Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Setting Up For Success and Other Reasons Your Dog Trainer Sounds Crazy

One (yes, there are more than one) of the things I say to clients that gets eye rolls/giggles/crazy looks is when I tell them about setting their dog up for success. It's not because the idea of setting up your dog for success is a crazy idea, but more the way I say it. Usually it's something like this:
Me: "Since he's good and tired from that walk, let's go ahead and work on the 'stay' cue."
Client: "Well, that will be easy.."
Me: "Yes! That's the point! Practicing a new behavior like 'stay' when he's tired isn't cheating, it's setting him up for success!"
Client: (Laugh, snicker, eye roll, general puzzled look)

The thing is, it's not cheating when it's a NEW behavior. If I waited until my 8-year old dog started circling on her bed before I asked her to 'down', that would be cheating. She knows 'down' and can do it at the drop of a hat (usually). When we teach a dog a new behavior- especially a puppy, especially teaching something like down or stay to that puppy- it is essential to put that pup in a situation where he has the best chance at success. Without a chance at success, there's no way that puppy can learn.
This is why with training, we start with minimal distractions- so that your dog has the best chance at paying attention to just you and learning what you are teaching them.

Just as you wouldn't enroll in an advanced physics course at your local university without some knowledge of at least basic physics, your dog can't succeed without some solid basic skills. Setting up for success allows our dogs to develop these basic skills.

To continue with the same example, I'll use the 'stay' cue to further explain.
I think that anyone who has had a puppy or adolescent dog understands that the stay behavior can be tough for some dogs and puppies because they don't want to sit (or lay) still. There is a lot going on in the world, and they don't want to miss any of it! In our human life, we like our dogs to sit in one place from time to time for various reasons. As long as we are reasonable and aren't using this to harm our dogs or other animals, that's just fine. The stay can actually be really useful for anxious or hyper active dogs- they sometimes need to be reminded that it's ok to relax and turn off for a few minutes and trust their human(s) to keep an eye on things. A dog who can hold stay for a long period of time can go out in public, to restaurants, to events, to places where there are people and food and attention!! As much as we explain the benefits of a good stay to our dogs, they usually don't give a hoot. Instead we start out slow; we do a short distance, short duration stay and build up their skills with practice over time.

I'll put it this way, would you go out and expect to run a marathon in under 2 hours on your first try? Since the world record is currently 2 hours, 2 minutes and change, I doubt it. Would you expect to walk out onto the mound a pitch a perfect baseball game the first (or even second) time you pick up a baseball? You would sure have high hopes if you did, but I don't think it would happen. Why not? Because you need to learn how to run first, or how to pitch a baseball. Setting up for success is the first step in teaching them, then they get to practice their new skill.

You start your dog out with basic skills like sit, down, come, and stay. Then, you combine sit and down to do puppy push ups. You have your dog hold the sit or down to get a stay. You combine the sit and stay at your doorway to greet visitors politely.
Your dog learns to look at you on cue and how to walk politely on leash. Your dog then learns to combine leash walking and the look cue to pay attention to you on walks. Your dog then learns to walk next to you on leash, which is the heel behavior. You combine this with the look and you have a dog walking next to you, maintaining eye contact.

Everything in training builds on simple behaviors, or at least it should if you want to train your dog in away that makes any sense.

In addition to practice, dogs need to work on generalizing these new skills. That means they typically need to learn that the same rules apply in different situations. Dogs aren't always good at generalizing the things we teach them, so we need to work with them in new situations with their new skills. This is where we humans really get tripped up with training- we don't always recognize that a situation has changed. You sitting on the floor next to your dog and asking for a 'down' is not the same situation as you standing next to your dog, asking for a 'down'. It's not the same to your dog. Dogs are really good at taking snapshots of a given situation and understanding that if everything present in that snapshot is present, there are clear rules that they have practiced, they know what to do and what is expected of them. Dogs are a little too good at this sometimes; if even one part of that snapshot is different, they seem unsure if any of the rules are different. Your dog may be great at listening at home and during group training class, but at the park he seems to have amnesia. Not to be rude, but it may be your fault. Have you practiced everything at the park like you have at home and at the park? Have you given him time to build his skills in this distracting, exciting environment? Have you considered the fact that you are different at the park? Even your mood can influence your dog's performance. My point is, if you want your dog to listen to you at the park, go to the park and practice. You may well have to re-train initially in the different environment and lower your expectations.

If you start out with reasonable expectations, allow your dog the time to learn, give them opportunities to practice and take steps back in training when your dog is having trouble, the sky really is the limit. By setting your dog up for success, you will find that there really are no limits to what you or your dog can do using reward based training.

Honestly, the only limits to training are physical limitations of the dog and/or human and things that the human doesn't know how to teach!