Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Step 1: Teaching a dog to play pool

It was the cracking sound of the pool stick breaking against the balls that got Sensi all riled up.
At first, we paid little attention to his reaction. And so, his reaction grew bigger and bigger.
In no time, Sensi was practically going nuts every time someone tried to make a shot.
He’d bark and bark, trying to jump up on the table and steal the pool balls. Then he’d start lunging at the pool stick when someone lined up their shot. Before long, it was impossible to play a game of pool with him around.
This did not make Brent happy. He enjoys playing pool with his friends.
I, on the other hand, don’t enjoy playing pool. I’ve been around pool tables all my life. Time and time again, I’ve tried and miserably failed at learning to play. Many a person has tried to teach me and subsequently given up.
I chalk it up to my math skills, which are nonexistent. In fact, the only class I’ve ever dropped out of in my life was — you guessed it — geometry.
Watching Sensi jump up on the table and try to take (rescue?) the pool balls gave me an idea.
Perhaps, just maybe, he could learn to play pool.
With an extra set of pool balls, I began working with him on the floor.
Again, training a complex behavior has to be done in layers. Layer one is teaching the command that will be the foundation of the game.
That command, for Sensi, was “push it.”
My goal was to get Sensi to push the ball forward with his nose. I took an old set of pool balls, put one in front of him and asked him to push it.
When he tried to grab it with his mouth, I told him “No!” and whisked the ball away. Then he tried pawing at it, and again, I said, “No!” and took it away.
It took some time for him to learn that he was supposed to push it with his nose. I prompted him by touching the pool ball to his nose and immediately following it up with a treat.
We ended the first training session on a positive note, although he hadn’t learned to actually push it. But it’s always important to end training sessions on a good note and not force the dog to keep participating after boredom sets in.
Persistence is key.
We did short training sessions — about 15 minutes — every night for about a week. Little successes were rewarded with huge celebrations, and he quickly learned to push the ball and push it hard.
By the time the week ended, the command was pretty well ingrained in him.
That, of course, means it’s time to start the second layer of training. Read more tomorrow.

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