So, I’ve never really tried to teach Donna to balance objects on her head, simply because she’s not comfortable with it:
As you can see, I can’t balance food on her head because her nose naturally orientates towards it and there’s no stopping her from fidgeting and trying to get to the food.
Like c’mon, it’s food, human!!
And Donna, like some dogs, actually is uncomfortable with things over her head. That’s one of the reasons why it is recommended to pet a strange dog under the chin or on the side of his body, rather than over the head.
So I was pleasantly surprised when this happened:
The card is simply resting on her head and can be easily dislodged when she moves.
Now after, I taught her to “relax” (link to video). It became one of her favourite things to do when she doesn’t know what I want and still wants to wheedle the treat out of me. She knows to relax means she needs to lie down with her chin on the floor.
I hadn’t realise it when I taught that to her, but it actually created the perfect opportunity for her to learn to stay still in a particular position. And that position was actually helpful for me to safely place things on her head. And since she knows her chin needs to be resting on the floor, she doesn’t move even with the items I place on her head.
Emboldened, I upped the level of difficulty by trying it out with treats. And it worked!
Donna “balancing” doggie biscuits.
Comparing both photos, I do think that she is a little bit less relaxed lying on the floor with treats on her head compared to the card. In the first photo where she balances the card, you can see her making eye contact and her ears are positioned forward on her head. She looks quite alert. But in the second photo, her ears are folding backwards and her eyes are looking away slightly. Can’t blame her since she could care less about the card but the food, from her perspective is definitely in the wrong place.
But basically I think we’re on the right track. The dog fidgets because she didn’t know that I want her to stay still in a particular position and balance things on her head. What she does know is that I am making her uncomfortable when I wave things near her head, so she moves to avoid them.
But when she is trained ahead of time and knows she needs to stay still in a particular position like relax, she doesn’t move to avoid the objects I’m placing on her head!
But I am going to have a problem trying to get her to generalise not reacting to the object that I’m trying to place on her head when she is in other positions. I think so simply because she has not been trained in advance to stay still in other positions, except relax.
I made a quick inquiry with an insta-friend what she would recommend for training the dog to balance things on her head. She advised that her friends just keep trying to balance things on the dogs’ heads and the dogs get it after a while.
Looking at the way she moves her head to evade the coin and how she keeps looking away, I would say Donna is not having the grandest time of her life, even if she keeps the coin on her head sometimes.
Looking away is a calming signal showing that the dog is not engaged nor entirely comfortable with the situation she is in. Donna did show a close mouth (not relaxed) and other stress signs like nose licking if you watch the video carefully.
This poster has been cropped and edited to create a derivative work with permission from Lili Chin DoggieDrawings.net, you can see the full poster here. Original usage terms here.
Honestly, it’s not very fun for the human also. When the dog doesn’t want to cooperate, it’s bound to get frustrating not only for the dog, but the human too. Not the most constructive use of time for both of us.
So I went in search of a better way of doing this and what do you know. A Youtube video! I’ve actually not seen a video by Kristin Crestejo before but I’m glad I found her.
In this video, Kristin starts out by desensitizing the dog to things waving around his head. That’s Step 1. She then slowly works the object upwards to above his head in Step 2.
I had skipped right ahead to Step 3 by placing things on Donna’s head without the conditioning work that she did! No wonder it’s so hard to even start balancing things on Donna’s head!
So here’s the video:
And as she points out, stay safe and don’t try to balance things that may be too heavy for the dog’s neck. ;)
Hope it helps you as much as it helped me to start to understand how to continue to train this trick positively!
Note: I don’t believe in training that involves psychological or physical intimidation or punishment. That means I prefer positive reinforcement training. I encourage anyone I know to learn more about force-free training. Here’s a neat article on what is Positive Reinforcement Training if you would like to know more.