Posts in category Clover

Teaching Retrieve to Hand:
Playing outside and getting your dog to place the ball directly into your hand

Gambit placing ball in my hand

I watched enviously as my friend’s dog retrieved the ball and dropped it into her outstretched hand. My dogs always dropped the ball at least 5 feet away and I had to go pick it up.

I wanted my new dog to actually return the ball to me and place it directly into my hand. Previously, I taught Clover to retrieve a dumbbell to my hand so it seemed like a similar method might work with teaching my puppy Gambit to retrieve a ball to my hand. (Clover’s mostly blind so she can’t retrieve to hand with much distance.)

There was a snag in my plan. Initially, Gambit didn’t want to retrieve at all. Half of the time he didn’t even chase after the ball as it rolled away. The Facebook video of one of Gambit’s littermates taunted me. It showed the puppy retrieving multiple times on the very same day he arrived in his new home. But Gambit was on his own schedule. I had to have faith that eventually he would learn to love retrieving.

First Step: Returning to me with the ball
I worked a lot on throwing the ball and running away, encouraging Gambit to chase me. Sometimes he would run after me and sometimes he wouldn’t. Sometimes he ran after me but dropped the ball. We practiced in small spaces inside and then gradually worked up to playing with 2 balls outside. Shade Whitesel’s toy class through Fenzi Dog Sports Academy was very helpful.

I often played with Gambit without touching the ball when he returned to me. I never took the ball from his mouth and I always traded him for anything he picked up. Separately we worked on an “out” cue, which meant spit out whatever is in your mouth and I will reward you.

Picking up various objects
I also worked on clicker training Gambit to pick up various objects, keys, a fork, chopsticks, etc. We also worked on hand targeting so Gambit was used to coming in close to touch my hand with his nose. And I think the most important skill I taught Gambit, besides running back to me with the ball, was chin targeting.

Chin Targeting
One of the first skills I teach new dogs is chin targeting. I find it to be a super useful behavior. It helps the dog think about targeting with different body parts. I can use chin targeting to teach a dog to hold a dumbbell, move into a stand, side step, find the correct position for front and I’m sure I can come up with several other uses. I also found I could use chin targeting to teach Clover to bring a dumbbell to me and teach Gambit to return his ball to my hand.

Putting it together
For some dogs, you can use a hand touch to get them to come closer with their ball but I wanted the toy or object actually delivered to my hand.
Once Gambit was happily shoving his chin into my hand we then worked on this skill in different locations and from varying distances. We were also separately working on him running back to me with his ball. When Gambit was performing both skills reliably, we started putting chin targeting and retrieving together.

As Gambit moved toward me with his ball I would cue him to put his chin in my hand. With the chin cue my dog is delivering his chin to my hand so it’s easy to add the next step of putting the ball in my hand. I started to say my drop cue – which for Gambit is “out” – when his chin was in my hand and then began to say it a bit earlier, just before he put his chin in my hand, so the ball dropped into my palm. I would then mark the drop with a “yes” and reward him with a ball toss. Eventually I changed the cue to “pick up” so Gambit would know he was picking up an object and delivering it to my hand. Subsequently, I no longer needed to cue chin and then the drop/out separately.

I’m very happy with the results. It is clear to Gambit when he is returning the object to my hand and he understands the reward is that I will throw the ball again or we will work a bit and then I will throw it.

How did you teach your dog to retrieve to your hand?

If you’d like help teaching chin targeting, retrieving, retrieve to hand, or another skill, Mica Dog Training is now offering live online lessons. Work with our trainer in the comfort of your home. Find out more here.

*Some dogs naturally return the ball to your hand if you just put out your hand and some dogs can be easily transitioned from a hand touch to placing the ball in your hand. Utilizing chin targeting with retrieving has worked well with my dogs and several client dogs.

Going Around the Horn

I was working with Clover recently on parts of the retrieve, specifically the hold and pick up. I wanted her to hold the dumbbell for at least 5 seconds and separately I wanted her to pick up the dumbbell when cued, turn quickly and move toward me.

We started out a bit rough. We hadn’t practiced for a while and initially Clover would take the dumbbell in her mouth and immediately drop it. Then we worked for a bit and she quickly improved, holding it for several seconds at a time and seemed to be doing well. And then, ugh. She was barely taking it and dropping it. We were back to where we started, maybe worse.

This is what Hannah Branigan calls the “downslope of your training session curve” in her blog post on the topic. (

And often when I get to this point I feel like I have to go around the horn.

Toy Story 2 – around the horn
[Rex is Channel-surfing at a Slow Pace to find the Al’s Toy Barn commercial]
Rex: I can’t find it. It doesn’t seem to be on any of these stations.
Hamm: Oh you’re going too slow, let me do the job.
[Hamm starts Channel-surfing at a Breathtaking Speed]
Rex: It’s too fast. How can you even tell what’s on?
Hamm: I can tell.
[Hamm just skips right past the Al’s Toy Barn commercial]
Rex: Go back, go back, you missed it!
Hamm: Too late, I’m in the 40’s, gotta go around the horn!

We are doing well and then we aren’t, so I keep training until we are doing well again. Sometimes this takes a while and we both get frustrated somewhere in the middle.

But what if I just stopped? What if when we stopped doing well I took a break and we worked on something else and then came back to the task or saved it for another day? Why do I feel like I’m committed and must “go around the horn”?

One of the nice things about positive training is that you are essentially always ending on a good note. My dog should be having a good time and feeling like her time and effort are being rewarded. If we switch to doing something else because we are in the downslope we should be ok to pick up where we left off next time.

So, ideally I quit while I’m ahead and stop when Clover is retrieving and picking up the dumbbell beautifully. The hard part is walking away and moving on when I’ve misjudged and trained too long; I haven’t stopped in time and Clover’s suddenly not doing so well and we’re in the downslope.

My goal for our next training session is to be mindful of the downslope. I’m going to try to quit while things are going well, but if I reach the downslope I’m going to put on the brakes instead of continuing down the hill. At least, that’s my plan….

Clover with dumbbell

Letting Go and Holding On

I almost missed it. There’s a seminar next weekend with a trainer I really admire and she rarely does seminars on the east coast. I came very close to signing up this morning. I was actually looking at the registration information when my phone rang.

It was my friend calling to tell me she needed to cancel our dogs’ play date for the afternoon. Her 12 1/2 year old dog was mysteriously lame. He’d gone to the vet yesterday for a Rimadyl refill; it seemed his arthritis was acting up. This morning he had gone out to use the bathroom and walked around a bit in the grass. Suddenly, he was horribly lame, unable to put any pressure on his rear leg and seemed unable to move the bottom half of it.

My friend rushed her dog to the emergency vet clinic by her house and texted a short time later. X-rays confirmed the vet’s suspicions. The leg was severely fractured and an aggressive bone cancer was spreading. My friend would have to let her sweet dog go within a few hours.

I was stunned. Her dog was getting old but he still seemed in good shape; he’d just enjoyed a trip to the beach and I saw him just the other day in pictures with her other dogs. He was one of the first dogs I introduced Gambit to as a puppy and one of Clover’s first dog friends. He was a sweet, gentle soul and he will be greatly missed.

Gambit and Louie

Prim, Louie and Clover

My friends’ day and mine ended very differently then I thought it would when I woke up this morning. I thought I was getting ready to go hang out and let our dogs play. I had no idea she would have to say good bye to her wonderful boy a few hours later.

It seems that even when we lose our dogs they leave us with a precious gift, their constant reminder to be as present as possible and to enjoy the moments together.

So, I’m not going to the seminar next weekend. It’s Kira’s birthday weekend. We’ve been through a lot this past year. It was a close call, but I’m not missing Kira’s birthday for anything.

My heart aches for my friend and I will miss her boy. Thank you for the reminder to hold on to these moments.

*You can read more about Kira’s story here:
We have a sit!, Enjoying the Sunshine, Life Lessons From Kira, Kira is getting old, and it is mostly wonderful

Clarity is Kindness: Helping our dogs understand what we want

Lately, when I’m training Clover, Parvene Farhoody’s phrase, “clarity is kindness,” comes to mind. Parvene announced this phrase at a seminar I attended last year.* She instructed her audience to write it down.

When working on heel position with Clover, I need to find a way to provide clarity. I want Clover to remain standing when she pivots on the pivot platform and when we rotate around a cone. I want her to shift her weight to her rear but not sit. This will help Clover learn to drive the movement with her rear and allow for more powerful and accurate heeling. Clover is convinced sitting is better. How can I help Clover understand what I want without overly frustrating her? For clarity, I added a rear foot target behind the pivot platform. First, I reinforced a skill she is familiar with, rear foot targeting to a foot target, and then I added the pivot platform back in. We are still working on pivoting around the cone but Clover now remains standing on the pivot platform instead of sitting.

Focusing on providing clarity to Clover has greatly improved our training in the last few weeks. Clarity is not only kindness, it is essential to good training.

*Workshop mentioned: Out of the lab and into the field: performance dogs in the real world; Bob Bailey and Parvene Farhoody; 4/30/2016-5/1/2016.

Fetch is overrated! Try Soccer!
There are lots of ways to exercise your dog

Roka outside with ball

I don’t play fetch very often. I’m not against fetch. I just think soccer is often better. It takes a lot of effort for a dog to chase a ball and not all dogs find it equally rewarding to run back and give their precious ball to someone. If there is enough room to play fetch, then there should be enough room for soccer.

With soccer, there’s no conflict. I kick the ball, my dog runs and he gets to keep the ball he has. The main difference with soccer is it involves me moving around, which is probably not a bad thing. After I finished playing soccer today my phone informed me that I had walked for 12 minutes. That’s not too shabby. I walked half a mile, just walking around my back yard kicking the ball for my dog, playing soccer. My dog got exercise, I got exercise and he got to hold on to his ball. Everybody wins.

My young dog Gambit likes to run very, very fast and is not as good at deceleration. With soccer, the game is a bit more controlled and Gambit is less likely to hurt himself. I’ve trained Gambit to return the ball to my hand but soccer is still a fun activity for us.

My older dogs, Roka and Kira, are typical possessive German Shepherds and definitely prefer soccer or retrieving with 2 balls to returning and releasing one ball. My Golden Retriever, Clover, is mostly blind and playing ball is very arousing for her. She does much better when she holds the ball in her mouth and I kick a second ball that she runs toward by locating through sound.

Exercise solutions can be different for different dogs and soccer is only one solution. It just happens to be one of my favorites.

Here’s a super short video of Roka and I playing our version of soccer and Kira cheering in the background.

*Some dogs like to play goalie so be careful when kicking the ball and in some cases it may be helpful to teach your dog to back up before kicking the ball.

It All Adds Up

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about adduction and Clover and I have been playing around with it.

So what is adduction?

One of the dictionary definitions for adduct lists it as a chemical term: A chemical compound that forms from the addition of two or more substances.

So how does adduction relate to dog training?

The fabulous Ken Ramirez gave a great talk on Adduction at Clicker Expo. I was lucky enough to be able to attend it in person a few years ago. According to Ken’s talk, adduction is the art of combining cues — a type of compound cue. Adduction combines tricks and skills that don’t usually go together to create new behaviors.

When you ask your dog to lie down and he does but keeps barking, he’s performed his own version of adduction. He’s created a new behavior, barking while lying down. You just didn’t cue the barking, that was his own idea!

The trick where a dog rolls herself up in a blanket is adduction. The dog needs to be able to hold the blanket and roll at the same time.

What skills are really strong for your dog? Can they be combined to create any new and fun behaviors?

Adduction is a new challenge for Clover and I and a fun way to be creative with our training.

We previously worked on burrito – Clover rolling herself up in a blanket ( and currently we are working on spin and hold and back up and hold. Down and back went better than I expected. She’s scooting backwards from a down when I cue her to down and then give her a hand signal to back up.

Here are a few examples of our experiments with adduction:

*Ken Ramirez’s talk is available for purchase at

My Funny Valentine

Clover and I have struggled in the past to work together in public. She’s mostly blind and has a very difficult time focusing in new environments. She’s brilliant at home but she’s even had trouble focusing in my driveway with my husband moving around to video us. These challenges have caused me angst over the years but this Valentine’s Day weekend was so very sweet. My husband generously stayed home with our other 3 dogs so I could visit my nieces in Pennsylvania to celebrate their birthdays. As a traveling companion, Clover is the best. She doesn’t like the car, probably because she experiences vertigo, but she will tolerate it. And when we arrived at our destination she was absolutely perfect, lying next to me on the couch while we watched TV and snuggling with me at night. Clover adores my 8 and 12 year old nieces and the girls love her back.

I like to think that Clover is influencing how my nieces feel about dogs and how they feel about disabilities too. Clover doesn’t let anything stop her and the girls often help to train her. They are learning to plan training sessions and how to tell when she needs a break. Most importantly, my nieces are learning Clover’s lack of vision is something we need to adjust for but doesn’t prevent us from training complicated behaviors. Sunday morning, my youngest niece and I worked on shaping Clover to put her paws in my sneakers and we talked about how we are teaching small steps to build toward the goal behavior of Clover walking in my shoes.

Having this time with Clover and my nieces was such a special gift. Life has been a bit crazy since we got our puppy Gambit and Kira lost her mobility in early December. It was so nice to have this time to reconnect with Clover and be reminded of how lucky I am; it was good to slow down and just hang out.

I hope you all had a wonderful Valentine’s Day weekend! Please give your pups a smooch from Clover and me!
Clover 20160214_084237-1