The irony of all ironies for me was discovered within days after bringing home my brand-new puppy. We named her Tini as in “Tini DeMartini,” and boy did she ever live up to that name. Within a day or two of arriving in our home, she started shadowing me everywhere — it was as if the sun and the moon rose above my head at all times in her eyes. She seemed to like my husband just fine, but nothing compared to her adoration of me.
So, when we left Tini home alone, she would scream. It didn’t even help all that much to have my husband home alone with Tini when I was gone. She wouldn’t scream, but she was still extremely upset — pacing and whimpering.
Fast forward a handful of months, and Tini was successful at being left alone for 3-4 hours — thanks to the separation anxiety desensitization protocol and the support of my colleagues who helped guide me through the process. (Yes! Even separation anxiety trainers need a hand when it comes to training their own dogs.)
But, I digress.
I rarely had to leave Tini for more than an hour or two, and so I was worried about her being alone for much longer on the really odd occasion where we had to be gone, such as Christmas and Thanksgiving. My family always gets together on holidays starting with a late breakfast and continuing on through an early dinner. I couldn’t bear to desert Tini that entire day, so I would leave midday to hang out with her and then return later on. Fortunately, at the time I lived close enough to make this feasible. I have since moved and needed a plan B.
Enter: The Travel Crate!
A new train is planned for my neighborhood, which will allow me to take Tini with me to family gatherings, but she’ll have to ride in a soft travel crate (I like the Sherpa brand) to do so. Sometimes it is just prudent to take a dog with you places — and for people caring for dogs who are afraid to be left alone, being able to travel with their pups can be a life saver. But for most dogs, this will require training. Rather than simply plop the pooch into the pouch, er, Sherpa bag, we teach the dog to LOVE going into the bag.
I’ll walk you through my training with Tini to show you how it’s done:
Start easy and build incrementally
Tini was not comfortable going into Sherpa bag at first. I would toss treats into the bag, and she would stretch out as far as her adorable little body could, so that she could reach the treats without going into the bag. This is common for a lot of dogs as the bag is enclosed and unfamiliar.
Shop for a little more
Sometimes, after Tini was comfortable stretching in for a treat, she would put both of her front legs into the bag. When I saw that she was doing that a lot and still looked really comfortable, I only gave her a treat when both front legs went in.
We had to do this step for a while until she eventually put one of her back legs in too. Aha…we are getting somewhere! Once she was putting that back leg in a lot, I switched to only giving her a treat if both of her front legs and one of her back legs went in. And then I stuck with that until the other back leg went in. I still gave her treats for the three legs until that fourth leg was going in most of the time too. Then I only gave her the noms when all four legs went in.
See how it works?
It took a little bit of time before Tini was comfortable putting all four paws fully inside the bag, but there we were with Tini’s butt to the back of the bag and head in first. Hmmm, new strategy time!
Turn her around
Once she was successful going into the bag head first, I had to teach her to turn around. It took a few trials of getting Tini used to me delivering the treats by hand directly to her in the back of the bag. Once acclimated to that, I was able to use the treats to gradually turn her around. I dispensed the treats lavishly as I lured her head to the front of the bag.
The very first time that Tini fully turned around in the Sherpa, I fed her in that position profusely. Some call this jackpotting — in other words, she scored big time for the behavior that I was looking for.
Now that I could get Tini to go in and turn around, I asked her to lie down. That was an easy one since she already knew “down” from obedience training. So, there we were with Tini in the bag lying down, and I was thrilled.
Careful with the zip
Our next goal was to zip up the door. I can’t stress enough how important it was to go slowly when closing her in. For some dogs, if you go too fast at this stage, you could scare them, and then you’d have to start from the beginning to get them comfortable again.
First I zipped partway just a little, and then I immediately unzipped the door and gave her treats. In time, I could zip it half-way up and go a little more slowly too. Finally, I zipped it all the way up, and she was doing great!
I then needed to build duration with the zipper fastened, so just like we do with the sep-anx protocol, I went gradually and varied the times: Zip up count to one, unzip. Zip up count to three, unzip. Back to one, up to two, then four then back to one. This variable interval was especially helpful in getting Tini to be comfortable, as I was not increasing duration in a straight line, which can be alarming. Tini received some treats through the small opening on the top for the longer durations. Most importantly, she was still loving this game!
“Sherpa game fun! Me love, Sherpa!” says Tini.
At this point, Tini started to love that the Sherpa brought with it the potential for treats, so she would opportunistically go inside and hang out in her down position waiting for me to reward her. I’m always careful not to get greedy and wait too long before giving her a treat for going inside. If I’m not around to do this, I put the Sherpa away. I want Tini to always associate that bag with happiness and delicious foods always!
Time to move
Creating some movement with the Sherpa was the next step. At first I just lifted the handles of the bag ever so slightly so that it would move a bit, and then I’d give her treats. Eventually I could pick the bag up off the ground for a few moments at a time. Finally, I was able to pick the bag up and rest it on my shoulder which itself is a new sensation because the bag tilts a little when doing this. We are now really on our merry way!
While carrying her around, I built duration using a variable time interval schedule once again, and that went surprisingly quickly since we already had added duration to the still bag.
Go to your Sherpa!
Once Tini understood the game and was happy to go inside her Sherpa when I motioned her with my hand, I added the verbal cue, “Sherpa.” (I know. It’s not very original.) The order of events is really important here:
- Say, “Sherpa,” (or whatever BETTER word you can come up with.)
- Wait a couple of seconds and then gesture with your hand for her to go inside.
- Wait for her to go inside, and then lavish her with treats when she does.
Eventually, you’ll see that your pup starts to go inside from when you say the word rather than waiting for the hand gesture. That’s when you know she’s starting to get it. Do a ton of repetitions after that to make it sink in.
Today, I simply have to ask Tini to go to her Sherpa and she races right in ready to hang out!
My biggest obstacle to traveling with Tini at this point is the fact that the darn train construction is behind schedule. Sadly, I can’t fix that problem with training, so I will be patient and continue to refine Tini’s Sherpa “stay” even more while I wait.
Please enjoy this video of Tini going into her Sherpa and know that you can train your dog to do this too!