Air Bud was one of my favorite movies as a kid.
I cried every time I watched it. It taught me about the inseparable bond between dog and human — a bond that can only be made greater by ballin’. It also cemented my fear of clowns, but that’s not what this is about.
This is about me living out my childhood dream of becoming BFFs with my very own Air Bud.
So, you might be asking, why basketball? Why not football, soccer, or hockey? Uh, duh.
Sure, there may be no specific rule stopping my dog from shooting hoops, but still I knew I’d have some hurdles.
To start with, my dog is not a 65-lb golden retriever, but an 18-lb beagle/chihuahua/??? mix who only barely passed her obedience class. I am also very bad at basketball, and would be a horrible coach.
That’s why I reached out to Leash and Learn’s Rachel Lane, a Certified Professional Dog Trainer (CPDT-KA) and a Certified Trick Dog Instructor.
Rachel’s dog, Dustin, can dunk and skateboard. She can also say “tissue,” and Dustin will get her a tissue, wait for her to blow her nose, and then THROW THE TISSUE IN THE TRASH. That is the most useful dog trick I have ever heard of.
Here's Dustin getting some mad air:
Fortunately, although Rachel had never before met anyone who wanted to turn their dog into Air Bud, she didn't think it was weird… per se. What was weird (or extremely difficult) was trying to teach a dog to play basketball in one day. Rachel was especially cautious because Lucy is part beagle, and beagles are "creative" dogs who often take longer to train. This reminds me of when my mom used to say, of me, "she's not difficult, she's creative!"
Could Lucy overcome the odds to transform in one day?
I walked into the session confident we could achieve our goals. Well, my goals. Like her human mother, Lucy loves balls, so I hoped she would have fun.
Even though I was optimistic, we scaled back our goals for our first training session. We decided to focus on getting Lucy to dunk a basketball, since that is how you score points in a game (so I’ve heard).
Rachel started by spending time with Lucy and earning her trust.
Rachel explained that when we think of teaching, we divide each lesson into steps. For dogs, you need to divide those steps even further, and to move slowly. They need patience and lots of repetition.
Using clicker training, we started by simply trying to get Lucy to pick up the basketball. Every time she did, she was rewarded with a click and a treat. By doing both, she would come to associate the click with a positive reward.
We then tried to get Lucy to pick up and drop the ball in a box larger than the hoop.
At one point, when Lucy ignored a command and instead began playing with another toy, I did what is 100% normal if you own a dog: I did her voice. “My name’s Lucy and I’m a big dumb-dumb,” I whined. Rachel snapped. “No she’s not,” she said. “She’s not dumb. She’s smart.”
I blushed. I was embarrassed by Lucy’s lack of focus, but what I should have been embarrassed about was my own lack of patience. She could do it. She just needed time and positive reinforcement. That also meant I had to stop saying, “No!” every time she did something wrong. That’s confusing to dogs, Rachel explained.
We then transitioned to getting Lucy used to the basketball net, since the unknown can sometimes be scary.
Sure enough, we transitioned to me holding the basketball net and “helping” Lucy score by moving it slightly to meet her. I was genuinely surprised she was doing it. The process had taken several hours, and we had taken a few nap breaks, but she was kinda doing it!
We were ready to take it to the next level. "Now we work on setting picks and dribbling and passing?" I excitedly asked Rachel.
Rachel let me know that you can definitely teach a dog cued behaviors, like how to shoot, steal a ball, dribble. However, the dog (probably) wouldn’t do it on their own. That’s fine, I thought. That’s what coaches are for.
Rachel added, “I doubt you could teach a dog the official rules of a game.” I played basketball in junior high, and even I, a human, never officially learned the rules of the game. I led the league in foul-outs. If not knowing the rules doesn’t exclude me from balling, it shouldn’t exclude my dog.
At the end of our session, we went over common mistakes people make while training dogs.
Train Proactively, Not Reactively
Rachel said: “This is when people fix problems rather than preventing problems from developing.” It’s easier to take your puppy to a trainer than it is to take a grown dog with bad habits.
Certain breeds do NOT require training “by force”
Forceful training like physically pushing your dog "results in dogs who ‘bite out of nowhere’ and are scared to learn new things," Rachel explained. Pawsitive reinforcement and clicker training is key.
Your dog doesn’t just “know” things… your dog must be taught!
Ummm… you have to train them? Yes. Like humans, dogs must be schooled in the ways of the world. Situations also matter -- just because you got them to sit at home, they might not do it outside. When you move, it's a completely new game or challenge. They need training for that too.
I continued practicing with Lucy, at home, for several weeks. Not only was she nailing it, but she was enjoying herself. She would go pick up the ball herself and slam it in the basket. After one such killer shot, I looked at her. “You’re ready for the big leagues,” I said.
The Brooklyn Nets ignored all of my requests for a tryout. Sadly, I did some research and learned that to try out for the NBA you had to graduate high school, so maybe that dream will have to wait.
In NYC basketball courts are nearly ubiquitous -- if I wanted Lucy to play, all I had to do was walk her into a pickup game. Besides, everybody knows pickup basketball is the purest form of basketball (or so I’ve been told).
First, Lucy found a dog and challenged him to a match. The dog was either too intimidated or did not want to play. So we kept looking.
We found some fellow BuzzFeeders who JUST HAPPENED to be playing a game.
They needed a 6th player for 3 on 3. Chelsea, the Animals Editor, picked Lucy for her team. The teams were set. The game began.
The other team (let’s call them Team Losers) started off with the ball. Lucy was naturally talented at defense, and went after Jon with the ball. I had tried to teach her zone defense, but hey, you can’t argue with what works.
Lucy’s Team, Team Winners, had a chance to score next… Chelsea did a sweet under the leg hand-off to Lucy, and she went in for a dunk. It was AWESOME.
You could tell Lucy wanted the ball. All she wanted was to put that ball in the net. Damn, she was born to ball. Unfortunately, she didn't immediately get her chance -- Team Losers scored.
Some more dogs walked into the park and Lucy got distracted and sat out of a few possessions. BUT when she was ready to go back in, she played HARD.
Just when it looked like Team Losers had scored the winning point, Lucy took the ball straight to the hoop and scored. It was magnificent.
Lucy ripped the hoop down, kind of like Shaq used to break the back board. It's the sign of a very talented baller.
Unfortunately, according to the "rules," Team Losers had already reached 11 points to win the game, making Lucy's amazing dunk pointless. So in an ironic twist of fate, Team Winners lost to Team Losers. Proud of Lucy's efforts, I still gave her a participation trophy.
So what are Lucy’s next steps?
We’re going to gradually raise the hoop to toddler height so she can do a jump and dunk. We’ve been working on that for a week, and she still doesn’t have it. But now I know to be patient. Thanks to Rachel, I know that dogs can learn anything if you give the time, patience, and lots of love (in the form of treats). The future is pretty much Lucy’s oyster.
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