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…
- Do them on cue reliably (as in the first time without trying other behaviors first).
- 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…
- Give the cue.
- Pause for one second. Count “one-Mississippi” to yourself.
- 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.
- Give a cue.
- Wait for the dog to offer the behavior.
- 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.
- 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…