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Puppy Steps

Caper is an Appenzeller Sennenhund (a Swiss herding dog), who did not like being in the car. She especially didn’t like getting into the car, and would have to be picked up and put into the back hatch, and then safely into her crate. We needed to fix this issue. I talked with Caper’s human parents (Audrey and Steve) and we made a plan.

I wanted Caper to get into the car by herself, but my goal was for her to want to get in, and enjoy doing it. We decided to make it a game. We needed to make it fun. But… we had to take this project in small steps to make it work. We needed to take it in puppy steps.

We started by having Caper jump up onto a small platform and get a treat. We would click a clicker (to help her understand the behavior we wanted), and then give her a treat! She loved this game. She’d had some agility training, and this behavior was like getting onto an agility pause table. Then we had her walk across a ramp (which was flat on the ground) and hop up onto the platform for a click (marking the behavior) and then a treat! When she was ready, we let her walk up the slightly inclined ramp to get onto the platform (click/treat)! 

Then her human dad (Steve) backed the car into the driveway (so the ramp wouldn’t be as steep), and we put the ramp on the platform and into the back of the car. This changed the game just a little. Caper jumped up onto the platform, then walked up the ramp through the hatchback entrance to get a click and a jackpot of treats, scattered in the back of the SUV – celebrating for a few seconds and then running back down the ramp to the platform and safe on the ground. We could tell she was having fun! We practiced this behavior over and over (and over and over) until she did it without thinking. She just couldn’t wait to run up the ramp and hear the click, to know that a tasty reinforcer was coming.

The next session, we reviewed hopping onto the platform, and walking up the ramp into the car for a bit, and then we removed the platform, so the bottom of the ramp was on the ground. It would be the same behavior, just a little steeper. Caper ran right up the ramp into the car!  

So then we put her crate into the back of the car. 

The next step was having her run up the ramp into the car and get treated in the crate. It was no big deal for Caper, and soon she was happily running up the ramp, getting into the crate and turning around to get her click and treat. We’d removed the anxiety of getting into the car and the crate by making it a game. She no longer had to be picked up, carried into the car, and stuffed into the crate. Watch the fun video of Audrey coaching Caper to go up the ramp into her crate.

We fixed the issue, and we approached the problem from the Caper’s perspective, taking the project in small (puppy) steps, and trading anxiety for fun. Dogs are so much like kids. If we can make a job a game, the work goes smoother, and everyone is happy! 

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