Service training Kenai has been quite the adventure. As he has grown and developed, I’ve learned several different ways to approach his training, and lots of different ways to teach the same thing. Dogs are individuals. A technique that works well for one dog won’t work as well for another one. Flexibility is a vital skill for a trainer.
I am a positive trainer, but I do not hesitate to give correction when I have no options left. A dog that is seriously out of line needs to know they are out of line, and you won’t allow such misbehavior. But the correction should never cause pain, fear, or trauma. That’s not correction, that’s abuse.
As far as correction goes, I use various things to get the dog’s attention and make my point. Sometimes all it takes is the “mom look”, sending off displeased vibes, or redirecting their attention to an acceptable behavior. I’ve used a leash pop when Kenai just won’t pay attention, a “finger bite” to disrupt his fixation on something that excites him, and even a scruff shake when he was little and fighting with his brother.
Correction is going to be needed from time to time when you live with a dog, 9 times out of 10. Don’t take just my word for it–ask anyone with an adolescent dog driving them nuts! No, seriously, sometimes a dog gets so rangy they just need to have a reminder of the rules, and that they will be enforced if need be.
But correction is not the best focus to have when training. I’ve found there’s a difference between behaviors that need correction and behaviors that need extra training. Instinctive behaviors, (like a teen humping) don’t respond as well to training techniques alone as they do to correction. Some would argue that, but it’s my experience.
Other non-instinctive behavoirs, (like retrieving) get better results with positive approaches like clicker training. Posistive really does work best when showing an animal what you DO want them to do, just like they do with us humans.
“Look At Me”
Oddly we humans jump ahead of ourselves, forgetting the basics. Teaching a dog to watch you, to look when their name is called, is the foundation of any training. They can’t do what you want if they aren’t paying attention, right?
So the first, first, first, and absolutely FIRST thing you do is teach a pup or new dog that looking at you gets a reward. Spend time on this, practicing it first at home, then in the back yard, then other places you go. Don’t be in such a rush to get the sits and downs shiny and solid that you neglect to build a pup’s ability to focus on you.
Simply notice when the pup looks at you, and pass a treat to them for it. You can click when they look, you can say “good”, or nothing at all if you want. But the idea is to reward the pup every single time they look at you on their own. That’s called “capturing” (below). The more they watch, the more they get a reward, so the more they will watch you!
Another way to encourage looking at you is call the dog’s name, and treat them when they look. If they don’t look, use a treat passed in front of their nose as you call their name and bring it up to your face. (luring technique, below) That’s a more formal way to go about it. And if you do this, never use the pup’s name for anything else, especially if you have to correct a bad.
As they become reliable with looking, up the ante, and wait for them to be playing or outside and call their name. Increase the distractions, and up the treats since it’s harder to look at you when there’s a buddy to romp with.
One thing I don’t do is let the name get “attached” to commands. I leave a good pause between the name, which means pay attention, and the command. That way, they don’t think the phrase “BB sit” means sit, but the word “sit” doesn’t. It’s easy to fall into that oops.
Another oops is when the pup focuses on the treat. If you can move their head just by moving the hand with the treat in it, they aren’t paying attention to you. So set the treats on the table a step or two away from you, call their name, and when they look either click or “good” so they know that’s what you wanted. Then go get the treat.
This and capturing (below) are the two techniques I use the most, especially with puppies. Redirecting is just what it sounds like: turning the pup’s attention away from what you don’t want, to what you do. It’s usually all you need to keep the pup out of the houseplant, or chewing a bone instead of your toes.
I often pair it with a mild correction like “ach” when the puppy teeth sink into a sock, then I swish a bone around and make it more interesting than the sock. When the pup pounces on the bone, he gets a little play and affection.
For older dogs this works well too. If I don’t want the dog to sniff the fire hydrant, I will call his name to get his attention, then give him something else to focus on, like heeling, or sit. Sit is wonderful at moving the nose back, as long as you aren’t using the dog for balance. Since Kenai is used for balance, I focus him on an attentive heel.
With consistant redirecting away from what you don’t want, usually the unwanted behavior expires on its own. They’ve learned to focus on the things you do want, especially if paired with plenty of attention building exercises, like “look at me”.
Capturing takes advantage of the dog’s natural behaviors, and is a very simple, very effective way to train. For instance, if you want to teach your puppy the down command, when you seen him start to lay down, you say “down” and reward them with treats or affection. Any behavior they initiate on their own that you want to encourage, you reward them when they do it.
Capturing is particularly helpful with young puppies because their attention spans are too short for long practice sessions. It is also useful when you want to teach complex behaviors like retrieving. Anytime the pup chases down the toy you tossed, you praise and give a command word like “find”. Then you praise and reward when they “pick it up”, praise and reward for “bring”, praise and reward for ”let go”.
This is a more passive training technique, but a natural one. Anything you see them do that you want them to do, you reward. If they follow you from the kitchen to the living room, that’s rewarded. If they lay down for a snooze while you read a book, that’s rewarded.
The idea is to watch the dog, and encourage behaviors that come naturally to them. It can save alot of time “teaching” a command in a formal way, since the dog associates the word and the action in a more natural way. You also find yourself looking for things to reward, rather than only noticing things to correct.
When a dog is intended for service training or competitive training, the most neccessary skill is paying attention to you. They can’t follow commands if they aren’t paying attention, sometimes for long periods. Building a dog’s focus is the foundation for any training. This takes the “look at me” to a more purposeful level.
Essentially, you are building focus by increasing the time they have to pay attention or distance from your before they have their reward. In “look at me”, there’s a good pause of say, 2-3 seconds until they have fully turned their attention to you. Once you’ve got 2-3 seconds, wait 4-5 seconds before saying “sit” or “down”.
It makes them wait, increasing their self control at the same time. Once 4-5 seconds is reliable, meaning no pop ups or trying to hurry you, then wait 10 seconds. With puppies, having short attention spans, 3 repetitions of this is plenty. Older dogs can practice this more.
The more frequently a dog is rewarded (rate of reinforcement) for attentiveness, the more attentiveness they give you. Additionally, the more difficult it is for the pup to turn their attention to you, the higher the reward value should be.
For instance, a pup will easily look at you as their name is called when they’re just laying down. That deserves a carrot. If the pup stops playing with their buddy and looks at you, that deserves something yummier, like a liver treat. A pup that ignores the marvelous ball while you’re heeling with him deserves his very favorite and least given treat.
Another aspect of attentiveness, is that they need to be released from it occasionally. It’s effort to hold concentration. When the dog starts to show fatigue in attentiveness, such as becoming distractable, or slow to respond, they need down time. Dogs give you all they are able to at that moment, so pushing beyond that is not only wasted effort, it becomes drudgery for the dog.
I have a final release word like “all done” when the practice is over. You can give them their release, and let them sniff about, play with a toy, chew a bone or whatever they like. They get a chance to let off steam, so they can come back and focus some more.
The amount of time they can focus is gradually built up, though I’ve found the amount changes as a youngster goes through developmental phases. Some people believe it is best to actually stop the exercise before the dog is fatigued, leaving them wanting more. I think this is a good idea–makes the “practice” a reward in and of itself, a sort of playtime with you.
Wait them out
It’s easy to fall into a habit of giving the same command several times before the dog does what you asked. This backfires, because the dog learns not to listen, at least not until the umpteenth time you told them to sit. If they do know the command, and are just dawdling about doing it, you want to insist on it silently. (If they are distressed about something, you want to refocus them, and relax them so they are able to obey).
When you tell the dog to sit, be sure you have their attention first, and only say it once. It’s pointless to give a command you don’t enforce. So if they try to wander off, you want to mildly correct them and give them a focused soft stare. Let your emotions do the talking, since this is the language of dogs. “I want something” doesn’t have to be said, it is felt in the doggie brain.
If they seem confused after a time, you can whisper the command again, or use a hand signal to remind them. The moment the bottom hits floor, reward heavily with lots of affection. For dogs that are just sort of scattered in their attentiveness, you also want to work on building their attention spans. For dogs that are just stubborn, silent insistance is the way to go.
Dogs instinctively want to be aware of their environment. It is a survival instinct leftover from their wilder wolf ancestors. Some dogs will be so naturally focused on their handler, that they barely notice what’s around them. That’s my BB. Some dogs will be so instinctively focused on their surroundings that ignoring is a difficult, anxiety producing task. That’s his brother Kenai.
The traditional approach to distractions is to redirect the pup’s attention back to you, and insist on “face time”, where the dog watches you intently. Many dogs will be able to do this, if properly socialized and naturally focused on you.
Kenai is very much focused on his surroundings by nature. For Kenai, insisting he ignore applies more pressure, which in turn makes him more uncomfortable, and his focus becomes non-existant. A dog under pressure will struggle to obey commands. Many dogs will have triggers, things that disturb them enough to break their focus on you. Things like running dogs, or strangers approaching are typical distractions.
For dogs that are environmentally distracted, Leslie McDevitt, author of “Control Unleashed” developed a technique called “look at that”. It rewards the dog for looking then returning their attention. If they notice a stranger, mark that with a click or word, then bring their attention back to you for a reward.
Making allowances for a dog’s instincts and natural behaviors reduces the tension they feel from “don’t look”. The dog learns attentiveness to a handler is not in conflict with other natural dog activities. The forbidden fruit element is removed.
With consistent practice, the “look at that” game allows the dog to relax, hence, they can focus on you. It also changes (repatterning) how the dog feels/thinks about certain triggers, like other dogs running or strangers approaching. It ceases to mean “danger” and starts to mean “yummie treat”.
Anything that disturbs a dog can be changed from a trigger for excitement to a cue to look at you. By altering a dog’s feelings from stressful to part of the happy game, you provide the dog with skills to handle their discomfort.
A default behavior is something a dog will do automatically without being asked to everytime. It is a habitual behavior you want from them, done without command or cue from you, that stimulates the dog’s problem solving skills. It also gives them a way to show you that they don’t know what to do, when the default behavior seems inappropriate for the context.
Teaching a default behavior involves a great deal of capturing. Since the goal of a default is the behavior is done of their own volition, you want to command or influence as little as possible. For instance, if you want an automatic sit when you stop walking, and the dog usually does sit after awhile of standing, you wait them out. When they sit, you reward.
If there is so much time between the stop and the sit that you don’t think the dog is getting the idea, you can ask for a sit as soon as you stop, rewarding when it’s done. Once there is a reliable sit/stop when asked for, phase out the command by giving them a focused soft stare to let them know you are expecting something.
They will then “think” about what you want. If they give you a down, say “good down, not what I want” or something. Let them figure it out, and reward heavily when they give you a sit. Don’t be in a hurry to phase out treats, either, since the dog will offer the behavior most that provides them with the most goodies. The more you do this, the more it will stick.
**for mobility assistance dogs, an auto sit is not such a good idea. Particularly if you need them for balance. For other dogs, as long as an auto sit doesn’t interfere with their duties, it is an obvious sign to strangers that the dog is calm and well trained.
If you have a service dog that will do lots of down/stay during their daily duties, teaching them to lay on their mat as a default is a good choice. The procedure is the same: capture the mat down if they do it without command and include it in their daily obedience practices (“mat” or your word).
Make the mat the only place they down on, too, for a reward. The mat should be moved, so the association for down is the mat, not the corner or by the chair. The trick to a default is repetition, repetition, repetition. If the mat is what you want most, it is the most repeated behavior, and it alone gets the dog’s most favorite treats or toy.
You can also make the default behavior a tool to access what the dog wants. Wait for the sit, or mat, or whatever you’ve chosen before they get their food bowl set down. Access to water, release to go play, anything that is prized by the dog should be withheld until they offer you the default you want.
This is almost an instinctive thing for us humans. When we are teaching a dog to go to their bed, we naturally will “lure” the dog to follow our arm movement to get a treat. Unlike molding, luring ellicits a behavior from the dog of their own volition.
Luring is an entry-level training skill in that anyone can do it, simply and effectively. Getting an excited puppy to sit is solved simply by luring the pup: their nose follows the treat that is moved over their head, and the rump naturally goes down so the nose can reach up to the yummie in your hand.
Some pups will just move backwards to follow the treat instead of sitting. That’s when I combine luring with molding by using a wall or couch to prevent them from backpedalling. If no couch is available, I will use my hand on the back of their hind legs, which creates a sit by instinct.
Pure luring can be as simple as leading a pup to lay on their bed, or as complicated as following an agility course. The dog follows the treat. Eventually the dog will follow the arm movement without the treat.
The drawback to luring is the high potential that the dog gets so excited by the lovely yummie, they aren’t noticing and associating their own body’s movements with you and your command. You are doing all the work, rather than the dog figuring out what they are supposed to do on their own.
So fading out the use of treats as a lure is something of an art. Using the arm movement without treats as a hand signal of sorts is an intermediate step of getting the dog to go to the bed just by command. You gradually use less and less arm movement, while the dog doesn’t see or smell the treat until they are on the bed.
Targeting is one of the most useful techniques! It allows the handler to send the dog to a mat for a down stay so they can work with another dog, it allows a person to teach a service dog to pick up a can of green beans and put it in their shopping basket.
It can teach an overly playful dog to touch your hand and look at you when they see another dog, rather than running off to play (dragging you along behind by the leash). Point is, targeting lays a ground work for remarkable control over what your dog is doing, even at great distances.
Initially you “show” the dog what you want, say point and touch with your finger the can of green beans. If the dog sticks the nose out and sniffs or touches the can, you reward this. You’ll be shaping alot (below) as you teach the dog to pick up and retrieve the can. But targeting sends them from where they are to the object you want.
I really like the “mat” target, since my two littermates would rather rumpus with each other than work together. I can send Kenai to his mat and focus on BB for however long I want. I can also send BB to the crate while I clean up the bone bits on the carpet without his “help”.
Shaping is an oft used word in dog training, and a rarely well explained one. Shaping a behavior means you’ve taken apart a command into it’s elemental parts. For example, recall, that marvelous ability to call your dog and have them come running back to you happily.
For a recall, a dog has to 1) disengage from what has their attention, 2) look at you, 3) know the come command, 4) associate coming when you call, 5) come back to you, and optionally 6) stop in front of you or at your side. That’s a behavior chain, having many parts that can break down unless reinforced.
One way to shape, is to build on a dog’s natural responses. It is typical for puppies to want to come to you when you call them. But recall can go sideways easily: they can look up at their name, then go back to their bone. They can look and start coming back, then catch a lovely scent trail to follow instead. They can come back to you and keep on going, running right by to grab a stick to play with.
Using their name as a ‘look at me’, you build a solid foundation that will make the disengaging from something and looking your way a default behavior. Using capturing, you can reward anytime the dog comes your way when not called, and so on. Each part of the recall is rewarded anytime it happens. It doesn’t have to be in order at first. They learn over time that each part is connected, as you treat and give affection.
Another way of shaping is called “free shaping”. It teaches a behavior that doesn’t come naturally to the dog by working on the individual parts. I have taught my Danes to “sit and spin”, since their 3 foot long bodies don’t turn around so well in tight spaces.
A sit-n-spin involves 1) a solid sit command, 2) moving the front legs without popping up the butt, 3) going around 180 degrees, or more, 4) standing up when turned the right amount, 5) returning to the heel position.
To shape this, I would reward a sit, and then use a treat or moving my own body to lure the dog to move his front feet without getting up. That means I might have a dog that will turn halfway without getting up first try, or I might have a dog that can only move one foot before getting up.
So I reward what they give me, even if it’s just one foot moved. I will click and reward before they get up so breaking the sit isn’t part of the movement, but the end of the movement. Each time we work on it, I reward one foot moved, then the other foot moved, or whatever movement I get while the rump is on the ground.
Shaping is about seeing and encouraging the tiny things. If a fearful dog is loath to look at you, rewarding so much as an ear flicker, or a quickie glance will increase their willingness to give a little more next time.
Either type of shaping is not always easy to a first time doggie owner/trainer. Having an experienced trainer to guide you eliminates alot of trial and error. Shaping takes thoughtfullness and practice for the human! But the most useful tool for shaping is your attitude.
Be willing to allow your pup mistakes, accept your own mistakes, and don’t get frustrated that it’s not going as smoothly as you thought it would. Shaping is interaction with a living creature, with wants and habits of their own. If you see it as play time, and take the ear flick or head turn as a small reward for you, that sense of fun is shared by your dog.
It isn’t so much about getting the behavior you wanted, as enjoying the process of building intimate communication with your dog. I guarantee your dog notices your body language, and he’s watching for the head turn, and the fleeting expression on your face. The more you shape, the more fluent you become in his language.
Mimicry, or Social facilitation
When Kenai was 6 mo old, he sort of “went off” his training. He didn’t want to practice, he didn’t want to stay in his heel, either. He hit a phase of development, where he was becoming his own “person”, so to speak. It was frustrating, to say the least.
I plugged along, taking him places, and working on his basic obedience, with little co-operation. One day we were at a pet store getting some kibble, and a lady came in with her German Shepherd pup. She and Kenai enjoyed a game of nip and swat for a few minutes, as I discovered the lady was an obedience trainer. Long story short, she went to her car and came back with her packs’ matriarch, and started in with a small obedience practice.
Kenai watched intently, then suddenly wanted to join in. He did whatever the other dog did: sit, down, leave it, come front, come heel…This is mimicry, and the power of social facilitation.
Some people say dogs can’t learn from watching, but I know better. Maybe their dog can’t or won’t, but I know dogs can learn even complicated behavior chains just by seeing another dog do them and be rewarded. Kenai suddenly knew and wanted to do a come front, a command I had not taught him.
Many trainers let their “wise old soul” teach the irksome pup, just by doing what they always do. A puppy especially, will mimic an older dog’s behaviors. This is tremendously helpful when a disabled person is training a pup to take over their aging service dog’s responsibilities. It takes a load of effort off the disabled person, not having to start from scratch.
Some trainers are opposed to this technique, associating it with forcing a certain behavior from a dog rather than having natural compliance. For example, standing on a leash forces the dog to remain in their down stay, and trying to get up is automatically corrected by the leash tension.
Personally I have no problem with the theory of molding, which really is just arranging the environment to get the behavior you want. As long as what you’re doing doesn’t injure or frighten the dog, molding is a very easy tool to teach a dog.
One example is Kenai’s habit of wanting room for his rump when he does a down stay. He’s 3 feet long, so keeping him out of way in a restaurant requires planning on my part. He can’t have room for the rump.
So I started practicing downs where he had no room, like between me and the couch. I used a physical barrier to prevent what I didn’t want: the rump roll. Props like fences or walls can be used to teach a dog who zig zags when he walks to stay in the heel position when walking.
Another way of molding takes advantage of a dog’s instincts. A show dog is supposed to hold a beautiful “stack”, where the weight is forward on the front legs and the hind legs are nicely stretched out a bit. Some dogs will have moments of hesitancy, for instance when the judge first approaches.
To correct them, some handlers will slightly pull the tail backwards with gentle tension. This backwards pull creates a forward shift in weight as an instinctive response. The dog is returned naturally to its stack.
When Kenai’s health declined he became suddenly timid and skittish. So when he’s not too distressed, I will lift his tail up and stroke the underside. Or I will lift his lowered head by rubbing the chin and neck. I will pull his tail slightly, and he naturally shifts his weight forward.
These changes in his body’s position create changes in his emotional state. The raised head and tail is a confident dog’s body language, and my reproducing it manually gives Kenai a feeling of increased confidence. Our human habit of stroking the top of a fearful dog’s head lowers his head by instinct, and has the opposite effect of what we want.