I wrote about Chirag Patel, as a rising star in the dog training world in July of 2018 (or, a million years ago, in the Before Times), and am loving the opportunity to write about him again. What he calls “The Bucket Game” has gotten a lot of attention lately, as well it should. I’m sure many of you know about it, but it feels worthwhile to talk about it now for several reasons. First, of course, not everyone knows about it, and second, it’s helpful to see how it really works on a variety of dogs, and how to respond to actions that don’t quite fit the mold.
The Bucket Game allows us to do husbandry on our dogs in such a way that gives dogs a voice in the procedure. As Patel says, we can have a conversation with our dogs such that they learn to say “I’m ready” or “One second please, I need a pause”. Here’s a link to a great video that introduces the idea. My absolute favorite part of the video is Patel’s statements that we tend to listen to dogs only when they are shouting (growl, etc), and not when they are whispering (head turning away). Ooooooo, I love love love that metaphor. Brilliant.
The basic idea is simple: Teach your dog that he gets reinforced if he looks at a container with treats in it, and only proceed nail trims or grooming, for example, if he is looking at the bucket. If he turns away, withdraws or in any way looks uninterested in the treats, stop what you are doing, because he just said “One second please.” Here’s a video of the four stages of the bucket game. You’ll see that the first emphasis is teaching the dog to focus on the bucket of treats for reinforcement.
And here is a video of me working with Maggie on her nails, using some modifications of that technique. You might have read in January when I mentioned that I was going to use the bad weather to condition the dogs to nail trims from a dremel rather than the hated clippers. We have been working on it (although, full disclosure, never as much as I feel like I should), and have made great progress. One modification to be aware of from the outset: I haven’t taught Maggie to look at the “bucket” outside of conditioning with the dremel. I just squished all those things in together (bucket and dremel conditioning), because Maggie and I have worked together for so long, and on so much, that I felt confident I knew when she was saying “Okay” versus “Not yet.”
At the very beginning, Maggie looks at her leg when I start to pick it up. (Whisper: “I”m not sure I’m ready yet.”) I put it down. (“Okay, tell me when you are.”) She then looks toward the treats so I try picking it up again. As we proceed, she looks at the treat jar, or, just as often, looks at me. I reinforced both, because my best guess about her looking at me is translated as “Now you give me a treat, right?” Even though I haven’t trained her to look at the bucket, her behavior is still crystal clear about what she wants. Of course, I could be wrong, but Maggie and I know each other really well, and I’d bet the farm she was saying “hurry up with the treat” instead of “I need a break”.
If you look closely, you can see that later in the video she withdraws her leg a few times, just the tiniest bit. When she did, because they were such tiny movements, I didn’t drop her leg and reset back to square one. However, I removed the contact between the dremel and the nail until she relaxed her leg. This progress means that we have progressed to real honest-to-goodness nail trimming sessions, without asking Jim to stop what he is doing and stuff treats in Maggie’s mouth while I did the trimming. (Jim says thank you.)
Something else that is not obvious from the video–I have 3 versions of treats in the “bucket.” Kibble, that they eat every day (along with lots of other things), Wellness “Mini Rewards” that they rarely get, and freeze-dried chicken that they only get for extra-challenging behaviors. I started Maggie on nothing but the chicken when I first got out the louder, more powerful Oster, and am gradually using it for longer duration or scarier nails (especially the front ones, which I should have videotaped, because she’s doing great on them). I gave her a mix this morning because she was a bit distracted by Jim and the videotaping, but usually I’ll use kibble for short grinds on back nails, Wellness treats for medium difficulty, and dried chicken for front nails especially.
Here are my take aways for this week:
Chirag is the bomb. Watch or go see him when ever you can. He communicates to people as well as he does to dogs, and that’s rare and invaluable.
The Bucket Game is fantastic, and doesn’t always have to be reliant on a bucket. What matters is that you find a way for your dog to say “ready,” and “not ready” and go from there. That’s not to say the bucket isn’t a great idea, if I was starting from scratch with a dog I’d teach it in a minute.
Listening to “whispers rather than shouts” is my favorite description of “being a good observer” and all the other ways we have tried to convey the importance of paying attention to subtle visual signals from our dogs.
And you? Tell us about your adventures in husbandry and versions of the bucket game, bucket or not.
MEANWHILE, back on the farm: Sunny! Cool! And damp; we finally got rain! Ahh, spring as we all want it to be, what could be more lovely? The sheep are enjoying the grass; we don’t even put hay out anymore.
We don’t have a lot of Dutchman’s Breeches, but I love the ones we have, who live on the side of a culvert drainage ditch. It’s not a very secure place, but that’s where this plant wants to be. Sort of like living in a flood zone . . .
My other favorite spring ephermeral is Bloodroot, which has finished blooming now, but is still beautiful, with its perky leaves and flower stems. We have hundreds and hundreds of these now, thanks to busy ants who spread it for us.
The Bluebirds are here! This is hardly a stellar photo, but I’m so excited to see them I couldn’t resist adding it in. Don’t judge, it’s been a long winter.
I thought I’d end by illustrating Maggie and Skip with the “bucket” mentioned above. Maggie appears to be torn between looking at the treats and side-eye-ing Skip.
It actually took quite awhile to get the photo above, because this is mostly what they did while I was holding the camera, waiting for them to look at the bucket. (Possible translation: We are waiting for you to bring the grindy thing, sit down beside us and play the nail grindy treat game. What are you waiting for?)
Oh, what our dogs put up with!
This week, tell us if you’ve used the Bucket Game or anything that resembles it. All issues related to “husbandry” (fun fact: Derivation = “peasant with own farm”, Norse) or, grooming, nail trimming, bathing, etc. are fair game. And, spring at your place? Is it wonderful? Or is it fall?
D’Artagnan is not wild about grooming. He’s not restrained/fastened onto the grooming table we made (a sturdy coffee table modifies pretty easily into a grooming table for a Great Pyrenees). There is a licky mat smeared with cream cheese or peanut butter (or whatever tasty spreadable I happen to have around). I can brush, rake, de-mat as long as he’s working on the licky mat. He stops, I stop. He can also leave at any time. We’re figuring it out. Often I suspect it would work better if I had a spotter whose sole job it is to tell me when he stops licking. Still he’s figured out that if he turns his head far enough I will see it and stop wrestling with the particularly thorny mat (literal description since he seems to have a genius for picking up dead blackberry brambles in his coat) until he says he’s ready again.
Since I’ve been talking about licking I thought I’d share an amusing video of D’Artagnan as artist. We’re actually having a great deal of fun with this and many of the dogs in my Therapy Dog chapter are also making art. We’ll be having an art show at a facility we visit. Each canine artist’s painting will be exhibited next to a photo and bio of the artist. I’m really enjoying how much everyone is getting into this idea. Anyway, here’s the video link. https://youtu.be/dSTo8Cjv0iU
Rachel Lachow says
After having nail issues with my first Pharaoh Hound 35 years ago, I have always highly rewarded nail grinding, typically a treat per toenail. For my latest puppy, I initially built value for my grooming table with treats and petting and then put the treats nearby in sight (this was before I knew about buckets). I then started with light dremeling. My rule was that I would not leash her, allowing her to leave if she wanted to. If she did leave, I said nothing, just waited at the table to reward her with joy and treats if she returned. She does a nice job of remaining for all nails now. I then heard about the Bucket Game about six months ago and have taught it to clients with dogs with very serious grooming issues. It goes pretty well though is a bit slow. I like it best for serious fear issues and owners with good timing. I can’t say that it works better than my grooming table– there’s something useful about having a discrete designated space to choose to be in.
I was so excited when I saw the title of your post…WE LOVE THE BUCKET GAME! It was a huge lightbulb moment for me the first time I saw a reference to it and found Chirag Patel’s video, and it has made our grooming sessions so much easier and less stressful for both me and my pup. I also use a version of it for baths, which in our case means pup and I in the shower stall with a hand sprayer (thankfully pup doesn’t mind soggy treats). Thank you for sharing this awesome concept. I hope everyone will try it, and always listen to the whispers (I want that on a T-Shirt).
Charlotte Kasner says
I’ve used the lick mat recently for urgent, frequent medications on a nervous, bite dog. The mat is attached to the refrigerator at the same level as his chin and it took a mere couple of minutes for him to focus on his mat and not the eye drops. We had also habituated him to the eye drops being picked up and moved near his head.
The advantage of this is that the licking releases endorphins.
My question with the “bucket game” is that is constitutes a lure. Truly food-orientated dogs will need to learn not to dive into the bucket as soon as it is presented. Non-food orientated dogs may not find even high value treats appealing enough to counter an experience that they find very frightening.
I would be tempted to teach focus on something neutral such as a sticky note.
In practice, I tend to train a “stand” facing front for handling (useful for the vet and the show ring) and I would break off anyway of the dog exhibited behaviours that suggested discomfort and step back a pace with the interaction.
Never heard of the Bucket game but turns out I’ve been playing it all along! I’ve had my puppy look at a bowl of her breakfast on the ground while I brush her down and in the early stages of her nail trimming conditioning.
For brushing she tends to get distracted because I brush her outside and birds are better than a bowl of kibble, but every time my glove gets full, I stop and release her to eat a little bit of her breakfast, refill and start again.
For nail trimming she had to be standing, looking at the treats in the bowl, and her cue to say ‘I’m ready’ was to offer me her paw, I never picked it up myself. Front feet have always been worse than back feet, I was able to trim her back feet this way but she always jerked her front feet away from the feeling of just tapping her toes. Now we have another method thanks to Susan Garrett in her Recallers program. So now her cue to say that she is ready is to lay down flat on her side on her bed and put her head down. Front feet are getting better, still just tapping with a spoon. The great thing is that this way I can do pretty much any thing to her and if her head stays down all is well. I’ve practiced lifting her lips, checking her ears, lifting her tail, gently pinching in places, and she is happy to lay there, get her treats and/or breakfast and a quick game of tug or retrieve as breaks.
Guess I’ve been doing some less sophisticated version of the bucket game. The highest value treat here is dehydrated beef heart. When I get a small bag from the freezer excitement reigns! Now that I only have one dog there is no jockeying for position on the padded bench/footrest where I groom. The open baggie sits on one end for easy accessibility- by me LOL. I also start on the less sensitive back feet. Each time my dog allows relaxed handling she gets a reward. For her front feet she has to offer me a paw (and is rewarded) before we proceed. I do hear her shouts but haven’t been paying enough attention to her whispers.Despite being gentle and reinforcing I wonder whether I’m using some subtle coercion because I have not been attentive enough. I have been leading the dance and expecting her to follow. Interesting!
My last dog was never very motivated by food or play rewards. While he tolerated grooming with a combination of stoic resignation and passive resistance, it was certainly not something he agreed to participate in. Imagine a 60 pound poodle casually tucking all of he feet under himself at once, like a cat in meatloaf position. Also like a cat, pretending that that’s just how he wanted to be, regardless of his current predicament.
I would have loved to use a technique like this to give him more agency, but I’m not sure even a bucket of freshly cooked meat would have held his attention during this exercise. Maybe this is a question to be addressed in another post, but I’m curious is there’s a good way to help build interest and focus in dogs that are less motivated by food?
It’s definitely spring here, but just a little too early for me to get into the garden. My yard looks a bit scruffy compared to the neighbors, but I’m putting off mowing to enjoy the wild violets flowering ‘weeds’ that make up so much of my ‘lawn’. 🙂
I worked hard on desensitising mine to nail trimming when they were pups and for a while all was well. Poppy still considers it worth letting me do it in exchange for plenty of chicken, but Sophy now absolutely hates it. I think the problem is that she has pulled several nails, including pulling one dewclaw right off, and although they now appear nearly normal she finds having them manipulated at least uncomfortable and possibly painful. Being Sophy she therefore screams at the mere thought… I have tried using a grinder instead of clippers, but her long hair gets in the way, and attempting to slip a sock over her paw led to even more screams. We have played toe tickling games, and she will let me tap and rub each nail without a murmur, but that is as far as I can go. As the pain from overlong nails would be greater than the pain of trimming them a little I insist, and do manage to get them done (the screams are always in anticipation – she hardly notices the actual snip), but I would love to be able to use a grinder. Does anyone have any ideas on managing long hair without needing to poke the nail through a sock hole?
Playing the Bucket Game in this context is at present a distant dream – given the choice she leaves the room and sits on the stairs, even when freeze dried chicken is on offer. I sympathise – I feel much the same about having to visit the dentist!
Paula Sunday says
I had not seen these videos before! So glad you posted this information! Such a simple but brilliant technique, and the videos do a great job of explaining the details. Game changer!!!
Oh, Sophy the screamer brings a smile to my face, although it’s not so amusing on the actual receiving end. I had a crazy thought when pondering your question. Since Sophy seems to scream often, and in anticipation of something she doesn’t like, what if you put it on cue? I know, sounds insane, and possibly might be, but once something is on cue it is easier to stop. First teach “Scream!”, then teach “Enough”. This idea may well make you scream at me, not sure I’d blame you. (Other thought: Since she doesn’t scream when her nails are actually trimmed, what would happen if you just ignored it? Screamed with her? If all these ideas sound less than helpful, I blame an early hour and not enough tea.)
Ellen, love the image of your “meatloaf” 60 pound poodle. Gotta give him credit for effective passive resistance. Skip did something similar when I tried to groom his butt, although his version was rolling on his back, lolling his tongue and looking as adorable as possible. (I started the bucket game on this too, and it worked great. But he loves treats, so it was easy.) But your question about building interest in play or treats is interesting. One quick thing I do is tease dogs with food–show it to them and them snatch it away. I do it 3 times and most dogs are eager to snarf the food up. But I don’t think it would last for treat after treat after treat. I need to ponder your question; it’s a good one and might be a good blog topic. For now, what does your dog love? Like? That’s the key question right now.
Brilliant work Colleen! I too found I was playing a version of the bucket game (and also using head down as a cue for me that M or S was ready. You emphasize that the brilliance of Chirag’s work is not the ‘bucket,’ but the concept of the conversation.
Charlotte, I love hearing about your experience with a ‘lick mat,’ especially the suggestion that it releases endorphins. Something to look into for sure. You are right that food-oriented dogs need to be trained something–ie, look at bucket (without diving in), or head on floor, or some other posture. The lick mat has the advantage of needing little training, thanks for bringing it up. But I do love the ability to have a dog in any posture for husbandry too, although I to teach “Stand” and find it super useful.
Wendy: I want the T-shirt too, but people will probably think we are listening for, uh, I don’t know, voices from other worlds?
Wow, that video is pretty fantastic 🙂 I think I do a version of that, but not using treats? My 4.5 year old dog Zucchini has always been a special princess about body handling – she will bite if the whispers and shouts are ignored, and the escalation is quick. Some days it’s fine to play with her lips and make funny faces and other days it’s unacceptable to give her a goodnight kiss after she’s curled up on the bed. She’s very into treats for activities she’s neutral about or wants to do, but ambivalent for hated activities and sometimes the presence of treats seems to make her even more anxious. Like the performance pressure is just too much. However, she always 100% of the time wants to go outside if offered. So, we do a body handling Thing before going out. I’ll ask for her paw and trim one nail, or brush her, or look in her ears, or do whatever thing is needed that day. (Weirdly she LIKES getting her teeth brushed?) She’s allowed to say no, but the result is we just stand at the door quietly until she decides it’s worth it. Sometimes I think it’s very hard, emotionally, to be Zucchini. Although I think she’s way happier since we moved out of the city into a big house with lots of sunshine for her to lie in and trails in the woods for us to run on every day. I’m happy too. There are two blooming cherry trees in our front yard that are so gloriously beautiful I get mesmerized staring at them when I look outside. Please keep the flower pictures coming!
Rachel, so true about the bucket game being slower than just getting it done. Definitely takes time and patience. And yes yes yes about a “designated space”. I use that for myself all the time (desktop computer in study only used for writing, for example, never for doing this or email!)
Kat: Can you hear me laughing at D’Art’s painting video? All the way from here. It’s hysterical. (Especially his voice! I love talking like I think dogs talk as individuals. I haven’t met D’Art, but I’m guessing you nailed it.) Love the lick mat idea (I should add that to the blog), and I have one other version that worked great last week: Take Border Collie outside, ask to lie down. Begin brushing while cat walks up and goes nose to nose with now immobile, barely breathing, totally transfixed BC. I got his entire back end brushed out, and it was windy besides. Wish I had a video, titled “How to brush out a Border Collie.”
Alex, so wise to remember, as you do, that reinforcement is defined by the receiver! If going outside is what she wants, then you’re smart to use that as a reinforcement. Yay for you. O
Kat… I giggled all the way through D’Artagnan‘s video!
Trisha…. I am also interested in learning how to build treat and play drive. My rat terrier, Mickey, is motivated by neither and only somewhat motivated by petting (and only by me). It’s a good thing for both of us that he is naturally a good boy!
Lynn Ungar says
Tesla has a start button behavior for dremeling nails. He rests his chin on the wrist on my hand that is holding his paw. If he lifts his head away I give him a break, and go back to grinding when he puts his head back.
Alice R. says
Thank you for this. The bucket game is something I’ve always been meaning to do, but never get to so this is just the encouragement (and links) that I needed to start. Nail trimming is what I need it for too. Love seeing your early garden beauties. A late freeze took out many of mine, but I do hope it didn’t kill their healthy roots and they’ll be back next year. I’m not experienced enough to know if they will. If not, I’ve lost a lot of my pretties. Working my way back after a knee replacement so I’m dying to work in the yard, but it’s sure not happening yet. I’ll just have to live vicariously through your lovely pictures!
Good luck with your knee Alice R! So hard to let the garden sit, I know. I fell recently and might have broken my hand, it’s driving me crazy to do less in the garden right now. Good luck with your garden beauties, so sorry about the late freeze. All paws crossed.
It’s not exactly the bucket game, but for my dog who really hated nail trims I used a lot of of rubbing and relaxation. Rather than try to just hold her down and get it done I used a lot of rubbing and massage between nails to get her relaxed. Only when she got relaxed would I go on to the next nail. She gets a treat after, but I tried the treats for each nail ( or before and after each nail) but for her that never worked as well as the petting and massage relaxation.
Finally using this as a sign from the universe to start the bucket game with my 4.5 year old Icelandic sheepdog, Saga. She’s very opinionated and just this side of too smart so if she gets even a single whiff of something she doesn’t like, she’s outta here. The game has transfixed her, though. For her, we’re starting out with frozen peas, one of her absolute favorites! Hoping we can eventually move toward ear handling and cleaning, as well as nail maintenance… all those extra nails are tough to keep up with!
I try for consent with nails, but I hadn’t heard of the bucket game before. I put out my hand and wait for an offered paw. That way my hound can choose which paw she wants trimmed and tell me to alternate or skip a paw if one is more sensitive that day. She rolls on her hip to tell me to do the back paws. If I put out my hand three times with no offered paw or she gets up and leaves the mat, then we’re done for the day. It’s nails, any we don’t get done one day can wait til the next.
I’m not sure about putting Sophy’s screams on cue – she only screams in anticipation of pain, which means nail trimming or a vet trying to feel her back, and it’s a sign of high stress. But massage – especially ear rubs – soothe her very quickly so that might be the way forward. She is not stressed enough to refuse chicken but it does nothing to calm her down, while a cuddle and chanting a silly song stop the stress panting almost at once.
She is mostly an equitable, easy going dog but has some very decided opinions. She reminds me in some ways of my grandmother who was once heard to announce in all seriousness “I never argue except when I am right, and I am ALWAYS right!”.
Jenny Haskins says
Not much use for non-foody dogs. 🙁
Ivy and I tried the bucket game, but she is so well trained at giving ME eye contact instead of the food, that she just doesn’t get that THIS TIME I don’t want eye contact, I actually WANT staring at the bowl. Or she thinks I want nose touch or paw touch after all our TARGET practice. Do you think that staring at ME would be an okay goal instead of the bucket?
Melanie Hawkes says
The videos are good. As I’m in a wheelchair, we do most of Upton’s husbandry with him either on my bed or standing on a bench seat. That way I can feed him while others brush or do other things to him. He has regular acupuncture this way, and enjoys it now I think. One thing that really frustrates me is people just doing what they need to despite Upton not being ready. They just want to get it over and done with, having no patience for waiting for Upton to be ready. I just have to start doing this I guess, so he will be ready for anything at any time. My vet in particular wanted to put a pill down his throat. I said no, took it home and stuck it to some peanut butter and Upton licked it off! So much nicer for dog and handler.
Anita: Absolutely! Think of the bucket at any object that communicates to you your dog is just fine to continue…
Hear hear Melanie, couldn’t agree more. I do sympathize with busy veterinarians and clinical staff, but . . .
Melanie Hawkes says
It wasn’t just vet staff that I was talking about, unfortunately Trisha. My own family and support workers do it too! Time is money for most of these people so I do understand. Just wish I could take as much time as I like and do it myself. Upton always remembers the bad experiences more than the pleasant, and add pain or discomfort (generally the reason for treatments or procedures) and it becomes even harder. 😒
Argh, Melanie, I feel your pain. If only people were as easy to train as dogs!
This could not have come at a better time for my Annie. She had a case of SLO – symmetrical lupoid onochodystrophy – she lost all of her toenails a year ago over about 4 months. Painful to say the least. Her nails are now long enough to trim again- but not on her list of favorite memories. I was almost at the point of sedated nail trims. And then I read this blog and watched the video. I got 4 nails trimmed this morning- I was ecstatic! And Annie was ‘meh’. Yes!!!!! Thank you!
We have worked long and hard at nail trims (almost daily for the last 4 months). We still have a long ways to go, but I can touch the dremel to both front feet while my sound-sensitive blind and partly deaf BC sits calmly. He never lies down flat unless he’s in his crate or in a room by himself. Don’t ask me how the back feet are going to work. One step at a time, and I’ll figure something out eventually! He knows that the moment he starts to remove his front paw, he’ll be allowed to do so. I love the idea of giving him a cue to tell me to start again that doesn’t involve getting whacked in the face by the re-offered paw! Thank you for this great suggestion and for the tip about Chirag!
Thank you so very much for this great information and for highlighting Chirag. Nail cutting has long been my most dreaded grooming task, and your post was just the motivation I needed to start working in earnest on nail trims instead of avoiding it and feeling guilty that my dog’s nails were too long. Through a combination of the bucket game and ditching the dreaded nail clippers, we have completed all the nails on one paw this week, three paws to go! I’m using a rough emery board meant for acrylic nails and manually filing the nails down one at a time. It does take quite a bit longer than other equipment, but also makes it easy to break the process down into mini steps and sidesteps the clipping sensation my pup hated, as well as the noisiness of a grinder. As a bonus, it’s nearly impossible to hit the quick with this method, which makes me more relaxed. I think I’ll be able to start desensitizing to the noise of the Dremel and eventually use that, but the hard emery board has been a great solution in the meantime!