When should you change up your training when you are trying to teach your dog a behavior? In order to get true reliability with a behavior, we want the dog to learn that the behavior that we cued is the same regardless of environment, distractions, location in relation to you, duration that you request the dog to do the behavior, distance from you, and the dog’s excitement level. If we begin teaching a dog to sit at a distance before the dog understands a sit near the handler, then we risk thoroughly confusing the dog and if we wait months and years to change the scenario to new environments then the dog might struggle with generalizing the behavior to new scenarios. If we confuse the dog repeatedly, then we can run into behaviors such as sniffing, wandering off, ignoring the handler and running off to go do something else. When we are teaching a new behavior, it’s helpful to break that behavior up into tiny steps that lead up to the goal behavior. For example, if we want to lure the dog into a circle, then first we want to pick the hand that we will use to make the gesture. It’s best to pick one gesture and avoid switching this up. Then we want to just practice the first step of luring the dog’s head so the dog’s head turns towards the dog’s ribs. Once the dog is comfortable with that and can do that readily, then we can add the next step which might be luring the dog so their head faces where their tail just was. We are splitting the behavior into its finest details and putting it together step by step. We can also shape behavior in a similar manner without luring. We can split more complex behaviors too. If the dog is struggling to understand that he should stay while a certain distraction is happening, then we can work with that distraction at a greater distance and a higher reinforcement rate to build value for waiting. If the dog is struggling to find heel position with a platform, then we can change the dog’s starting position to less of an angle from you so the dog finds it easier to get into heel position. When the dog is able to get into position from that angle and assumes the position quickly, then we can ask the dog to find heel position with more of an angle. It’s actually faster to split the behavior down to the smallest piece because the dog’s success rate is higher and the delay between the invitation to do the behavior and the dog completing the behavior is much shorter. We also have a step to go back to if the behavior gets weaker when there are distractions around. Going back to that previous step will enable the dog to get back on track much faster than if we have to begin the behavior again from the beginning. Once the behavior is 80% reliable and it has a cue then we can start to focusing on changing the scenario slightly so the dog learns that the behavior that we cued is the same regardless of location in relation to you, duration that you request the dog to do the behavior, distance from you, distractions, excitement level, and environment. Practicing in multiple locations from the very onset is really beneficial. In new locations and in distracting locations, we want to maintain a high success rate for the dog. That means that if my puppy is about 60% reliable at home with 5 steps of heeling, if I go to a brand-new location with lots of new people and new dogs around, and ask for 5 steps of heeling then I’m setting my puppy up to fail. If I do that repeatedly, then my puppy might learn that working in brand-new locations is too hard and too stressful. Instead, it is better if I practice a skill that my puppy is really reliable with at home while I’m in this brand-new location. That will help the puppy be successful and learn how much fun and how reinforcing it is to work with me in new locations. When we have a behavior that is more than 80% reliable and it is on cue, then if we continue training like this indefinitely, we will likely run into a training plateau. Now is when we want to start changing up the training scenarios to build the dog’s understanding. We can start adding in distractions or building more distance away from you or we can focus on teaching the dog to do the behavior regardless of the handler’s motion. If we are working on the dog staying until released, we could start adding in distractions and adding more time before releasing the dog. If we are working on a 2on 2off, we can start adding more distance between the handler and the dog. If we are working on finding heel position, we could ask the dog to find heel position from different angles or while you are moving. When we listen to the dog, the dog will tell you when they are ready to change it up and practice the behavior with more distractions or when the dog needs more help with the behavior and fewer distractions. On July 22nd, my class “Should I Stay or Should I Go” opens for registration. It is an online class where you can learn all about teaching stay with distractions, distance, duration, environments and different levels of excitement. We will go over sit stays, stand stays, down stays, and 2on 2 off for agility contacts. Check it out here!
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