first time that Laurel had combined clicker training with Serena’s favorite jerky treats.
Using Pavlovian conditioning when Serena brought the stick back, (a click followed by a treat, then just a click as a stand-alone "reward") it wasn’t long before our Wonder Dog was dropping the stick right at Laurel’s feet (Admission of Photographic Dishonesty: this shot of a mouth to hand retrieval was staged for dramatic effect, since Serena wouldn’t be this obedient on her own for all the jerky sticks in the world).
I just hope this doesn’t give Laurel ideas for training the other recalcitrant animal in our household. I’m not wild about hearing a clicker every time I forget to close a cupboard door, clean out my toothbrush, or leave food unwrapped. However, I guess it all depends on what sort of a treat I get along with the click.