What if there was a very simple way to improve all of your dog’s trained skills and/or skills yet to come? What if, by making a couple of changes, you could massively improve your dog’s connection, attention, speed, desire to work and so much more? Would you make those changes? Well then, read on!
When I get new clients, either in person or by the internet, I frequently find that there is not only a lack of connection between the handler and the dog, but the dog’s skill levels are often weak.
The similarities that exist between these trainers are pretty much the same at the core. Somewhere in the trainer’s education they had been taught that rewarding the dog too frequently was a very bad idea and that it was also important to add duration to behaviors very quickly. In a nutshell I am referring to duration as the ability for an animal to preform a behavior for a length of time without reinforcement.
The big problem with this is that trainers attempt to add duration to behaviors before the dog has little more than a cursory understanding of what that behavior is supposed to be. That means that the whole foundation of that individual behavior is weak. This creates a ton of behavior failures that ultimately stem from a lack of value and an extreme lack of understanding. Believe me, although this may be very frustrating for the trainer, imagine how incredibly frustrating it must be for their dog; especially when they are assumed to be failing, not because they don’t understand what they are expected to do, but because they are: “stubborn,” “ naughty,” “ failing just to spite me,” “hardheaded”……. Crazy right :-)?
HOW IT BEGINS
The fact is that if in our first experience with dog training we are convinced by the trainer that this is the way things should be, it is very hard to shake that perception even years later when we know better.
For instance, we take our first dog to pet training school and the instructor tells us that we shouldn’t treat our dogs too much because it will spoil them and they will start to expect rewards all the time. They may make the argument that if you reward frequently and don’t get them off the treat train, they will constantly be begging you for treats and that there will be no peace in your house! Well shoot, that seems to make sense. I don’t, after all, want to deal with all that yucky begging. So it begins, and we unfortunately absorb that instructor’s Kool-Aid right down to our marrow.
Seems silly, yeah maybe, but I have seen this in action hundreds and hundreds of times. Many trainers carry those first lessons in the back of their mind and getting rid of those perceptions can be very, very difficult. Rewarding their dog frequently and jack-potting for great choices can be completely foreign to them and many struggle with it. Even when they do get better at rewarding their dog and see the dramatic results, it is still a bit of a battle to get them to continue to add value to behaviors through rewarding.
Now of course I am speaking from my own experiences and observations after being a dog trainer for more than 15 years, but I find it very commonplace for new students, either at my home field or in my online classes, to be resistant to methodically building a strong foundation on their behaviors. They want the fast track. Get the basic behavior and move on. Building value and generalization into their behaviors does take a lot of training time and requires elevated understanding of building behaviors. Seems like a ton of work. Ick!
A SIMPLE SIT STAY
To illustrate the importance of not adding duration prematurely and without enough value, let’s look at the simple sit stay. When working a stay, many trainers tend to reward frequently in the very beginning, and then as they get small successes, reward less frequently, expecting that the dog knows its job. Of course the dog doesn’t understand the behavior at this point, except in a very simple form. Teach a dog to sit stay in the living room and then try again in your backyard and they probably won’t be able to stay at all.
Most savvy trainers know that dogs need to understand how to generalize behaviors, so they work the behavior in a couple different locations (living room, kitchen, bedroom, backyard, on their walk…), but they are still missing a ton of pieces in the “understanding” puzzle. What about the dog’s ability to stay when they are highly aroused, when there are distractions, in a strange environment? What if they are in a new environment, are distracted and excited? If your dog can perform a sit-stay in their backyard should you expect that they can do it at: Petco, a skate park, when your back is turned, if you leave the room, at an agility trial, when a squirrel runs across their path or another dog races to grab a thrown ball……? Probably not. Is now the time to reward less and add duration? No way!!! But they do! Before they have barely touched on bringing the behavior to any type of fluency, many trainers reduce the amount the dog is being rewarded. No wonder the behavior is so weak.
It seems wrong for them to give their dog so much reinforcement. “They should just want to work with me!!!” is a lament I have heard many times. “Seriously?” I say with a smile. “Why?” Then they are right back at me with “Because…..ummmm……they love me?” “ummmm, ok, not much reason there.”
My favorite lament (I keep meaning to make a t-shirt with this on it) is: “ But they are perfect at home!!!” “Oh yes” I say with a smile, “ I know they are.” And I do know, that to some extent, they ARE perfect at home because at home they are comfortable and familiar with the routine. I do this, I get this and so on. Unfortunately the challenges are minimal so success is more likely and that gives the trainer a false sense of security.
When the environment changes and the challenges change, the failure rate becomes very high. How many times have you been to class and spent 5 minutes fixing your stay and 45 seconds working the drill? How often have you said “Wait” or “Stay” and your dog immediately scooted forward, stood up or adjusted their paws? So the cue “wait” means…?
I have always embraced the concept of “The dog does what is rewarding for them.” I find it to be very true and that those are words to live by in the art of dog training.
There are a few concepts that, if you follow through with them, can make huge differences in your dog training. They will help you create a better relationship and therefore a better working relationship with your dog, they will improve your dog’s desire to work and how engaged they stay during work and will exponentially increase your dog’s understanding of their behaviors. With the added bonus that if you have a dog that is distracted either in general, in classes or at shows, these concepts can change that behavior dramatically.
SHOW ME THE MONEY!
Before I begin explaining the details of how to avoid the pitfalls of adding duration prematurely, let’s relate the concept to a human perspective, and hopefully, it will illustrate how important rewarding can be.
Let’s say that I am working in an architectural firm and one day the boss comes up to me and says, “Stacy, you have been doing excellent work here. Here is $5, go take an extra 15 minutes and grab yourself a Starbucks.” “Hey, thanks!” I say, beaming at him, not bothering to share with him that the drinks I order cost $5.50. Just sayin’. Well, whatever, that experience felt great! I was proud of myself for a job well done!
Now let’s say 2 months later I feel I am stagnating at that firm and decide to leave there and join a newer firm that is making huge inroads into the architectural market. I am one year on the job, working diligently at my desk, when the president of the firm comes up to me and says, “ Stacy, you are absolutely excelling at this work and have become quite an asset to the firm.” “Oh, thanks.” I say, “It’s been my pleasure to work here.” While I am worrying that I might get canned, he clears his throat and says, “Listen, as a thanks for all the great work you have done, here’s a $200 dollar gift certificate to Starbucks, get yourself a drink on us when you take a break today.” “ Thank you!!!” I say, beaming up at him. He smiles at me and says, “You really have become an integral part of our operation, so as an additional bonus, we have arranged for you to have an all-expenses paid vacation to Jamaica.” Looking slightly stunned, now I begin “Well thank…” “And,” he interrupts, “there will be an additional $10,000 in your Christmas bonus. Keep up the great work!” I stammer, “Yes! Thank you sir, I will work very hard.” And you bet I will too!!!
Moral of the story; by rewarding me copiously for a job well done, that firm has given me a huge incentive to continue working hard and even step it up. I am going to make a big effort at this firm to excel because they have made it very worth my while to try!
The same approach works brilliantly in dog training whether for a pet or an agility dog. The more valuable you make yourself and the work, the more easily your dog will stay engaged and the easier it will be to create brilliant behaviors. At the end of the day a great deal of success in training is all about a plan, the value of your tools and how you use them.
CREATE VALUE AND UNDERSTANDING AND THEN CREATE DURATION!
At the beginning of this article I mentioned that there would be a simple way to improve everything you do with your dog. It is simple but it ain’t easy, YET! I say yet because the more familiar you get with training in this style the easier and easier it becomes.
The primary progression we are working begins with figuring out what tools ( food , toys….) your dog loves or go about developing more value for your tools. If your dog doesn’t love what you are rewarding them with, you are handicapped from the start. You can’t build value for behaviors using rewards your dog doesn’t want. I discussed the concept of a reward actually being a punisher in one of my early blogs. It’s very important for you to be savvy about the rewards you use. After establishing huge value for our tools we will then move on to build the basic behavior, generalizing the behavior, increasing the difficulty of the behavior or “proofing” it. For proofing to be effective you need to be thorough by beginning with simple proofing and then gradually adding difficulty until success becomes extremely difficult for the dog. If you have been rewarding copiously throughout your training, this ensures their thorough understanding of the behavior as well as creating enormous value. Lastly you need to make sure you maintain the dog’s value for the behavior. Keep that sucker loaded!!!
All of this work is very formulaic. Things do need to be modified for the individual somewhat. Some dogs require more focus work, some really need to work on elevating the tools they are using… It depends on the dog and the trainer.
WHAT’S COMING UP!
This is the first half of an article that I wrote for Clean Run Magazine, http://www.cleanrun.com, which is scheduled to be published in August, 2015. The rest of the article goes into detail about the steps to take to assist you in bringing your training skills to the next level and includes video examples. It will get you on the road to creating elevated behaviors and to increase the intensity in your dog’s performance.
This is first of many articles I will be writing for Clean Run. Following the duration article will be a more comprehensive version of my Mirroring Blog and then I will be writing a number of articles covering topics such as: creating intensity, connection with your dog, improving play, elevating your tools, and control in drive. So if you are interested in more training information regarding the topics I have mentioned, you can find the information in Clean Run.
All of these training concepts are also addressed extensively in my online classes. There are detailed explanations and drills along with video examples. The classes are available to audit or for more hands on training with me, working spots are available as well. The classes are ongoing there is no need to wait for a session to start, join anytime! You can visit my online classroom for more information http://www.stacywinkler.com .