One of the toughest things about dog training (or training any animal) is that the beginning of training rarely looks like the end product. Now, you can try starting at the end result and hammer your way into what you hope is close to that, or you can start small and work your way up. I like that option – it’s easier for me, and it’s more fun!
Let’s look at 2 examples to break this concept down (see, we’re already breaking down that end goal!).
For years, I spent my Sunday afternoons helping people with dogs that were reactive, usually to other dogs. Some of my students had to start hundreds of feet away from the other dogs, feeding their dogs the smelliest, stickiest of treats after the dogs looked at our decoy dogs. Weeks and weeks would go by – it was sometimes like watching paint dry. But slowly and surely, for those who stuck it out, we saw behaviours change. Many students would go from this:
Dogs would start to understand the game – look at the dog and look away for reward. No staring, no lying down, and no spinning on the leash. And no thanks to redirecting on the handler. Over time, we built up a history of good experiences around other dogs and slowly, the distance between the dogs diminished. It takes a lot of work, but we tried to make it as enjoyable as possible and had some pretty good laughs along the way.
Now I spend my Sunday afternoons (and weekday mornings and weekdays after work and I dream it while I am sleeping) in the world of PSA – obedience and protection work. And just like all behaviors, we have terminal (end) behaviors that I break down into successful approximations, reward the desired behaviours at each approximation, and gradually make the approximations more and more like the end goal. Yes, this takes time.
For our Level 1 obedience, Mulder has to do a down in motion in front of a seated decoy, who then tries to sucker him into chasing a toy or biting a distraction. And there are more distractions, like water bottles and balls, all over the field. And I’m not by his side to help him.
The start of this exercise in competition looks like this:
Now I could cross my fingers and toes and pray to the PSA gods that we’ll step onto the trial field and get it right …. Or we could work on it in small approximations.
If I back our training all the way up, I first taught Mulder a down in motion (you wouldn’t believe how much I broke that down, but no one wants to read that!). Once we were good at the down in motion, we moved onto distractions. First with some empty water bottles and random things like antlers that are usually kicking around the house, and then I gradually worked us up to a few higher value items. Note our fake decoy in the chair:
Just yesterday, my fake decoy added a tug to his chair. Soon, we’ll be adding a bite sleeve for at home training, but only once Mulder is good at doing his down in motion in front of the chair with the jacket and the tug. I’ll also recruit friends in plain clothes to sit in the chair (Leslie, I’m looking at you!). Then I’ll take my chair with jacket to club and gradually work my way up to club members sitting in the chair and then the decoys, and then, only then, will they begin to toss out distractors. Thank goodness trial season is in the summer!
Whether it’s my own dog or a client’s dog, I am always thinking of how I can break down the desired behavior into smaller variations so that the dog and handler are successful. If the dog is successful, he gets a reward that is meaningful to him, and hopefully, for the handler, seeing her dog be successful is a reward to her. Some days it seems tedious (don’t even get me started on building grip), but putting in the time, effort and thought will get you the results that you and your dog are looking for, and you might even have some fun along the way. Mulder will vouch that this is hours of fun!