Getting a dog to play with a shape sorter is a multi-part process. He needs to be able to:
- Pick up an item on command (or at least take it off of you)
- Drop an item on command
- Drop an item inside of something on command
I used only positive reinforcement (praise, kibble, and treats) to teach Cooper how to play with this. At first I tried using a clicker and clicked it when the shape went in, but I soon realized that wasn't necessary because the shape made a sound when it fell in anyway.
Before I got Cooper a shape sorter, well, before I even had the IDEA to get him a shape sorter, I had been teaching him how to put his toys into his toy box. By the time I got him his first shape sorter at four months old, he already understood the concept of picking something up and putting it in a container. In fact he would randomly pick things up and put them into bags and containers, even without being prompted. He seemed to enjoy it.
When I first showed him his very first shape sorter, I took the lid off and got him to drop the shapes inside. This was similar to dropping toys into his toy box so he got it very quickly. Once he understood that he had to drop the shapes inside the sorter, I put the lid back on. As he was holding each shape, I would position the shape sorter so that the hole he needed was right under his mouth. I sometimes helped to guide the shape in with my hands when necessary. After we had done it this way for quite a while I stopped positioning the shape sorter or helping the shapes in. At first he kept trying to put the shapes through the wrong hole, as you might expect. But he soon learned that if it didn't go through one hole, it would go through the other. With a bit more practice, he started putting the shapes through the right holes. Once he had mastered that shape sorter, I got him one with six different shapes.
I discuss his six-shape shape sorter in more detail below, but here are a few tips for teaching your dog how to use a shape sorter with 4+ shapes:
- Try putting the shapes through yourself and figure out which are the easiest - based on how many different ways they fit through (circles fit from any direction, hearts only fit from two), how easy they are to recognize, and how easy they are to push through. With Cooper's shape sorter, here's how the shapes ranked in order of difficulty, easiest to hardest: square, circle (easy to recognize, hard to push through), hexagon / triangle (about equal but both fall through easily), flower, heart
- At first only use 1-2 of the easiest shapes and hide the rest
- Cover up the wrong holes with your hands or feet
- If your dog places a shape very close to the correct hole, help him by knocking it in the right direction
- If he starts to get frustrated, put a shape in the correct hole and let him push it in to get a treat
Supplies needed: shape sorter. Supplies recommended: treats/kibble
What kind of shape sorter to get: important!
I chose Cooper's first shape sorter ("ELC Shape Sorting House", pictured above) because it only had two different shapes and I thought that would make it easier. Plus it had "knobs" on the top which I thought would make the shapes easier to pick up. Only having two different shapes DID make it easier, but unfortunately the shapes themselves were extremely hard for Cooper to pick up with his mouth. He was only able to pick them up by the bottom edges and he was constantly dropping them and struggling to pick them back up again. The hardest part was not putting the shapes in the right hole; it was picking the shapes up! I don't recommend the "ELC Shape Sorting House" or any other shape sorter with hard plastic shapes for dogs. The shapes are too hard to pick up.
This is the best kind of shape sorter:
The shape sorter that has been the best for Cooper, and which I would recommend to other dog owners, is the "Baby Clemmy Shape Sorter" by Clementoni. As its name suggests, the shapes are soft. They're made of a rubbery material which is bendy, easy for a dog to pick up, and safe to chew on (for light chewers and only while supervised). Cooper LOVES the shapes and enjoys biting on them and knocking them around. Many of the shapes have bite marks on them but he hasn't managed to rip any of them apart. I'm not sure if the distribution of shapes is the same in every tub or not, but in mine I had mostly squares. This is a good thing because squares are the easiest to get in! Unfortunately some of the shapes get stuck very easily; circles, flowers and hearts all have this problem. You will probably need to help your dog by pushing them all the way in once he puts them in the right hole.
Something important to note: this shape sorter is 19cm tall. If your dog is tiny, he might not be able to put his head over the box. In this case I would recommend using some steps or a box so he can reach. The only bad thing about having soft shapes is that the dog is able to force some of the shapes through the wrong holes! You need to watch your dog to make sure he isn't cheating.