Q: I train animals for films & TV commercials in Australia. I am currently working on a job and the clients have just added a behavior to their "wish-list," at very late notice (I have 5 days to train it).
The dog is a 3-year-old Chihuahua x Jack Russell (both parents pure); she is a soft natured girl, but very willing to learn, she knows "speak-up" well and is just learning to mark, but is only a couple of sessions off being solid.
The clients have asked that she "dig" on a flat wooden surface. I have been trying to get her to dig for a treat in dirt, but that is really not working so far (she is hungry, not starving). What else can I try?
A: Here's a thought. Take a flat surface with edges—a cafeteria tray, say—and put a little cat litter in it, just sprinkled around. Click the dog for stepping on the litter, with one front paw. One step, then two steps, so it goes to the tray and walks into it. Now reduce the area that has litter grains in it, so the dog has to aim for the grainy spot. Click for touching litter with the front paw. (I'd select a single paw to start with, preferably the dog's dominant paw, but it doesn't matter really because once you get one paw shaped the other will kick in.) My thought is that you are aiming for repeated paw taps or steps ONTO bits of litter; this gives you a clickable behavior, and as you get to three or four taps, you may see a pawing motion at some point. Go for that! Wiping litter off the paw, reaching for litter pieces, pawing for any reason.
NOW you have the pawing behavior, so you can increase that, while removing all or most of the litter grains. You could also paint dots on the tray to give targets for pawing, and then fade those. When you've got vigorous scraping and pawing with both paws, give it a signal, and then rebuild it on other areas.
I see this as about ten sessions of a few minutes each, maybe twenty as it might be slow at the beginning. The more OTHER free-shaped behaviors she has (spin, backup, touch a target, wave, high-five, etc.), the easier it will be for her to try to figure out where you're going with this, and to latch on to informative clicks early in the game.
A visual cue, such as a sticker on the surface that she can try to paw off, would be handy. If they won't let you do that, you could use a scent: dig where you smell lavender, for example.
Also, some dogs will spontaneously dig in a very shallow pan of water, 1/2 inch or so. It may only happen the first time, so be ready to click it. Good luck!