Turning Shoes into Treats

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Since I share my home with two retrievers, I figure that they should help out a little around the house by, well, retrieving. I’ve written about how seriously Jana takes her newspaper delivery job. Cali has belatedly decided that she wants in on the treat action, so I thought about what a suitable job for her might be.

Cali lives for our daily walks (sometimes twice daily) to the nearby park where dogs can run free and she can avoid playing with the other dogs while holding onto her ball and occasionally actually retrieving it. I have a pair of shoes that I rarely put on for any purpose other than walking the girls. So I decided that bringing my walking shoes could be her new job. She has a passable retrieve, and, I figured, she’d be highly motivated — the reward, in addition to the requisite cookie-per-shoe going rate, would consistently be an immediate walk, often to her favorite park.

The training went pretty well, except for that incident where I got kicked in the face by my own dog wielding my own shoe, but we don’t need to dwell on that. Cali was very enthusiastic, if a little unclear on the concept at first. Jana helpfully showed her what to do, eagerly grabbing the nearest shoe and bringing it and even more eagerly accepting a cookie in exchange.

On day 1, Cali tried her first shortcut — offering a toy.

The next shortcut: stealing the shoe from Jana. Well, Jana was having none of that. I rescued my shoe from the tug of war and asked for the other shoe.

That was the next challenge. Incredibly, though, Cali seems to have picked up that concept with only a few days of repetition.

We also had to work on the delivery. From overly enthusiastic (see reference to being kicked in the face) to lackluster (dropping the shoe a couple of feet away), Cali’s finish needed polish. I’ve almost got her somewhat consistently putting the shoe into my hand not terribly roughly. Progress, right? Baby steps, baby steps …

But this is where it gets interesting. I know from reading about Chaser, one of my favorite dogs in the world, that dogs can learn to put items into categories. Cali and Jana bear this out, and throw in evidence of a sense of humor, too.

Clearly trying for additional treats, Jana gets this sly look as she sees Cali delivering the second and final walking shoe. She then runs into the bedroom and returns, tail held high and waving triumphantly, with a shoe, any shoe. Give me my treat, her bright eyes and wagging tail say. If I don’t seal off all other shoes behind a firmly closed door, I might get, in addition to my walking shoes, a slipper or two, a flip-flop, a sandal, a rain boot … They have definitely mastered the concept of “shoe.” They’ve even gone outside and brought in a Croc from the porch.

They also instantly made the transition from my laced walking shoes to Keen sandals when the weather warmed up a bit. I do keep the current walking shoes right next to the door, and I am sure that the context is a big help.

I did not try to teach them the category of “shoe.” I have, years ago, worked with Jana on categories and concepts: big and small, toy, ball, and, of course “other” to send her after an item similar to the one she’s just brought. Cali learned all of this on the fly — by watching Jana and by seeing what I did and did not reward.

I’m still in awe of what Dr. John Pilley has accomplished with Chaser and grateful to him for painstakingly documenting his teaching efforts and publishing solid scientific evidence of dogs’ abilities to map words to items, remember hundreds of item names, and group items into categories. I am also, though, delighted and surprised by the constant examples of dogs who learn some of those same things in less-than-ideal home-schooling environments with inconsistent teachers (such as myself).

What have your dogs learned that blows your mind?

6 thoughts on “Turning Shoes into Treats

  1. […] The latest concepts I have worked on with Jana and Cali are “shoes” and “get the other one” … I still end up with more shoes than I can wear at once (maybe they think I, too, have four feet?), but Jana and Cali definitely get the concept of shoes. They know which ones I wear for our morning walk, too, and eagerly bring them to speed up preparation for our departure. […]


  2. Dora is so ready to learn any new commands, or rather, she is so eager to do anything to get a treat. It’s up to me to be clear and consistent in giving her the instructions for a new command, otherwise she’ll go enthusiastically through all the things she already knows – sit, turn (a favorite), place, wait. shake, sit pretty, down and roll.


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