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?