Old Dogs Thinking about Learning New Tricks

Here’s a question for you readers. What do you get when you combine an adorable dog, a college student who is already tired of school and needs an exciting project outside of school to make life interesting, two inspiring blog posts and late night inspiration? You get crazy ideas!

     Alright, perhaps I should start from the beginning. The weekend after getting my wisdom teeth out when I pretty much spent my days alternating between sleeping off pain medication and reading blogs, one of the posts I read was this post: http://aftergadget.wordpress.com/2011/01/07/sing-a-song/

     I found out about this lady’s blog through another blog that I follow and first started reading it when this blogger was the host for the first Assistance Dog Blog Carnival I participated in back in October. (The first post I submitted to the carnival was my reflection on my one year anniversary with Gilbert, and the second post of course was my rant on table scraps). Anyway, this lady’s blog is so interesting I started following her blog after the carnival.

     This lady doesn’t use a guide dog but is training a puppy to be a wheelchair service dog for her. In this post, she talks about how she is using a training method where in addition to the training to perform service dog techniques, there are twelve fun activities that you do with your dog to forge a stronger bond with them, and one of these activities is to adapt a song to incorporate the dog’s name, and then sing it to him. Just to be silly, around Christmas time before I even knew this could be used as a training exercise, I had adapted “Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer” to “Gilbert the Wet-nosed Puppy” and sang it to him in a baby/puppy voice. In this blog, this lady said the goal of the activity was to not only forge a stronger bond but find a song that would get his tail wagging, and that’s when I realized that “Gilbert the Wet-nosed Puppy” didn’t do it for Gilbert. If he was laying down when I sang it, he gave me no response, and if he was standing when I sang it, he would just sit down as if to say, “Wow Mom, you’re strange”. So while Gilbert seemed to enjoy going to choir with me last semester, I let the idea of singing to him drop figuring maybe songs sang directly to him wasn’t his cup of tea. But when I posted a comment about Gilbert’s bored reaction to my song, she responded saying her dog gave her the same reaction with a lot of songs she tried before finding the song she ultimately chose, a song that gets her dog wagging his tail and running circles. This gave me renewed inspiration! Maybe Gilbert is fully trained, but who says we still cannot do this activity just for fun?

     With the start of school, and the stress of adapting to a new routine and a huge pile of homework after a month long vacation, I kind of forgot about this goal, until last Wednesday night that is. This semester, I have class from 6:00 to 9:30 in the evening so I don’t get home until 10:00 or so. I am the kind of person who is wired after sitting in class for three and a half hours, so despite my best efforts to unwind through reading and watching the news, I was still wide awake when the clock struck midnight. This wasn’t the case with Gilbert who was conked out in his favorite spot, his dog bed right in front of the couch. I didn’t have class until 1:00 Thursday afternoon, but since I wanted to get some homework done in the morning, I thought I better put Gilbert in his crate for the night and go to bed anyway.

     “Gilbert, come!” I called clapping my hands.

     Gilbert made no response. During the day when I call him, he runs to me right away, but late at night when he is passed out in front of the couch, it is not uncommon for him to ignore this command, but since he comes so well during the day, I don’t yell at him because I honestly think he is so sound asleep he doesn’t hear me. Instead, I always go over to him and say “come on Gilbert. Let’s go to bed!” and gently pull on his collar, to which he slowly gets up, stretches and follows me to his crate. Often times when I put him to bed my brain is so fried from finishing homework or something that we are both yawning as we walk to his crate, but on this night, I was so full of energy, energy I couldn’t resist rubbing off on Gilbert after rousing him with the usual routine of pulling on his collar. We were just approaching the stairs when without even thinking about my goal to find a song to get Gilbert excited, I spontaneously started snapping my fingers and burst in to a chorus of “Wake up little Gilbert, wake up!” a spoof on the 1957 Everly Brothers hit “Wake up Little Suzie”. And guess what? Instead of sitting down and sighing at me as if to say, “oh Mom, quit this nonsense and just put me to bed would you?” he wagged his tail furiously! I had found his song!

     After laughing and giving him a hug, the remainder of our procession was the most joyful one ever as I galloped down the stairs humming this song with him running after me exuberantly. After putting him in his crate and saying goodnight to him, I was just about to tell myself, “Alright Allison, calm down”, when I remembered another post by this same blogger: http://aftergadget.wordpress.com/2011/01/18/my-operant-dog/

     This post was about how this lady made the new year’s resolution to teach her dog a totally useless trick, just for fun. Not only would it be fun for her, but it would be a fun diversion from the dog’s regular service dog training, not to mention that it would also be a great bonding experience. This too was an idea that I thought would be fun, but was at a loss for what kind of trick I could teach him. The trick she worked on with her dog, filing his nails on a sandpaper board wasn’t something I thought Gilbert or I would be interested in. And then that night, like a lightbulb flicking on, I had a revelation about the most perfect, awesome trick that could be incorporated with Gilbert’s newfound favorite song! What if I could teach Gilbert to come to “Wake up little Gilbert” instead of the same old boring “Gilbert Come”? Would this song be more effective at rousing my sound little sleeper than the monotony of the traditional command?

     So for the next hour, I lay in bed fantasizing about how fun teaching this trick could be, and how with someone’s technological assistance, it would make the cutest YouTube video ever! I eventually settled down and went to sleep, deciding that maybe I should think about this idea in the daytime hours when I often don’t have the inspiration I do late at night, yet think more rationally. Sure enough, the next morning, I was beginning to think that although it would be cute, would it be too complicated to teach? And how on earth would I teach such a trick anyway? That evening, my mom added to my doubt with the concern that maybe such a trick would confuse him and I should keep to the way he was trained, which was to come to the command “Gilbert come”.

     But the more I think about it, I actually think such a trick could be doable. I mean, I’ve seen pet talent shows where dogs are trained to do card tricks or dance. This trick would be easy compared with that right? Also, I wouldn’t want to confuse him so that he no longer responded to the traditional come command, especially since while many professors and future employers who would witness this trick might find it adorable, there is the risk that some might find this trick unprofessional and a little too nutty. (smile) But then I got to thinking, just like I have heard that a lot of guide dog handlers allow certain behavior at home that is not allowed in public, the same could be true for this trick couldn’t it? The traditional command could be used when out in public, and this trick could be his at home trick.

     I still don’t know exactly how I would teach this trick, but am beginning to have a little bit of an idea. This lady’s blog post talked about how she started teaching the trick to her dog by creating a no fail situation with very low expectations at first. For example, in the beginning, she would give the dog a treat just for looking at the sandpaper board. So maybe I could start by standing really close to Gilbert and singing the song and have a sighted person with me to tell me if he makes the slightest perking up of the ears or opening of the eyes, to which I could treat him with a piece of dog food and then go from there. I don’t know. Teaching tricks is uncharted territory for me. But I don’t see why old dogs–which applies to both me and Gilbert since Gilbert turns four today–cannot learn new tricks. What do you readers think? Have any of you taught your dogs tricks just for fun? How did you go about doing it? Do you think this kind of trick would be within Gilbert’s intelligence, and did the teaching of tricks have any adverse effects on their regular service dog duties? I would love your feedback about this.

     And even if teaching this trick doesn’t work out, I could still find a soundtrack of this song, make up more cute dog words for it and post a video of me singing this adapted song to him. That might be equally adorable!

Published by Allison Nastoff

As I write this in 2020, I am 30 years old. I am blind, and Gilbert was my first guide dog. He passed away on December 2, 2020, but I decided to keep the title for my blog as a tribute to him because he will always hold a special place in my heart. In 2012, I earned a Bachelor of Science in Communication with a journalism emphasis, and went back to school for a Paralegal certificate in 2014. I worked for five years at a Social Security disability firm. When the pandemic hit, I did some reflecting and decided to resign from this job and take seminary courses. My dream is a career as a teacher or writer where I can be a blessing to others.

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