By Lia Stoll (www.liastoll.com)
“Oh no!” thinks Kerry Green.
“I’m messing this up.”
Kerry has trained Buddy to ignore other dogs using the best training tips the web has to offer. She’s taking puppy classes and reading the latest, “The Best Training Techniques For Your Dog” books.
But nothing works.
At least not all the time.
Instead, she’s full of doubt and frustration.
Will the training be good enough? Will my dog be able to walk past the neighbour’s barking-mad dog? Will people stare at me? Do I seem silly? Do I sound like a general at war?
Kerry has seen dog trainers and their dogs that truly mesmerize her, and make her eager to train more. But now she has to be honest with herself…her training isn’t all that good.
How can she change it? How can she avoid click-treating in vain? How can she reach out to her dog’s individual needs and get more reliable precision?
Let’s dive in and find out.
1. Why it doesn’t matter how great your dog training skills are
Look, I know you work hard on training — and if you study and apply all the great advice out there, it’s a safe bet you’re getting some decent results.
And when you know you’re teaching genuinely excellent lessons, falling into the rainbows-and-unicorns dog training fantasy isn’t hard.
You know the one.
It goes something like this:
Your friends see a killer dog trick video you posted on social media and fall head over heels in love with your training. They ask all the important questions, “How did you do it?”, “Who taught you?” and become preachers for your work, spreading the word far and wide.
Oh, how wonderful it would be, right?
But the bitter reality is this:
They don’t see you struggle with your dog’s triggers everyday. They don’t see the little behaviours in between.
2. Be the best parenting detective your dog has ever seen
First off, clear a pathway through the chaotic dog training school your mind has become. Like organizing lessons, look at the chaos, decide you’re going to do things differently and get started.
Next, take a moment and become aware that stress, worry and frustration are relationship killers.
Let’s dig in a little deeper.
Like a detective investigate your dog’s health and daily stressors and plan to decrease them during training sessions. For example, guide dog mobility instructors make it a priority to hunt down any symptoms of a greater underlying problem.
Try keeping track of when your dog is in pain or anxious when he’s alone or worried about noises in and out of the house. Create a fool-proof plan and target your dog’s unique needs to limit and avoid triggers between training sessions.
3. Avoid copy-paste training sessions and focus on in-between
We’ve all been there.
You want to train, but you’re not sure how to get consistent results. You’re staring into puppy-dog eyes. You're racking your brain.
Too many pet owners and dog trainers (like I do) get caught up in all these wonderful behaviours and forget to look at the little behaviours in between.
Now that’s a problem.
Because, when individual needs are not addressed progress is erratic like a frisky puppy on a sunny day.
The good news is this doesn’t have to be you.
Instead investigate what is going on before you give your cue (sit), as your dog is doing the behaviour after your dog does the behaviour and before reinforcement is given.
Continue to investigate what the dog does while receiving the reinforcement, what happens after the reinforcement, and before the next cue.
Let me give you an example with Kerry and Buddy:
Preceding behaviour: Kerry says “Sit”
Behaviour: Buddy sits (magnificently!)
Result: Kerry gives Buddy a treat.
It looks wonderful, doesn’t it?
But, if you look closely you’ll see what is going on between the behaviour of our scenario.
Let’s take another look:
(Buddy sniffs around the grass just before the cue “sit” is given.)
Preceding behaviour: Kerry says “Sit”.
(Buddy looks away briefly.)
Behaviour: Buddy sits beautifully.
(At the sound of the clicker, Buddy becomes over-aroused and looks away from Kerry at the neighbour's dog.)
Result: Kerry gives Buddy a treat.
(Buddy looks around and whines.)
Kerry gives the next cue; a secondary reinforcer for Buddy.
This is a HUGE mistake.
The behaviours that happen in between are the scuzzy stuff you don’t want to reinforce.
So what can you do about it?
I suggest you film your training sessions. Then, watch them in slow motion and see what is going on between behaviours. This will help you learn to be more observant when training in real-time.
4. Use the fastest shortcut to hook your dog
You’ve probably heard the phrase “dogs do what works”, by Jean Donaldson.
In her book Culture Clash, she explains how behaviours that are rewarded get repeated, and the ones that don’t get rewards tend to disappear.
Sounds easy enough.
But here’s the catch.
To be successful, you need to build the correct level of arousal for your reinforcement — by that I mean you need to increase or decrease your dog’s arousal for food.
How do I know?
Because while some dogs have the perfect level of arousal for food and can go straight to training, other dogs aren’t very interested in food at all.
Why is this important?
The simple truth is when it comes to changing your dog’s emotional response to things using something he’s not interested in, then your training will look like somebody put it into a blender and hit the whip button.
As you might expect, if your dog is too aroused by food, it will distract him from learning new behaviours and also distract him during setups.
Needless to say, it’s also difficult to teach your dog to be relaxed around a trigger using something he’s over-excited about.
Train and condition your marker and the ways you deliver the treat before you use them in training.
5. Setups - the supreme guide to success
Let me guess.
You’re afraid no matter how carefully you scrutinise your training, irritating problems will stay.
You’ve tried everything. You monitor treat delivery. You avoid triggers.
But, those annoying irritating problems give you a headache.
So, what’s the answer?
Setups, of course.
Train and proof behaviours that you’ll use in training, during setups.
Like a play, spend a few weeks training and practising these behaviours. It will help your dog offer the behaviours in setups and training when you choose to increase criteria.
By repeating and proofing you create a stimulus-response; a reflex where your dog will respond to the cues without hesitation like a firefighter responds to an alarm.
This leads me to my next tip:
Reliable examples of behaviours to train for setups: Leave it (from treat bag), rest/relax around food, standing calmly, walking calmly on a loose leash with distractions, and attention.
6. Focus on slow and steady
Ever feel guilty for not training as much as you’d like?
And the harder you try, the slower you seem to go.
You get so frustrated with yourself you can hardly train anymore. Your inner critic has a field day, telling you you’re too slow; you lack the skill and you’ll never get good enough.
How can you get around this problem?
Teach the concept of the set-up without the dog’s triggers present.
Let me explain what I mean.
First off, use a lure your dog loves and trusts like family or friends.
Then, do setups where you rehearse the movements you will do in training sessions with real triggers until your dog can quickly process the steps.
And you’re good to go.
Also, you can use this as a quick warm-up before a set-up with a real trigger. It’s a great way to see if the dog is ready for training.
Finally, you can practise all the different skills and behaviours you need to do during a real setup.
7. Eliminate the traps
Are you struggling to separate triggers during training sessions?
It’s no secret. Analysing triggers that set off your dog can feel like a long gloomy walk wearing tight shoes.
Which means you need to locate what your dog is reacting to and plan all the different ways to split the triggers apart and work on them one at a time.
How can you get around this problem?
Now is the time to dive in to your dog’s unique Supreme Guide to Success
Start working on the easiest triggers, and move on to the hard ones.
Then like a recipe, add them together, and adapt training for generalisation.
Now that you’ve got your triggers sorted out, choose a risk-free location safe from distractions.
And you’re good to go.
Your dog has mastered setups in a non-distracting environment and you can keep practising in busier environments and continue to increase criteria and expectations.
And the best part?
With setups, there is less room for errors. It’s easier to measure progress. It’s easier to pinpoint triggers that still need work, and it’s less stressful for you and your beloved pup.
8. Choose the underrated path
You’ve nearly got that behaviour down.
You’ve taught the concept of the setup. You look forward to training in the park. This might be your best training day ever. Yay!
But something is nagging at you. You’re not sure you’re ready yet …
You stare out of the window for inspiration. You reread your Supreme guide to success.
“What should I do?”
Don’t let your inner critic beat you up.
When your dog has mastered all of his triggers in set-ups you’re ready to practice in real-life scenarios.
Just be aware to choose environments that you can create enough distance from a trigger if need be.
And, if you see your dog worry about things, manage or change the environment.
Let’s Make You the Dog Trainer You Want to Be
Imagine walking past the neighbours barking-mad dog.
Imagine your pup engaged from your first to your last words. Not in a robotic sort of way, but in a relaxed, deliriously happy kind of way.
You’ve helped your pup get rid of his fears and you’re on your way to becoming the human-dog dream team of your dreams.
So, what are you waiting for?
Make life with your dog a walk in the park.