Easter’s here and the shelves are lined with chocolate bunnies. They all appear to look the same, but some are hollow and some are solid. The hollow ones break easily when a little pressure is applied, but the solid ones don’t. So what does this have to do with dog training?
Well, do you ever get frustrated when you’ve asked your dog to do something you know he can do, like perform a stay or walk on a loose leash, while other dogs are around. You know he can do it because he always does it at home and walks nicely when there are no distractions. So it appears like the behaviour you’ve seen many times before crumbles under pressure. What’s going on? Is your dog being stubborn or just blowing you off?
Not likely. My bet is that the behaviour you’re requesting is just not solid enough to withstand the pressure being put on it. So how do we get reliable behaviours that happen each and every time we ask for them no matter what we’re doing or where we are? There actually is a very systematic way to build strong behaviours, and I’m about to tell you how. This is for dogs who already understand the behaviour you’re cueing and can perform it sometimes but not always.
First make sure that your dog knows a release cue. This is really important so that when you are building on a behaviour, it is you who tells your dog when that behaviour ends so that your dog doesn’t decide that on her own.
There are 3 Ds often referred to in dog training. They are distractions, duration, and distance. It is good practice to build behaviour with distractions first because life is full of distractions, and you want to make sure that your dog finds it more reinforcing to respond to your cue and perform the behaviour than anything else going on around him. Start with very low level forms of distractions – for example moving your body slightly or picking up an item in the area or jingling keys – and build from there, making sure that the reinforcer you are using is of high value, especially around new distractions. Practise in a variety of locations, but only move to higher level distractions if your dog is able to be successful at the current level. Practising in as many locations as possible will help make that behaviour stronger.
Next add in increasing the duration of the behaviour. Initially practise with few easy distractions and vary the duration so that your dog doesn’t learn to anticipate the end of the exercise.
I like to count one second, then three seconds, then two seconds, then five, and so on.
Every time the picture changes for your dog, like the landscape, relax your expectations. Let’s say your dog can perform a stay for a minute in the kitchen. When you practise in other locations, ask your dog for a one- second stay and then build from there. Do that in each new environment. If your dog breaks the stay, then go back to where you were being successful and build slowly from there. And by slowly, I mean one second at a time. Make it really easy for your dog to be successful.
Finally, work on distance. This means being able to move away from your dog and also being able to cue your dog from a distance. Like working with distractions and duration, begin in a very easy environment and increase the distance in small, successful steps.
I often start by just rocking back and forth and then taking one step away and then one step to either side. Each time I make a move, I reinforce my dog for staying. And then I will give the release cue.
If your dog breaks the behaviour during any of the exercises, then just reposition him and start again. Keep your training sessions short. No more than five minutes at a time unless you are working on duration behaviour that’s longer than five minutes.
Use reinforcers your dog loves. Reinforcers can be treats, toys, play, or access. And use reinforcers often; even once your dog is really great at doing the behaviour you want, reinforcing will help maintain that reliability.
Always make sure that you have a willing participant and never force your dog to do anything. If your dog is not performing the requested behaviour, then let it go in that moment and dial it back to when you were having success and slowly build from there.
Happy Easter and Happy Training!
Marlo Hiltz, CPDT-KA, KPA-CTP.