Six days ago Lily, a littermate of Trooper, was brought to the house for dog/vizsla sitting. As the owners were closing our front door behind them Lily’s mom said, “Could you teach Lily to paint?” I stifled a shriek and made sure the door closed behind them. “Dogs painting. Don’t know about that.” I suppose I’d set myself up for this request. The mom comes to our fundraisers and receives the Winsong Farm Videos. Since we’re preparing for a “paint-off” at the 2015 Can-Am Equine Expo being held Easter weekend our recent video content has featured first Zelador, then Kye, painting. Also, just before Christmas 2014 I went to the barn with all the painting gear. The horses painted and we emailed photos of these always interesting works of art to friends. One of the recipients was Herb Williams who was the MC for one of our Fundraisers last spring. He loved the paintings! Herb contacted me and asked if I’d consider taking part in this year’s Can-Am. He put me in contact with one of the event organizers and I learned “the plan”. There are four exhibition halls. The goal is to have an artist’s booth in each hall. During the Can-Am the artists will be creating a piece of art which will be auctioned off the last day of the event. The proceeds go to Equine Guelph. The big question: would we take part? I asked for more details. Turns out horses aren’t allowed in the exhibition halls so we won’t be creating a painting in the booth. However, we will participate. We’ll have a booth resplendent with dozens of horse “originals” and, hopefully, several videos playing continuously of horse after horse painting. We will have a LARGE painting (probably created by a team of equines) for the auction.
Meanwhile back to Lily!
I pondered the painting proposal for almost two days. I found lots of reasons to not commence conducting painting lessons for the vizslas. When I visualized this endeavour I clearly saw paint on the vizslas, paint on me, paint on the walls, paint on the floor. I did not see paint on the canvas. What finally won me over? The weather!!!! It was cold outside (-35+ windchill). The arena’s temperature was -22. Suddenly I had TIME to do things INDOORS. I had an incredibly long list of sorting and cleaning that I could do in the house OR I could start the painting lessons…no pressure…just see what the sweeties would do.
I started with a small, wooden paint brush. Lily and Trooper wouldn’t even sniff it. After a while they would touch it when I asked them to, click/treat. I added paint to the brush and they walked away. We overcame that obstacle, click/treat. Whenever I used red paint they both were driven to lick it and wouldn’t stop. Bummer. I was a bit concerned that the tapered end of the brush handle could potentially hurt the dog’s mouth. Bill and I brainstormed about creating a safe handle. For our first prototype Bill converted the wooden paint brush by adding a wooden bar across the top of the cut off handle. Lily thought this was a good idea and started chewing it to bits. I covered it with plastic packaging tape and she held the handle for a split second. This “holding” was a huge step forward. Talk about me being thrilled!
It was good that I tried to teach both Trooper and Lily at the same time. BECAUSE when one wasn’t interested the other was. When the interested one got repeated clicks/treats the uninterested one became very interested.
We played together at least five times a day. Quite often the dogs regressed drastically. I learned to start each session as if they’d never seen a paint brush. This approach resulted in the dogs progressing rapidly during the session. Before I figured out this technique I figured the session would start where the previous one finished. WRONG. The horses have taught me that they can read my mind. I didn’t need the dogs figuring out that I was dismayed at their lack of progress. The whole painting thing was supposed to be FUN. Me being bothered by their lack of achievement was not FUN. I learned to rejoice at each little step the dogs did for me.
Finding a room to practice in was challenging. I needed a space that the three other dogs in the house wouldn’t come bursting into. Also the room needed to have surfaces that paint could be easily removed from.
Even with the new wooden “t” handle the dogs weren’t catching on to holding the wooden handle as quickly as I thought they could. Bill also had a dowel so I asked if he could put that on one of the brushes to create a “t” top for the dog to hold. Perhaps a rounded surface was friendlier than a rectangular one. He didn’t get around to it.
To spark their interest in holding the brush I tossed the brush a few feet away from me. Trooper always went to it, picked it up and brought it back. Lily was vaguely interested in walking to it and sniffing it. Obviously I needed to find a substance that they both enjoyed holding.
One evening while watching TV, complete with Lily sitting on my lap, I picked up several pieces of paper folded together. They were on the table beside me. She readily took them in her mouth and held them. Paper…. I tried this several times and she maintained her interest in holding the paper even though I didn’t have the clicker or treats in hand. It wasn’t much of a leap to go from paper to cardboard. Actually, my mind went from paper to empty toilet paper roll. I used the packaging tape to attach the toilet paper roll to another brush. Both dogs loved holding and chewing it. I covered a second handle with another empty toilet paper roll and the rest in history.
Here’s a video of Trooper and Lily (litter mates) learning how to paint.