If I know anything about dogs, it’s that they love to learn new things! All kinds of things! And my little dog is no exception to that rule! I absolutely love training tricks with Rugby, and this is a great way to give him a larger world and life. It gives him a totally new experience, and makes him think and focus on me, which are the hard skills I want him to learn! He’s so reactive to his environment, and I am always working on skills to help with impulse control and focus on me! Because he came to me with such strong trust issues, I honestly think that trick training was the very catalyst that forged deep trust between Rugby and I. And beyond all of that, let’s face it….tricks are just fun, and they’re not just for kids!!
Sometimes, I train tricks for no reason other than giving Rugby the opportunity to learn something new, and not because I need to have him perform a given task. This is the case with today’s trick: climbing a stepladder. I certainly don’t need to have Rugby climbing stepladders around the house, but I thought the idea of teaching him to carefully place his paws in a given space and order would be fun and challenging for him.
I also happened to have a two step stepladder at home, which was just the perfect training tool to use in teaching Rugby this trick. I love the design of the stepladder. The steps themselves are very wide and deep, and they are textured to help him get secure footing. The bar at the top of the stepladder is high enough that Rugby will easily fit under it once he gets to the top. It’s not terribly high, so if he should fall during the process, he will still be safe. I also started the trick on a thick carpet, just in case.
This is going to sound just crazy, but dogs really don’t seem to understand that they have front paws and back paws. I’ve encountered this time and again when teaching dogs to walk a plank or on bleachers, for example. They can understand placing their front paws on something, and seem to have no difficulty keeping front paws on a plank. But with every single dog that I have trained this skill, their back paws fell off the edges as they tried to walk, much to the dog’s surprise. It takes a bit of practice for them to understand that they have to think about where to place those back paws as they walk!
So this presented a vertical challenge for Rugby, and not a horizontal one, which I thought would be fun for him! I had no idea how he would respond, and I’ve never asked him to climb something like this before. My guess was that he would simply try to jump to the top of the stepladder, and cut right to the chase to get the treat, rather than think through the process of the steps involved. This is where the bar across the top of the stepladder actually worked in my favor. It was a bit of a visual barrier that helped keep Rugby from trying to just jump to the top. It was very important for me to have him actually have to think through the steps of the trick and come up with a process of behavior rather than a quick reward and he was done….which is really what Rugby would sometimes prefer to do!
I started the process with Rugby on one side of the stepladder, and I was behind it, holding some high value treats that I could use to lure him into the behavior that I wanted from him. Rugby already knows the command “Paws Up” which means that he should put only his front paws on whatever I direct….my legs, a stool, bench, etc. So I started with “Paws Up” to get the process started. He easily complied, putting his paws right on the top step. He got a treat for that! I simply asked him to climb the ladder, while holding the treat just out of his reach. This created a lure for him to pull forward and upward and he naturally figured out exactly what I was after.
Initially, he didn’t know what to do with his back feet at all. He tried reaching as far as he could, but wasn’t able to reach the next treat. He started to scramble with his back paws, trying to put them right behind his front paws, but it was too high for him, so he stumbled a bit which made him a bit uncertain. Rugby has trained with me long enough that he knows if one thing doesn’t work, he needs to problem solve and try something else.
Dogs are just wonderful problem solvers!! When I’m doing any type of dog training, I typically entice a dog to produce a specific, given behavior, and let them try and fail….helping them along the way so that they don’t become frustrated or discouraged….until they figure out what I want from them. I coach them into what I’m looking for, letting them think, process and burn some mental energy as they figure out how to solve the problem: getting to the tasty treat! Rugby understands this routine, so he tries something and then quickly figures out to try something different, if the first thing didn’t work to get him the reward. He frustrates easily, so I try to make the steps small, and keep the rewards coming so that he can figure things out without giving up completely.
He had some fails with his back paws missing the stepladder altogether….going to the outside of the stepladder instead of placing them on the step. I quickly realized that I needed to make sure he was climbing in the center of the stepladder to give him the best shot at putting his back feet exactly where they needed to be.
Believe it or not, Rugby figured this out so quickly, it made my head spin just a bit. The longer we worked on this, the more he seemed to understand putting one paw up and then bringing the next paw up, taking each step individually, just as I wanted. Once he reached the top, he wanted to jump down right away, so I needed to work with him a bit to relax at the top and just hang out and get some extra treats.
I want to invest in a taller stepladder, and keep this trick going! There’s no end in sight for this little dog!
The video was from Rugby’s third attempt. He wasn’t perfect or fluid, but he certainly was getting the idea of what I was looking for!