Last week I went to London to teach dogs how to use iPads. I was hosted by City Dog, a London-based dog training facility. I’ve been teaching these classes here in NYC for about a year. Nicole Scott, owner of City Dog, became interested in them last summer when she read a piece about iDog in the Wall Street Journal. She got in touch. Or back in touch, I should say. Coincidentally, we went to high school together in Manhattan. We lost touch after graduation. She went to Cal Tech and worked at the NASA jet propulsion lab as a physicist. I went to NYU and became a journalist. And then, about ten years later, unbeknownst to each other, we both became dog trainers.
Nicole gave a call and I told her a little bit why I was teaching dogs to use iPads: Because, if you can get your dog to do this, you are honing your skills to teach them anything. Because, it’s a way to play with your dog (and tire him out) in a small space. Because people spend so much time on these darn devices, we might as get the dogs involved so that some of that screen time can also be spent with them. She totally got it.
So, on a sunny London day we gathered for an iDog “Master Class” with a bunch of dogs with cute English accents.
Above is one of the clinic’s students, a cockapoo named Darcy. Darcy started off the class working with an dummy iPhone.
After warming her up by teaching her to touch two outstretched fingers, we moved up to having her touch the phony wood phone. Sometimes, we smear peanut butter on these to make the dog extra interested in putting his or her face near it. We also use iPad-sized plexiglass rectangles for the same purpose.
Once she mastered the touch-your-nose-to-rectangle-and-human-gives-you-a-treat idea, we moved on to touching the actual device.
First, we had the dogs click themselves using the full-screen clicker on App For Dog. The clicking noise that is produced when their noses hit the screen pinpoints that they’ve done the correct thing and indicates to the human that it’s time to pony up a treat.
Then they moved onto doing more interesting things, like taking their own photos using the app Big Camera Button. Here is one by Shiba Inu Jax (also seen above).
Darcy posed for one with her mom. No duck faces here!
When she got good at that, she moved onto painting using App For Dog.
Over on the other side of the room, Watson, a Frenchie, was still trying to get the perfect selfie…It’s hard for a flat-nosed dog to get it just right!
We wrapped up the class with a little reading. This is an exercise that does not require a dog to actually touch a device. It’s just about pairing cues: Put a word up on the screen, show it to your dog, pause, and then give the old cue.
New Cue –> Old Cue –> Behavior –> Reward
So, you show “Sit” on the screen. Pause. Say “Sit.” If the dog does the behavior, reward.
With enough repetition, your dog can associate the word with the behavior, and will anticipate it as soon you show the word. You can play the same game by showing a picture of a dog doing the behavior then cueing it — eventually your dog will copy the picture on the screen. (We use the app Big Words, but you could also do this just with a couple of pieces of paper and Sharpie). Here is Darcy learning to read the word “paw.”
And Watson learning to read “sit.”
A very sweet Chinese Crested-mix, Olive, was particularly good at this task. Her owner, Shiona Tregaskis, wrote a really nice piece about working on Olive’s literacy in The Guardian.
Can’t wait to head back to London soon! Nicole will be running more “Master Classes.” The next one is about teaching dogs to use skateboards. I just hope they know what side of the street to ride on. And that they don’t do it while they’re on their phones…
Check out some of the great press our London class got on Yahoo, on Vice and in the Evening Standard! We’ve been running iDog periodically in Manhattan. If you’d like to sign up for the next one, drop us a line.