All About That Box

Here is Ranger with his head in a box.

dog with head in box

Hello? Is there anybody in there?

Why is his head in a box? Read on to find out!

Ranger is a “crossover dog”. In dog-people language this means that he has been previously trained with applied punishments and aversives [for a quick primer on some different ways that behavior can be modified, check out this link on operant conditioning].

One of the problems with using punishments during training is that dogs don’t try to get creative because, well duh, they might be punished for it. As Debi Davis notes about one of her crossover dogs, “He would sit staring a hole in my face for hours if he could, just waiting for his cue.”

We’re going to try to re-set Ranger, who suffers from a similar affliction – he has never been taught that trying new things can be good for dogs. I want Ranger to learn to offer new behaviors instead of just “safe” behaviors so that we can increase his repertoire of things that he can get rewarded for. On top of the fact that he will be learning new and helpful things, we can also reward the heck out of those new things and the “naughty” things he does will seem drastically less appealing. This can be really confusing for the average dog owner, but you don’t often stop a bad behavior by STOPPING it. I know. Just let that settle.

So, the head in a box thing.

To help Ranger learn to think creatively, we started shaping his behavior by playing Karen Pryor’s 101 Things to Do with a Box game. This game rewards little steps of behavior toward a broad goal of interacting with a box. It teaches the dog that trying new things will earn him rewards!

My minion helped me get the box ready.

girl cutting box

Snip snip

Because she is quirky and odd, she noted this:

Once we are done with this box I will marry this box. And add it to my box collection.


Anyway, then we brought in Ranger. This is the instant I started working with him. You’ll notice he immediately offers his “default behaviors” of sitting and lying down.

Note the less-helpful little helper at the end throwing off the behavior rewarded by the last click. Gah!

In this video I am moving around a little to help him offer behaviors. Once a dog is savvy to shaping, he will offer behaviors much more freely, but since we also need to keep Ranger’s rate of reinforcement high at the beginning to keep him interested, I’m going to help him do *something* besides stare at me and sit-down-sit-down-sit.

The goal here is to click and treat any iteration of behavior toward interaction with the box. Paws moving, head moving, looking at it, poking it, whatever.

If you try this, you need to reward at a high enough rate that the dog stays “in the game”. I am clicking and treating about every 3 seconds, which is a pretty high rate. If your dog gets bored or distracted during training, you probably are not rewarding enough. And if your dog isn’t offering ‘good enough’ behaviors to get rewarded at this rate, you need to lower your expectations a little and build the behavior in smaller increments. If you try this, your dog is not going to walk up to the box and put his head in it. ANY motion toward the box is rewardable! You can increase your expectations once the dog gets the hang of it.

As luck would have it, Ranger got the idea in a few minutes, so I moved to the chair. Now he has to go TO the box to interact, which really tells us that he knows it’s part of the puzzle here. He’s not just accidentally touching or moving toward it any more.

You can clearly see that he is focusing on the box and experimenting with it. He has gotten reinforced the most for poking his head inside, so that is what he is offering.

After this little test of his understanding, I went back to the box and did a few more minutes of clicking and treating at a higher rate, then we called it a day. Next time we do this game I’ll try to shape some other behaviors and hopefully his experimentation will expand – we’ll see if we can get paws, nose, teeth or other critter parts involved. But for now, I am very proud of him for trying out this new game and learning to explore new behaviors.

So that’s why Ranger’s head is in a box!

What’s the takeaway today? It doesn’t take a super-special highly intelligent wonder dog to achieve behaviors beyond “sit” and “down”.  It just takes a little imagination, patience, and timing.

Give this a shot with your dog!  If you try this out or have any questions feel free to comment!



  1. Natasha · November 8, 2014

    This is super helpful! I’ll have to try it on my dog, Parker. Not sure if him constantly defaulting to sitting and staring is because of previous training (briefly worked with an e-collar…didn’t go well) or because he is SO food-focused that he just goes through all of his “commands” to see which one I want. Probably some of both 🙂

    Thanks for the tip!


    • HandsFullDogTraining · November 8, 2014

      Ranger is very food-focused too! It really is a lightbulb moment when you see them figuring out that Doing Stuff will get them the treat a lot faster than staring at it (Ranger is on the brink there in the 2nd video).

      Dogs will often offer a default behavior even if they have been positively trained, but a dog that isn’t scared of being wrong will move out to other behaviors more quickly when you are trying to teach something new, which makes the process easier.

      Here’s another good article that goes more in-depth on training tips for the box game:

      Have fun training!


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