How to Teach Your Dog to Play the Piano
Teaching Dogs to Play the Piano...Dogs Can Love Music Too!
Why teach your dog to play the piano? Well, for starters, it's a very cool trick that will certainly draw an audience. When I first started training dogs several years ago, to be totally honest, I wasn't impressed by the clicker. I thought it was a superfluous tool that was used to simply give a dog feedback. I thought I was fast enough and good enough to capture behaviors I liked and letting the dog know with a simple "yes" or "good". Boy, was I wrong!
The wonderful world of clicker training was first introduced to me in Italy, when I attended a reputable dog trainer school. This is where I was first handled a clicker and given the opportunity to explore new venues. I still remember how the master trainer explained how clicker training wasn't a technique, but rather a philosophy. This gave me goose bumps as a totally new world of possibilities was unleashed to me that day, and since then, I always faithfully carry a clicker with me.
If my dogs can play the piano, perform Canine Musical Freestyle moves, take a bow, walk backwards in circles and compete in Rally obedience, for the most part I have to thank clicker training. For many good reasons, clickers were originally used to train marine mammals; they're very effective and motivating! So if Seaworld trainers can train bottle-nose dolphins, sea lions and killer whales with a clicker, you surely can train your dog too!
So why train a dog to play the piano? As mentioned it's an impressive trick, but I also use this trick and clicker training in general as a form of therapy for dogs who need to boost their confidence levels and become more responsive. I call it "music therapy" for dogs. I even use clicker training when dealing with the rehabilitation of aggressive, stressed dogs. So how do you train a dog to play the piano? More details below....
How to Charge the Clicker
How to Teach Your Dog to Play the Piano
For starters, your dog needs to be clicker savvy. A clicker in order to work must be perceived by your dog as a conditioned reinforcer. In other words, he must know that a click means treat and that clicks follow wanted behaviors. In order to accomplish this, you must charge the clicker. Watch the video besides on how to accomplish this. Once your dog is classically conditioned to understand that each click is immediately followed by a treat, then you can start clicker training. Don't start clicker training until you're absolutely sure the clicker has been correctly charged and your dog has made the association between click and treat. For teaching your dog to play the piano you will need:
- A clicker
- A treat bag
- Small, soft treats your dog loves
- A battery-operated piano
Place the piano in the middle of the room in a low distraction area. You want the piano to be a salient piece of equipment, in other words something that sticks out and is worth investigating. Click and treat your dog for any behaviors that cause him to interact with the piano. Click and treat for looking at the piano, click and treat for moving towards the piano, click and treat for sniffing the piano. I like to toss the treats on the floor away from the piano. The reason being, I want him to walk back to the piano to get clicks and treats. Once your dog has learned that great things happen when he approaches the piano and is around it, you can start raising criteria, by clicking only when your dog interacts with the keyboard section. Withdraw the click if the dog interacts with other parts of the piano.
This is a very delicate phase. If you withdraw too many clicks, your dog may get frustrated, give up and lose interest in the piano. If your dog hangs around other parts of the piano too much, take a step back and resume clicking for interacting with the piano regardless of what he does. Eventually, your dog will get close to the keyboard section again and that's when you want to click and throw a party (give more than one treat) and resume in another later session. Always end your clicker training sessions on a positive note! Also, keep those sessions brief and fun so your dog looks forward to them!.
Next time, take a few steps back and resume clicking for interacting with the piano and then start clicking again only when your dog is in front of the keyboard section. Once your dog acknowledges that great things happen in this location, you should see him hanging by the keyboard section more and more. Eventually, he'll sniff the keys and make the keyboard play with his muzzle. This is when you want to throw another party by giving extra bonus treats.
What if my dog never compresses the keys you may wonder? Some dogs may pose more challenges and may actually never compress the keyboard. Often these are dogs new to clicker training or dogs that by nature are inhibited by taking initiative. Don't despair; you can help your dog by prompting the behavior using treats strategically placed on the keyboard. I am not a fan of this, as I like to shape behaviors, but in some cases some dogs need an extra boost at times. When your dog gets a treat from the keyboard, his muzzle will eventually compress the keys making a tone. Make sure you immediately click and toss a treat when this happens. Because your dog is now rewarded with a click and treat every time he sounds the tone, Thorndlike's law of effect will kick in. For science junkies, this law of effect states that "responses that produce a satisfying effect in a particular situation become more likely to occur again in that situation.” Moral of the story? You'll have a dog that will compress the keyboard and play the tones more and more.
However, you don't want a dog that just plays a tone and that's it. You want your dog to put together a cute little piece for you. So what to do? Once your dog reliably plays one tone, withdraw the click and treat this one time and see what happens. In this case, you're hoping for an extinction burst. In other words, you want to build in that little bit of frustration that causes your dog to think "hey, I am playing one tone, don't you see it?" that should stimulate your dog to play the tone again. At this point, click and treat immediately and give a bonus. You then need to further build on that, so once your dog reliably plays two tones, you'll withdraw the click again and he'll go into an extinction burst again and then play three tones and so forth until he plays longer and longer pieces of music for you. Finally, you should have a dog that plays a nice little work of art for you to enjoy!
The videos of dogs playing the piano on this hub are my Rottweiler Petra when she was 3 years old and my foster dog Tuxie, who played a piece in hopes of finding a loving home that would adopt her. The trick worked so well she removed from the kill-shelter and was sent to rescue in another town where there were several people interested in her, which only a few selected (and very lucky dogs!) were given this opportunity! Still as today, I incorporate music therapy in my exercises to train confidence in dogs and training. It's fun, people love it, and best of all, the dogs have a blast!
My Rottweiler Petra Playing the Piano (Alexadry all rights reserved)
My Foster Dog Tuxie Playing the Piano (Alexadry all rights reserved)
For further reading
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- Dog Sports: Canine Musical Freestyle
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© 2013 Adrienne Janet Farricelli