The Training Zone

By Lori Drouin

The sport recently lost one of it's great supporters early in 2018 to cancer.  We are deeply saddened by Lori's demise but believe her words should live on.  We will continue to keep the column she penned for F&F active.  It is a sincere honor for us to do so.

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  • Tuesday, December 01, 2015 12:30 AM | Front & Finish (Administrator)

    With a young dog, sometimes there is a fine line between helping the dog learn all of the details of a skill, or allowing the dog to plateau at a comfortable (for him) level of competency while you keep assuming all of the responsibility for the final result of an effort, which is something we commonly see in Rally classes. How do you know the difference? 

    A dog who needs help is an attentive dog. He is focused on his handler and his intentions are good; but he may skip steps. For example, left finishes may get shortened in the dog’s effort to get to the sit at heel part that most often gets rewarded. In this case, the dog is putting in energy, but skipping the details of completing a turn. It’s fair enough to do a few reps where you lure the dog through the trajectory, then reward the dog in the midst of the finish for getting to, then in to, and then completing the turn part before sitting. 

    Then there is the dog who has somehow developed the “No turkey, no workey” philosophy. In the same example of a finish, this is the dog who is slow to get moving in the first place, or does an amble to heel with a stop along the way to wag “hi” to his friends or maybe stops to sniff something invisible on the ground. That dog is putting in minimal effort, and if you then whip out the cookie to fix it, you are rewarding that minimal effort AND putting the cookie back into the cue set. This is a dog who needs some collar guidance, some sudden take offs during a finish, and some general proofing on distraction resistance so that his focus gets more reliable….and probably not just in the context of the finish. 

    As much as I adore dogs, I recognize that most of them are easily contented little opportunists. In our desire to use training approaches that a kind and motivational, I think that leash skills have gotten lost, or folks find themselves hesitating to apply discomfort or compulsion to disobedience. You have a responsibility to be aware of how complete your training and information installation has been for sure. If you skipped steps, you can’t expect your dog to fill in the gaps by mere osmosis. But if you are certain that you have shown your dog how to do a skill, and he says, “Yeah, sure, in just a minute; got a bug I need to sniff here.”, that’s a place where a measured amount of well-timed compulsion is appropriate. 

    But the next question is this: Have you taught your dog how he should respond to that compulsion? Ahhhh…

    That is an important link that is often missing. It ought to be built in to EVERY skill  you teach  your dog, because it is an important increment in the transition from reliance on the lure to response to a command or signal. It starts with using upward leash and collar pressure AND the sit command AND a lure, releasing the pressure as soon as the dog complies with the sit command. But you should also work on teaching your dog to yield to pressure in any direction. Backward pressure should motivate the dog to back up. Forward pressure should motivate the dog to move forward. Lateral pressure should motivate sideways motion. The pressure should give directional information to the dog that is accurate, and motivate him to move (you don’t move the dog); but the most important function of the pressure is its power to alert the dog that he needs to pay attention to what you tell him to do next, because compliance is what will make the annoying sensation go away. 

    As with all skills we teach our dogs, response to directional pressure is a skill that needs to be practiced all by itself often to keep it sharp and assure that the dog views it as a slightly annoying bit of guidance, but not as a threat. Many successful trainers reserve the use of food in advanced training to daily use in what are called compulsion games, such as holding a treat up with one hand, and using the other hand in the dog’s collar to apply pressure toward the treat, which the dog gets to go to and eat. This keeps the dog’s association with the hand and collar guidance confident and happy, even though the mild pressure is annoying when compared to no pressure at all. It also teaches the dog that the hand going to the collar predicts pressure and the dog learns to get ready to put a lot of HIS energy into moving with that pressure so that the actual force of the pressure gets reduced or even prevented. 

    It’s important to do the conditioning to collar guidance while still using lures and rewards BEFORE you need the guidance as a correction for an error. It’s part of your dog’s vocabulary. Think about the situations in heeling training where you might need it:

    • To enforce a hand target touch or other target recognition

    • To correct lagging by guiding the dog back into position and retargeting (but remember that lagging is usually the result of an attention drop, or incomplete understanding of where the dog ought to be targeting).
    • To encourage heeling closer to you through turns
    • To discourage forging (but remember that forging usually means the dog is targeting on your face, or is keeping an eye on your right hand to see what it’s about to do).
    • To discourage sniffing or other recreational activities while working either with a pop conditioned to mean “pay attention”, or with pressure to a target touch (but remember that if you’re seeing this a lot, you might not have been clear enough about what your dog’s actual task is for heeling, or may not have reinforced that task enough lately).

    In the pictures above, I had a treat in my left hand. I applied collar pressure, then presented the hand target, and Phoenix got rewarded both by the end of the collar pressure and by getting the treat when  his nose hit the hand.  We extrapolated this by moving the target hand higher, or further ahead, or randomly placed anywhere that would require Phoenix to put obvious effort into moving to the hand both to turn off the pressure as well as to get to the treat. Then  the treat was placed or held as a distraction, and he would have to move away from it and hit his target varied numbers of time to earn it, with collar guidance as needed. Then we were ready to work heeling more formally with distractions, and he could respond confidently to error corrections. Throughout his career, we revisited that conditioning game often. It’s a good warm up game that reminds the dog that yes, he will still need to try really hard to pay attention even in this new show setting. It was much more effective at motivating a working mindset than just repeating skills nervously and promising snacks at the end. 

    Deciding whether a dog needs help or correction is a challenge with adolescent dogs. There are developmental stages in which it seems as though a talented puppy has been possessed by an older evil twin as the hormonal filters interfere with the cue reception/ response pattern you’ve grown used to. At this stage, don’t be afraid to re-teach some skills. But still make your decisions about helping or correcting based on effort the dog is putting in to responding to you. It will be frustrating, and you may find that your dog is more resistant to gentle guidance in the face of strong social or invisible olfactory temptations than he used to be. Well, that’s the reality. Try to breath through it and visualize coming out on the other side of that haze in a year and a half or so. But remain insistent on effort. There may be some strategic intimidation needed on some days, and the result may be some temporary cautious demeanor and slightly slow responses as the dog struggles with what he now realizes he must do even though he really truly wants to do something else. Don’t cave in here! The lesson of obedience is more important in the long run than a picture perfect skill today. 

    That adolescent phase is when it’s good to consider formalizing your walks. It may be that you choose not to formally heel (but you could), but your training overall would be a lot easier if you avoid creating an expectation that it’s fine for the youngster to stop and sniff and pee on every surface you pass. If you train heeling for 5 minutes a day, and the walk is 20 minutes of free-range wandering and p-mail activity, your dog is getting a lot more practice and reinforcement for the latter set of behaviors for which you are merely the nanny. So don’t create a habit of allowing yourself to be taken for granted! Even if you choose not to formally heel, make your walk brisk, keep the leash short, and insist that the dog move with you.

    Remember that your dynamic with your dog may shift rather quickly from having to actually (perhaps sternly!) correct disrespectful inattention or obnoxious behavior, to then helping and guiding the now-attentive and more careful dog through the actual skill you’re trying to teach. It’s necessary to sometimes take a dog by his cheeks and display some power when he’s attempting to drag you around or has his nose glued to the ground and is ignoring your commands. But once you have a few constructive brainwaves traveling your direction, soften your voice, your hands and your expression so that the advantages of attention and cooperation are well demonstrated. Show him what you want him to do instead. Finish the conversation agreeably.

    That control of human anger or frustration can be a huge challenge. But it’s one of the skills that the very best trainers master. It requires accepting that you can do a lot of teaching of skills through shaping with rewards, but that some naturally occurring obnoxious behaviors  will require a show of strength to diminish, and that’s really okay! You do what you have to do (and you stop as soon as the dog has stopped the bad behavior), you act with intention but without guilt, and you shouldn’t consider it a failure of philosophy or a sign of a bad relationship with  your dog. Those conversations become few and far between, and eventually the majority of your interactions with your dog will be very pleasant. Your dog learns that you know what you want, and you won’t settle for less. That respect lays a foundation for future success.

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  • Sunday, November 01, 2015 12:30 AM | Front & Finish (Administrator)

    One of the things that happens all of the time in training discussions is the application of shorthand labels and Reader’s Digest explanations of training tools or techniques. These are particularly troubling when the audience includes inexperienced trainers who lack the awareness of all of the many details encompassed by those labels. For example, somebody hearing, “I teach retrieves with an ear pinch!” has no way to know that you don’t really TEACH with an ear pinch, and that there are a bunch of teaching and conditioning steps leading up to using any sort of negative reinforcer for any skill, and that sometimes if the teaching is good and the dog’s desire is strong enough, that negative reinforcer doesn’t even need to be used. Instead, the listener often associates “retrieve” with “ear pinch” and just automatically decides that if that’s what it takes for advanced training, he’s not going to do that to his dog. (Note: While I choose not to use an ear pinch at all, I’m fine with those who use it correctly and successfully; but I beg all of you who may use it to NOT keep telling people that it’s the ONLY way to effectively train a retrieve. It’s not, and that’s a fact, not a myth!)

    On the other side of the coin is the easy sell of motivational training. “It’s all a game! It’s all fun tricks! If you want speed and drive, use toys! “  Well, guess what? In spite of seminars, videos, on-line university courses, and thousands of dollars spent on searching for just the right toy, folks are NOT achieving universally successful results, with either toys or food. Ya wanna know why? Yes, so would I! I have some opinions, and the first one is that the reason recipes don’t work universally is that dogs are individuals, and every single one takes in what we show them and processes the information a bit differently from any other dog. If we don’t correctly observe and interpret what our dogs give back to us, we can find ourselves beating our heads against a wall. 

    For the moment let’s focus on the whole toy thing. Anyone desiring to use toys effectively knows that early training includes encouraging the dog to engage on cue, and to give the toy up easily on cue so that there is no physical conflict between dog and handler. Some people stress tugging as an important interaction; while I’m not opposed to it, I don’t think a strong tug is necessarily that important. But let’s say your dog loves to tug and you encourage it. Is YOUR dog engaging with YOU, or with the toy? 

    It’s important to really see how the dog views the toy. That gets ignored in training, until that view begins to cause deterioration of the performance the trainer sees when toys are not presented as often, or are clearly set on the sidelines as the training for ring readiness requires the dog to get through longer and longer sequences before the release to the toy happens. Suddenly there is anticipation sowecangettothepartwiththetoyfaster! Vocalization happens as frustration builds. Inattention to the handler or the details of precision exercises increases as the dog scans the horizon to see where the toy might be stashed, and considers his options about gaining access on his own terms. 

    Now handler frustration sets in. “You have to work through it!” Well sure, but how, when it’s clearly going to require some compulsion to do that work that you were trying to avoid through motivation? And why is this so hard when you are sure that you did all of the rule establishment work in the beginning? Why are you and THIS dog having so much trouble even though you are doing exactly the same kinds of games with toys that Great Trainer X is having so much success with? 

    Here’s the way I see it. Some dogs value the TOYS themselves. Some dogs value the interactions with their trainers that the toys represent and facilitate. Some don’t enjoy anything about toys or the dynamics of playing with them. Those are often very deferential dogs, or placid dogs, who may be able to learn to retrieve toys, but may not ever see that activity as a reward for anything else they do. 

    Dogs who value the actual TOYS, perhaps even particular toys, are easy to motivate in the teaching part of training. The sight of the toy puts the dog in the mood to acquire it, and behaviors become fast and eager to complete the barter. If the rule establishment has been done well, the dog will give the toy up on cue…but, is the dog actually doing it willingly, or does his technically correct release response mask his inner reluctance to give the toy up? When he gives it up, is he looking to see what he gets to do with you next, or is he just looking for the next chance to pull the lever and gain access to The Toy again?  When you put the toy down, if the dog’s focus drifts to the toy so strongly that you cannot easily get voluntary focus on you, or the quality of behaviors alters considerably for the worse and is hard to bring back up to the speed and fluency you’re used to seeing, then the dog’s value of the toy itself is having a negative impact on the training. This leads some trainers to stop using toys for awhile, and achieve better technical success, but lament the absence of the excitement they got used to seeing when toys were being abundantly used. I’ve known people to give up on excellent dogs because they couldn’t create the picture of energy they wanted without the toys, but couldn’t get through a technically correct performance without the frustration-related behaviors that toy-focused training produced when the toys were delayed. 

    Dogs who enjoy the interaction with their handlers that are facilitated by toys are much easier to achieve success with, and without a lot of conflict or frustration on either end of the leash. But I believe that is a personality trait in many cases rather than soley a training effect related to toys. Both of my dogs have had the same training as puppies, including play retrieves, the rules about letting go on command in order to get games to continue, and some work on tugging. Phoenix enjoys tugging; Trix does not. And it doesn’t matter to me. Each dog has his or her own style of play. Phoenix likes to have the toy and try to entice me into chasing him or playing tug. He has no interest in taking the toy off by himself to chew on it or possess it for its own sake. If I walk off he may follow with the toy or he may drop the toy and see what I’m up to next. 

    Trix is a strategist. She will chase a toy for hours if she can talk anyone into being the player; but her enjoyment is in the prediction of which way the toy is going to go. She is happy to chase a toy and bring it back, but her favorite game is where she puts it on the ground, and I fake several kicks before actually kicking the toy, and she watches my foot rather than the toy to predict which way it’s going to go, and tries to catch it on the take off. But she will play that game with ANY item. She is not that interested in the toys themselves. If I walk off, she will at first bring the toy and try to drop it in front of me to get the game going again, and eventually will leave it if her efforts don’t work and follow me to see what’s happening next. What both dogs have in common is that the value of the toys is really in the interactions they represent, but not really in the possession of the toys for their own sake. 

    Now I’d like to take credit for being a great trainer who taught the dogs to value the interaction with me; but unfortunately none of us really get to choose how things work in the little black boxes that are our dogs’ brains. I use toys a lot in training as distractions, but I don’t use them for rewarding other behaviors very much in the training process. I take time to play the games with toys that my dogs enjoy because it’s fun to do, and overall it adds to our relationships. I sometimes will add in positional commands before a game with a toy just because it’s fun. In fact, Trix has much more fun if there are fake kicks or tosses or commands prior to a kick or toss than she does if I just repeatedly throw a toy for her to chase. If there’s no risk and only repetition, she’ll put the toy down and go rest after 5 or 6 retrieves. 

    How do I use the toys in training? Actually, not very much in formal training. But I use them in games to challenge the training. One of our games could be called “Can You Hear Me Now?” If I’ve kicked a toy a few times for Trix to chase, she gets very focused on my feet. It’s a perfect time to remind her that she still needs to use her ears. We work on eye contact in response to her name, which I reward with food. We work on response to the down, sit, stand, front and both finishes. Without using her name, I give her a command. When she’s cheating, she guesses wrong, and I repeat the command until she gets it right. But then she has to do at least two more commands before I praise her. I might reward her with food, or I might do a few more commands, or I might dismiss her and do a few minutes of play with the toy again.  Then I let the toy rest near me, and try another command or sequence of commands. 

    I expect her to fail. This game is NOT initially about practicing the commands, but rather about her learning that this is NOT a barter about behaviors getting rewards; it is about reining in her excitement enough to realize and remember that cooperation is always the least frustrating choice. Typically she makes a lot of errors on the first one or two rounds. Then she starts scoring a higher percentage of correct responses. My hope over all is that this practice will help her keep her act together in other circumstances that are exciting and distracting. Most of the time I simply tell her when she is wrong and repeat the command, but this is a set up in which some collar pressure could be very motivational for attention in general and command discrimination in particular. 

    Are the play breaks rewards for her correct responses? Maybe; but that’s not why I do them. The games create that challenging level of excitement and create the opportunity to work on her capping ability. I want her to keep her brain working even in a high state of arousal…a state I would really rather not see when we hit the competition ring. 

    I don’t play this game when I’m working on heeling, drop on recalls, signals, etc.. It’s limited to that core of positional commands. I might use it for a warm up game to improve concentration. But when I’m working on skill quality, at most the toys are present in the training area, and we work around or past them, but don’t interact with them. I focus on praise, random food rewards for varied skills, and adding technical challenges such as moving fronts, blocked fronts or challenging dumbbell locations to push her to work harder at the tasks. After we have achieved what I want, we might play with the toys for a few moments because it’s fun to do that. I sometimes place toys so that I can kick them to make them move a bit as a distraction during signals or recalls. I expect the dog to look at them, but I also expect the dog to recover, regain focus, and do what I say next. 

    Now, how do YOU view the toys? Be honest. Why do you use them? 

    A lot of folks I know started out seeing food in training as the miracle for teaching with minimal force, while getting a high degree of accuracy (sometimes!) and enthusiasm…until the absence of food in the ring caused a drop in focus and response. So they swore off food and switched to toys, perhaps with their next dogs. But while they may have felt empowered by not being stuck with cookies in every pocket, the reality is that they’re switching one addiction for another. Whether you use toys or treats, if you use them incorrectly to CAUSE behavior or attitude rather than REWARD attitude or behavior, you will experience the same deterioration of both behavior and attitude when you start extending sequences and delaying rewards. 

    Now understand that I’m not saying that it’s bad to use play in training. Your attitude ought to project that ALL of your training is a complex game. Think about it: If you are always playing, you don’t have to break off TO play. But it has to be evident in your voice, your expression, and your motion quality. I’m also not saying that toys are bad; I’m just saying they may not always be ideal for particular dogs, and perhaps may be particularly problematic for dogs who are very focused on the toys themselves. 

    IF you have the right dog, one advantage to using interactive games with items is that the games can be done with things that actually will appear in the ring…if you’re brave enough. Trix, bless her silly heart, is perfectly happy to chase the leash that is attached to her collar. I can work heel on leash, do an about turn, and toss the handle end of the leash out ahead of us, and she’ll run out and bring it back and say, “Cool! Do that again!” I don’t worry about her grabbing the leash and starting her own game because tugging is not what she really wants to do. She wants to launch and capture. This would not work so well with a few dogs of my acquaintance without a lot of rule training. But for her it’s an effective motivator, and it will go into the novice ring with us. I also use gloves and the articles as toys to play together with. She is not obsessed with any of them, but she’s always happy to see them. 

    The dumbbell is a bit more problematic because of the two retrieves in Open. Trix has a very nice technical retrieve; but the first one winds her up, and that makes the second retrieve a challenge for her to control her impulse to launch when I throw it. It means that I have to be quite careful when I’m using the dumbbell for games to be very much away from heel position when I entice her and throw the dumbbell for a play chase, and it means I have to work a bit harder in training on reinforcing the stay on second-in-a-row retrieves. It’s a risk, and I’ll lose a few of those gambles perhaps. But because the chase part is what winds her up, I’m not convinced that not playing with the dumbbell would be a solution in itself. I think she would be just as tempted to move when I made a tossing motion through sheer anticipation, regardless of the item I might toss instead of the dumbbell, and I think it will always be a temptation for her even if I never do another play retrieve at all. That’s who she is. 

    Overall, I think all of us need to consider how to make the WORK an interesting game rather than work so hard to find the better toys, the better treats, and the more elaborate games to play to mask over the repetition of formal exercises. Once again, the most valuable tool in your box for the long haul is randomization of skills asked for rather than rote repetition. Put more focus on skills in the face of complexity, and in the rewarding effect of increased confidence and competence. Put less focus on getting through an exercise for the sake of the treat or the toy. 

    If you want to use toys as motivators, try to avoid creating an obsession with one particular toy. As with any motivator, the dog has to learn to work in spite of it rather than just for it. But stack the deck in your favor. Rather than choosing one valuable toy to use to reward work, instead spend some time playing with several toys in their turn. Then put all of them down scattered around your work area. It may be that you never touch any of them again on that particular day; but the idea is to dilute the amount of focus your dog would put on any one of them. You will still have to deal with attention glitches, but perhaps smaller ones per distraction than you would face if your dog was yearning for That Toy Right There as his sole object of affection. In initial sessions, you may have to play, place the distractions, and then reward formal skills with praise and food. What’s that you say, the dog doesn’t like food as well as he likes toys? Well, if he’s not actually spitting the food out, then keep at it anyway, whether you actually offer food or not, until the dog finally accepts that the toys are now just distractions, and gives you acceptable work. And while you’re at it, take off your rose-colored glasses and take a look at your dog as he is when he is in a working mindset, where he is actively choosing to cooperate AND resist temptations. Get comfortable with that dog, because that is the dog more likely to show up in the ring than the one you see when you’re actively playing with the toys. For the average dog with an average temperament that is pleasant to live with, that is the reality. The dog that is gullible enough to believe that a treat or toy is actually going to appear out of thin air, yet is smart enough to learn the skills, is rare; the dog who simply radiates with excitement all of the time is not necessarily the most reliable working partner, nor the easiest dog to live with. So don’t be seduced by glitter. 

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  • Thursday, October 01, 2015 12:30 AM | Front & Finish (Administrator)

    Proofing in dog training is a conversation  you have with your dog. It’s important! It’s the place where tasks are clarified, and differentiated from tricks that are optional. It’s NOT about rehearsing the formal exercise. It’s the place where you help your dog rehearse how he will face the challenges he may encounter in the ring, and you both gain confidence in the dog’s ability to cope with the unexpected. But many trainers avoid proofing because they are afraid to put their dogs in the position of committing errors. 

    That fear is a sign of a hole in the training relationship and the communication system. It’s time to face the fear. 

    Proofing is NOT fair…IF you have not actually taught the necessary skills so the dog has a correct choice available to make. It is not fair IF you are not aware of your dog’s current skills and weaknesses enough to set up the scenario so that there are a limited number of choices at the moment, and put yourself in the position to mark an incorrect choice, and immediately help the dog make another. Proofing is not fair IF the only thing you do when an error happens is punish the dog, and fail to show him the other option, followed by repeating the set up with appropriate help on the next repetition. But if you do the work and set the scene to make it a teaching moment, proofing is the process that will allow your dog to meet its full potential. 

    There are thousands of small proofs that folks have come up with; but rather than write a book about it, let me give you a few guidelines that some of you have read before, but could use some reminders about. 

    Proof small skills for distraction resistance.  A very simple but powerful one is name recognition. Begin with neutral distractions, like a small pill bottle that you can toss out in random directions. With the dog on leash, toss the bottle and allow the dog to look at it, although the leash is on and the dog should not be allowed to chase it. Let the dog look for a few seconds, and then say the dog’s name. If your training is current on this skill (and THIS one needs recharging often for many reasons!), the dog should snap his head around pretty fast. If he doesn’t, that’s a clue that you need to do this exercise much more often. But when he does look back, praise, reward, and repeat; keep repeating until the head snap is immediate, or the dog actually starts ignoring the distraction. Then look for less neutral distractions, and build up to highly distracting situations. For Trix, that is a walk in our back yard near the trees where the ground squirrels have condominiums built underneath, or along our little frontage road with traffic or a herd of cattle going by.  This applies to ANY behavior you teach your dog. The reality is that sometimes they are going to look away, but their ears still work. I’d use the dog’s name to get its attention before a command, hence the name response proofing; but sometimes you can see that you only have 90% of the brainwaves even if the dog is facing you. So the goal is to get to the point that you still have functional obedience even when there are challenges that your dog is well aware of. Responses may not be fast or entirely correct technically, and you should push for better with more work; but functional is good!

    Use geography in  your favor. For proofing to be useful, the dog has to be close enough to a distraction to be aware of it, but you don’t have to be so close that the challenge is impossible to resist. This is very individual. For most dogs, 6 to 8 feet away from toys on the ground is enough; but I met one dog who was crazed for several minutes about toys place 20 feet away, and it took three failures and frustration moments for the dog to decide to try the “right” thing instead. 

    Use graduated challenges. In addition to distance, consider what the skill you are proofing will require the dog to do relative to the distraction. In general I believe that the easiest choice is leaving a distraction. As soon as the dog makes that choice, his every move should take him further from the hazard and closer to the objective of the command, so that temptation reduces with progress. A recall away from a target or toy is an example. Second on my choice ladder is stopping short of a distraction. A recall to me with a temptation behind me by several feet is an example. Temptation increases as the exercise progresses, but I have control of the outcome. A retrieve with the dumbbell 10 or more feet short of a toy is another example, and I would control the outcome by having the toy in an ex pen or a Flexi on the dog.  Moving past a distraction to complete a task is, to me, the biggest challenge. I want the dog comfortable with the former two levels first, so that this final challenge is one he is equipped to handle. And this challenge may need some distance from the line of travel used wisely. 

    When proofing, recognize choices that are not in the technical description of an exercise, but actually indicate effort. It is common in retrieve proofing at the level of asking a dog to pass a temptation for dogs to either flinch on command and not move, or to cautiously go way wide of the temptation, well off of the ideal direct line to the dumbbell. Not moving at all is a choice to avoid having to face the challenge by not moving in that direction. Moving way wide shows understanding of the task AND a distinct effort to stay out of trouble. Refusing to move requires at least another command, and maybe some guidance on leash to prove that it can be done, or perhaps is a message that the temptation is, for this dog, too close to the path to the task at this moment. But moving widely should be praised and celebrated, and you’ll likely find that with repetition, the path out and back will straighten out as the dog gains confidence. 

    Errors are gifts to you! They tell you a lot about how your dog thinks. They tell you what the dog actually knows rather than what you think you taught. They are your chance to say, “Oh, I see what you’re thinking, and I understand; but here’s what I want you to consider instead.” Eventually, you will know how  your dog will respond before you start training, and your proofing efforts will go better because of improved management. 

    Caution is NOT a bad thing. Some people cave in during proofing when the dog hesitates or drops speed or looks a tiny bit stressed. Hello! There is thinking going on! That’s a good thing. It tells you that the dog is now aware that you have some different concepts in mind, and he’s trying to figure them out and cope with them. That is NOT the time to distract the dog from his thought processes with a game. Instead, calmly support his efforts, help as much as he needs, and repeat until he begins to show confidence. THEN you can have a party. If you break into a fiesta every time your dog shows stress, your dog will learn quickly to show stress postures anytime he doesn’t know for sure what you want so that you will party rather than push him to use his brain. But if you gently but insistently help him learn to problem solve, he will learn to thrive on challenges, just as we enjoy puzzles or games that give us challenges. 

    Not every error you see in the ring needs to be proofed relative to the particular exercise. Two folks once came to a class with a dog who had flunked the broad jump the past weekend when a door slammed as the dog was on the way to the jump, and the dog startled and froze. Instead of doing any counterconditioning to the sound of door slamming at greater distances, they repeatedly focused on the broad jump, with the second person slamming the door every time the dog started to take off. It got ugly, and there was no improvement on that night. They were not my students, and I knew they were there with instructions that differed from my approach, so I finally just had to tell them that it was somebody else’s turn. But this is an example of seeing the failed exercise as the problem rather than the dog’s response to the sound. This soured the dog on the broad jump for a while, and did nothing to desensitize the dog to the startling sound. I believe it would have been better to add distance between the dog and a door, and have somebody open and close it repeatedly while rewarding  any focus offered. When the dog could relax and ignore the sound a bit better, the trainer could have asked for simple behaviors, then worked up to recalls, and then maybe segue back to the exercise where the error occurred in the ring. But I want the distraction to start BEFORE the exercise and continue through it, rather than be a bad surprise during the exercise that could convince superstitious dogs that approaching the broad jump was a bad idea. (And trust me, ALL dogs are superstitious!) 

    Keep it simple. Let’s say your dog flunks articles at an outdoor show because he’s busy looking at birds or squirrels in the surrounding trees. Yes, you do need to teach him to resist those temptations as well as you can. But the scent discrimination exercise is MUCH too complicated a sequence to use for that challenge, and there is way too much room for fallout as a result of confrontation and corrections in the context of that exercise. So when you need to have the “I don’t care how much you love ____________ , when we’re working you need to ignore it!” conversation with your dog, start out simply, so that the dog only has to make one or two decisions. Stays, recalls, and name response are good starting points. Single item retrieves is a higher level that is still fair with no reason for a lot of bad fallout. Complicated exercises should be reserved for when your dog understands the proofing game and is confident about it on the much simpler exercises. 

    Increase challenges gradually. For example, some dogs are extremely aware of spaces between the boards of the broad jump. One proof is to remove a board or two and teach the dog to jump the whole distance delineated by two boards, even though there is a lot of open space between them. Doing it once to question your dog about his understanding of the exercise is fine; but if you already know that answer, it’s better to work up to this, by starting with two boards close together, and gradually move them apart as the dog succeeds at jumping them. At some point the dog will decide to step in the space, so plan for that. Try a rolled up piece of craft paper placed in the space so it looks like something to stand on, but crumples when stepped on. Add more as needed as you gradually expand the distance the dog needs to clear over a week or two of training. 
     Have your response to an error planned out. Remember this is a teaching opportunity, so be ready to teach! EXPECT errors when proofing, and make your move at the outset of the error. Sometimes all you need is an “oops” cue and a repetition of the original command. But sometimes you have to go to the dog, who has succumbed to temptation, and actually say visually and verbally and physically, “No! That is a leave it!” Then repeat the recall right from there, or point out the dumbbell he was supposed to fetch, and use the collar to get the dog moving in the right direction. Whatever you do, standing still and languishing in a state of dismay is not constructive.

  • Wednesday, January 01, 2014 12:30 AM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

    Written by Lori Drouin

    When it comes to dog training, duration is a factor that is both simple in definition, and complex in its meaning relative to everything else going on congruently, which include discrimination, distance and distraction resistance.

    Simply, duration is time. It's easy enough to apply to stays. We need a sit (discrimination of command) for one minute (duration) with owners 40 feet away (distance), and perhaps an Open or a Utility ring running in the ring behind the dog (distraction resistance). My approach is to build the duration first at 0 distance, build distraction resistance, and then drop duration and distractions when distance is added, rebuild the duration, then the distractions, and then drop it again at the next distance addition. There's a system here where you're dealing with one specific position and no other activities desired, so you get to focus on the effects of time and distance and distractions on just one stationary position. When it comes to more complexity, such as heeling, or eventually an entire ring routine, duration of overall focus and cooperation is not something we tend to think about directly, but it is a factor we deal with. 

    And then there is the tolerance of reward absence issue. (We call it reward delay, but to our dogs, it is absence... still absent!...absent still...Am I doing something wrong?...nothing... Should I try something different?...Nothing.. Should I try not doing anything? What is the answer? Still nothing...)

    There it is, the thing that causes so much angst and frustration for so many handlers whose dogs train at home or warm up brilliantly, but drop energy, focus, and compliance in the ring. How can that syndrome be stopped, and duration of attention and cooperation be built? There are some things a handler has to understand and accept in order to work through this. 

    You WON'T ever get the same level of excitement in the ring that you see in training IF the excitement you see in training is caused by food or toys rather than confidence and clarity and happy anticipation of success. Better food and better toys won't change that either, but feel free to use them as part of your reinforcement randomization program. Somehow, though, I advise folks to stop striving for the mirage and get comfortable with the real demeanor of their dogs in a working state of mind. It's actually quite liberating and personally affirming to see your dog appreciate YOU and not just your picnic basket.

    You NEED another reason for cooperation from your dog besides the material reward pay-off. Some dogs will find recalls and retrieves and jumping to be pretty fun, and everything else in your reward and communication system is a bonus. But your dog should care about your approval, and not just the presentation of the snack or toy. Your dog cares about his personal comfort level, and his ability to control it through cooperation with you is an empowering reward itself, and is one of the ways he knows he is “right” even when food and toys and games are not immediately happening. Expression of approval and manipulation of comfort level are tools you need to master and tailor to your dog, and systematically integrate into your training program from the start so that your language is consistent when it's necessary to say to your dog, “You know how to do this, and I want you to try hard to do it right.” 

    You need to stop setting your dog up for repeated disappointment in the ring setting. Stop focusing so much on rehearsing the exercises. Instead, train responsiveness to ALL commands in any order, and vary that order a LOT. This is randomization of requirements. This prevents the dog from learning to expect rewards after the finish on every  exercise, and feel disappointment when it doesn't happen in the ring....over and over again. If your randomization is done well, your dog won't have such a strong sense that an exercise begins and ends a certain way with a strong expectation of reward at a certain point. Instead, EVERYthing you ask the dog to do has potential to be rewarded, but the probability at any time is unknown. The unpredictability of either reward presentation or what will be asked for next becomes intriguing and challenging to the dog on a different level than just rewards by themselves. 

    It's helpful to video a training session or two, and map your behavior. Get a sense of the time intervals between actual reward presentations. Keep track of WHAT you actually reward. Are you rewarding actual correct position or behavior, or just overall effort? Are you rewarding sustained focus, or return of focus after a glitch? All of those options are correct at various points in training.  But what point are you working on in that session, and how appropriate are the rewards in that regard? Are you using the rewards consciously and carefully to modify behavior, or simply working on a barter system? 

    Take a look at your dog's attention and focus levels, and how they fluctuate (or not) during a session. Do the fluctuations seem time/ reward related, or do they vary based on the innate appeal of a particular activity to this dog? Or are the fluctuations really a function of poor distraction resistance skills? 

    Be critical about the criteria level of any skill that you reward. Ask yourself if it was truly excellent, or if you rewarded something less than excellent just because you had decided to reward at that point in time, or wanted to get the hot dog out of your hand or mouth. Before beginning duration work and randomized requirement training, your dog needs to be truly fluent at every skill you might choose to ask for. Skills that are still being caused by motivators or require a 1:1 reward ratio to preserve confidence are not ready for prime time. 

    How do you approach building duration of work between rewards?  One choice is to literally focus on time. If you usually seem to hand out treats at the rate of 2 per minute on average, on paper it  seems to make sense to set a timer for 1:10 and use the two rewards somewhere during and then at the end of that interval, and gradually add a few seconds at a time to a session. But there are some questions to ask yourself if you choose this approach. Will your rewards be based on time alone so that you present the reward at 35 seconds and then  again at 1:10 regardless of the quality of the dog's behavior at that instant, simply to reinforce engagement? Or will the time factor be a guideline for you, but the actual reward presentation be reserved for correct criteria? Either way, do you have a plan for how to respond to errors during your working interval? 

    The other option is to choose a set number of behaviors or well-known sequences to go through before rewards happen. (Remember that “sit” is a behavior, but a recall is a sequence of behaviors.) This is something that needs to happen to get a dog ready for the ring. But in the process of assessing the dog's dependence on reward frequency and discovering how much and what kind of frustration the dog will display with less frequent rewards, it's important to make sure that you choose behaviors and sequences that the dog is quite confident about. Popular theory on this issue dictates a very gradual extension of working time, with a goal of not pushing to the point of errors beginning to appear. The reality is that errors could appear at any time. So once again, you have to decide how YOU will respond to errors. Do you want to identify and fix them and get correct responses before rewarding, and just forget about duration at that point? Or do you want to ignore them completely and ask for something easier, or perhaps just repeat the command to try again? If you get an error in the middle of an arbitrary skill set test, will you fix it and the repeat the whole sequence, or will you repeat up to the skill that went wrong and reward if that skill is correct? Your choice may depend on whether you think the error happened on a well-known skill as a result of lack of effort, or if you think the error was a sign of a lack of knowledge. 

    Personally, I believe that at some point, you have to stop attempting to avoid errors and face them directly. They need to be identified to the dog. The understanding that standing or lying down or wandering off to sniff when the sit command has been given needs to be established in order for the dog's education about the command to be complete. I prefer to build this conversation into the teaching process of all individual behaviors. In the process of distraction resistance work, the dogs always make errors a few times. Because I teach collar  and hands-on guidance as part of skill learning, it's possible to say, “Don't do that! Do this instead.” and it's not a traumatic message to the dogs. They understand that I'm telling them they need to try really hard to focus on the command and do what I'm asking. If this is done effectively, then when you begin to play with duration of work without material reward, you can deal confidently with any balking, displacement behaviors, or sulkiness that frequently happen. If you work through it in training effectively, you shouldn't have to see it in the ring.

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