Between 8-16 weeks old, I begin training a little pup to recognize colors and numbers. By 4-6 months old, they should be pretty good at recognizing colors and big shapes. Dog vision is different, and they recognize blue and yellow pretty well. What we see as red or green is not the red or green we see. But like us, dogs can often recognize various shades of a color.
Teaching Colors for Tasks
Color recognition helps a service dog or service dog in training in many ways, from recognizing visually which soda I want (red soda or black soda is regular Coke or Coke Zero), to the walk/don’t walk signal at a crosswalk.
Great Danes in olden days hunted using both scent and sight, so I’m hoping to tap into this instinct, as “find it” is really just hunting.
If I’m not feeling well, a pup can learn to recognize that Pepto doesn’t look like Nyquil, and bring the one I ask for. They probably also use their noses to differentiate, but color is the main factor in recognizing an item from a distance.
So when I began teaching a tiny tot, I used construction paper for them to “target”. I say the color when putting a treat on the paper, to teach both the name of the color and to touch with nose or paw when I said the word. Then I will hold up the paper to say the word, get them to touch it on their own without a treat, then give a click/reward.
When they regularly touch, say the yellow paper, I will then add a blue paper the same way. Once both colors have been used alot, I will ask for one color while both papers are present. Hopefully the pup will have made the connection with the word and that color paper.
If not, I need to return to using an additional cue: I’ll say “yellow” and point, so they can go touch it, get their click, and a reward. Then I’ll say “blue” and point. After doing this for a time, I try just saying “yellow” and wait. If the pup goes to yellow, hurrah! If he’s thinking about it, but isn’t deciding I again point.
The idea is to lengthen the amount of time between word and cue to allow the pup to decide on his own which color is which. If the pup then starts going to the wrong color, I interrupt with a point, and practice the right one some more. Once a puppy has learned the two colors, targeting the color asked for regularly, I will add a third color, then a fourth and so on.
I also use objects that have the same shape, but are different colors, like the red soda and the black soda. Or white candle and yellow candle (unscented). With luck and practice the pup has gotten the hang of this by 4 months old.
Now those colors kick in as a task: find the red soda, or the blue deoderant, or the white blanket. I continue to click and reward the find, the touch, the pick up if they do it, and the bring if they do it as seperate steps. When a pup just automatically touches, picks up, and brings, they only need a click and reward for the whole chain.
This color recognition then branches out: ask for the yellow sock, the red towel, the black purse, the purple scarf, the oranges at the store, the prescription bottle with the blue sticker dot. Anything that helps a puppy seperate one item from another gives them tools to use in deciding which item you want.
Teaching Numbers for Tasks
Number recognition is also very useful for service dogs. I know a dog can read a clock: I had one that did. He’d look at the clock, see it was 9pm and he would get up, nudge me, and want to go to bed.
I use flash cards at first, the same way as the contruction paper for colors. Then I’ll use post it notes on doors or cabinets or the hallway wall for them to find and touch for their click and treat.
Next I begin using a big fake “clock” they can target numbers on, made of whatever’s around. A big paper or cloth with numbers on it that I can move the “hands” on is perfect. Larger is easier to see, so that’s where I start. A digital alarm clock with large numbers is also an option to train with.
A clock requires number recognition up to 12. If a pup just can’t seem to get double digits as 11 or 12, I don’t mind saying “one, one” or “one, two”, using the double digit numbers as a 2 number combination. This is easier for some puppies.
For people like me who have difficulty remembering things sometimes, or people with TBI (traumatic brain injury), strokes, and other cognitive struggles, a dog that can read a clock can remind you to take your medicine, that it’s time to pick up the kids at school, or time to get up from resting.
Typically the time related tasks need to be regular, part of a consistant routine for a dog to do them well. Like us, dogs become used to routines, and want to follow a usual order of activities. So recognizing the time doesn’t come out of the blue, it just becomes a cue for a part of their everyday routine.