How to Build Your Training Chops

When­ever I begin work­ing with a new dog-handler team, I have some starter behav­iors I want them to learn together.  I pulled these from sev­eral dif­fer­ent skill areas – posi­tion changes, self-control, object inter­ac­tion, phys­i­cal cues (using body posi­tion), and ver­bal cues (using words only).

These help teams build a well-rounded set of skills that make all the rest of dog train­ing pos­si­ble.  In other words, if you don’t have the com­mu­ni­ca­tion chops to get these behav­iors estab­lished on cue, things are going to fall apart when you progress to the next level of train­ing: get­ting your dog to do what you want when you need it.

But these behav­iors alone are not magic, they are just a tool to get the respon­sive­ness we’re after.  In order for that to hap­pen, behav­iors need to be built up until our dog can…

  1. Do them on cue reli­ably (as in the first time with­out try­ing other behav­iors first).
  2. Do them with the cue alone — with­out a moti­va­tor clearly appar­ent.  No treats, toys, phys­i­cal manip­u­la­tion, required.

We’ll need to be able to walk over to our dogs empty-handed and give a cue out-of-the-blue and have them respond appro­pri­ately.  If we can’t do that, we’re going to lose mov­ing forward.

You can apply these con­cepts to any behav­ior and here’s how…

Step one: just get­ting the mechanics

At this phase we don’t want to worry about “com­mand­ing” any­thing.  Don’t get hung up on the words.  Right now our tools are food lur­ing, the envi­ron­ment (space, plat­forms, etc.), body lan­guage, and our reward marker.  We should only be talk­ing when mark­ing behav­iors or to ver­bally encour­age the dog.   We are actu­ally teach­ing the phys­i­cal behav­ior (put your butt on the ground, back up, spin around) usu­ally through shap­ing (suc­ces­sive approx­i­ma­tions), food lur­ing, or envi­ron­men­tal manip­u­la­tion (mak­ing the right path very obvious).

Step two: eas­ily prompt­ing the dog to do the behavior.

At this phase we should be con­fi­dent that our dog can phys­i­cally do the behav­ior even if we need to pull out treats or a plat­form or what­ever for help.  We will likely still be using food, body lan­guage, and the envi­ron­ment, to aid us.  We know that we can prompt the dog into the posi­tion, place, or move­ment, when desired even if they aren’t offer­ing it with­out guidance.

Step three: get­ting the dog to offer the behav­ior in the con­text of training.

Here we take a huge leap in learn­ing, espe­cially for behav­iors that require more aware­ness like back­ing up.  The dog has to start think­ing in terms of “I think a reward is avail­able, what can I do to get it?” and this requires them to have an aware­ness of what we might be expect­ing.  The dog is think­ing in terms of “how do I oper­ate this” and that is a big deal.  How­ever if our abil­ity to prompt the dog into posi­tion or our under­stand­ing of moti­va­tion is lack­ing things will fall apart at here.  We should still be mark­ing and reward­ing cor­rect behav­iors; still no need to worry about cues as much here.

Step four: label­ing the behav­ior – assign­ing cues.

Up until this moment the dog has been offer­ing an assort­ment of behav­iors in an attempt to earn  rewards.  Now we estab­lish that cer­tain words or cues are paired with cer­tain behav­iors. We will be giv­ing a cue and then show­ing them which behav­ior belongs to it.  This phase can get really frus­trat­ing for the dog real quick so it is impor­tant to have estab­lished the behav­iors we’re work­ing with so that the dog read­ily offers them.

Keep in mind that dogs are experts at whit­tling down our con­stant sig­nals to just the ones they deem applic­a­ble to them.  We’ll always be throw­ing out the most un-dog-like cue first (the word or visual cue), them show­ing them the cor­rect behav­ior.  If we don’t give the dog time to process that one cue pro­ceeds another, they will never respond to our words alone.

Here are the steps…

  1. Give the cue.
  2. Pause for one sec­ond.  Count “one-Mississippi” to yourself.
  3. Prompt the dog, show them which behav­ior matches the cue given.

Of course if the dog offers the cor­rect behav­ior on request enthu­si­as­ti­cally mark and reward that.  If the dog does the wrong behav­ior, show them the right one and reward that.

Step five: dis­crim­i­na­tion cues.

Once the dog can respond reli­ably to a vari­ety of cues, we are going to play some cue games to cement this word-behavior asso­ci­a­tion in place.  This will sort of be a match­ing game for the dog, where they hear a word or get a visual cue and think through the pos­si­bil­i­ties, then match the behav­ior they think best fits in order to be rewarded.  This will be immensely frus­trat­ing for the dog if we haven’t done a good job of teach­ing word-cue asso­ci­a­tions.  We will be doing our dog and our­selves a huge favor by going back a step if things feel strained here.  Also, best to start with dis­crim­i­na­tions in a low-distraction area and go from there.

So we’ll…

  1. Give a cue.
  2. Wait for the dog to offer the behavior.
  3. If they offer the cor­rect behav­ior, mark and reward.  If they offer two or more incor­rect behav­iors or do noth­ing, prompt them (show them) the desired behav­ior and reward.
  4. If the dog is really strug­gling with this (offer­ing more incor­rect behav­iors than right) go back to the pre­vi­ous step as the dog does not yet under­stand word-behavior pair­ings, they are just throw­ing out behav­iors in responds to the train­ing scenario.

So there you have it, my steps to build­ing the essen­tial train­ing chops needed for a well-trained dog.

If you’d like to see a list of the behav­iors I teach and rec­om­mend, fill out the form below…

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