Each year my local dog club runs a season-ending Fun Day with events designed to be fun and to test the bond between club members and their dogs. Our most popular events include fancy dress, for dogs and owners, an agility-type slalom, a saveloy-eating relay race, the waggliest tail and an event we call the “Ned Kelly ”.
In the “Ned Kelly” event, you put a bucket on your head (like the famous bushranger, hence the name) through which you cannot see. With your dog heeling on-leash beside you, you must walk in a straight line from one end of the competition ring to the other. If you hold the line, then you will walk into a witch’s hat at the other end and win the event.
Walking in a straight line “blindfolded” for more than a few paces is not easy, especially with a dog beside you. Most competitors soon stray to the right or left, pulling or pushing their dogs off course.
A few years back, I reasoned that being a Guide Dog breed, I could train my Labrador, Harry, to lead me to a witch’s hat. I had one week to do so before the next Fun Day.
I started by leading Harry on-leash to a witch’s hat on top of which I’d left a piece of carrot. As we walked to the hat, I repeated the command, “Hat, hat, hat”, so that Harry associated “hat” with the witch’s hat and the carrot reward.
Then I removed the carrot from the witch’s hat, lead Harry to the hat and waited for him to sit before giving him the reward. My carrot loving dog was soon leading me blindfolded to the witch’s hat.
At the Fun Day, I entered the “Ned Kelly” ring with Harry, put the bucket on my head and gave the command, “Hat”. Harry dutifully lead me straight across the ring to the witch’s hat, where he got his carrot reward.
Since then, as an instructor, I’ve demonstrated the “witch’s hat” trick many times, as an example of what’s possible with dog training. It’s also an example having blind faith in your dog because, at the end of the day, I have to trust that Harry will lead me to the witch’s hat … and not in front of a truck!
© 2008 Robert Fairhead
This article appeared in the Village Voice Eastern-Harbourside in March 2008. The “witch’s hat” trick proved particularly popular with children, in Harry and my Can I Pat That Dog workshops.
Welcome to the blog posts and selected writing of a middle-aged dad and dog owner. Robert Fairhead is writer and editor at Tall And True, an online showcase and forum for writers, readers and publishers. His book reviews and other writing have appeared in various print and online media. And he has published two collections of short stories, Both Sides of the Story (2020) and Twelve Furious Months (2021).