Friday, May 21, 2010

Sit, Stay, and Other Feats of the Therapy Dog

As many of you know, one important task of any well mannered therapy dog is an ability to sit and stay. This comes easy for many dogs. It's comfortable to sit, for example. Additionally, many of us discoverer than when we sit, good things happen like treats appear or we get a toy. That's pretty cool.

Others find this task a little more difficult. Being part basset hound, I have a mind of my own. I give my best effort, most of the time. Even when I don't want to I will give a begrudging hover over the ground giving the illusion of sitting. Still, there are times when I'm just going to ignore the request. Why? Because I feel like doing something else. My history is replete with ancestors who were selected for thinking on their own. I follow scents. I make choices about what is interesting and then follow those choices with my nose.

The problem is mostly with this test I'm taking. To become a registered therapy dog, I have to demonstrate a good sit/stay (in addition, there is the talent competition and the swimsuit competition, I'll talk about that later). More then the test, being able to sit/stay is a useful thing. It makes shopping at the pet store easier on the humans. It makes people more interested in saying hello to me when I can sit/stay and wag my tail (though I think it's much more interesting to climb up on their shoulders and provide copious kisses).

What's a frustrated human to do? Real world training. I'm nearly 100 percent compliant with a request to sit/stay in situations where there are few distractions. Add in something more interesting and your results might vary.

The other day while on a walk along the river we stumbled upon an ideal situation for some real-life practice. Two birds and their babies were enjoying some shade. I wanted to sniff, investigate, and perhaps heard them into the river. I actually did get to do that with another family of geese. Here is a view of my handiwork. They do not look nearly as amused as I was. The more they yelled at me the more I decided that herding them into the river was the right thing to do. It's not very nice that they complain after I encouraged them to take a refreshing swim.

I'm digressing, however. You see, I got to do something fun and rewarding (herd the geese) and then the human asked me to do something for him.

The idea here is to have an opportunity to practice a sit/stay with a lot of distraction. Those of you who following along here know that I've practiced this in lots of interesting places like the subway station, at the river, and just about everywhere I go.

It's takes a lot of patience. There is a lot of stopping and starting. Try rewarding your pup when they sit down for just a second. If they sit for two seconds, add in the word stay. Build it up longer and longer and before you know it, your dog can sit/stay like I did in with these geese. I sat for a full minute before the human said "okay" which is my cue to get back up and do whatever it is I'd like to do. In this case, I nudged the family into the water for a refreshing dip.

Remember the premack principle: a more probable behavior will reinforce a less probable behavior. In this case, I'm much more likely to herd geese. The human "reverse engineered" this over time so that I get rewarded for a sit/stay by getting to later chase geese. 


  1. Where do you live? It's very pretty.

  2. These images were taken near work. The human's psychotherapy office is in the heart of Harvard Square in Cambridge Massachusetts. The Charles River, where I do a lot of my goose herding, is a three minute walk from the office. That was the setting for this blog post. I live in northern Massachusetts in the Merrimack river valley.