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The Basics of Training

When training your puppy or dog, you start with the basics like sit, down, come, etc... Once you master the basics, you can opt to continue on to mastery. Most of us don't actually need to work towards mastery, though, we just need dogs who are more fun to live with, which is usually an intermediate skill level for doggy manners.

This article is designed for my current and former clients who have some familiarity with this information after working with me. If you are not a client, you might need more information about some of these topics. Feel free to email me and ask!

Whenever we introduce something, we first endeavor to teach the puppy what we want him to do; we get the behavior, mark it with "Good!" or a clicker sound, and then reward with food. We might use techniques of luring, shaping, or lure-shaping to get started. Occasionally we capture a behavior, meaning we watch for it to happen and the reward it. Then we fade any lures, fade any prompts, add a clear cue, and use reinforcement to make sure the puppy can respond to us when asked. (Note: I use the word "cue" instead of "command" since none of us are in boot camp and your pup is likely more of a trusted family member and you are less of a drill sergeant!) I show my clients how to use these techniques and you can find information about most of them online and in books about positive reinforcement training techniques.

We add a formal cue after the behavior is happening. That is opposite of the way most people instinctively want to do it. There's a saying that you don't add the cue until you'd bet $100 that the behavior is going to happen. The new cue, usually a word, comes first, immediately followed by the prompt that you've been using to get the behavior, usually a hand motion. We only say the cue once, we don't chant, or repeat it, or we risk making the word irrelevant to the dog.

Once the puppy or dog understands what we mean when we give a cue, whether it's verbal or a hand signal, we might add a challenge like performing in a more distracting place, performing for a longer duration (think sit, down, stay,...), and performing at a longer distance (like your "come" cue.) Then we combine any factors that make sense. For instance, if you need your dog to come when called from far away in a distracting place, we have to practice that or it won't work when you need it to. Or maybe you want your dog to go to bed on cue even if you are 20' away from the bed when you give the cue. A checklist I use when keeping track of progress might look like this:

Go to Bed

__ teach skill

__add duration only

__ add distance only

__add distraction only

__distance plus duration

__distance plus distraction

__duration plus distraction

__3 Ds (distance, duration, and distraction)

In general I like to have clients practice 3-5 minutes at a time a few times a day in different rooms of the house. Later we move to more distracting locations or we add distractions in the house if the outside world is TOO distracting.

If multiple family members are working with the dog, I prefer that each person work on one skill until the dog is really getting it, then swap with someone else to make sure the skill transfers. It's confusing to the dog to learn something new from 2 people at once. If we are working with more than one dog, we work with each dog separately, then together to add distraction.

I also like to keep track of rewards. I will often train near a counter or table where I can line up rows of 5 treats/rewards. Each reward is an attempt to get the behavior. If the pup gets it, he gets the treat. If not, I skip that treat and go to the next. At the end of the 5 tries, I can look back and see how many we missed. Then I apply Jean Donaldson's idea of push/stick/drop. Five right? Push, or add challenge. Missed one or two? Stick where you are. Missed three or more? Drop, or decrease challenge.

When the dog is really understanding the game, then we might practice only getting rewarded sometimes instead of every time. There are scientific explanations for why we use different kinds of reinforcement schedules but it's easier to think of it like playing a slot machine. People only keep playing if they get rewarded sometimes. If they never get a reward, the quit playing. Dogs are similar! I also think it's handy for a dog to be ready to respond even if food isn't available. I like to use other rewards like play, freedom, and cuddling, depending on what the dog enjoys, too.

Dog training can be tedious if you are working towards mastery but it also should be fun. Think of a sport you play or a hobby of yours - you don't achieve mastery in a few hours but with daily and weekly practice. Your dog needs that same kind of practice to achieve mastery. If you need a coach to guide your practice, just let me know and I am happy to help.

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