Because Silas is my first dog, I tend to assume that all dogs are like him. Aside from his obvious freaks, that is. The longer I have him, the more I realize the good–and bad–ways that this is not true.
Last night I was teaching Silas a new trick. The objective of this trick is to touch a round flat target with his front foot. Our “target” was one of those rubber jar openers. First of all, Silas immediately understood what I wanted. The poor instructions said things like “Reward your dog for looking at the target, or acting interested in it.” Silas walked up to it and plopped his foot on top. So, we did a few repetitions. Silas walks up, puts his foot on the target, I click and throw a cookie, he walks up and puts his foot on the target, etc etc.
After a few of these, I started to notice that he was putting both feet on the target. Which is okay; I’m not aiming for precision. Then I had a technical difficulty, caused by having my treats in a too-narrow jar, and I realized that he was stepping to the left and right with his back feet.
This is when I realized that I have a very smart dog on my hands. The trick where he stands with his front feet on something and walks around it with his back feet? We learned that trick with him standing on a cake pan.
To a human mind, the cake pan and the jar opener have certain similarities, namely that they are round. It doesn’t seem that wild to think “Okay, I’m standing on a circle, I’m supposed to turn!” Dogs aren’t really supposed to get abstract concepts like “circle,” though. If we’d done it on four circular objects, and this was the fifth one, maybe.
Another possibility is that, because the cake pan is the only foot targeting trick we’ve done, he assumes that all foot targeting is supposed to be the basis of turning a circle. This is also very high-level thinking for a dog.
You know what’s really scary about it? That cake pan trick is far from fluent. We’ve worked on it maybe ten times, and the last time we worked on it was at least two months ago. Plus I trained it standing up in the kitchen, and I was training the targeting trick sitting down in the living room.