Friday, July 19, 2013

Drop that Stick!

As some of you recall, I have a long standing daily walk gig with a Cairn Terrier whom I refer to as Walt, aka Client X.  (We must protect him from the dangerous snare of celebrity.  Should he taste renown, his temperament suggests that he would bask.)

Walt has observed with apparent joy, that wind and rain are nature's tree pruners.  Thus, after such weather, Walt uses our walking time to hunt sticks.  Firstly, Walt thinks big.  Perhaps it is his Scottish heritage.  He sees himself as one of those huge guys in a kilt carrying a phone pole across a field than tossing it end over end. Walt's version of the Highland Games is taking a dead tree limb roughly the size of a javelin, and carrying that across a field.  A few hundred yards later, he permits me to take the javelin stick and toss it for him.  Walt scampers after the stick.  He picks it up and I toss it again. 

Mega fun.

You may be thinking, wait a minute!  That's like fetch, isn't it?  A Terrier fetching?  How do you get a determined guy like Walt to relinquish the stick?! 

Even most Retrievers need a little fetch instruction.

Let's look at a couple of ways you can teach a dog to drop the stick. 

Here's how Walt learned to drop the stick.  After he walked around merrily with the stick in his mouth, I reached down and gripped the stick.  Walt's first impulse was to pull.  Since I didn't want to teach him to play tug, I released the stick.  He strutted around some more,  with the stick in his mouth.  Once again I reached down and gripped the stick.  This time Walt didn't pull, but let go.  I then tossed the stick.  Walt merrily fetched the stick.

Walt is no dummy.  He realized that letting me have the stick for a brief time brought about boffo fun. 

Not all dogs will get it that quickly, so you may have to repeat the Gripping of the Stick exercise.  Or you might wait till the dog drops the stick on his own, then casually pick up the stick and announce your intentions by exclaiming FETCH! as you throw the stick.  (Walt and I don't talk much, we play without exclamations).

Another way to teach a dog to drop the stick is via generalization.

Yes, I know.  Some "experts" say a dog is incapable of generalizing, that is, understanding a command in a different situation than the one in which he learned it.

Poppycock.  If that were so, how do experts account for my dogs?  They were taught the "get up there" command at the back door of their home, to mount the three stairs to the kitchen.  Yet somehow magically they all were able on the first try, to understand that "get up there" means move upwards, not just the three stairs to the kitchen, but also to climb the stairs to the second floor of the house, or to enter an automobile!    

Now, let's look at using generalization to teach drop a stick.  We teach puppies the "drop it" command.  This command teaches them to relinquish something that we deem off limits, such as your shoes or the family cat. 

If you haven't already taught your dog to drop it, here's a How-To. The dog picks up say, a pencil.  You tell him to "drop it".  Offer him something better, such as a piece of cheese or his favorite toy.  He drops the pencil, he gets the cheese.  He learns that "drop it" brings better things.

Back to dropping the stick- the dog has a stick in his mouth.  You say "drop it".  He knows what "drop it" means, so he drops it, eager to find out what better thing will happen.  You toss the stick.  He runs to it.

Super fun.


  1. They're smart animals, after all.

    When there's a problem, it starts with the owner.

    And Walt sounds like a sweetie!

  2. Of course they are! Animals just speak a different language!