Dog’s Eye View: Tracking progress
Remember in the old days of cartoons artists drew numerous images to create a moving picture. Something as simple as Bugs Bunny munching on a carrot required dozens of pictures depicting each progressive movement to make the final creation. Bugs chewing a carrot and saying, “What’s up doc?” took the artist many hours in front of the drawing board.
If we take that analogy a step further and apply it to teaching a dog a specific behavior, we can mirror those steps in creating the outcome. When I teach or train a new lesson, I break it down into many small pictures.
The other important part of the equation is the timing and relevance of the reinforcer. To introduce the concept of the lesson to the dog, rapid reward delivery helps the dog to learn that what she just did was correct. I think this part can be very confusing to a new trainer working with the family pet. Let’s look at how much this equation influences the result.
I’m coaching the owner how to teach her dog to lie down and stay on a specific mat while she answers the front door. We started out by rewarding the dog for looking at the mat as I drop it on the floor, then reward moving toward the mat, then putting feet on the mat and eventually lying down on the mat.
Each of these small steps is treated as a separate behavior. We start and end each sequence. This requires many successive repetitions. Once we have established some reliability in the dog’s response, we can begin to change the handler’s picture. Now add in the owner standing in front of the dog while the dog stays on the mat.
We build duration in how long the dog can stay there while the owner shifts position, just stepping side to side to show the dog she can stay on the mat while her owner’s feet are moving. We build duration on this step. The dog is becoming relaxed on the mat while the owner moves around the dog.
This step adds about 30 seconds to a minute to the duration the dog can hold the stay. Rather than making it any harder, we release the dog from the mat. We take a short break to get up and move around and let the dog think.
Next step, we begin again by cueing the dog to lie down on the mat and signal wait. No food reinforcer this time. She knows this part of the exercise and has built some duration in maintaining the behavior. If we continuously reward the beginning of the exercise, then that’s all we get. We hold the dog accountable for what we just taught her.
When cued, she goes to the mat and lies down. Now we add the cue/signal for “wait” and begin to move one or two steps away, return and reward the dog for holding lie down while the owner moves away and returns. As the dog’s reliability increases we add another step away and then another, rewarding successive approximations but not the original go to your mat and lie down.
There is no need to teach what the dog already knows. That is a common mistake with new dog trainers. Rewarding starting over gets you nothing but starting over. The dog continually will break the behavior chain because you always reward the beginning. The dog is not stubborn. You taught her how to do that with your reinforcement schedule.
A good trainer will hold the dog accountable for what she already knows. Interesting right? “Yeah but, he won’t do it without the food.” Is that because you always reward starting over?
Think about it. Do you have to start with A B C to recite the second half of the alphabet? If we want the dog to keep trying to offer the next behavior in the sequence, then we must be patient and let her sort it out. You can watch her ears twitch, her eyebrows shift, and if you keep your eyes where you want her to go rather than on her face, she’ll use your focal point to help her sort out what you are asking.
Shaping each tiny picture will give you an entire movie of incredible behaviors and communication with your dog. Take your time and end on success. Be mindful of what you are teaching and carefully increase your expectations. Your dog will give you those behaviors if you progress one step at a time.
A side note for our regular readers: Our column will appear on the first and third Saturdays of each month as room allows.
Laura Tyler is a certified professional dog trainer with more than 30 years of experience and has earned associate certification through the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants as well as certified nose work instructor through the National Association of Canine Scent Work. She owns Total Teamwork Training LLC in Northwest Colorado.
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