When I started to throw myself into dog training, I was delighted to discover how creative the process could be and how limitless the possibilities. Really, the only limitations were (and still are) my training abilities. Once I understood and embraced the basic scientific tenets of learning theory, I could more easily set aside the emotional baggage that sometimes accompanied my training efforts.
Carolyn Fuhrer has written many excellent articles on “Training your Performance Dog” in this publication (her insight applies to all dogs, by the way, and not just performance dogs). She beautifully highlights how important it is for the rewards you offer to be highly motivating to your student, and that you be in tune with his body language and emotional state so that you don’t put too much pressure on him. Learning must be fun for both of you. Your dog will not want to participate, and you will not want to continue if it’s not enjoyable. Reward works both ways!
Assuming you have the above points covered, this article focuses on the physical aspects of setting up for a successful training session. Activate your analytical mind, don your detective hat, and neatly pack any of your potential emotional baggage (e.g., frustration, impatience, blaming the student) into your suitcase.
Error-Free Learning sounds like a lofty goal. It suggests that a learner can achieve a behavior without making any mistakes, right from the get-go. Is this actually possible? Well, yes! The caveat is that we, as teachers, have to ensure the goal is the only choice the student wants to make. We need to ask, “what might he choose to do instead?” and prevent those behaviors from happening before we even begin.
Toddler on a Table with Sharpies
You want your 2-year-old child to practice an important skill: drawing. [At this age, it’s known as “controlled scribbling” which makes me giggle because this is how I would describe my current drawing abilities!]. Do you give him a bunch of wide-tipped jumbo Sharpies, set him on top of a table covered with important documents and let him at it?
Oh gosh, no! One, it would be super dangerous as he could fall and get injured. Two, Sharpies are toxic! Three, anything on the table could be irreversibly damaged. Four, he’s likely to practice undesirable behaviors. Five, Six… you get it. There’s absolutely nothing good about this scenario. Nothing.
Anticipating the Student’s Choices
I’ll bet you would opt to give Johnny age-appropriate writing tools, paper sufficiently sized, and presented in a safe place. You will help him, but not too much, because you want some independent thinking. You will most definitely supervise and adjust the setup if it looks like other surfaces might become his canvas.
Applying this to Dog Training
Let’s say I want to teach my dog to heel (vs. loose leash walking). What does that “picture” look like? Most people have a general, fuzzy idea but are challenged when asked to describe it in detail.
The definition of heel is for your dog to be at your left side, walking parallel to you with no more than six inches between you. The right side of your dog’s head is lined up with your left leg.
You might be content to have your dog within arm’s length of your side, or slightly behind, or slightly ahead. It’s your choice but try to be specific. Is your dog looking up? Are you offering eye contact? Be mindful of how your behavior is relevant to the picture. When teaching heel position, focus on the stationary position before you progress to moving.
Once you have a definition for any skill you want to train, you need to figure out how to create a setup where your dog will be most likely to want to find that position and least likely to choose other positions/behaviors. Reward generously for that “right” choice. If he makes a “wrong” choice, address it right away by adjusting your setup to prevent it. Remember to keep things fun and light for your dog, too. Training is a game!
Pens, platforms, perches and barriers
These training aids play an important role in helping make your training successful. Be creative, anticipate what your dog might do, and be ready to pour on the rewards!
I have, over the years, shifted more towards this type of training. It takes the guess work away from the dog but requires a more thoughtful training plan. The end result is that you get much more efficient training and a happier dog!