A few years ago I had a student in a class who had spent a fair amount of time trying to teach her dog to pick up an object by shaping it. For various reasons she had not succeeded. Since the purpose of the class was not to teach the retrieve, nor was it to discuss shaping, I suggested that we try and work around the issue and call it good enough.

I told her to point at the object, clap her hands a few times, and see if she could talk her dog into picking up the object and handing it to her. Kind of like you would do with a toddler.

She did what I suggested. Her dog picked up the object and then handed it to her. She thought it was a miracle!

There was no miracle.

The fact is, dogs are wired to try and understand us, and often all we have to do is try something different. That “different” might not be traditional. It might not represent good training. It might not be a great idea for all other dogs, or even most other dogs. But that doesn’t mean it’s not worth your time to give it a shot because it might work just fine for you. Who knows – maybe someone else could find it useful for their situation down the road and you can share it with them as an option.

Who should use this approach?

If you’re a fairly experienced trainer and you’re bored or stuck, why not? If you’re looking at an exercise where you just want to try something different, then try it. It’s not going to matter if you’re not successful, because if you’re experienced you’ll see you’re making a mess soon enough and you can change direction.

How about if you have a challenge that makes the traditional route more difficult? The obvious examples (but hopefully not limited to) are physical realities: you use my pocket hand heeling technique and if your dog is all of 5 pounds as an adult, you decide that bending over all the time isn’t much fun for you. What happens if you add a stick and have the dog target that instead? And what happens if your dog is extremely tall? Maybe you want to teach that dog with a significant modification, or just teach heeling differently altogether. There’s no greater good here.

Try something new and see. Experiment! That doesn’t mean it’s going to work for you. It doesn’t mean it’s going to work for other dogs, and it doesn’t mean you might not run yourself into other problems down the road. But there’s no reason not to give it a shot, especially if there’s a definite reason not to go with the traditional path.

Dog trainers tend to be traditionalists by nature. Whatever has been done in the past, we tend to do (and recommend) in the future. We can be more flexible than that. And if you don’t like it, try something else.