I love urban agility! Here Mort is wearing the Daredevil Coat from Stylish Canine

I love urban agility! Here Mort is wearing the Daredevil Coat from Stylish Canine

Last week, we shared tips on how to teach your dog to balance on objects. In this post you learned how to set up equipment, what pieces of equipment were good to use with your dog, and how to progress from beginning exercises to more involved ones.

This week, you will explore other ways to increase the level of difficulty for your dog when balancing on objects. We will cover getting your dog used to unusual surfaces, and balancing at a height. At the end of the post, we will share some dog tricks while balancing on top of an urban structure, such as a fire hydrant. If you have a circus dog – your dog loves to perform dog tricks as part of his training routine – this is the post for you!

Sometimes this kind of work is called “urban agility” – balancing on objects found in the urban landscape, such as walls, fire hydrants, boxes, grids, uneven surfaces, rocks, and so on. There are a lot of dogs and their humans who use urban agility to exercise and entertain their dogs – such as Boingy Dog and the fantastic tricks dogs at DogmaSF! Tricks in the urban environment is excellent physical and mental exercise, and can be great for exhausting your dog before leaving for work in the morning! It can involve simple exercises such as walking along the edge of a sidewalk, along a painted line, jumping on a bench, or leaping onto a ledge. Use your imagination, and go only as far as your dog wants and is able to go.

Another great reason to attempt tricks and exercises like this is your dog might love it as an activity in and of itself. Mort absolutely loves these activities, and as you can see in the video below he is wagging his tail and repeating the actions over and over again (and he could freely run around this deserted office park if he really wanted). He’s working for really low-value food rewards, and it’s likely I could use nothing at all for payment. He loves these kind of tricks so much that it’s self-rewarding for him.

Starting on urban structures

The first step was to have Mort learn to jump onto objects in the environment, on the cue of a very amped up and excited “That one” while pointing at the object (the same cue as I practiced in our “garage gym” in last week’s post). This was easily transferred in his mind, and he was quite excited to jump onto many objects in the environment with this cue. I started with really easy things, like low walls, benches, and other low structures that have a normal surface texture. These objects should be quite easy for your dog to jump onto, and jump off of. If your dog hesitates at all, lift your dog onto the object, and then let her jump off on her own. The most important thing is for your dog to feel confident jumping off of the object. If your dog knows how to exit, or jump off, then he or she will have more confidence jumping on. The following video is one of the early structures I had him jump onto and around.

Add some structures with “odd” surfaces and textures for your dog like the one shown in the video above, such as grated surfaces and slippery textures – but make sure that you introduce the texture first before having him jump onto it. Lift your dog onto the structure, and have him learn about the surface, then jump off. When your dog is comfortable, have her jump onto the structures herself. She’ll feel more comfortable, as she is already used to the surface and knows she can safely get off on her own.

Mort at Lowes. Not very natural, but he’s certainly used to weird structures and surfaces! And it did keep him out-of-the-way of other shoppers.And then if you put your dog in weird objects, such as a shopping cart, he won’t think too much of it.

And what about trickier structures, like a fire hydrant

A dog balancing on an urban structure - dog tricks for the circus dog type

Balance on other objects found in the landscape – urban or not

Aside: The most important thing to understand is that this is how I taught Mort – and all dogs have their own learning style when training dog tricks, and rewards that they expect for learning them. You will probably need to adjust these steps to fit your own dog, or maybe even use a completely different process altogether! What worked for me might not work for you. I would love your tips and tricks in the comments about how you taught your dog to balance on a tricky structure!

The very first step is to make sure your dog can jump off of the height of the hydrant. You won’t be able to start with the hydrant, so make sure you have practiced on structures that are the same height, with a surface that’s easy to land on (level, grass, etc). Find the lowest fire hydrant you can, with a somewhat flat piece on top if possible.

In order to get Mort used to the fire hydrant, I started by lifting him up onto it and simply having him balance. At first, even though we had worked on his rear leg placement (see the previous post about this), he was unsure about where to put his rear legs. He kicked them out in different directions, usually resting somewhere on my body as I held his midsection.

This was really good for our bond and trust. At first he was really unsure about what we were doing (of course!), but quickly learned he could trust me to help him balance. No matter what I placed him on thereafter, he knew he could rest the side of his body or his legs on me for support and he suddenly became comfortable with whatever I lifted him up onto. So start here, and you’re probably destined for success.

The rest is listening to your dog’s body language, which is really easy because he’s resting against you! As he relaxes and loosens up, slowly encourage him to start balancing on his own by moving a bit away and supporting less of his body. Pretty soon he will learn how to balance on the structure. As soon as you let go, let him jump off. As mentioned earlier, this is core to instilling the confidence in balancing on the object. He knows he can always jump off safely, no matter what.

Lift him up several more times, and watch your dog start to balance on his own faster and faster, and for longer periods of time. Let him freely jump off whenever he is ready, and start watching his feet on the hydrant. See if she knows where to place them, and if she seems to be figuring out where the edges are. See if your dog seems to grasp around the edges with his or her feet and nails (kind of like a hand) – this seemed to be a very important skill for Mort, as he uses it when jumping and landing on a domed surface and utilizes it when it’s wet and slippery.

Once you feel like your dog has a good grasp of the surface texture, shape, and size, you are ready to start teaching her how to jump onto the hydrant.

Jumping onto the hydrant

mort-on-hydrantI started this step by simply having him place his paws on top of the hydrant, so he understood the height of the structure he was about to jump onto. I also chose one on grass and far from any other objects (trees, poles), so any potential crash landings were on a softer surface. Then I got him really amped up using my voice and body language, and cued his “That one” while pointing at the hydrant. Mort jumped onto the hydrant, and of course merely skidded across the top and landed on the other side of it. This was repeated several times before he stuck a landing. When he stuck a landing, he seemed to know he did the right thing and wiggled himself right off the hydrant again (but I gave him a huge congratulations, of course!)

From then on out, he improved quickly and was sticking lands regularly and balancing on top like he did if I lifted him up. He had learnt how to jump up onto a hydrant.

The next steps were to try different hydrants, as around our neighborhood they all seem to be different heights – and have different land formations around them (hills on the side, pavement, etc). Each one took a different type of skill, so each hydrant seemed to be a good learning experience for him.

I didn’t use treats for either of these steps, mainly because I was too busy using my hands and also holding two dog leashes at the same time. I was using voice and emotion for all reward, and it seemed to work. That said, food luring could work quite well for getting your dog to jump up. Naturally, this depends on what works for your dog – whatever motivates him or her. I do recommend having a fairly good cue for jumping up on something before attempting the hydrant.

Adding dog tricks: How we trained the spin on the fire hydrant

Because Mort was experienced at jumping onto a balancing on a fire hydrant, we recently tried introducing a “spin” while on top. I started teaching the spin on a very large structure first (a large boxy structure with an odd surface). I had him jump on, spin, then jump off. He learned the “spin” gesture on this structure, as it was a piece of cake. I wanted him to rootinize the jump on > spin > jump off maneuver before we tried on the trickier hydrant.

Once he was pretty used to that combination, I had him jump onto a hydrant. I then walked around the hydrant, and lured him using treats while walking myself right around the hydrant. At this step I was teaching him how to move on top of the hydrant and appropriately place all of his paws without falling off. I let him jump off freely whenever he felt he needed to – I never asked him to stay on top of the hydrant. Again, the key here is confidence.

Once I repeated that several times, I started luring him in the spin with my hand – the same as any “spin” lure, except your dog happens to be on a hydrant. Mort hopped off several times, but was moving in a complete circle from our hand gesture within our first session.

The following videos were taken this morning, on our second session of “spin” on urban structures. As you can see, I am still using a gesture – but he seems to know what to do, and is able to balance the entire way around.

In this next video, he even offers a sit and down on the hydrant (the first time he has done either!)

Where to go from here

Our next step is towards balancing on my body, such as balancing on my leg and vaulting off of my back. The first step towards this is to make sure that your dog knows it is OK to jump on you. If you are concerned about your dog jumping on people, you may want to make sure this action is on some kind of cue. You may also want to make sure to have a very solid “incompatible behavior” available on verbal cue in case you see your dog about to jump on someone else.

This takes us to about the level I am with Mort at this time. Our next steps are going to be learning how to balance on my limbs, and then we will progress to some freestyle disc dog moves where Mort will vault off my limbs in a controlled manner. Currently Mort will jump off of my leg, however it is nothing to write home about at this time! So I will save those topics for future posts when I understand more about this kind of dog training from the pros. Stay tuned, and subscribe to our RSS and join our newsletter below so you don’t miss the posts!

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About Author

Jen deHaan is graphic designer, small business owner, and dog person living in Bay Area, California. Jen enjoys learning about dog training and behavior, and has taken several courses and seminars since 2010. She also contributes articles to leading websites, such as Victoria Stilwell's Positively . It all started with a great dog called Mikey (aka "dude"), loved and lost but remembered forever. Jen also runs a freelance business focusing on graphic, web, and UI design at FoundPixel, and a small business creating hand crafted dog products at Stylish Canine.