There are some people so experienced in dog training, they just know what to do and when to do it. It’s like the skills are second nature, and low and behold, out of their efforts comes a spectacularly trained dog. Those are called cream-of-the-crop professionals. I’m not one of them.
For the rest of us, especially if we have more than a good companion in mind when we come home with a pup or pound pooch, we need to have put a bit of thought into what we’re going to do. And how we’re going to do it. When I began training Kenai as an assistance dog, I found out fast how little I understood about what I’d committed to.
In the year or so since, I’ve come across some very helpful blogs and books, and some very not helpful blogs and books. Mostly because I needed to solve some problem. One of the good blogs by Sue Ailsby quite literally begins at the beginnings, and leaves nothing out. If you need a detailed plan, you’ll spend more time at this link than with your human “better half”!
Sue Ailsby has developed “levels” of training a behavior, like sit. Her approach is for everyone, from basic companion sits to high-end competition dog sports. Based on clicker training, she breaks the behavior down into small bits, making even very complex tasks approachable (and do-able) for most anyone. In her own words:
”The Levels are designed to give dogs and handlers a clear path to follow, a reminder of things that might be neglected in training, and a good cross-section of necessary skills. Each behaviour starts easy, and gets more and more difficult as the team progresses through the Levels. Skill is based on skill, proficiency on proficiency.”
Having come across Sue’s blog a full year after Kenai’s training started, I can’t say I’ve used her levels. But boy do I wish I had! I am becoming inspired enough to entirely start over, following her training levels while I wait for Kenai to get healthy again so we can resume public access.
An excellent book I’d recommend to anyone is “Control Unleashed” by Leslie McDevitt. It is loaded with excercises to build communication, problem solve, distraction training, and just basic good doggie manners. (Wish I’d read this earlier too!)
Here’s the key, career-saving book for Kenai’s future as a service dog in training: “When Pigs Fly–Training Success With Impossible Dogs” by Jane Killion. Nearly all training methods assume you have an operant, biddable dog; one that is human focused for direction. You can’t train them if they aren’t paying attention, right?
Kenai is a highly independent, environmentally focused dog. ie, he’s not especially operant by nature. Lots of dogs out there are rehomed, washed out of programs, and called “impossible” to train. They’re not neccesarily untrainable, they just need the additional step of shaping them into an operant dog to train like an operant dog.
“Pigs Fly” is going to help me to make the best use of “Control Unleashed” and other operant-based training methods with Kenai. I have bewailed his inattentiveness for over a year now, and I am immensely glad to have finally gotten my hands on this book. I was ready to just give up.
Another good blog belongs to a down-to-earth lady named Melissa. I picked out the posts that have taught me the most, particularly when it comes to the “trainer lingo”. She actually explains what words mean in dog training, and how it manifests in teaching a dog to do what you want. (Too many blogs just say “taught Fido to target brush”)
Much of the training skills can also be read on the page “helpful techniques” on this blog, btw.
http://blackseadogs.blogspot.com/2008/11/dog-friendly-methods-of-getting_09.html, http://blackseadogs.blogspot.com/2008/11/random-topic-4-solving-behavior.html, http://blackseadogs.blogspot.com/2008/11/random-topic-3-what-is-behavior.html, http://blackseadogs.blogspot.com/2008/11/dog-friendly-methods-of-getting.html,
Starting from scratch
Creating a training plan can be a tricky business. I had a detailed plan, all laid out and shiny when my brown buddy came home with me. It went sideways within a month *grin*. Puppies don’t always follow the plan. So flexibility is a must.
But generally, it’s best to have a plan, whether you see it in your head, or pin a giant flow chart on the wall to check off mastered skills. http://blackseadogs.blogspot.com/2008/11/random-topic-6-making-training-plan.html is a good post about figuring out the details, and Sue Ailsby’s training levels can relieve you of alot of the planning, if you’d rather follow than figure. http://www.clickersolutions.com/training/index.html Has alot of help too.
The Ultimate Goals
Saying “I want an agility champion” is the place to start, but hardly enough. You want to understand in great detail the “finished” dog. That means you can close your eyes and literally watch the dog run the course, noticing the confident body language, sharp attention, instantaneous reponse to you, easy problem solving…
For me, it was “I want a mobility assistance dog”, unpreturbed by dropped dishes at the cafe, a snoozing downstay while I eat, easy counterbalancing my wobbles, glued to my hip at all times, automatically positioning himself to stop a fall in any direction, pulling me up the incline and stopping the pull at the top without being told…
Knowing what you ultimately want is essential, or you’re going to bounce around from this to that without any clue of where you’ll wind up. Some folks are really good at “winging it”, but when you have a big job for the dog, the journey there is long enough without wandering down rabbit trails.
Break the goal into parts
For Kenai to be a service dog, he has to have considerable pre-training as a tinty tots, and formal obedience/task training as an older pup. It takes about 2 years. Longer if you get sidetracked. But there are “parts” to his job; the personality stuff, and the tasks. SDs will find themselves in every kind of situation imaginable, things a companion wouldn’t. So he has to have an unflappable, bombproof personality.
So Part One would be “socialization”–ie the pup is aquainted with and allowed to acclimate to any and all noises, textures under the toes, places, crowds, and the like. They have to be a good calm dog or all the training in the world won’t be useful. This is the absolute foundation for any tasks to be taught later, and if you skimp or skip it, you will regret it.
If you can only afford a professional trainer for a portion of the 2 yrs of training, resist the urge to “save” for the seemingly more difficult task training later. Have a professional take the puppy places you can’t, and socialize them sometimes without you. Especially if you have anxiety about certain places or situations. Make sure your pup has an excellent foundation because you can always get advice or a “skills tune up” from the pro later.
A puppy class is where little toddles learn how to get along, play with, and then ignore other pups when you want something. It’s a terrific way to begin the socializing process, and to help the handler start recognizing their pup’s body language and level of adventurousness. A puppy gets to be a puppy, and learns their basic social manners with other dogs.
But remember there is a big leap from puppy class where dogs interact with other dogs, and obedience class where dogs don’t interact with each other. Around 16 weeks is the age when alot of places start obedience training like sit and stay, and a pup has to have learned that there are times to play and times not to.
This first part is really vital, and it’s all about shaping–seeing who your pup is and encouraging habits and tendencies you will take advantage of later to train actual behaviors. If you want a dog for agility, then you want to encourage both a tendency to pay total attention to you and a taste for climbing and burrowing in the dirty laundry.
If you want a dog for mobility assistance, then you want to encourage with rewards a pup who prefers to lay at your feet since extended down stays will be part of their daily life, and give treats for ignoring dropped dishes and motorcycles, or even just wanting to follow you around.
If you want a hearing alert dog, then you want them to notice sounds and encourage a tendency to nose poke or pawing at you gently. Shaping for what you want later requires thoughtfulness before hand, as the best age for shaping a personality and habits is the developmental stages between 8 and 16 weeks. That’s the age difference between puppy class and obedience class, no coincidence!
Part two would be starting the neccessities: formal obedience training. Long duration down stays, leave its, loose leash walking in close proximity, and unmovable standing stays are the backbone of most mobility assisantce dogs’ daily work. If you’ve shaped a pup and continue shaping a pup for the required personality traits for these trained behaviors you will be ever so happy you did!
Once the required skills for a dog are decided on, there will often be things to prepare for but can’t teach until they are older. For example: counterbalancing, bracing, or carrying weight can’t be formally taught until their bodies stop growing. Still, you could teach a pup to come stand in front of you when ya reach forward for something, or allow them to pull slightly on their harness but not their leash if they will pull a wheel chair.
Break the parts into specifics
Each skill has to be understood in detail. Down stays for example: Kenai’s rump will be 3 feet from his head when he’s grown, so he has to down exactly where I want him and not move. Rump rolling results in tripping the waiter.
So the down has to be imagined precisely; where the body is, where the tail is, where he lays his head, how long he stays without moving and the like. I want him leaning against the booth, legs NOT stretched out, tail tucked in, head down, snoring softly, for an hour or more. A look when a plate drops is okay, but no moving.
The shaping for the ability to accomplish a long down stay continues: Kenai has to focus on me more than the girl dog over there. So I would need to have training exercises geared towards looking at me, waiting for a command, ignoring distractions and the like. This is training with a purpose, and building an intimate working relationship.
Breaking the specifics into peices
This is where my original plan went kaplooie, and does for maybe most people. I tried to go from raw pup to finished down in one swift move. I didn’t prepare for the rump rolling or pooch ooch that developed when he turned 6 mo old. Had I practiced not rolling, or rewarded each part of getting his boy self where it “should” be, he would have understood exactly what I wanted and didn’t want.
A bracing skill may look like a one-dimension command, but it’s not. Bracing involves moving to the proper position, being willing to have weight on his shoulders, holding steady under the weight, and even shifting his body as needed to get me balanced on my own two feet again. It’s much more fluid than it looks.
All those moving parts have lots of places for a brace to go wrong. So getting a puppy who won’t put the feet where they should be, to a totally reliable dog that can put himself where he needs to be without command has to have every single peice of the command shaped and practiced individually before putting it all together.
Even a sit is more complicated than you might think. Many dogs will just pop down a pretty sit and never give a moment’s trouble about it. But if you have a pup that resists the sit in front of a stranger, you find yourself breaking a sit into peices to reward: shift the weight to the hind legs, bend the legs, tush on the legs, the tush on the floor, and even side of the rump on the floor.
The task training requires you to become more than just a causal observer–you have to train yourself to recognize the “bits and peices” of a finished product, the ingredients in the cake so to speak. A video of the task you want done right can help you because you can watch it in slow motion! Stop, rewind, and re-watch as often as you need to to catch the little stuff.
A professional trainer can help you here too, and don’t think just an SD dog trainer can help. You’d be surprised at how minute the details an agility trainer can recognize, or how attentive to body language a clicker trainer who works often with “problem” dogs is. Take a video of your dog not quite getting what you want from them and show it around.
With any living creature comes communication or motivation issues. The best laid plans, of the most experienced trainers, will inevitably have a few kinks in the hose. A 12 week old pup is not the same dog at 8 months old, changing as they develop. Kenai decided at 5 mo old to sit facing backwards when we stood in line. oy…never saw that one coming!
If a pup suddenly begins to pull when they see another dog, then the ability to disengage interest and return it to the handler has to be added to the flow chart and broken into pieces to practice. But if you know the “finished” result you want, you can begin to find out how to get there as you play and experiment with what comes naturally to your pup and what ways you need to alter that (shaping).
Here’s a fairly comprehensive document that I’ve written up trying to include as many kinds of tasks and steps to accomplishing those tasks. comprehensive eval
Each dog will have their own ways of learning, and individual motivations, that you’ll have to take into account. You’ll learn something new from every dog, which is part of the reward of training your own dog. It can be a frustrating, triumphant, hair pulling, life enriching journey. I think it’s worth it!