I have many, many things that I use to play with and train my dogs (seriously, they’ve got their own jam-packed closet in my house.) However, one of the best bang-for-the-buck things I’ve ever bought was a small set of lightweight, collapsible orange cones. Mine came from the Dollar Store (eight cones for a buck!); I have also seen them for pretty cheap at various big-box stores, hardware stores and online. Below the cut are eight different ways that I use my little set of cones when I want to stretch my dogs’ brains a bit. I took advantage of an unseasonably warm day and tried these exercises outdoors, but the great thing about these things is that they work perfectly well indoors, so if you’re currently snowed in and don’t want to take your pups for a long outdoor amble, this is a great way to get them thinking and tired out while avoiding the cold. I picked eight things that we do all the time, but I’m sure I’m just scratching the surface with these ideas. I bet you guys have some great ideas of your own; feel free to let us know in the comments!
(Quick note on these photos: I had originally intended to use Nellie as my Official Cone Games Model, but last night, when she and Lucy were playing biteyface, she attempted to execute a reverse-half twist flying ninja move and tweaked her back leg a bit. I’m a touch overcautious when it comes to my little tripod’s remaining back legs–it’s not like she’s got any to spare–so I decided to crate-rest her today and use Lucy for my photos instead. Lucy a) does not know a few of these games as well as Little Nellie Rally Star and b) is much harder to photograph, so, um, sorry about that.)
Targeting is a pretty fun and simple game that is usually one of the first things you learn in agility foundations. You’re teaching your dog to focus on an object and then to leave you and go out to touch the object with a nose or paw (in the photo, Lucy’s trying for both, just in case!) This is a great foundation for many different tricks (for example, ‘pick up your toys’) and it’s great first step if you want to teach your dog to do behaviors at a distance.
2) Distance work (go around the cone)
Once your dog has learned to target an object, they can start interacting with it in other ways. I like to use it as a marker of distance: I’m teaching Nellie how to play Frisbee right now, and I taught her how to run out to wherever I’ve put the cone and wait for my throw. This is also another good agility foundations behavior: often in beginner agility classes, you’ll practice having your dog go away from you, go around a jump standard 10 feet away and come back (with the idea that you’ll ultimately be able to send your dog out over a jump and then wrap around back to you.) Even if you’re not doing sports, it’s a fun training challenge to get your dog working when he’s away from you: so many dogs learn behaviors sitting right next to their handlers, and it can be tricky to get them working when they’re not right at your side.
Here’s (blurry: sorry!) Lucy demonstrating the whole sequence. I put two cones up to give her a little channel to work through and to make it a bit more challenging (I wanted her to go around the first cone and not the second.) Lucy’s a distance-work pro, so we like to mix it up.
Cavalettis are very popular in the horse world; this lower-slung version has been adapted for dogs, but if you’re a horse person, it’s the same kind of exercise. Cavalettis are a series of low poles spaced at the distance of your dog’s stride. You want your dog to walk calmly over them, picking all their feet up and stepping rather than hopping (my dogs always want to begin by jumping them flyball-style, and that’s not what you want here.) You walk your dog calmly over the poles, turn them around and walk them back (note: you only want to do about five repetitions of this in a session when you’re starting out.) It sounds easy, but it can definitely be tricky for dogs! Many dogs don’t have great rear-end awareness; they’re dimly aware that they have back feet, but they don’t tend to use them independently or with much precision. Having to pick their back feet up over the cavalettis helps build coordination and helps get your dog thinking about what’s going on back there. It’s also great conditioning: rehab vets recommend cavaletti work all the time. I used them with Nellie when she was rehabbing from her leg-ectomy, and I use them with Lucy as part of an overall rehab program for her bad hip. And they’re fun!
To make cavalettis with your cones, you’ll need a set of dowels: I used 3/4″ dowels that the hardware store cut down to 2-foot sections for me, but this can vary depending on the size of your dog. You’ll also need a way to stick the dowels in the cones. You can see in the picture below that my cheapy Dollar Store cone came with big slits up and down the side (very handy!) but if yours don’t have them, no biggy: get a punch or a big screwdriver or a drill and put some small holes in the side of your cones. It won’t hurt them, and you’ll have a built-in cavaletti/jump holder. You’ll want to put your dowels high enough that your dog has to really pick up her feet to get over them, but not so high that your dog needs to jump them.
Cavalettis can be either offset or straight. Offset cavalettis are angled and tend to be a little more challenging for the dog (since she has to pay attention to the set of every pole.) This is what an offset cavaletti looks like:
In this next picture, things are going much better! You want the dog to walk–not jump!–over each of the cavalettis: you’re going for a smooth, slow, fluid motion. Lucille looooves to jump them, but here, she engages in a rare demonstration of doin’ it right. Straight over, picking up both the front and back legs on the way.
4) Low jumpThis is pretty self-explanatory: it’s a nice low jump, great for dogs who are building up to something bigger, dogs who are learning how to jump correctly, dogs who play sports involving low jumps (like flyball) and dogs who just think jumping is fun (and of course, it’s also a great size for little guys). The instructions are the same as for cavalettis: you need a dowel, and either your cones need to have slits in them or you need to punch some holes in the side. Insert dowel: instant jump!
There are tons of things you can do with a little jump. Practice sending your dog over the jump from across the room or calling your dog back over the jump! Have your dog take the jump and retrieve a toy from the other side! Make a couple and try experimenting with some tricky courses! Set a row of them up in a narrow hallway and have your dog take them sequentially! Jumps are always good fun.
5) Figure 8s
This is a fun little exercise drawn from Rally-O: like cavalettis, it’s a pretty simple set of motions that can be tricky for your dog at first. Just set two of your cones up a few feet apart from each other and have your dog heel around them in a figure-8 (as Lucy is demonstrating above.) It’s great heeling practice and it’s another thing that helps with rear-end awareness: both my dogs blundered into the cones with their back legs the first few times we practiced this.
Once you’re good at this, you can also see if your dog can do the pattern on his own without heeling along at your side. I taught Lucy how to do this once I realized that it was really hard to heel with your dog in a figure eight position while taking pictures: it was born out of necessity, but it was a fun little game to teach.
I had less luck teaching solo serps than I had teaching solo figure eights, and as it was getting dark, I decided you’d have to content yourself with a dogless, MS Paint-enhanced photo. Serpentines are another move drawn from Rally, and like the Figure 8, it’s another fun heeling exercise. This is a 4+ cone exercise: you begin like the Figure 8, but instead of looping around at the second cone, you proceed to the end of the cones in an S-pattern (see the black line in the photo). When you reach the end, you loop around (now you’re following the purple line) and head back to the start in the same way. Besides being a fun game on its own, serpentines start giving your dog the basic feel of agility weave poles, so it’s another thing you can play with if you’re thinking about starting agility one day.
7) Channel for teaching ‘back up’
‘Back up’ is one of our favorite cues here at TU: it’s useful for those moments that you need your dog to be out of your face, and it has applications in many sports (Lucy and I first started practicing it when we were playing around with sheep herding.)
If your dog is anything like Lucy, however, you’ll know that ‘back up’ doesn’t necessarily mean ‘go straight back’. Lucy loves the game but tends to veer all over the place and bonk into things. This, for example, was the result the first time I started trying to shape her back up into a straight line:
HA HA WOO, I WALKED INTO YOUR DUMB CONES! [ed. note: she was supposed to be paralleling them]
*Sigh. Enter the cone channel! To straighten Lucy’s ‘back up’, I back-chained the behavior: I set up the cones in a little channel (four on each side), started calling her through them and then, after she came to me, I practiced having her take one step back at a time. When she took a straight step, I sent her back to the beginning, called her to me through the cones and then had her take two steps back. When we got to the point where she was moving back in a reasonably straight line, I started moving the cones closer together and then repeated the process until she was walking backwards in a tight, straight line.
8) Find-It Game (aka one of these cones has a treat under it, but WHICH ONE??)
This is a great way to end a training session and let your dog blow off some steam. Get your cones, hide a treat under one or two of them, put the others out as decoys, let your dog go nuts.