Lesson 8 of 10
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How to teach the training game

Here’s a plan, complete with video demos, for dogs on both ends of the spectrum.

This plan helps build enthusiasm for training. It takes the frustration they’re experiencing and turns it into more of a fun challenge. We want to help your dog learn to enjoy the whole process.

Step 1: Your first three training sessions should be marker-charging sessions

Markers help frustrated and reluctant dogs by improving clarity, but there are other benefits, too. Do this in the place that will be your low-distraction training area (aka your level one training basecamp)

Watch the lesson on marker charging for details. The basic idea is that a marker is a quick sound that tells the dog “you guessed correctly and now you win a prize.”

Charging the marker is the process of pairing the sound with a treat.

Normally, I recommend just one marker-charging session before beginning your actual training. But you’ll want to do more with your “food training skeptic” dog, because it splits the criteria down to the easiest possible first step. The dog doesn’t have to do literally anything except take food.

And it gets the dog used to the idea that “we get delicious treats in this spot.”

Step 2: Get the dog to follow a lure

We’re raising the criteria from “just eat treats” to “follow the treat as it moves away from you.” Throwing in juuust a bit of problem-solving.

Lure/reward is a training technique where you stick a treat in front of a dog’s nose and get them to follow it into the position you want. A handy technique, but dogs don’t always get the idea. They might just think “human has a treat, but they’re pulling the treat away. The treat must not be for me.”

Stick a treat in front of the dog’s nose, and mark/reward as soon as they lean in for it. Then start raising your criteria so they have to move bigger distances to get the treat. This video demonstrates:

Step 3: Teach the hand target/hand touch

Now we’re getting to our first real dog trick! The hand target is a useful skill with many uses. And because it’s so simple, it helps teach dogs the training game.

Go watch the Hand Target tutorial.

For food-obsessed dogs: Is even the hand targeting exercise too much for your dog? Are they completely unable to tear their gaze away from the treat in order to look at the target? In the video below, I’m demonstrating a variation on hand target training that might kickstart your training progress.

Start by setting up a pattern: reach into your treat pouch, hold out treat, give dog treat. Do four reps of that in a row.

On the 5th rep, hold out your empty hand. When the dog goes to reach for the treat they assume is there, mark, and reward with a treat out of your other hand.

Step 4: Play the box game

Get a cardboard box, put it in front of the dog, and every single time they do anything with the box, mark/reward. There are no wrong answers, only right answers.

The point is to reward the dog for trying. This further teaches the training game, and builds their problem-solving skills. It can help reluctant dogs feel more comfortable.

Once they learn that making guesses gets rewards, they may be more likely to stick with other training exercises where you’re looking for specific guesses.