Thursday, August 2, 2012

Pieces of the Puzzle

I love puzzles. All kinds of puzzles. Jigsaw, logic, word puzzles, sudoku. You name it, I love to try to solve it.
Just a portion of my jigsaw puzzle collection

I also love keeping my dogs active both physically AND mentally. There are many "dog puzzles" out there that stimulate the canine mind and help develop the dog's ability to think through problems.

A couple of years ago I invested in one of the crown jewels of canine puzzles. This is but one of several varieties of puzzles put out by Nina Ottosson of Sweden. These puzzles are NOT cheap, but I like them because they are durable - my dogs can be hard on a toy - and because they offer variety of potential problems to solve, from simple to more complex, in just one puzzle. I selected the one called "Dog Brick" especially because of the different possibilities it offers.

It consists of a wooden board with sliding plastic panels under which treats can be hidden. The dog needs to slide these panels (2 per groove) out of the way to get its reward.

Basic board showing black plastic sliding panels

It also comes with two different types of pegs that can add difficulty to the puzzle once the dog has mastered the basic board. There are two large wooden pegs that can fit in any empty space except the two in the very center of the board. There are also 2 small, relatively flat, pegs that only fit in the two center spaces.
The two plastic pegs (top) and the two wooden pegs (bottom)
Board showing the insertion of  a wooden peg and a plastic peg
You can modify these pegs to make the task simpler by putting a knot in a thin rope and threading it up through the center hole in the peg so the dog has something easier to grip in order to pull it out. Because of the shape of his mouth, Ollie has a very difficult time getting a grip on and pulling out the plastic pegs. Ideally, I would need to modify them for his use.

So, as you can see, there is a range of possibilities for both board set up and levels of difficulty. I've been using the board with Ollie and Poppy for awhile now. Poppy isn't very refined. The strategy most often employed by her is to pull out all the pegs and slide the panels, eventually finding the reward. Sometimes she gets lucky and finds it right away, as in this clip:

At other times, it takes a few flying pegs before she finds what she's looking for:

Ollie usually rips out both wooden pegs first, then starts scratching at the panels until he happens to find the treat.

However, I see both Poppy and Ollie using their noses to better effect since I've been training them in nosework. Their "attacks" on the puzzle do seem to be a little less random than they previously had been.

Only a few days ago, I started working Hokey on the board once a day by feeding her her dinner, a little at a time, underneath the sliding panels. The first session was pretty much relegated to her learning how to slide the panels in order to get to the food. Once she got that concept down however, she was on a roll. So far, she seems to work the board in a more deliberate fashion than Poppy or Ollie. I am in the early stages of training all 3 dogs in nosework and all 3 love it and are good at it, but Hokey is showing herself to possess a superior raw talent. I wonder if this is because her sense of smell is a little more refined due to her deafness. When she works the board, she generally tends to home in on the odor first and then starts to slide the panels in that general area until she locates the reward.

She doesn't always get the right panel on the very first try, but she rarely seems to slide the panels that are far from where the food is hidden. Here you can see the difference between her searching around the board for odor clues, slightly sliding some tiles and tapping others in the process, compared to when she picks up on the area of highest odor concentration and goes into "I found it" mode.

I had not used any of the pegs with Hokey up until now. I thought it would be interesting to document their introduction into the game to see how she would respond. First, I thought it would be useful if I somehow helped her figure out that the pegs are objects meant to be removed from the board. To do this, I put treats directly inside a wooden peg and inserted it into the board.

Underside of a wooden peg. It is hollow inside, so can be filled with treats and then inserted into an empty space on the board

Here is a clip of her first attempt. At first, she looks around the board for where the treats might be hidden under the sliding panels. Then she catches the scent of them under the peg, sizes up the situation, and removes it. What a smart girl!

She picked up the concept WAY too fast. Here is our second attempt. Obviously, she gets the object of this step of the game.

So now on to the final challenge. I've hidden treats underneath a sliding panel and then inserted a wooden peg into the empty slot next to it in such a way that the peg needs to be removed in order for her to slide the panel to get her reward. Can she figure this one out??

Wow! What an awesome job. As you can see, Hokey doesn't just immediately head for the peg and pull it out like Ollie and Poppy do. She actually sniffs around and finds the area of greatest odor concentration first, then, realizing the peg is in that area, she pulls it out. Seeing that there is no food hidden underneath the peg this time, she immediately chooses the correct panel by using her nose and slides it open to reap the rewards of all that hard work.

Puzzles. They aren't just for humans. Let your dog give them a try and get those synapses firing!

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