Ham’s odyssey also holds hope and inspiration for those among us owning hounds with challenging behavioral issues.
For the last three years, I have been involved in cat rescue through a local organization, Austin Pets Alive! There, I photograph cats in need of homes to help promote them and get them adopted. In that time, I’ve met some amazing animals, but I have also met some incredible humans. Natascha, a current staff member and close friend, is a hospice foster. She had recently lost a cat, Barry, who was expected to pull through. After struggling with that loss, she decided she needed a happy change of pace. She took in two bottle baby puppies, Catahoula and hound mixes Ferdinand and Arabella.
Had you owned a hound before?
Never. While I wanted every dog under the sun growing up, from Norfolk Terriers to Schipperkes to Rhodesian Ridgebacks, hounds were never truly on my radar. As a city girl, I’d never really noticed them. I grew up with a Chow mix, two Chihuahuas, a Toy Poodle, and a Labrador throughout my childhood years. Based on his markings and his eventual floppy ears, it was easy to guess Ham has Catahoula in his mix.
Tell us about Ham
From the time he was a puppy, Hamilton was tenacious. I would say that he was equal parts sweet, goofy, and naughty. From chasing the cat, to nibbling hands, to munching every stick he could get his paws on… he drove me crazy. But it was all worth it when he fell asleep on my chest or showed his smarts in how fast he picked up new tricks or commands. He grew quickly and soon exceeded his estimated adult weight of 35 pounds (topping out at 75). Hamilton grew up as a dog park, go-anywhere dog; but after his first birthday, he started to display signs of fear-based reactivity. It turned our world on its head. Previously, I had aspirations to train him as a therapy dog so he could share his infectious personality with others
I had never even heard of a Trick Dog Title before attending my training school, Zoom Room. This dog training chain offers a variety of classes, from obedience, to agility, to urban herding in some areas. Alongside that, they also offer various workshops like scent training and tricks and some, including the one in Austin, are AKC certified testing facilities. I started seeing “TKA” listed out on some of my trainer friends’ dogs’ Instagram profiles and looked into it. I realized that Hamilton was already close to a novice title, so we started working on it.
What training did Ham have before you started working on tricks?
Hamilton and I started training from the moment I brought him home. At first, it was just sit, down, stay, shake, but soon we started to class. Puppy pre-school (a socialization class), puppy obedience, and puppy agility were his first forays into training, and we continued to build up in those different areas. Today, Hamilton is in a Canine Good Citizen level obedience class (though we’re not sure if we’ll get that title) and level 2 agility which involves some simple courses. We’ve also done a bit of scent work together, which is a lot of fun for his nose!
Hamilton is the kind of dog who stares at you when you throw a ball as if he’s saying, “What do you think I am, a retriever?” A good treat is Ham’s best friend when it comes to rewards — but we have to mix it up so he doesn’t get bored. His current favorites range from fancier fare like freeze-dried chicken hearts and lamb lung, to junk food like milk bones and turkey dogs. While he is a pup with a balanced, nutritionally sound diet, sometimes you gotta break out the “bad” stuff when it comes to doing something super hard. He does love a good squeaky toy, but gets a little too excited about them to use them as a training reward — or not excited at all. It really depends on the day. But food is always a winner.
Hamilton earned his novice title in January of 2018, a few months before his first birthday. In between, we did a ton of behavior work, so we took a break from working towards his intermediate title. However, less than one year later, he earned his intermediate title. Between the two, he has showed off 20 different tricks and commands. We’ve got around 30 now, which moved him on to the advanced title!
Do you work with Ham according to an approximate schedule or just when time and interest allow?
Hamilton and I attend classes at least one to two times per week. Right now, that’s usually agility and obedience. In April, we’ll be adding in an advanced nosework course to the mix at a sport training facility. We’re super excited as we’d love to pick up some scent titles, too! When life gets busy, I don’t get as much time to work with him at home on “fun stuff” (e.g. tricks). However, every time we go out into the world I am actively working with him. I don’t leave the house without a clicker, harness, treat pouch, and muzzle. Since the world is full of triggers for him, it takes constant vigilance to make sure he is happy and relaxed. One of the biggest challenges in fact has been learning to keep my cool when we hit a stressful spot. He tends to feed off of me!
Remember that “not a retriever” comment? Catching and holding objects in his mouth is not his forte. Some tricks we have put aside and may never pursue (e.g. “put away your toys”), but others we’ve been able to master. One of those is flipping a treat from his nose and catching it.
If he knows them, for sure! When Hamilton is relaxed and comfortable, he lives up to his name — whether it’s flashing his pearly whites in a toothy smile, doing a trick, acting like an oversized lapdog, or asking for belly rubs. Strangers, not so much. But if he’s relaxed enough, he may show off a trick on command in public!
As I mentioned before, catching was initially quite hard for him, so I had to work on his coordination. A few things we tried: using popcorn because it’s lighter weight and doesn’t fall as quickly, counting to three before tossing to let him know it was coming, and not letting him have the treat unless he catches it (a race to the treat on the floor). In a hound’s mind, why should he try to catch it if he can just grab it off the ground? That was actually what really changed the game for us! Shout out to our trainer for the idea.
Does Ham have any “wild card” handler’s choice tricks that you slipped in because Ham offered the behaviors on his own?
Yes! One thing I’ve learned, and advice I’d give, is that things your dog does naturally will be easiest to capture and turn into a trick. For example, Ham loves to be on his back, so play dead (“bang!”) and rollover were really easy for him. So was “yoga” (or bow), as he loves to lean down into a big stretch.
It’s been so fun to work on tricks together. I would definitely say it’s a bonding experience, and it’s such a great feeling when I see the light bulb turn on for him! I also feel really proud that we can get these titles together. It’s a good reminder that whether your dog is purebred or mixed breed, you can still achieve together. Go get some ribbons! You may be surprised that your hound is already close to qualifying for a novice trick title. We didn’t intend to go past the first level, but after the first one, we gained confidence and I thought — you know, we can do this. We can keep going.
Watching videos and asking my trainer who is passionate about tricks for advice was a huge help. But the nice thing is, you don’t really need anything special to get started. Some people use a marker word like “yes” when a dog offers the behavior you want, but I far prefer a clicker. It’s a more precise marker and it helps your dog understand exactly the moment they offered the correct action. It helps them learn much faster. If you don’t know where to start, check out AKC’s website for lists of tricks for the various titles for some ideas.
What’s next for Ham? Will he advance to a performance dog title or try something completely different?
We plan to stop at the advanced title for tricks. We’ll still keep pursuing trick training, but the performer titles are next level (no pun intended). I think rather than trying hard at something that might not come very naturally to Hamilton, we will instead focus on something he was made for: scent work. We’ve already done a handler discrimination class and a basics workshop, and I’m excited to pursue more oil identification via container searches. We’ll also continue our recreational agility. While he’ll never be an agility dog for many reasons, it’s just another way we bond and grow our relationship. Training is truly a way to deeply connect with your dog.
To follow Hamilton’s adventures, see training videos, and read about his journey with reactivity, head over to Ham’s Instagram, which is updated daily at http://www.instagram.com/hamiltontherescue.
Dogs of any breed or mix at any age and size can earn trick dog titles. Classes are available in many areas, but trick training is also a great DIY activity. Check local training centers to find an authorized evaluator. The titling entities are American Kennel Club and Do More with Your Dog.
The MUZZLE UP Project (https://muzzleupproject.com/muzzle-training), though no longer being updated, houses excellent resources on training your dog to a muzzle.
The opinions expressed in this guest blog are those of the author(s) and are not necessarily endorsed by Coonhound and Foxhound Companions.