This is part one of a two part series on how to teach your dog to balance on things. This post will go over the groundwork of your dog balancing on uneven surfaces, and then in part 2 I will cover more advanced work such as balancing on a hydrant. Once I teach Mort to spin on a hydrant, I may even write a part three. But lets start from the beginning first!
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Why is balancing something I would even want to do with my dog?
Good question! Balancing is excellent for core strength and conditioning. If your dog is into sports or other forms of strenuous exercise, core strength can help your dog avoid injury and improve performance. It also, of course, helps your dog stay in good shape or improve overall strength and condition if your dog has suffered from an injury (such as losing a limb).
Improving balance might also help get your dog out if he or she manages to get up onto some kind of surface or ledge where balancing is necessary to remain steady. Your dog will also develop better jumping and landing skills if you practice balance on higher objects, and will likely learn about what can be safely handled.
As for sport activities, this is the first step in learning how to “freestyle” in disc dog, where your dog vaults off your body. There are two steps here: making your dog comfortable about placing paws on your body (an issue if you regularly ask your dog to not jump up on you), not worrying about hurting you, and then balance. I’ll talk about the equipment you can use first, and then talk about learning how to balance on it.
Equipment for balancing and increasing difficulty
There are many tools that can help your dog learn how to balance. Common tools include fitness balance discs, Bosu balls, exercise balls (round or “peanut” shaped), wobble boards, or even found objects around your house. If your dog is not very motivated or confident, or has paw sensitivities, it is probably best to start with equipment that is covered with a towel or objects that he is used to.
So what found objects might work? Furniture, such as stools, firm pillows, or something you build yourself can be used to start off with. And there are many objects available in an urban environment to practice on as well, such as rocks or curbs and later hydrants or other (safe) structures. Just remember to start with something easy, and gradually increase difficulty only at the same rate your dog builds confidence. Watch facial expressions and body language carefully to gauge how confident your dog feels with what you are asking her to do. Here is Mort starting our session with a small box, something I haven’t asked him to perch on before:
You can increase and decrease how “wobbly” the equipment or object is by adding towels or blankets, or propping up the sides using pillows. You might also practice on a carpeted or padded surface that is less slippery for your dog (as shown in the photos here), as it is very important that your dog does not fear the activity and feels confident in using the wobbly objects. If your dog slips when jumping off an object, it can take a lot of time for him to regain confidence to get up on the object again.
Or, once your dog is very comfortable balancing on an object, you could try asking or luring them into a standing position (shown above) or “sit pretty” on top of the object if they know either of these tricks.
If you are using an exercise disc or Bosu ball, you can quickly increase difficulty by flipping it over so the surface is adjusted – or in the case of the Bosu the flat, hard bottom is now on top. An overturned Bosu is very similar to a wobble board – both are great tools to practice with when your dog is ready for a less stable surface.
Starting out with balance
Before you start out, it’s important to remember that during all training practice, it is especially important that your dog is safe, and also feels safe. Your dog must always feel like he or she is able to get off of the item onto solid ground easily. This confidence is central to this training, and all other training with equipment. Therefore, every time you introduce a new piece of equipment, show your dog how to get off the equipment first. The first step will be something along the lines of paws on, then paws off. Once your dog is ready to get onto an object, you will start with climb or hop on (low), then immediately hop off before any form of balancing.
But first, you may need to work on how your dog places his rear feet before he does too much balancing or standing on objects.
Rear leg placement
If your dog have not practiced back leg placement, then you may have to work on your dog learning where her back legs are on an object. Starting out, you can place many objects on the floor – scatter them around. Anything long and awkward to step on works well, such as brooms or tubes. Lead your dog on a leash around the objects, and praise him when he doesn’t step on them (or simply lead him around and he’ll learn naturally). You aren’t really training him to “do something”, simply helping him learn to consciously think about where he places his rear feet. If you have a ladder, progress to this object. You may need to lure your dog over the rungs using food or a toy, as it is a very unnatural object to walk over and will require your dog to do a lot of thinking.
After this, you can work on having your dog walk backwards towards an object he can step on (at first, very easily), which makes him thinking about where his back feet are. To encourage your dog to walk backwards, walk towards him while angling your body towards him and praise when he steps backwards. Make sure that you keep his attention with your voice so he does not turn around. You might integrate a hand motion to help signal that you want him to move backwards (use your body language!), which will then be a visual cue for the behavior. See an example in the following video. Mort moves past the object, so I motion for him to move backwards onto the object – the moving backwards onto an object was a skill I had to teach him earlier.
Progression may include:
- Start with stable objects, such as a large box, and simple paw work before standing on the object.
- Work on rear leg placement exercises, if necessary. “Stay” or “wait” can help too, so your dog knows to remain balancing on an object when you’re ready to teach this.
- Decrease the size of the object or box, making your dog thinking about where his back legs are on the object.
- Start incorporating less stable objects that your dog has to balance on, such as a Bosu ball. (More on equipment below)
- Increase the amount of time they spend on the equipment.
- Adjust balancing difficulty, such as flipping over the Bosu ball.
- Add a visual or verbal cue to the action of getting onto the equipment or object.
- Add a cue once they’re on the object (sit, stand, sit pretty, etc). More on this below.
Cues to ask your dog to balance
You might need to teach a verbal and/or visual command for placing paws on the surface. With Mort I use a lot of pointing, and then I added the cue “That one” along with the pointing (which is partly why the videos are so awkward – the iPad is in the way of my face and makes my gestures very awkward!). Of course, you could name each object and fade the visual cue too. However, my goal is to be able to use the cue with any object in the environment and ask him to jump on it and balance so naming the objects didn’t make sense for this particular goal.
Remember to make it really fun. It’s a game! Amp your dog up with excited tones of voice, and switching up what he or she balances on. Motivate them with food, praise, or toys – whatever your dog likes to work for. Some of this fun could be self-rewarding, and if so you can fade out the tangible rewards or vary when they are provided.
Where to go from here
– Standing on two legs on the uneven surface.
– Higher objects.
– Cuing other behaviors on the object.
– Your body.
These will be discussed in “Part 2” of this post, next week on Training Tips Tuesday. UPDATE: Here is part 2 of this series.
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