Dog games: Four paws in a box

ready300Welcome to 4 paws in a box!

Like most tricks, this game not only entertains your dog.

It also serves a useful purpose.

The purpose of this trick is twofold

It is aimed at teaching the trainer how to shape new behaviours.

It is also aimed at teaching the dog how to earn rewards by offering small changes in behaviour.

Shaping new behaviours

If you haven’t read our article on shaping, now is a good time to check it out.

little dog on a box isolated in whiteShaping is a neat way of building a completely new behaviour.

Working on a trick like 4 paws in a box, is a great way to practice this new skill without any pressure.  After all, if your dog can’t stand with all four feet in a box before Thursday lunchtime, the world is not going to stop turning!

Let’s get started.

First charge your clicker

Because we are going to reward the dog for small changes in behaviour, we need to mark the behaviours we like with an event marker.

The best event marker is a clicker, though you can use a word like YES, if you prefer.

If you are new to clicker training, you need to charge your clicker.  This is really simple and won’t take you long.

It’s just a question of your dog realising that every click is followed by a treat.  Once he has that nailed, you can start training.  You can find instructions here: Charge up your clicker

Introducing the box

All the equipment you need is a shallow cardboard box. The sides need to be no more than three or four inches high.

Just cut down the sides on a higher box if you don’t have a shallow one.  It doesn’t need to look pretty.

How long and wide the box is will depend on your dog.  You should be able to picture him standing with all four feet inside it without being uncomfortable.

You can move to a smaller box later if you want to. But let’s make it easy for him to begin with

Choose a training location

This is best done indoors.

You want to avoid distractions and there is usually too much going on outside.  There are birds and insects, passing aeroplanes, the wind in his ears, and so on.

Indoors there should be none of these things.

You want the dog to be in a boring environment – this makes your game so much more attractive.

The next step is to get the dog interested in the box.

Different dogs

Some dogs are just plain nosy.  You can guarantee that anything you place on the floor will be thoroughly examined and checked over for goodies.  My spaniels are like this.

Place a box on the floor and you can be sure they’ll rush over to see what’s inside. With this kind of dog you’re half way there before you have even started.

Some dogs are just not in that place.

“There’s a box on the floor?” yawn “whatever” is the kind of reaction you get. This dog is going to need an incentive to even look at the box, never mind get in it.

So you’ll need to be ready to lure a little.

The set up

Have some treats ready in your treat bag, or in a bowl on a handy table near where you are going to place your box.  Have your clicker at the ready and prepare your box.

Decide where you are going to work.

The carpet may be better than a slippery wood floor.  The dog might just take a running jump, and you don’t want your box to go skidding away with your horrified dog inside it.

Make sure there are no distractions in the room, no-one watching, no other dogs, put the cat out, turn off the phone.

And let’s begin.

Step 1: Attention on the box

Place the box on the carpet

Mark and Reward any attention that the dog gives to the box.  This means pressing the clicker (mark) and giving the dog a treat (reward).  We’ll call it M&R for short.

This can include staring at the box, moving towards the box, and touching the box with any part of his body.

Follow each mark with a reward – throw or place the reward well away from the box.

When the dog is repeatedly returning to give the box some attention, move on to the next step

Step 2: Touching the box

In this step you will now be more demanding.

Stop marking the dog for looking at and approaching the box.  Only mark him for touching it with any part of his body.

When he is repeatedly touching the box, move on to Step 3.

What if he ignores the box?

If your dog ignores the box completely, you can get him interested in approaching it, by placing treats in the box.

This is a lure, so you will want to get rid of it quite quickly.

Place a treat in the box, Mark the dog as soon as he touches the box, throw his Reward away from the box, and repeat twice more.

Then wait.

Wait for the dog to approach the box of his own free will.

Keep waiting.

Count in your head to 100. If the dog is ignoring the box by the time you reach 100 you can lure him into the box again.

Within a short space of time, the dog will be touching the box with his nose, or with a paw, without the lure.

Step 3: One paw in the box

The next step in the process is to look for the dog actually placing a paw inside the box.

This usually happens quite quickly, so be ready for it

As soon as you see his paw touch the  bottom of the box, mark and reward.

Place the treat away from the box so that he has to take his paw out to get it.  And be ready to mark and reward as soon as he returns for another go.

Step 4: Four paws in the box

From one paw,  you can proceed to two paws in the box, then look for a third and finally a fourth.

Back paws can be harder than front paws, so you may need to mark and reward back one or two back paws separately for a while, before trying for all four paws at once

Keep your sessions short.

Set aside a set number of treats at the beginning of each session and stop when they are all gone.  Don’t keep going until the dog gets bored or is full.

Twenty treats is fine for most dogs.


4 paws in a box is a great training exercise for you and your dog to start out with, because there is no pressure to it.

Learning to stand in a box isn’t a vital life skill, and this will help you to relax into the learning process together.

Why not give it a go? Take it at a pace which suits your dog, and make sure that you are both having fun.  And let us know how you get on!

This website is brought to you by Pippa Mattinson

Pippa's book Total Recall is a complete recall training programme for puppies and adult dogs, and her Happy Puppy Handbook is a definitive guide to puppy care and early training

by Pippa Mattinson on January 22, 2015

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