Head Games

Posted on 10/19/09 8 Comments

I love to play head games with my dogs and I know they love it to.  I don’t mean this is a cruel way but rather in a challenging way. I teach something through shaping with lots of reinforcement. Let’s say there are 10 critical elements to understanding the skill, for example a nose target at the end of a contact. I will teach one of those elements well (lets say the nose touch into the palm of my hand) and while I am teaching critical element # 2 I start playing head games with the nose touch to my hand skill (critical element #1). I will try and make the dog fail by creating an absurd circumstance for the dog to perform the skill. Some people call this “proofing.” I like to call it “Green Eggs and Ham” distraction training.

For those of you that are not familiar with this Dr. Susses classic, I have the link below.  “Sam-I-Am” poses questions such as “could you, would you in a box? Would you, could you wiht a fox? Would you eat them here or there? Could you eat them anywhere?Basically he is making certain to cover any possibility of places that his friend may eat “Green Eggs and Ham.” That pretty much sums up the “Head Games” I play with dogs while I train them.

It is important though that there is some behaviour that is well understood and has been built up with tons of reinforcement before you start the head games. It is like building a bank account that you are going to withdraw upon later. If you haven’t put in tons of reinforcement first, you will go bankrupt when you start to play the head games. You are posing questions of the dog, asking him to show you how well he knows the skill you have asked. No question is too hard if you are asking it through a game and the history of reinforcement has been established first.

For me this “history” can be as few as 5 cookies. Really it depends upon 3 things. One, how much history of reinforcement there has been between the dog and I in total throughout his life. I would not play the same head games with a 7 week old puppy that I would with my 2 year old dog. The two year old trusts that reinforcement will come eventually, the 7 week old doesn’t know that just yet. Two,  difficulty level of the skill I am training and three how difficult the question is I am asking as I start my “mind games.”

So at our recent skills camp I was showing one such head game on the contacts with Feature and a comment was made that was quite profound (again that Claire Duder showing off her philosophical side:)).  Clare deduced that really what I was demonstrating  was “The more head games we play with our dogs, the more head we have to play with!” That is so true. By playing these games you are expending the dog’s mind. If you just teach a sit stay but never play games that demonstrate to the dog that you want them to stay put in any situation, with any distraction the dog’s understanding of the skill has not grown. It (holding the sit position) won’t carry as much value and it will be less of a game and more of a chore. Dogs are far more likely to do what you want when you are playing a game vs making them do a chore (my dogs have no “chores” and lots of “games”:))baby-speki

At one point in my life I did a lot of training of other people’s dogs. It was a great learning experience for me. I learned it is a very bad idea to try to raise more than one puppy at the same time. Neither one of those two young puppies where supposed to end up being mine, both of them did.  Hmmm, I also learned  I have a hard time training someone else’s puppy without becoming emotionally attached to it:)). Sadly Speki was killed in an accident at 22 months of age. Both of those puppies where raised with the same high standards as any puppy living with me.  In this photo I have them practicing sit stays together; 8 week old Border Collie “Stoni” and 17 weeks old Jack Russell Terrier “Speki”.

How do you get such young puppies, both very high drive puppies, to hold position so well so young? Head games. Although I know a heck of a lot more about shaping behaviour then I did  when this photo was taken in 1991, I was still playing games with my puppies way back then!

So start playing head games with dogs. But remember you need a bankable history of reinforcement first.  It goes back to what I have mentioned many times before when training anything;  build the value, test the value, build the value, test the value . . .

Head games play a big part of growing my list of the Puppy 100. Thank you to everyone that has contributed so far, for those that haven’t please do not be shy, let us use your ideas to add to the list of things to do with a puppy or adolescent dog.

Today I am grateful for the gorgeous weather we have had here during our Susan Salo workshop this week. Frost in the early AM but bright warm sunshine the rest of the days!


  1. Daphne Robert-Hamilton,CPDT-KA says:
    Monday, December 27, 2010 at 12:11pm

    Any way to get the Green Eggs and Ham video? It looks like it is no longer available due to copyright stuff.


    • Gabby and Kokoda (recaller 3 and Peaker) says:
      Friday, January 20, 2012 at 11:51pm

      would also love to know this 🙂


  2. Nelci says:
    Tuesday, October 20, 2009 at 3:23pm

    I have heard that some trainers do not teach “control” behaviours to puppies until they are about 7 months old, so to build more “drive” on the dog. Based on my knowledge of the Say Yes Methodology and your blogs, I am assuming that you are not in agreement. Do you have any comments to this “statement”.



    • Susan says:
      Wednesday, October 21, 2009 at 6:52am

      Sounds like a good blog Nelci!


  3. Bobbie Bhambree says:
    Monday, October 19, 2009 at 8:29pm

    My new mantra is: Build the value, test the value. I see it in my sleep! ;))


  4. Sue says:
    Monday, October 19, 2009 at 8:16pm

    Puppy Games – I’m sure lots of people have said it, but one thing I like to teach puppies is to dive into their collar so they see having a collar/lead put on as a great game rather than trying to dodge it. At the end of an agility run our dogs have to have their lead put on before leaving the ring (Australia) and there’s nothing worse than having a dog that is ducking around the collar or lead when you’re in a hurry to get out and reward the dog. I think having the collar/lead put on starts the reward process when it’s been taught as a wonderful game.


  5. Kathy says:
    Monday, October 19, 2009 at 4:10pm

    Awesome explanation! Training has becoe SO much more fun since I’ve incorporated “head games”! Thanks again for great ideas!!!!


  6. Jodi Altman says:
    Monday, October 19, 2009 at 2:59pm

    This seems like a very relevant post for the 3 monkeys training in your fields this week-end, and for the 1 monkey who didn’t show up.


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