Trainer’s Corner: Zen Training Game

A beginner game to teach your dog to wait

The concept of waiting or leaving something is one that doesn’t come naturally for dogs. It is a concept that needs to be taught. 

Here is a beginner game to begin teaching the skill. It is known as the Zen Game. 

Supplies:

  • Yourself
  • Treats (To begin, have lower value food if your dog will become too aroused by it or higher value food if your dog is less food motivated.)
  • Clicker, if you use clicker training.

Location: 

A place with minimal to no distractions.

Game time: 

No longer than three minutes

How to play:

Hold treats in your closed fist and allow your puppy or dog to investigate. Most will lick, paw at, or sniff your fist. Keep your fist closed and do not give any verbal instructions. Simply hold your fist closed while your puppy or dog tries to get the treats.

If all of his unacceptable behaviors are continued to be met by a non-response from you, eventually he will turn away or back away. At the instant he does this, mark that behavior with a word (like Yes or Good) or click and open your fist (or you can just open your fist). Congratulations! You have just reinforced the first step or approximation.

Just the sight of the treats is a reinforcer to your dog and will keep your dog in the game if your treats are of value to him.

What is your dog’s next decision? If he tries to reach for the food, guess what happens? The consequence of that behavior is that his opportunity to see the food is gone as you close your fist. If, however, he does not try to reach for the food, pick up a treat and give it to him.

If I am playing this with a very persistent dog, I will look for the tiniest of movement away from the food to immediately mark to get the game moving forward.

After your dog is successfully backing away from or able to remain in a behavior, like a sit or down position while the open fist is presented, it will be time to increase the difficulty of the game.

The next step will be placing treats on the floor with your hand cupped over them. When your dog backs away or makes no motion toward them, you can spread your fingers or remove your hand. However, be prepared to very quickly move your hand back if your dog makes an attempt to go for the treats.

If you would like to add a verbal cue for this behavior, the time to do that is when your dog shows he understands the concept by backing away from the food and staying away from it. To add the cue, say your cue (suggestions for cues are Leave It or Wait) just when you open your palm to show your dog the food. Then, when your dog moves away, mark that and then give a treat. 

Ideas for moving forward:

Begin to incorporate eye contact. When your dog is staying away from the food, make a sound to interrupt your dog’s focus on the treats and turn to you. Mark the instant your dog looks at you. The practice of this builds strength of that behavior. When your dog understands this, then show your dog the food, say your cue and mark the moment your dog looks at you. 

Practice this by placing your food on different surfaces.

Practice tossing and dropping the food. When practicing this, make it easy in the beginning. You may want to have your dog in a stationary position and barely drop the food on the ground. Mark and treat. 

Begin practicing this with other concepts like with a toy. 

There are so many ways to build upon this in life like:

  • Teaching your dog to wait before going out the door
  • Teaching your dog to wait at a street corner before moving forward
  • Teaching your dog to leave something on the ground during a walk

As always, have fun! 



Lisa Desatnik, CPDT-KA, CPBC, is a certified dog trainer (and certified parrot behavior consultant) with So Much PETential who uses and teaches the most positive strategies for changing pet behaviors. She offers individualized dog and puppy training for manners and problem issues. Learn more about her at www.SoMuchPETential.com
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