Teach Your Dog to Solve a Dog Puzzle

Joan Malak’s Greyhound Ch. Cebar Sings a Majik Song NA NAJ aka ‘Carly’ is shown in the following video solving the Nina Ottosson Dog Twister Puzzle. Frankly, it is amazing and very fun to watch. Carly is systematic and very enthusiastic about solving the puzzle and we credit her step by step training by Joan for those wonderful qualities. We interviewed Joan to find out more about her super smart Carly and her amazing puzzle solving skills.

PAWS: What a great video, Joan! Thanks for letting us share it. We understand the the Dog Twister is not Carly’s first puzzle. What else has she done?

JOAN: Carly has done the following puzzles:

  • Dog Brick (plastic)
  • Dog Tornado (plastic)
  • Dog Casino (wood)
  • Dog Worker (wood)

PAWS: Is this the hardest puzzle you have taught?

JOAN: Yes, there were two things that added to the difficulty. First, my decision to have her put the removable puzzle pieces in a bowl. Second, there wasn’t a clear relation between taking out a puzzle piece and being able to get a treat. In the other puzzles the dog got the treat as soon as they removed a puzzle piece or did a short sequence . In the Twister, if bones are removed out of order, the dog can’t get to the treats.

PAWS: The bowl is cool. Why did you use that?

JOAN: When I started working on the puzzle with Carly, she would remove the bone pieces from the edge of the puzzle and drop them randomly. Unfortunately, she sometimes dropped them in the opening which meant she couldn’t move the pie shaped pieces to get the treats unless she picked up the piece again. So, I thought I’d train her to remove the bones and drop them outside the game. Then, I had a moment of insanity and decided that it would be fun to train her to remove the pieces and place them in the bowl.

PAWS: You are obviously systematic about teaching this puzzle. What was your step by step process?

JOAN: As in all the puzzles I’ve trained, I’ve adjusted my training as I go. But there are some standard things that I do for all puzzles. First, I use a clicker and train individual parts of the puzzles before I put them together. I do very short training sessions and have a plan for what I want to accomplish. For this puzzle:

  1. I taught Carly to pick up the bones. I used a single puzzle piece and did not have the game or bowl with me.
  2. I taught Carly to put the puzzle piece in the bowl. The game was still out of the picture.
  3. I taught Carly to pick up the puzzle piece from the game and put it in the bowl.
  4. I taught Carly to slide the inner sections of the game to get to the treats.
  5. I slowly put the whole thing together.

PAWS: Is there anything special about the treats that you use?

JOAN: For the easier puzzles, I use cheese, kibble (junk food for my dogs that are fed raw), Zukes, Nothing But… Treats. For the Dog Worker, I use mostly Zukes because they fit well under the cylindrical puzzle pieces. For the Dog Twister, I’ve been using venison sausage pieces because they smell and are particularly high value to Carly.

PAWS: We know that Carly uses her puzzle solving skills to help some special kids. Could you tell us about that?

JOAN: I volunteer at Agility Angels. It’s a small 501c3 based in Toledo, OH that pairs trained agility dogs with children under the autism spectrum and then teaches the children to run agility. We periodically have in-house competitions and some of our students have even been competing in CPE trials. Two of my older dogs are retired volunteers. Currently Carly, as well as one of my Keeshonden, volunteer. Carly, however, is the puzzle star!

We have used puzzles in the past in demos that we give at schools. We have children from the program, and sometimes children from the audience, load the treats in the puzzle. Sometimes we time the children loading the puzzle, then time Carly solving the puzzle to see who is quicker. Carly almost always wins.

Recently, we have been integrating dog puzzles into the program. Using the puzzles has helped with the children’s fine motor skills and with focus. We’ve had some children that are afraid of dogs but want to work in the program. So, they would work at a distance from the dogs and throw their treats to them. Using the puzzles seems to help them relax around the dogs and even get close to them.

For more information about Agility Angels, check out their website (www.AgilityAngels.org) or look for their Facebook page.

PAWS: So, what is Carly’s next challenge?

JOAN: I have the Dog Turbo puzzle in wood and am thinking of training her to use her paws to move the puzzle pieces. I expect this to take a while because in every other game she’s been trained to NOT use her feet. Another moment of insanity I suppose.

Also, I’m eagerly awaiting the MixMax Puzzle.

At the same time, Carly is busy trying to teach me to be a better agility handler.

PAWS: Joan, thank you so much for taking the time to answer our questions. We know that our readers are going to really enjoy your insights.