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.
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