Train your dog to be in a school play - Part 1 of 2

Do you have a complex training goal that you have always wanted to work on with your dog but don't know how to begin? There are a myriad of possibilities for training, but sometimes people get overwhelmed by where to begin and never reach their goal.


In February I was contacted by Jeanne, one of my private clients, asking about how to teach her dog to Take a Bow. She mentioned that she wanted Seamus to learn this trick to perform it in her daughter's play, Annie.

Seamus' role expanded and he was used in four scenes in the play. Through a lot of hard work and a little bit of help from me, Jeanne successfully completed her goals and Seamus was in the school play. I thought that Jeanne and Seamus did such a fantastic job that I asked if she would like to be featured in order to help others learn from her excellent training work.

Read on for her interview and examples of identifying training challenges and executing the tasks through lots of planning, time and creativity. Hopefully this will provide you some ideas for your training goals.

Q. How did you decide to have Seamus in the play?
Seamus loves children and being at school. I thought it would be fun for both of us but I wasn’t quite sure if he could do it. So I tested him, taking him for several weeks to the playground during aftercare – seeing if he could follow commands amid all the commotion and also seeing if he would take commands from the children. I knew the commands would be easy for him (sit, stay, come) but the context would be challenging.
I accepted under two conditions: that we have lots of rehearsal time with the girl who played Annie (this extra rehearsal time was made a condition of her casting), and that there would absolutely be no other dogs present at rehearsal or performance (Seamus is aggressive with other dogs).

Q. What did he do in the play? He had four scenes:

  1. The first was the most challenging. He had to come onstage alone and run to Annie, then sit with her through a song. Then Annie put him in a sit/stay and she walked away to talk to another actor. Then she called Seamus to come to her, they walked back downstage and sat together, and Annie reprised her song.
  2. In his second scene, he had to run across stage to Grace and Daddy Warbucks, who was carrying a sleeping Annie. Grace then shooed him away and he ran back to me. (Grace was played by my daughter.)
  3. In the last scene he was taken in as a Christmas gift to Annie, wearing a big bow. He was on a lead for this scene, so the only challenge was teaching the children how to hold the lead in order to control Seamus and not get tangled up.
  4. Finally, he had to walk with Annie on lead from the back through 127 children in order to take a bow.

Q. How did you learn how to teach him what to do?
Seamus already knew how to sit, stay, and come with both visual and verbal cues. So the main problem was context. I learned a lot by trial and error.
Here were my main tasks:

How to get Seamus to go to Annie and Grace amid many distractions.
We rehearsed this over and over and over again. I gave both the girls treats and turkey and used a hand signal (lift arm, point finger) and verbal signal, “go to _____.” We rehearsed getting him to go and sit (first with the girl standing, later with Annie sitting). I was surprised how it was hard for him to do the same behavior when we moved from rehearsing in an upstairs room to the gym and then to the set.

How to get Seamus to stay with Annie during the song.
We worked on very long sit/stays at home and he’s had “Tomorrow” sung to him many, many times. Annie had treats and turkey in her pocket but he would still get restless and I didn’t want her to have to wrestle him and bribe him to stay with her while she was trying to sing her big solo. (We also had to balance the attractiveness of the treat with the amount of distraction and his mood for a given day. Turkey was good for focus if he was challenged and distracted; not so good if it made him over-excited and he was crawling over her and trying to get his nose in her pocket.)

The biggest problem was getting him not to run to me in the middle of the scene. I tried being out of his sight but that just made him anxious and he would try to find me. I found that remaining in his sight off-stage worked better. But I also found that I had to stay very still – even if I smiled at him, he would come to me!

My goal was to make him feel comfortable and safe with Annie – to see her as a little oasis of comfort onstage. Whenever possible at rehearsals, I gave Annie Seamus’ lead and he hung out with her; she played with him, trained him, and gave him treats. The last week before the show, I even went to her classroom for an hour a day. He sat on his bed by her desk and I sat on the other side of the room.

How to get Seamus to follow Annie’s commands onstage.
I had to train Annie how to train Seamus, teaching her verbal and visual cues, as well as positive reinforcement methods. At first little Annie would command Seamus sternly, “Come” or “Stay.” Well, he’s a strong, vibrant three-year-old Wheaten. Although she was a pretty determined little girl, there’s no question of which one of them had a stronger will, in terms of his behavior. So we worked on training with wonderful treats and an encouraging, positive attitude. Annie ended up being a fantastic trainer and she and Seamus adored each other, which was what we all hoped would happen.

Q. How did Watch and Train help?
First of all, training by positive reinforcement is wonderful, for all dogs but especially my rescued Wheaten, who is easily cowed. I don’t want to force my dog to behave and have an obedient, frightened dog. And certainly, that’s not what they wanted to see onstage. I’ve learned from you that training is a win-win cooperative effort between guardian and dog. Seamus would do just about anything for praise coupled with turkey. Why not make everybody happy?

I asked for your help in teaching Seamus how to Take a Bow. When I was consistent, he learned it in about a week. I really appreciate learning that dogs don’t generalize well and that their learning is very context dependent. When you suggested that I think about the constants, I changed the focus of my training to strengthening his relationship with Annie, which I think enabled Seamus to behave reliably in a changing context.

I also appreciate that I could post a question or concern I had and get feedback, such as, "Should I exercise the dog before rehearsals and the show? Is burning off energy a good thing or not?” Even if your answer was, “Maybe. Maybe not,” it gave me a way to evaluate what I was doing.
Oh yes, and when Seamus gets happy and excited, as he is likely to do in a gym with lots of children, he’s liable to throw his head back and crow, “Woo, woo, woo!” It was so very helpful to learn not only to ignore his crowing but to also reinforce his quiet. Annie and I would say “Eh! Eh!” and turn our backs and ignore him if he crowed, then turn around when he was quiet, click/treat and say, “Quiet is good!”

Did I mention that clicker training is fantastic for showing Seamus exactly the behavior that I want? And breaking down a behavior into smaller steps, so that Seamus could build on small successes was helpful advice.

Q. What was the biggest challenge?
The biggest challenge was that the context changed continually. The school does not have a theater and the show was on platforms in the gym. We were not allowed to rehearse in the gym until a couple of weeks before the show and the set was not put up in the gym until the week of the show. So, Seamus only had two rehearsals with the set and the full cast. They were still blocking scenes in the last week. The first rehearsal with the set, I was supposed to send Seamus to Annie, and in between us suddenly there were 15 middle school kids and a garbage can – we couldn’t even see her!
He did fine with the first scene in performance but he didn’t do what he was supposed to do in the second scene, where he runs across the stage to Grace and is shooed away. Again, this was because he couldn’t see her. They changed the blocking and put Daddy Warbucks on Seamus’ side. Then they dimmed the lights. Really not his fault. I couldn’t even see Grace. Fortunately, this scene wasn’t critical for the play. He ran onstage, sat down and scratched his ear, then leapt off the front of the stage and leaned on a nice man in the front row of the audience who petted him. It was cute.

Q. How much training time per day/week did you practice?
30-60 minutes at rehearsals, 2-3 days a week, then sometimes a little more at home. The final week of rehearsals, we were there for 2-4 hours every day. (We didn’t train the entire time we were at rehearsals and figuring out exactly how much to train in between his scenes was a challenge. I wanted to train enough to keep him focused but not wear him out.)

Train your dog to be in a school play - Part 2 of ...
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