We all know that some dogs take to certain behaviours faster than others. Many of us want to believe that is it intelligence that causes this. I have another suggestion:
The dog is not super motivated to do small, repetitive, unusual actions to accomplish something that doesn’t seem too interesting to him.
When a dog is very focused on what would be his in-bred “job”, such as guarding, scenting, or pulling (running), it can be a challenge to get him to do things they wouldn’t normally do – like stand on four squishy round things and try to stay there for an extended period of time.
Of course there will always be the exception to that, but I would like to see a purpose bred dog prefer to put his paws on four stacking pods (even with the lure of food) instead of observe the neighbourhood for the purpose of guarding and protecting his family. Or for other breeds, prefer that over pulling a sled, chasing prey or scenting a bird. It’s not likely.
That means, we will be going slower in the training, and possibly accomplishing it likely to a lower degree. Even so, it’s important to train a large working dog to do conditioning behaviours for his own good and health.
Training The Pods
Training a dog to stand on four stacking pods seems un-important, but it is not. In order to learn this behaviour a dog needs to be concentrating on where he is putting his paws, and then he has to balance on them. For a big dog, this is not super easy.
Some dogs will not be able to do this on such small pods. That’s fine. Other things can be substituted to give a similar result.
Standing on stacking pods is good for conditioning dogs. It increases muscle strength and improves balance as well as challenges the dog’s brain by making him think about where he is putting his paws. The dog needs to learn to put one paw on each pod separately.
Improving these things in your dog is important as your dog ages, which is when dogs tend to start having mobility issues. Often this happens as a result of having done very little for quite a long time. Yep we do it to ourselves and to our pets.
I’m training Ira to stand on the pods even though he is big. I find that the small pods prevent him from slipping off too much, which would be more likely to happen on larger balance pads. If you do this training with your dog, use your own judgement on whether or not it is possible for your dog, and make the appropriate adjustments. Always get clearance from your vet to start exercise or conditioning programs for your dog, no matter how fit he is.
Introducing the dog to the pod
To teach a dog this behaviour, I start with presenting one pod on the floor. When Ira checked it out with his nose I click/rewarded him for that at the beginning of training. He also already knows the cue “hit it” which means touch it with your paw and I used that to start off with. I eventually want to use the cue “feet” for the future behaviour of putting his front paws on the targets and I say that a few times. In the video below, he is at the point of being able to have two pods on the floor in front of him because he is pretty good at one paw on one pod. This is the next step.
To teach this behaviour I use mostly “shaping”. All shaping is, is click/rewarding closer and closer approximations to the final behaviour you want. This gets the dog thinking about what he is doing in order to get a click. You can see several times in the video above when Ira is actually purposely putting his paw on the pod. He is thinking. You can see I’m not asking him to put both paws on the pods perfectly. I’m rewarding him for ALMOST putting his paws on both – one at a time. When he gets it right (such as leaving a paw on a pod for an extended period, I give him extra rewards.
Once Ira has the understanding of putting both front paws on pods, I will start walking him forward over the two pods to teach him back feet on as well. This can be a bit more tricky, but speed of learning will depend on the dog. Some dogs will take to it quickly and others will need a bit longer to work it out.
Using the same shaping procedure, I teach back paws on the pods. Once the dog can put two front feet on, and then walk forward and put two back feet on, I present all four pods at the same time. If at any time the dog ceases to want to work, I stop.
More about training pods
Training the pods needs to be done in short sessions. It is mentally and physically challenging especially for very large dogs, so shorter sessions will prevent frustration and boredom for both you and the dog.
If you are using shaping with your dog and feel you aren’t making much progress, don’t give up. The temptation is to place your dogs feet onto the pods. This slows the thinking process for your dog. You really want him to figure it out himself if possible. However, if you think it may help to do this once or twice, just to help your dog out, give it a try. Training dogs is just as much as skill as an art, and because all dogs and humans are different, each person may need to try different things to find out what works for an individual dog.
I believe that all healthy dogs should learn some conditioning exercises, especially working dogs. They are often the ones that get forgotten with regards to fitness and conditioning and are the ones who really need it for long term working. Conditioning is necessary for even working livestock guardians who are mostly working on their own with stock. It could be a challenge to do the work with them, but I believe it can only help prolong working ability and mobility as the dog ages. Pets also often don’t get enough mental and physical stimulation so even just working on the pods would be a very interesting pastime for them.
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Happy Pod Training!