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The Training Zone
By Lori Drouingoodogs@citlink.net
When I started training Chaser in 1995, I was in the height of my self-imposed pure positive era. I was working hard to replace forceful flinging of dogs into position with the use of luring and rewarding to teach them to want to do things. It was a fun time, with a lot of experimenting with different dogs in classes, and some resounding successes with unlikely dogs. However, we all eventually ran into the reliability wall. There had to be some way to motivate our dogs to rise above distractions and temptations and stay on task. What I discovered was that these dogs were conditioned to be attentive and wondering what we wanted, so the amount of physical compulsion needed to guide them back to the path of right behavior was actually minimum. Collar pressure became my go-to means of adding guidance and sensation that was just enough for each dog to prefer to avoid, but not enough to make them feel fear or be too overwhelmed by my emotions to take in the information I was trying to convey.
These days when I run into a team struggling with a persistent problem, one piece of advice I give often is to think about focusing on the DOG rather than an exercise, and to adjust the tone of the communication. Let me give you a couple of examples.
Many trainers with experience try much too hard to avoid ANY errors in their training. The retrieve is the most common place for errors. And the one that can set you back pretty hard is being too intense about not allowing the dumbbell to hit the ground once it’s in the dog’s mouth. Regardless of how people choose to teach the take and the hold, I see handlers with green dogs stepping toward their dogs to close the last two-step gap on a retrieve, or bending down over small dogs quickly and actually snatching the dumbbell away to prevent the dog from dropping it. The results are dogs who stop short on retrieves, and dogs who sit and won’t look up at their handlers as they brace themselves for the snatching hands. Some dogs start avoiding the dumbbell because the snatching away makes them wonder if maybe the owners didn’t want the dogs to have it after all. Some dogs start spitting the dumbbell out since that appears to be what the owners want. It’s a tangled web of misinterpretations on both ends of the leash.
So what would I do instead? First, I would stop worrying about the dumbbell hitting the ground in early stages. Hold is its own element. Holding while going from a stand to a sit is also a separate element. Coming in close enough with the dumbbell is a must, so I’m going to protect that first and foremost. With a dog that I’m using either a play retrieve or a shaped retrieve dynamic with, I’m more interested in the dog getting to me and the dumbbell landing in my hand. So I welcome the dog in. I move my hands AWAY from the dog to offer a place for the dumbbell to land without asking for a front at all. My hands move calmly and smoothly and remain open and on the dog’s level. If the dog drops the dumbbell, I encourage her to pick it up again, and offer the landing place. But I do NOT grab for the dumbbell.
When we’re a bit farther along in our training, and I’ve addressed the hold (which includes no mouthing) and want to put it into the topography of the retrieve to include the sit and deliver, I work it on a leash. I will have taught the dog than she can turn off collar pressure by taking the dumbbell from my hand. Now if she comes in and drops the dumbbell, I apply just enough pressure for the dog to notice. Due to the use of collar pressure as a “Pay attention and do the next thing I tell you to do” cue for other behaviors, what I get is curiosity and minor annoyance rather than fear. I calmly pick up the dumbbell and give it to her, and then release the collar pressure when the dumbbell is in her mouth. Then we try a one step front again, and if she holds on, I praise WHILE THE DUMBBELL IS STILL IN HER MOUTH. Then I take it, and have her do a few other behaviors before rewarding her obedience, but NOT rewarding the act of spitting the dumbbell out directly. I allow the dog to make the choice to hold and deliver, or to drop the dumbbell and experience the penalty and learn that keeping the dumbbell in her mouth prevents the penalty. No drama, no startling moves, no anger. Just instruction, information and result comparisons. Most of all, no motions from the trainer that actually cause the undesired behaviors!
Even something as seemingly simple as eye contact can turn out to be complicated mentally. Over the years, I’ve run into a few dogs who just didn’t get blessed with a high degree of social bravery. They weren’t necessarily outright fearful dogs about the normal things in the environment, and they mostly got along fine with dogs and people; but they really were overly deferential to their owners. Anything they learned well and were familiar with, they were reliable and consistent on; but they overtly resisted changes to what they knew because they were afraid to make errors. And…they often avoided strong eye contact with their trainers.
Many folks like their dogs to look right up into their eyes during heeling. It works okay for taller dogs, and when you see a successful connection like that, it looks wonderful. But for the more deferential dogs, that sort of bold eye contact seems pushy and inadvisable. Some will literally lower their heads and look sideways toward the owners’ knees or hip. Some extreme cases will glaze completely. Some of them are actually capable of doing glorious functional heeling with that safer focal point; but their trainers read that altered head position as inattention and lack of focus, and that often leads to some pretty strong corrections. Those corrections would work on a bolder dog who simply zoned out for a few seconds to try to sniff something on the ground; but for the deferential dog whose cautious respectful posture is now being punished, in spite of the fact that the dogs are in heel position and are hitting turns and halts correctly, it’s a disaster. Now the dog REALLY wants to avoid making challenging eye contact, and the body language of the owner, the tone of voice and the force on the collar all projects anger without showing the dog what to do instead.
The solution for this sort of dog might be a more neutral heeling target. Could be a hand target, or an armband, but something that brings the head up just a bit, but does not require that eye-to-eye laser gaze. More importantly this is the sort of dog who should be treated calmly, with skills broken down as small as possible and trained patiently to avoid what I call emotional static that gets in the way and overshadows the dog’s perception of information. It can be frustrating to train dogs who don’t make intuitive leaps; but the reward is that they tend to be quite reliable and consistent and trustworthy once they know for sure what is wanted.
That heeling scenario is an example of a principle that I urge people to follow. When you are not getting what you want to see, take the time to see what you ARE getting, and try to figure out why the dog is giving that to you. If you can figure out how the dog is thinking, it can be a light-bulb moment that will help you alter your presentation so that things will make sense to your dog. That connection, that sort of insight and mutual understanding is the magic in our sport.
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Success in our sport relies heavily on the solidity of some basic skills upon which we build longer and more complicated sequences of behaviors. So when you hit a problem in your training or trailing, it’s wise to carefully review your training and ask yourself this question: When was the last time you revisited and reinforced your dog’s basic skills?
Here are some basics you need to be aware of and make sure you are keeping polished.
The Sit. This one seems so simple, but affects virtually every exercise! It’s not just the posture; it’s also HOW it is attained. For halts and fronts, a rocking back motion is not acceptable. Is your dog tucking his rear end under to sit, or rolling back? This is something you want to pay a lot of attention to while your dog is quite young, because a rock back motion pattern becomes a habit that is really hard to break. It results in the dog appearing too far away on fronts, or lagged on halts. From a down to a sit, you get to pick whether you want the dog to keep his front feet in place and scoot his rear forward, or whether you want him to push his front end up and keep his rear end in place. (I opt for the dog pushing his front end up.) But if you make a choice, you have to be consistent about requiring it AND rewarding it in ways that don’t encourage the dog to get sloppy with it. If you like the push up front, you should place rewards so that the dog will turn back to get it. If you like the scoot forward, you reward from in front of the dog. Those motion patterns have to be monitored, magnified and polished in the course of your training for the duration of your dog’s career.
Voluntary Attention. This one choice that our dogs make daily can be the difference between success and failure on any exercise in the ring. But when was the last time that you worked ONLY on that choice? When was the last time you proofed attention all by itself rather than as an underlying part of heeling? When did you last reward your dog JUST for choosing to look at you, rather than rewarding for a signal response? When was the last time you caused something interesting to happen as you walked away from your dog for a recall or signals rather than ignore the dog until you turn around? When was the last time you sought out or created distractions for the sole purpose of rewarding and building the dog’s tendency to choose to give you attention?
The Down. If you are a fan of the fold back down, the skill needs a lot of work on maintenance, because for many dogs it is not a natural motion pattern. I choose not to teach it; but I put in just as much work on maintaining the dog’s speed of response to the down cue, and dropping in place. The “in place” part is a piece of the puzzle that many folks forget to pay attention to, and it results in poor drop on recalls. You can’t wait to see where the dog decides to drop; you have to show him that he needs to drop right where he is when he gets the cue, even when he is in motion. (Hint: the Rally down/ walk around the dog is a good tool to work on this.)
Recall Reliability. Again, this is an issue that affects too many exercises to allow it to weaken. When was the last time your dog had to choose to come to you away from or past a temptation? How committed to the recall was your dog? Was he able to ignore the temptation by the end of your session, or was he still putting too much effort into avoiding the temptation in the spirit of obedience, but clearly still thinking a lot about the temptation rather than the recall?
Our dogs are not computers. We can’t just teach skills, and then sequence them, and then always simply practice the formal exercises. We must spiral back through our sequence elements, isolate them, polish them, and continuously proof them individually and together against challenges and distractions. We are not just trying to teach dogs rote tricks. We are trying to teach our dogs the habit of responsiveness, build their abilities to recognize and stay on task, adjust or adapt to challenges, and strengthen their focus by varying what we ask of them enough to minimize their dependence on a memorized context.
While it’s true that some dogs are going to have a harder time working outside of known patterns than others, my feeling is that difficulties during training will help dogs learn to listen harder and look more closely at their trainers. Mistakes in training are learning opportunities that support more successes in competition. For example, if you set your dog up for a signal set, do the down, and then signal a stand rather than a sit, your dog might sit anyway, or he might not move at all and look at you quizzically and say, “Huh? I was not expecting that!” In neither case is the dog being deliberately disobedient; but he is telling you about how he thinks he should deal with the unexpected. Your goal should be to help him learn to expect the unexpected from you, and trust that doing exactly what you ask for at the moment is, indeed, the best answer. If you don’t alter his dependency on a pattern, you can’t build the focus and trust he should direct to you.
I’ve met many people who strongly resist the idea of randomization of anything other than reward types and frequency. They are afraid that their dogs will get confused if, for example, they do a recall off of a go out sit, or tell their dogs to turn back and touch a go out spot rather than do a recall in a signal sequence. In training, that might happen; but that is a chance for you to examine your communication system, and perhaps add some skills JUST for training purposes that will add interest to the actual work itself. That sort of motivation and interest and intrigue found within the work rather than after or separate from the work goes into the ring with you. Consider exploring this means of adding interesting complexity, and see if you and your dog have more fun with developing this partnership that takes you beyond the common barter system so many trainers struggle with.
One of the best things about our sport is watching great trainers and great dogs in action, and learning about new tools to put into our own training box of tricks. It’s inspirational and rejuvenating, eye-opening, and challenging. But…
When we watch other great teams demonstrate cool stuff there are some things we need to be careful about, and some questions we should all ask before taking up new (to us) ideas. In other words, we must be critical thinkers, and discriminate between useful effective decisions for our particular dogs, compared to attractive novelty for OUR sakes rather than the dogs.
As a person who presents seminars and workshops, I always remind people that if something isn’t broken currently, don’t rush to fix it with something new. Keep an open mind, collect information, but only make changes in your current training if there is a helpful reason to change, and if you know the result for which you are looking. Different is different; it isn’t always better for YOUR dog.
Does something you are contemplating clarify a concept, fill in an information gap or help you with better timing of information? Great, explore it and give it a try. But if it’s only different, think carefully before starting that experiment. Meanwhile, look more closely at what you’re seeing from the trainer you admire.
Look at the dynamics of the trainer and the dog. Is the thing you admire something that is being done to create a mindset in the dog? If so, how similar to your own dog is that dog’s personality? This is important. If you have a stable, calm, or even serious dog by nature, anything you do to try to create the appearance of edgy excitement will likely give you, at best, a thin veneer. Is the demo dog naturally energetic? If so, the things you see may enhance or maintain that energy level, but may not yield exactly the same results for your calmer dog. If your dog is already energetic, do you really need MORE energy, or is what you’re seeing an approach that will simply help you maintain what you have and refine your ability to direct it? That’s not to say that new games and different ways of using motivators won’t make training more interesting for your dog and you (more on that later) and add some spice to your training; but as yet there is no magic wand that makes a dog’s basic nature change. Some of the unhappiest trainers I’ve met have been those trying to make their dogs into something they aren’t, rather than embracing what they are and making the most of that.
Consider this too: Most dogs I’ve met whose owners think are bored turn out to be confused. Confusion leads to caution, or to choosing to just doing something else attractive to dogs. When dogs know what the game of the exercise is, most of them are pretty hard to bore. But when the learning process is repeatedly short-circuited by games unrelated to the skills, but designed to bring out the happy wagging again, the confusion is perpetuated. A great trainer will fix the confusion, and let confidence naturally improve the dog’s attitude.
Next, look at the mindset of the trainer. Observe the confidence level. Watch the body language exchanges between the trainer and dog. There is a great deal of useful information there to emulate that may not get talked about so much, but it’s there for you to see if you’re looking. It could be posture, the direction of leaning that makes a difference between inhibition and invitation. Look at facial expressions, and listen to voice tone. Watch the quality of motion and the emotion and intention behind it. Some people are gifted with playful natures that their dogs mirror. Some are innately powerful in a quiet way, exuding confidence and conveying clarity to their dogs so that their dogs are never in doubt about what to expect from their trainers or what their trainers expect from the dogs. Where do you fit? Where would you like to fit? Which leadership type does your particular dog need? (Sometimes what your dog actually needs is not what you actually want to do; but you are the grown up, so make the right decision!)
Look carefully at how food and toys are used. Note when they are being used to condition motion patterns, like the get it/ come food toss game that lays the ground work for retrieves, or can be used to work front or finish drills in a dynamic way. Be aware of the rules that must be in place for effective training use, such as the need for the dog to both grab and release a toy instantly on cue without argument. Look at how much the dog’s awareness is balanced between the motivators themselves and the trainer as the key to access. Pay attention to how much the trainer uses visual or verbal cues associated with games with motivators, so that the trainer has verbal tools to use to lift a dog’s spirits BEFORE motivators appear.
Think critically before embracing any sort of “never say no to your dog” litany in the name of promoting or protecting “drive”. First of all, if there is real drive there, appropriate corrections for poor social behavior will not diminish it. Secondly, my personal opinion is that an underrated yet critical component of a good training dynamic is respect. It’s something you earn by being fair, clear, and consistent. Clear…as in telling a dog when it’s wrong and then showing it what to do instead. How you get that message across will depend on the context and the particular dog’s personality, but you have to step up and do what’s needed. Fair…as in gauging a correction to meet the intensity and seriousness of the error and the intent behind it. Consistent…as in being prepared once you know when and how errors are likely to happen both for domestic issue and technical ones. For example, these days I don’t do collar popping in formal competition training for things like minor heeling errors that can be adjusted with very minor collar guidance or pointed use of my hand target. But my dog thinks it would be fun to chase down an 18 wheeler truck. She weighs 14 lbs. When we travel and know we’ll be stopping at rest areas where trucks will be, she wears her very own tiny pinch collar, because she has proven to be unimpressed by verbal corrections or the comparatively minor discomfort of a regular martingale collar. But the pinch collar annoys her enough to motivate her to rethink the barking and lunging option. So that’s what I use, and it doesn’t give me a moment’s worry about any diminishing of her energy in formal training. It minimizes conflict and confrontation between us, which is good for our overall relationship.
Don’t find yourself dazzled by the idea of magic. Great trainers are great observers. They read dogs well because they actually observe dogs carefully, and because they remember what some actions and postures predict. This is a matter of experience, which can only be gained by training and dealing with problems and errors enough to recognize common learning-curve issues to expect or to see obvious signs of confusion. Experienced trainers have figured out ways to break things down well enough to head off some points of confusion most of the time, and that sort of information and predictive ability can look and feel like magic if you have struggled through certain things for months in a reactive manner. Great trainers are also able to put themselves into their dogs’ heads a bit, and see themselves and what they are teaching as the dogs do. Such trainers know what they want in the end, but they start with what they have, and find ways to progressively guide their dogs to the end product they want.
Great trainers note confusion, and look for ways to simplify and clarify. Great trainers don’t fear signs of minor learning stress because they know that on the other side of mastery of skills is confidence and joy. Great trainers establish and condition their communication system early on so that they can be timely and accurate in their guidance as the training gets more complicated. For example, those of us who use collar pressure as corrections and guidance actually teach our dogs to yield to it while still using blatant lures. The dogs learn that the pressure is directional information, but they only consider it mildly annoying by comparison to no pressure, and they learn to look for information and cues when they experience it in the future, rather than go into mental and physical resistance. You can’t skip those little steps in favor of just shopping for bigger and better treats or toys. So make sure that you look past the dazzle and find the substance. It’s easy to make a list of how to do things, but for success you will need to understand why to do things, how a method works, and even the circumstances in which a method might not work. Be a discriminating trainer. Learn observation and analytical skills. Experiment with the intention of clear communication, which includes noting and responding to what your dog tells you about your efforts. Ultimately, your dog is your most accurate instructor!
One of the things I’ve always liked about obedience is that there is objectivity in it, and at least a certain amount of accountability. In our sport you can walk up to a judge (politely and respectfully!) after awards and a good judge can tell you if he deducted points on fronts, finishes, or heeling errors, so you know how to improve your performance. It’s not up for argument, but at least it’s specific. Compared to conformation, where many times the only information about what tipped the balance in favor of a particular dog is, “He really commanded the ring. He could not be denied today.”, we get a wealth of information from which we can learn.
Now let me be very clear here. I actually was very well educated on dog structure, form and function by my early mentors. One was a long-time breeder of Poodles and Greyhounds, Whippets and Salukis and a professional handler. Another was a Norwegian Elkhound breeder of world renown. While I’ve never had a breed champion myself, I actually respect the purpose behind conformation judging, which is to help guide people to improve their breeds and produce sound, healthy, stable dogs with temperaments and structures to facilitate their purposes.
But no matter what breeds we prefer, if you read articles in the Gazette or in breed-specific magazines, every one will eventually have an article discussing breeding trends that some folks believe are detrimental to their breeds. There is the common problem of seeing a trait admired and deeming that more of that quality might be even better. Whether it’s substance, reach and drive, head qualities, coat quantities, or showmanship, it’s a challenge for breeders to stay true to the standard, and for judges to judge to the standard rather than pick out extreme features on a consistent basis. I don’t think blame is constructive; I think that judges can only judge what breeders put in front of them, yet breeders will choose for virtues that are acknowledged, and risk over- emphasizing some. It irks me to see assumptions about what conformation judges are looking for, or to read scathing criticism of judges for what they are doing to a breed, when it is the breeders who decide which dogs to breed and show.
Why am I talking about this in a dog training magazine? Because I worry that our sport has the potential to develop a similar problem.
The regulations already call for judges to picture an ideal performance that embodies accuracy AND the utmost in willingness and enjoyment on the part of the dog. I was involved in the sport when this was added, in the 1980’s. At that time, some trainers were just starting to come out of the closet about using food rewards in training. It was quite controversial. But…there were still a lot of trainers who did nothing but pop-and-praise training in general, and there were a couple in our area who were blatantly pretty brutal, including kicking dogs hard on a hip for a crooked front, for example. One person in particular was winning pretty often with 2 dogs, because they were extremely accurate. But we witnessed the trainer more than once exit a ring after a performance that had a couple of crooked sits, and jerk the dog all the way back to its crate area and then use really harsh collar corrections and feet and hands to remind the dog sit better. Efforts to get him to stop that were met with extreme hostility. So that person inspired a local trainer who was on the next Advisory Committee to propose the change in the regulations. If dogs had to show willingness and enjoyment, training trends would have to change to help build that attitude. Pretty soon after the rule change, that obnoxious exhibitor disappeared from the sport, and honestly, nobody missed him.
But now we have folks who seem to think that willingness and enjoyment is embodied by very high head position, very flashy front feet, powerful rear end over-striding, over-all physical tension and lightening-fast motions, rather than being demonstrated in a confident and relaxed cooperative demeanor in all exercises. While I enjoy watching exuberant dogs perform and deeply admire the trainers who achieve both the energy and the accuracy, I am not so deeply pleased with what I hear people talking about outside the ring. I don’t think it’s a really good idea to generate uninhibited energy as a habit by allowing or outright encouraging obnoxious and dangerous social behaviors outside of the scope of the ring “tricks”.
The regulations state that the purpose of the sport of obedience is to demonstrate the usefulness of dogs as companions. Dogs who dance or practically levitate in heel position in the ring are a dream to watch; but when some of the dogs then drag their handlers all over the show grounds when not actually heeling, push into other dogs’ space, or lunge out at every person or dog they pass even in a “friendly” manner, something has gone a bit wrong.
When people start breeding fast energetic dogs to other fast energetic dogs and start getting fidgety dogs who cannot hold a stay when they grow up, or start using their mouths whenever they are frustrated by training efforts to control that energy, it’s a potentially harmful and dangerous trend.
I understand, and actually agree with folks who want to see happy dogs in the ring having a good time with their owners and performing with confidence. I just don’t think that has to be defined by lightening speed or extreme heeling postures. It’s important to not discourage people who have more serious or calm natured dogs. Such dogs still have to move briskly with definite intention to cooperate, but the fact that they are performing in a more stately manner does not mean that they are unhappy or inhibited. Not every person is a parson, and not every person is a cheerleader; but both sorts of people can be happy. Cheerleaders may be more obvious at any given moment, but the happy parson may be truly content more consistently. Some dogs will turn themselves inside out with wagging and panting and leaning and other attention-seeking behaviors, while others enjoy petting, kind words and the contentment of being close to their owners. That sort of dignified happiness should not be spurned. Nor should well-built dogs who heel accurately with powerful movement and a consistent but lower head posture be penalized for lack of flash. A lovely waltz is just as admirable as a jazz performance.
As the regulations stand, the bottom line is accuracy. We are each allowed to foster the attitudes our dogs are capable of giving us, and to seek to teach and exhibit our preferred level of flash. If your dog can be flashy and fast and hit the fronts and finishes and heel without appearing to crowd you or forge, you should do a lot of winning. If your dog is brisk, smooth, and consistently accurate about those fronts and finishes and flows powerfully through heeling, you should also do a lot of winning. The idea that flash is better is a dangerous one, an example of the power of trends similar to the evolution of preferences in conformation that cause headaches for breeders seriously trying to protect their breed standards.
Let’s be careful not to over-evolve our sport. Let’s remember its practical roots, coming from military training and basic field drills, all with the goal of developing reliable control. Let’s embrace motivational methods that help us develop the full potential of each dog; but let’s not allow the desire for flash to undermine the idea of having dogs who are actually well-mannered even when not performing a ring trick. Let’s remember that a truly happy dog is one who is confident because his trainer is clear about communication and consistent expectations, and is in a trusting relationship where dog and handler both can rely on each other.
One of the great mysteries in today’s dog training world is effective use of motivators. Using food, toys and games means that the training dynamic and process is more fun and more effective for a wider variety of dog breeds and temperaments than compulsion and praise alone; but then there are the traps that lead to the “no turkey, no workey” syndrome, or to owner addiction to excitement that has no relationship to the actual work and interaction. So what’s a trainer to do?
First, wrap your head around this inconvenient truth: There is no one answer that is the right one for every dog. There is no guaranteed linear process of using and fading motivators that will be permanent, because dogs are not computers that you program once and then rely on correct programmed responses. So you will still have to learn whatever your dog has to teach you, and often you will need to cycle back to earlier training phases to sharpen or maintain specific skills found in advanced sequences. But I will offer some guidelines to think about on your journey.
When you consider changing how you use a motivator, ask these questions:
What function is the motivator currently serving?
A) Lure: Are you still using food or a toy to guide the dog through a motion pattern or into a position (or both…such as fixing a rock back sit)? If so, you aren’t ready to change how you use the motivator until you see anticipation of the behavior or pattern you’re are training, consistency without resistance in the motion pattern, and confidence. You should also continue to use the lure as you add in and condition the dog to respond to physical guidance that you will need down the road for possible correction of errors and improving the dog’s perception of cues without the lure.
B) Reward: Well of course, right? But…does the dog actually see the motivator as a reward related to a behavior or position or pattern, or does he see the behaviors as minor inconveniences to rush through in order to get to the treat or the game with the toy at the END of behaviors and sequences? Are the behaviors you’re rewarding getting better and stronger and remaining correct, or are they getting hectic? Is your dog obeying cues, or throwing guesses? This will vary a lot, and perhaps evolve with experience. I’ve known dogs who were very spectacular workers and it appeared that motivators had successfully been put in place as rewards, only to see ring performances degrade quickly as the dogs began to anticipate getting OUT of the ring to get to the rewards and games. Behaviors became sloppy, vocalizations got worse to the point of non-qualification, and anticipation of commands got worse. People admired the energy without realizing what the excitement was really about.
C) Success marker: This is dangerous. If the dog is dependent on the motivators to judge his success or failure, the ring becomes a desert of disappointment and worry because the dog is always wondering if he is facing reward delay or reward withholding for an error. It also means that the trainer is not doing enough of the communicating, and is allowing the motivator to do too much of the work. (Hint: Establish a way to tell your dog any time there is an error, with timing that enhances clarity and paves the way for your dog to accept information about what to do instead.)
2) What is the TASK you are training? For example, to your dog does “heel” mean “follow that treat”, and the behavior disappears when the treat is gone? Does “down” really mean “follow the treat to the ground”? Does “go place” mean “go eat”? It’s okay for the answers to be yes for all of that in the learning phase of the motion patterns; but without clarifying the tasks, you won’t get off the lure plateau. What target should your dog actually be following for heeling in order to EARN the treat or toy? How will you show your dog that he must lie down in order to EARN the treat or toy? What go out target should your dog be going to, and what is his task when he gets there in order to EARN the treat or toy? You have to answer those questions specifically in order to construct your training progression correctly.
3) Does the dog know the other reason to comply? This reason is avoidance of some annoying consequence for failure to comply. Consequences don’t have to be hugely uncomfortable, and should never be frightening; but the truth is that physical comfort comparison is a very strong motivator for cooperation. Collar guidance or hands-on guidance can be conditioned to be viewed as information rather than punishment, but still seen as information sources that the dog will prefer to minimize when he’s clear on what a cue means. It can be used consistently and carefully in the process of moving from luring to command response. Then it can be adjusted for intensity to match the personality of the dog when used to insist on effort and cooperation. This guidance should be conditioned EARLY in the training process rather than put off until you’re working on sequences and things begin to go wrong. You don’t want to have the dog confused about both the skill you’re working on and the type of communication you are using.
4) Have you taught the dog to see YOU as the access pass to everything wonderful through cooperation? If you can’t put food or a toy down, and still have your dog offer you eye contact and a cooperative mindset, then you are fighting against your motivator. Powerful motivators are also powerful distractions, and should be used as such in training so you have the opportunity to discuss that Other Reason for compliance.
5) Have you made your dog’s work with you interesting through randomizing the SKILLS themselves, or has your only randomization effort been different types of treats, or toys instead of treats, or rewards sometimes not given? Changing your dog’s expectations empowers you both. It will reveal the strengths and weaknesses in your dog’s skill sets and understanding of cues. It will motivate a different quality of working attention than the simple barter of behavior/ reward. It will reduce anticipation and fidgety behaviors.
When you randomize skills, you also open up the potential for rewarding specific behaviors and skills at will without actually ending the working interaction. This builds the dog’s interest in continuing to work rather than hoping for it to end so there can be a party, a game, and a let-down of focus. It also allows you to build a short training session that still hits some high points you want to polish. More than anything else, grasping the depth of randomization will improve your ability to train the dog rather than merely practice exercises.
Often when trainers ask questions about problems, the question describes deviations from a formal exercise. But often what they are worrying about is a result, not the real problem. And sometimes it turns out that the problem is a training decision or action by the human rather than the dog. I’ll give you a couple of examples.
One person asked me about her dog making slow returns on retrieves, particularly articles, in the ring. For the particular dog, articles were hard to master; but he also likes to scan ringside to say hi to his friends on other retrieves, so I could not assume that a lack of confidence was the real issue. The trainer said he did fine in training, but walked back in the ring.
So we set up articles, and the dog went right out at a nice trot, found the right article, did a very nice turn back toward the handler, who slightly raised both hands as though starting to signal a touchdown and then thought better of it, and the dog trotted right back happily. There was no verbal encouragement. But the hands… So I told her to hold her hands still on the next try, and discovered that she wasn’t even aware that she had moved her hands at all. So we set up again, sent the dog out, and the handler very carefully held her hands still. The dog trotted right out, found the correct article, turned nicely, and walked back, all the while looking intently at the handler for that tiny little gesture.
That problem of the dogs looking for affirmation on articles is common, whether it’s praise for the selection given just a bit too early or cheerleading of some degree to cause speed back that may inadvertently praise the cautious return rather than modify it. We are trying doing play retrieve of the article before the formal exercise, and as the reward for correct selection to see if that will motivate a faster return. The jury is still out on that; but clearly the visible motions from the handler must be removed from the dog’s perception of the cue set. The dog may need to have just plain retrieves of a single article practiced with a Flexi to remind him that on ANY retrieve, he needs to hurry back. Now that he is competent on the exercise consistently, the handler really needs to stop reacting to it as a miracle….not that I blame her for feeling that way!
Another common place for training issues is the sit after a go out. Trainers often struggle with a slow sit response, or at least that’s what they are seeing. But what is actually happening is often much more complicated. For example, if you’re sending a dog to a go out target that has food on it, and you give the command to sit while the dog is still swallowing the food, the dog is likely not even hearing the sit command at that moment. Should the dog be corrected? Personally, I don’t think so if you don’t want to then have to repair the go out itself down the road. This is a situation that requires you to consider the purpose of the food on the target. If you tell the dog get it, are you not rewarding the go out? And if you are trying to reward the go out, do you really want to have an immediate argument about the sit? In this context, I’d rather let the dog finish the treat, then say the dog’s name, and only give the sit command when I have eyes and ears directed toward me. I might correct if the dog ignores his name and dives back to the target to search for more snacks. But frankly, I’m most likely to just end the exercise with the reward acquisition with a dog just learning, or to ask the dog to touch the empty target again to remind the dog of his actual task, which is NOT “go eat”, and then decide whether or not I need the dog to sit this time.
We have to realize that the targets become cues themselves. The closer the dog is to the target, the more he wants to either complete the task it represents or get to the motivator that he expects to be there if that is a frequent event in training. The distance sit response is its own skill to be taught and developed as a stationary skill. It needs teaching and proofing for distance before being put into a go out context. Distance between the dog and handler has to be expanded. Distance between the dog and the go out target has to be diminished. And the skills of stopping short of a target (name response for my dogs) and then sitting on command (TWO skills there, not one) need to be taught with the cues given while the dog is well short of the target at first, so that the value of the dog’s response to the verbal cues and the target cue can be equalized with a bit less target magnetism in play. I do this first with 100 foot go outs to build the dog’s drive and speed; then after 2 or 3 of those, I stop the dog at 50 feet. That gives me time to see that he does or does not respond to his name (he’s supposed to stop, just as he’s been trained to do for the drop on recall), and I react accordingly, but nowhere near the target. I can toss a reward for a good stop, or I can go ahead and command the sit and go in and reward, or I can turn a failed stop into a “Hey! Come here right now!!” so we can do a little reminder work on eye contact in response to the name. But the target remains a good place in the dog’s mind rather than a hot zone where there are too many conflicting expectations.
In proofing and problem solving, sometimes the first positive change in the dog’s performance may not be a correctly performed exercise. For example, let’s say a trainer puts some toys out in the training area randomly to practice commitment to the retrieve. On the first try, the dog goes to a toy, and the trainer goes to the dog and does a correction for a failed retrieve. On the second try, the dog flinches forward on the command, and then sits still. Is that really a failed retrieve, or is that the dog showing that he’s quite conflicted about the strong desire to go to the toy AND the knowledge that his trainer really doesn’t want him to do that? Should the dog be corrected again for the retrieve, or encouraged to move and observed for how he resolves the conflict that he is now aware of? Or should the distraction be moved a bit so that the temptation is not quite so close physically to the desired line of the task? Should the trainer consider the dog taking a wide berth around a distraction to do the retrieve an error, or a strong effort to obey and resist the temptation, and praise the effort and then see if confidence will build so the route can become more direct? It’s probably obvious that I would consider it a sign of resistance effort, but the correct answer might vary depending on the dog’s history and personality. However, this is a situation in which I’ve seen folks get very focused (and frustrated) on the deviations from a formal exercise and miss the observation of their DOGS and how they cope with challenges. It’s an opportunity to build trust, encourage problem solving skills, and to build knowledge about a dog that will aid better predictions about challenges in future training.
Rally... It’s a sport that I love to watch when well done, and one I really enjoy competing in with my dogs. It is not treated with the respect it deserves by some folks in the obedience world who think it’s much too easy for correctly trained obedience dogs; but neither is it taught with respect by many instructors, and the students only know what they are shown.
Some have forgotten that the original intention behind Rally was to collect all of the cool tricks that top trainers have used for years to teach fronts, excellent heeling skills, body awareness that helps make turns and pivots acts of beauty, and accurate command discrimination, and offer them to new trainers on a silver platter. When Rally skills are taught TO THE DOGS thoroughly, a rally run is a thing of beauty to watch, and the more traditional obedience exercises are much easier to teach because so many of the building bricks are in place. In the name of making it more fun than traditional obedience, extra cues and commands and cheerleading is allowed. But somehow, the focus in most classes is on showing handlers all of the many things that THEY could do to steer their dogs through a course, and NOT as much on actually teaching the DOGS the skills to do the various exercises WITHOUT all of the extra coaching. Eventually this became problematic. Begging, pleading and repeated efforts on every sign led to L O N G days for judges, and frankly, I saw a lot of teams NOT having fun because the dogs were so confused by all of the varied commands and signals their owners were throwing at them non-stop, and they just gave up and sniffed the ground, unless they believed the air cookie maneuvers. The changes in the regulations that stopped allowing overt luring was a good one, but one that freaked people out because they knew their dogs could not succeed without the high level of herding.So here is what I BEG Rally instructors to do: STOP teaching with so much focus on running courses. STOP focusing on handler tricks. TEACH HANDLERS HOW TO TEACH THEIR DOG HOW TO DO THE ACTUAL SKILLS! If the dogs are taught how to do their skills, all of the handler dances can be minimized. In my mind, folks would be better served with focus on two or three signs in a class, with individual help offered on how to teach the dogs to do the exercises well. Running a course is a lot easier if you don’t have to deal with recognizing the signs AND remembering the four things you need to do to herd or lure the dog through each sign.
Keep the training motivational, and let folks in on the secrets to consistency, such as how to use chutes to teach dogs to do straight fronts without the two-handed swoop to guide the dogs to front. Demonstrate how the side step can be used as an attention getter as well as a rear end awareness exercise and a heel position recognition exercise. Show people how looking in the direction of their turns rather than down at their dogs will help their dogs know whether to speed up or slow down to maintain heel position. Show them how cool it is to do pivots whilst standing on a paper plate and seeing how well the dog can move around the handler when he is made aware of what his body can do. It’s a perfect opportunity to explain how clear consistent cue sets are so much less confusing to dogs than all of the arm waving, changes in posture, and changes in voice tone or actual words when one word doesn’t appear to work. (Hint: It’s not the word that isn’t working; it’s the inaccurate or non-existent association!)
Now Rally specialist competitors, who say they have no intention of doing obedience because it’s so hard, kind of confound me, because many of them spend JUST as much time practicing and go to classes JUST as often as the most devoted regular obedience competitor. So it’s not the time investment that is the problem. But when I asked a few folks recently how they trained between classes, they told me about meeting friends and setting up courses and taking turns running the course. There was no mention of isolating the front exercises, or focusing on the turn exercises, or perfecting the pieces of the pivots. The handlers are practicing running courses, not actually training the dogs how to do the skills. So it’s up to instructors to show them how to train the dogs, and make sure the handlers understand the difference. Instructors need to make that information as much fun and as interesting and as do-able as possible so that folks will have success in short order with each skill. It’s time to remember the purpose of the sport, and respect it.
Sometimes in some organizations the Rally instructor is the one who inherits the first wave of dogs right out of rather vaguely-taught beginning classes, and it’s the Rally instructor’s lot to help people work through the process of achieving actual command discrimination skills. Well, just as you do with your own dog, you have to do what is best for the students in front of you. It’s not fair to dumb a class down for advanced students, but it’s also not fair to throw teams into the deep end without the skills to succeed either. Consider structuring your Rally program with a more primary layer called Rally Skills, in which you focus on achieving clean command-and-response skills for the basic sit, down, stand, front and finish skills. This would be a place to talk about fronts with information about dog body awareness and front target recognition, and use the one-step fronts to work on it without so much hand steering. There’s a good chance that you will need to define heeling just a bit more exactly and help people achieve better consistency with straight-line heeling. It’s the place to teach turns as individual skills. And don’t forget to tell people that the heeling between signs IS judged! They should know how to do it correctly, and teach attention to their dogs.
Mastery of those skills is the pre-requisite for students to move up to RallyCourse Work. If there is not a time slot allowing such a division, then you can layer the classes, with the first few moments devoted to command discrimination and skill refinement work which never hurts anyone to review. Then you can set up 2 or 3 signs for the dogs who are not really ready for a whole course, but are ready to chain a few of their skills together, and spot the teams for consistent communication. Then the more experienced teams can run the longer course, with spotting for changing cues rather than requiring obedience to the original ones, or handler actions that are distracting their dogs from the actual cues and causing confusion. Less experienced trainers will learn a lot from observing the more advanced work, and that can inspire better homework so that they can move up to the longer course work faster.
Cheerleading doesn’t make Rally, or anything else, “fun” for the dog if the dog is confused. Clarity in communication and confidence from the handler lead to ease and frequent success for the dog, and that is fun for both members of the team. The randomization of the order of appearance of skills inspires interest in the work itself, rather than just on paycheck rewards, and that is an approach that many obedience fanciers do not use enough in their training. Rally is the place for people to embrace randomization as a concept that goes beyond cookie / no cookie, or cookie vs. toy.
Regardless of what we teach, we should all approach teaching with the intention to inspire, support and inform. We should think as though we are the only sources of information for the students in front of us, because for some of them, we are. Classes should motivate change and progress. Rally classes should constructively prepare teams to smoothly move on to regular obedience if they choose, and not create a situation where there is so much handler dependence on the herding skills that they discover that they have to retrain everything for the regular classes.
If you are an instructor, be aware of the impressions you create about obedience when you speak. Try not to teach people to dislike what you might consider the stringent rules of regular obedience before they have discovered what their dogs are truly capable of doing. Regular obedience is NOT harder than correctly taught Rally; it’s just quieter, and requires that the dogs know their jobs without quite so much handler input DURING an exercise. Try to avoid making disparaging comments about “those OTCh people”. Remember that a lot of dog trainers are introverts, and they gravitate to their familiar friends; but most of them will respond to a smile and a “good morning” from a new face, and that’s the first step to building familiarity. Remember that experienced obedience trainers know that an exhibitor who has a rough day MIGHT appreciate help, but just as likely might not welcome unsolicited criticism or advice from complete strangers, so experienced trainers mind their own business. It isn’t that they are unwilling to help IF ASKED. Teach your students some trial etiquette, such as not allowing their boisterous dogs to wander to the end of the leash and push their faces into crates or other dogs’ faces like they might do at a dog park. Teach people about where to find the rules and regulations, and discuss those sometimes. Teach them about the value of crates at trials. My hope is that new trainers will see Rally as the first stepping stone in an obedience career rather than a separate sport. But first impressions are lasting, so the responsibility for that attitude lies on the shoulders of the instructor.
Usually obedience training begins as a necessity, and evolves into a social activity, and for some, an art form. But without efficacy at the foundation levels, the fun part of the advanced competition classes and the evolution of the artistry is not possible.
Extremes in the spectrum of training methods is a problem in our sport. In the name of motivational training, with the goal of extreme precision displayed in extreme states of excitement and speed, many folks, including myself for a while, hopped on the pure positive bandwagon. If training is really fun, the dog will always want to perform correctly, right? And it IS fun to train that way. But all too frequently, trainers find after a while that they have dogs who are generally very responsive to a long list of cues in a controlled training setting, but don’t necessarily have dogs who are, you know, obedient! Or stable in public settings. Or reliable around distractions. Or attentive at all if they didn’t see visible signs of treats or toys. Many frustrated competition obedience trainers today believe that if they are permissive and affectionate with their dogs 23.5 hours a day, their dogs will reward them with cooperation during 5 minutes in a competition ring, and the bargain isn’t working consistently enough to consider the approach entirely successful. It’s an approach that has MANY potential trainer errors and information holes, and while people will argue that at least the errors are not hurting dogs, at some point frustration for potential competition trainers begins to make training NOT fun for the owners, because they are not getting the expected results. If they are given help to find the balance they need to achieve greater clarity and reliability, they become addicted to the wonders of training. If they don’t get that help, they disappear from the sport. And they blame the SPORT rather than the holes in their training approach. As instructors, we should be able to offer that balance.
Instructors ideally need to be at least passingly familiar with many different ways to train skills, and prepared to deal with dogs of varied temperaments, innate talents, and their handlers of equally varied skill levels, goals, work ethic, and philosophy. Inclusiveness is important to our sport. While I am not a clicker trainer, I have experience with the theory and, indeed, use verbal markers with the same timing and intentions for marking correct behaviors. I have class students who like to use clickers. My job is to help them identify needed improvements in their dogs’ skill sets. By the same token, if somebody is effectively using an electric collar or a prong collar, s/he is welcome to come to class and use those tools. I am familiar with the tools technically, and I’m happy to discuss why with anyone who asks , and explain under what conditions I support the use of those tools. I will also tell the trainers if I think there need to be changes in how they use the tools, or if perhaps I think there might be times that neither sort of tool is helpful in the particular situation.
In advanced classes where dogs are beginning to do some work off leash, it’s important for instructors to ask questions and give guidance that will help each trainer make controlled progress, as well as keep all other class members safe. When somebody new comes to a class and walks up to do a recall that everyone else has been doing off leash, and the person says, “I don’t know if he’ll do this,” it is the instructor’s job to say, “Well let’s make sure he does.” Maybe that will be several on-leash recalls rather than one long off-leash one, and if that goes well, it might be a basis for allowing a half length off-leash recall the next time. Maybe it’s an opportunity to remind people how to handle a long line or a Flexi. People need to know that just because some folks do stays from across the room doesn’t mean that others are required to do the same when their dogs really don’t have the duration or distance tolerance or distraction resistance skills to succeed at that yet. Help them understand the progression and work with their dogs’ current skill levels, rather than let their dogs make repeated mistakes.
Our sport also has factions with diverse opinions about heeling. As an instructor, it’s important to be clear on what is required by the regulations, and what is a stylistic choice. Heads-up heeling with high prancing is pretty, but you don’t get extra points for it; and for some dogs, physically it is not practical or even possible. (I know that some of you won’t believe me about that, but some well-respected veterinarians who also train dogs agree.) However, attention can be taught at more natural head postures. If a student wants to try for the high head carriage, great; but people who achieve accurate heeling without it should not be made to feel that they are less successful. And probably it would be good to do some studying of canine structure so that as an instructor, you can evaluate whether or not a dog who is resistant to that posture perhaps has a good reason for it, and save the dog and handler unnecessary frustrations with each other.
A hot spot in our sport is the retrieve. Personally, I’m familiar with the Koehler method, several field training progressions, and shaping. I’ve used aspects of and variations on all of them over the years. But new trainers hear the words “Forced fetch” and “ear pinch” used as the names of methods, and without knowing any details at all, they sometimes decide that they will not be doing those things with their dogs. Those of us who understand the many steps in structured retrieve programs are desensitized to the words. But instructors need to consider the unspoken fears the words instill in the inexperienced folks. And I believe we all need to become familiar with more than one means of teaching people, even if we have one method that we are personally loyal to because it has always worked. Some people in our sport react with just as much negativity to the words “shaped retrieve”. And having done both, I can say that a shaped retrieve CAN be just as accurate and just as reliable as a forced retrieve. Even the common complaints of mouthing or pouncing that I hear folks state as reasons they won’t do shaped retrieves are preventable or quickly fixable once the basic retrieve is established. (Hint: Condition stillness as the decision that levitates food, and don’t do immediate trades of food for the dumbbell being spit out once the dog has learned to deliver to front.) Also, while some of us choose to use shaping to teach the topography of the exercise, that does not preclude the use of more familiar corrections to deal with lack of effort as a dog attains a level of skill where the choices he makes are more obvious. We don’t often think of marketing so much in our sport, but we should. So even if YOU choose to do a force fetch program of some sort, call it something else, like a structured retrieve, so that you can motivate an open mind. And if you have a student who still has reservations, do you really need to give the “my way or the highway” speech, or can you accurately teach the shaping progression to install the skills, and then discuss corrections when they are actually needed? The more generous decision could make the difference between that person staying in the sport or moving on to some other sport where conversations often are filled with nasty comments about obedience.
At all levels of classes, there is one underlying truth: If the dog is not focused or the dog has not been taught ALL of the pieces of an exercise, real success is not possible. Focus and effort must be happening for progress to occur. Share this secret with your less experienced class members and teach them about the little details that make obedience beautiful. For example, show people how to reward attention in motion, not just sitting in heel position. Show them how to randomize skills to motivate working attention and interest, rather than just repeat exercises every week. Show them what the details lead into for the future. As an example, you know that in utility a great directed retrieve starts with a focused turn that ends up with the dog correctly lined up facing the correct glove. So introduce the pivot turns to your novice folks as part of heeling refinement. Talk about the attention before the turn, the unified take off, and unison in MOTION, not just a straight sit at the end of the turn. People who learn to pay attention to such details find that their training gets easier as they advance through Open and Utility. They won’t all pay attention to what you say, at least not the first time; but at least when they finally go to a seminar and hear the same thing from Prominent Trainer, and the light bulb goes on, it will be because the information is familiar and they are ready to embrace its usefulness.
Show people how to break advanced exercises down and teach all of the pieces, as for the Drop on Recall. If a dog can’t do a stationary drop at 25 feet, odds are that a drop in motion will not happen either. Ask people the question: Can your dog do that stationary drop? How about if you ONLY use a command? How about if you ONLY use a signal? When the answer is no to any of those questions, it’s an opportunity to isolate that skill for the student or perhaps for the class at large. It’s also an opening to discuss the importance of command discrimination. Maybe everyone could use some work on the down and sit skills at varying distances, or in the face of distractions. People often don’t think to isolate skills for distance and distraction work; they just keep trying to practice the “exercises” without thoroughly training the DOGS. A good instructor can see this and offer guidance.
Help people see both the uses and the pitfalls of props. If you put a board down and have the dog drop behind the board for either the DOR or signals, is the dog learning to do the drop correctly in response to the handler’s cue, or is the dog responding to the board? This kind of approach achieves the appearance of progress in a class setting, and can certainly help people do a better job of timing their information; but some of them cheat their timing and give commands for the drop way early, but allow creeping forward so long as the down happens behind the board. When using front chutes or platforms, are the dogs ALSO learning to target visually on the handler, or are some looking down at the props rather than aligning on their handlers? A good instructor has to spot that and fix it. Then at some point, each team has to face the question: Can the dog do the exercise without the boards down? A lot of them will be successful. Some will not because of how the dogs perceived the importance of the props as targets or as part of the cue set. What missing piece of the puzzle will you need to give them?
In utility classes, it’s useful to focus on just one or two exercises so that the details can be assessed and improved. How good is the attention from the dog as the handler is walking away on signals? How good is the focus from the dog while the handler is scenting an article, and then waiting for the command to send the dog? How good are the turns on articles and gloves? How accurate is the directional signal for the glove, or are you seeing vague swooshes that make correct retrieves more luck than skill? What is the communication system before and during go outs? Is the handler giving the dog EVERY bit of information allowed in the ring about what he’s doing and where he should go? What task has been taught for the go out, and does it appear to the dog to be viable in the ring to prevent the dog from hunting for targets that don’t exist? If the dog is being sent to a platform or a box for the purpose of developing a tight sit, is there a back up task also being taught so that the box is not the focus of the task in the dog’s mind? So many little details…but also so much fun to train if you know what to do, and the keys to more clarity for the dogs, and more success overall.
Next time... some thoughts on teaching Rally classes.
It’s an odd world out there in the realm of dog training. I have concerns about it, and it’s not just for the sport of obedience, although I think the sport has suffered because of some instruction trends found in and outside of the sport.
Let’s start with puppy training. In the real world, puppies grow up to be dogs. If the owners of those growing puppies don’t learn how to use leashes, administer discipline correctly when needed, and get past tricks-for-treats to actual obedience, they are paying a lot of money to not get information that they need. And as an additional bonus in classes where the emphasis is at least perceived to be off-leash play with other puppies rather than responsiveness to the owners, they are programming their puppies to be over-excited every time they see other dogs, and to ignore their owners when excited. That combination becomes a fast road to a shelter for many young dogs, when puppy excitement evolves into adolescent experimentation with aggression as power.
Today, many puppy classes are being taught by folks who either are actively antipathetic toward obedience as a sport, or totally unaware of it. To compete in the market with Big Box Stores and every other person who has ever taken a course in R+ training and decided to open a business, some clubs have modeled their puppy classes for pet people on the play group format that sells so well, and actively avoids teaching heeling, stays and recalls as skills that are truly useful. Much of the training that IS done is actually pretty vague with quite variable criteria: Loose leash walking, come here so I can send you back to play with other dogs, sit and look at a treat until I release you to get it (neither a stay or a leave it as far as I’m concerned.).
Most of the antipathy can no longer be based on basic training methodology in the sport of obedience. As competition training has taken a turn for the more stylized ideals of heeling and speed as a virtue, I’d say the majority of trainers are just as interested in using treats and games and toys to make training the skills fun as any pet trainers or agility trainers embracing R+ as their primary tool. But there are some attitudes that are projected by some folks in the competition world that are rather intimidating, and we can be more aware of them and adjust them when we teach to meet the needs of the immediate audience.At the ground level for puppy owners and beginner level training, we still need to
focus more on explaining the practicality of the skills, rather than talking too much about “perfection” and “points”. We need to NOT threaten new trainers with the idea that it will take hundreds of hours of drilling to achieve success. Okay, it probably will overall, but focusing on progress week to week rather than intimidating them with an unfathomable hour count to achieve Ultimate Perfection is more encouraging. Today, it’s possible to show them that teaching heeling as a short-duration tight control option based on the dog following a particular focal point is actually easier to teach clearly and see progress on than loose leash walking. I can have a team doing excellent puppy heeling in about 5 minutes. Loose leash walking is so non-specific that people don’t really have a clear vision of what is right and what is wrong, or when or how to fix it. You could teach it, but you’ll have to define it to help your students be clear in their own minds, and know specifically what to do when the line is crossed.
It’s possible to show the advantage of teaching a recall with a sit in front for treats and praise, so the dog learns not to do drive-by runs or jump on their owners, or gradually start ignoring the recall in anticipation of simply being sent back to play with his friends, rendering the recall to owner a waste of time. It’s possible to show the advantage of teaching a really good stay and the skill of being calm AROUND new people and other dogs without actually physically interacting with all of them, so that folks and other dogs who don’t want to play with every young dog they meet can also be comfortable around your students’ dogs rather than having to fend them off because, you know, “He wants to say hi!”
We can all review our programs and look for improvements in puppy and beginning classes that make training both fun and effective, and facilitates progress that will build on skills rather than put the new trainer back at square one in an alien world if they choose to explore competition. As a former club trainer who inherited students from varied puppy training backgrounds, here are my observations of things that would have made their transitions easier.
1) TEACH LEASH HANDLING SKILLS! Off leash training for puppies is fine for the puppies in a secure class room; but when they become adolescents who really, seriously need to be on leashes, their owners are uncomfortable with the tools, and that is a huge disservice. Include information and practice with the use of long lines, and yes, even Flexi leashes.
2) Teach leash manners! Many of the dogs our club inherited had learned to see the leashes as the tools they used to drag their owners into the class room where the leashes would be removed so the puppies could play. And then the bigger adolescent dogs used the leashes to drag their owners down the sidewalks to the nearest dog park, where again the pulling was rewarded with freedom to play with other dogs. This meant that folks had to endure sumo wrestling matches and rodeos with some of their dogs as their first moments in a new class, and some of the dogs were so big that two-handed restraint necessity made it pretty impossible for them to use any sort of motivators. That sort of experience is WHY a lot of them were there, but it’s a source of embarrassment and frustration and even fear for the owners that could have been prevented with better leash skills (handler) and leash manners (dog). (Not to mention that a more responsive-to-owner foundation would have been a better idea altogether!)
3) Teach heeling as a useful skill first, not a dance display. It’s possible to demonstrate the usefulness of showing the dog a focal point to use as a beacon to follow closely in distracting circumstances, without getting over picky about head posture and body alignment with young awkward dogs and unskilled handlers trying to juggle a leash, a treat, a bouncing puppy, and two left feet. Talk about heeling as one of those replacement behaviors for pulling on the leash, jumping on people, and eating stuff on the ground when out for a walk. If you don’t, trust me, the way the owners replace pulling on the leash is to take the leash off, and various levels of disaster ensue.
4) Teach recalls with fronts. Teach it in the context of being consistent about what the “come” command means, so that the dogs know they will always be praised and rewarded for coming in to sit and face their owners. Don’t talk about points off for crooked sits; just talk about focus, cooperation, and consistency.
5) Teach acceptance of physical restraint and guidance. While luring has some progression issues, it is a method that helps new trainers and young dogs achieve sit, down, stand and come skills quickly. When combined with other hands-on work, such as yielding to collar pressure or accepting guidance with hands, it gives owners a bigger and better toolbox for communication and teaches the dogs how to respond to it confidently rather than resist it. Any dog who will exceed 20 pounds at adult weight will need that, and their owners will eventually appreciate it. Teaching a young dog to yield to directional collar pressure is easy; stopping an excited adolescent from APPLYING collar pressure to his owner is not so easy.
6) This next one is going to offend some folks, so I’m putting my flame suit on. Skip the clicker and free shaping stuff in beginning classes for pet owners. I have had the chance in my travels to sit on the sidelines and listen to students talking among themselves at clubs all over the country. What I have heard is not resounding admiration for the clicker training. While free shaping is fun for experienced trainers to play with, it is frustrating for new trainers who wouldn’t know an approximation if it slapped them in the face. But here are some other reasons I think it’s a bad idea.
1) Free shaping teaches dogs the process of guessing, rather than looking for and receiving information from their owners. (Also known eventually as obedience!)
2) Free shaping takes way more time and way more environmental management and limitation to achieve timely progress than the average owner is either capable of or willing to do.
3) Free shaping fosters a hands-off communication system, and I believe this is very dangerous because it reduces the amount of practice the dogs get on accepting touch, hugs, and guidance.
4) Free shaping, even done well in terms of success at collecting a lot of behaviors, creates a mental state of excitement and acquisitiveness that is not necessarily a truly cooperative and stable emotional state desired in the average household. It’s also a method that actively discourages clear identification of mistakes aside from no marker and no reward, which is not a good thing outside of the carefully managed training setting when the world at large motivates so many social errors. It is also disastrous for many dogs who end up competing, because the ring is so marker-and reward barren compared to training that the dogs either start throwing behaviors to find the right answer, or they shut down out of frustration.
5) Yes, there are some issues of working past the lure stage of lure and reward training, but it’s a method that lends itself better to defined instructions that are transferable to other family members. Once skills are established, lures can be combined with leash guidance to teach dogs how to respond to it physically and emotionally so that the transition to cue response rather than lure following is an orderly and successful one. And remember that THERE IS NO MAGIC TO THE CLICKER ITSELF! It’s a noise. Any time that its marketers of clickers tell you it will increase learning speed because of the part of the brain it activates (the amygdala), remember that the saved time is lost when you have to then condition verbal markers that you could have used in the first place. And…that particular part of the brain is a very excitable part. It’s not the thoughtful part that needs to be well developed for excellence in stability, social tolerance, and reliability.
7) Teach the process of transferring off of a lure to achieve command or signal response. Different trainers will have different ways of doing this. I combine lures with directional collar pressure both to add the directional information to the conversation, but also to use it as a slight annoyance that is a valuable tool as a negative reinforcer when it comes to dealing with obedience failures. Please DON’T pretend that dogs trained with enough positive reinforcement won’t ever be disobedient. Prepare people for coping with reality. Strive to give folks methods and tools that are effective in a matter of moments or hours or days, rather than months or years. Resolving conflicts quickly between owners and dogs, with temporary but impressive penalties of personal comfort directly associated with bad social behavior, will reduce the frustration level in the relationship, and it will keep more dogs happily in secure homes for long lives. Performance obedience is an art form, but the happy family with a well-mannered dog is the real purpose of TRAINING.
Next time, I have some thoughts on Rally and advanced level obedience instruction.
I think that one of the reasons “attention training” is still such a mystery for
many in dog training is that its definition is too narrow. Obviously you have to start somewhere, and if you are an instructor, you have to come up with a program that you can communicate and groups of people with various skill levels and a variety of dogs can emulate. But the bottom line is that the common eye contact while stationary that is the foundation for attention programs sometimes is not enough, not versatile enough, and in some circumstances it is actually counterproductive.
Visual focus is recognizable. But if your dog is taught to look at your eyes,
what happens when you move your eyes away from your dog’s eyes? Will your dog seek the view, forging ahead out of heel position to do so? Or will he decide if you are not focusing he doesn’t need to either? This is why so many successful trainers teach their dogs to focus on other targets visually when in heel position, ranging from hands, watchbands or bracelets, to armbands. They are targets that remain more consistently in place.
There is also anticipatory attention. This is the kind that we get addicted to
seeing in training. The dogs are excited, bouncy, happy, and looking for the anticipated production of a treat or toy. It’s great. It’s necessary in some aspects of training; but it’s also not reliable, because it’s a bit of trickery that not all dogs are going to fall for very long once they begin to show. This doesn’t mean I don’t advocate using treats or toys in training, but it means we must be very aware of their allure to us as well as to our dogs, and be really careful that we don’t become dependent on them or use them to avoid the need to teach some dogs that allowing attention to drift from us is disrespectful and wrong when working together.
The bottom line is that at some point, you have to develop what I will call
functional attention. This is a state of mind in which the dog is focusing on you and on the skills and jobs you are asking him to do. You develop functional attention gradually as your training progresses. Its motivations reflect where you are in your training. They include anticipation of rewards, anticipation of varied activities, interest because of complexity, maintenance of self-comfort, and sometimes even a little touch of self-defense.
Let’s look at a progression to illustrate that idea. Because heeling is so
complicated, I’ll choose that.
Stage 1: Visual focus on your chosen target. I’m going to talk about the hand target, since that’s what I use the most, but you could substitute any other useful target for your dog. I wish to teach the dog to look at and move to the hand target. So initially I conceal a treat in my left hand, present the hand fairly close to (but not shoved at) the dog’s face, and let the dog’s nose work. When he touches the hand to investigate the scent of the treat, I mark it and give the dog the treat. After a few repetitions, most dogs start watching the hand carefully and are eager
to move toward it as soon as it is presented. This is pure anticipatory attention and a very simple task; but it is a foundation block to a complicated activity, and we will revisit this step when it’s time to move from trick to task and proof the skills.
Step 2: Focus on the target and follow it, ready to touch it when cued. When I see eagerness, I present the hand such that the dog must cover more distance to hit it, and eventually begin using the closed hand to guide the dog into a left finish, or to follow the hand for several steps before flattening the hand to cue the touch and letting him hit it to get the treat. I practice this a lot with backward walking rather than working in heel position. When the dog is showing confidence, we work this exercise with distractions on the ground so the dog learns to make the choice to keep his visual focus and anticipation on the target hand rather than the distractions, which he can see, but is not physically allowed
to make contact with, no matter how hard he pulls on a leash to try to get to them. Most dogs give up on that struggle after about 3 minutes, and go for the easier success. It is the first introduction to distraction resistance. Those good decisions are rewarded right away and consistently. (This is also a foundation exercise, but one it could benefit many teams to revisit frequently!)
Both of those steps go on the road, so that the young dog learns to
generalize his skills. When in doubt with a busy-body youngster, in a new place go back to square one and build the exercise back up. As the dog shows consistent ability to succeed at giving visual focus in anticipation of being rewarded for following his target, it is easy to then move this into heel position orientation.
Step 3: Clarifying the task. As far as the dog is concerned, following the hand is really more about following the food. Even touching the hand may be more of an accidental byproduct of getting the food rather than a conscious action. Knowing that, you have to clarify things for the dog. Begin this with Two-fers. The dog must touch the hand twice in order to actually get the treat, and the hand gets moved between the first touch and the second touch so that effort to get there is required. Randomize with three-fers, and up to five touches as an outside push for effort, but always with the food in the target hand. You should see progress in harder touches, faster motion toward the hand, and a little question mark floating over your dog’s head at first, but going away as he figures
out that continuing to hit the hand eventually does work.
Then it’s time to hold the food in the right hand, and present the left hand target, both hands in front of the dog. Naturally the dog will try at first to nudge the closed right hand that actually has the food in it. DON’T MOVE THAT HAND! Just let him see that it isn’t opening, and keep the left hand target available. The dog may hit it by accident. The dog might sit back after right hand nudging failures and kind of glare at you. If that happens, keep the right hand closed and stationary, hide the left hand behind your back for a few seconds, and then bring the left hand target back out. Eventually the dog will hit it, and you will praise, quickly switch the food to the left hand, and deliver to the dog.
This stage is where the dog begins to figure out that moving toward the food is NOT the job. Hitting the target, even though he has to move away from the food to hit the target is the best bet for causing rewards to happen, and the dog begins to get an inkling that the food is a result of his effort, but following the food is not as productive as he thought it was. Some dogs are cautious and slow about embracing this concept, while for others it is a major light-bulb moment pretty quickly. Only the dog can determine that, so remember to hold still, be quiet, and let your dog think!!!
All of those steps help solidify visual attention to a focal point (the hand),
and two kinds of anticipatory attention. The dog knows that he will have to hit the hand, although he can’t predict for sure how soon or how often the hand will be available. And he knows that eventually sticking with the task will be rewarded.
Stage 4: Functional attention. Like it or not, personal comfort IS an important motivator in dog training. While I never stop using the hand target touch in training, at some point the dog needs to be globally and physically aware of heel position advantages, and not just visually aware of the target. I go back to step one, and re-charge the hand target with collar pressure toward the loaded hand to show the dog the pressure cue for “You HAVE to do this!” Then with the correction conditioned, we work on hand targeting to the empty hand with distractions happening, and pressure corrections for target failure or rewards for keeping on task.
Then for actual heeling, I put in sudden speed and direction changes often, and ALWAYS when the dog drops focus and effort. If the dog is attentive he can adjust to those sudden changes quickly and avoid any pressure on the collar or any bumps into me. If he’s not attentive, oh, well…he’ll do better pretty soon, and he’ll adjust his position to improve and maintain his personal comfort level more consistently. He’ll learn to pay attention without having to be cajoled on every step. This state of mind may be less pranc-y and dance-y, but it’s often smoother and more consistent overall in the long run.
Give the overall idea of the different kinds of attention some thought in your
training generally. When is the last time you worked on focus as you walked away from your dog for a recall or a signal set? When did you last work on focus DURING a recall? What is the last variation you added to a retrieve or a go out? Is your dog interested in you and the interaction, or is it still all about the treats and toys at the end of a rote routine? Are you still relying on reinforcement momentum alone, or is your dog truly a cooperative partner? This is a great time of year to think about what you want to do to take your partnership up a notch for 2016.