The whole point of so-called “obedience” training is to have some control of your dog’s behaviour at all times and in spite of distractions, without having to physically handle him. This can only happen if you train thoroughly. This means that for each behaviour you must apply the 80% correct rule. This means that you need to get 8 out of 10 rewardable repetitions before you can raise your criteria. The problem with most training is that the reinforcers are removed too soon – before the behaviour is conditioned. Conditioned behaviour is something the dog does not have to think about. He hears (or sees) the cue and his muscle memory takes over. This conditioning is very much what happens to humans who play a musical instrument or drive a car.
For example, let’s assume that you have planned to practise “sit” in your formal training session.
Step 1: What are your present criteria for this particular behaviour? How does it look? How fast must it be? Where must it be? Make a note of this. Don’t rely on memory – you might remember where you practised two days ago, but I’m pretty sure you won’t remember if you were rewarding ½ second sits, or 2 second sits.
Step 2: Take out 10 treats and either hold them in your hand (out of sight of the dog) or place them on a surface near you. For each sit that meets your criteria Click and Treat. For each non-existent or slow sit, place one of the ten treats to one side. And continue asking for sits.
Step 3: At the end of the session count the treats that you put aside. If there are, say, four, then your dog has only scored 60% and is not ready to move on. If there are two treats put aside, then your dog has scored 80% and you can think about raising criteria. You might decide that in your next session you want neater sits. You will, next session, only reward the neatest sits. All the other criteria remain the same. You might be happy with the quality of the sits, but would like to practise the sits in a different environment. These decisions are up to you.
The point I’m trying to make here is that just because your dog meets all your criteria for sits at home, he will probably not meet the 80% rule when trying sits in the park or at a dog show. So apply the 80% rule wherever and whenever you train. If your dog does not make the grade, then your criteria are too high. Lower your criteria and raise your rate of reinforcement until you are scoring 80% again.
The other thing I am seeing a lot is that too much time is taken to move from one trial of a behaviour to the next. By trial I mean one individual response (from the animal), to a cue or prompt from the trainer or from the environment. Jean Donaldson in her book “Culture Clash” puts it very well. She says “Good trainers are very efficient: as soon as a trial has ended with either a reward, praise, release, NRM (no reward marker) or punishment (see my comment) they immediately commence another trial. They have great “flow”. The payoff in terms of efficiency is obvious: more trials per unit time means more progress. In 10 minutes a good trainer can accomplish more than someone with poor delivery can in an hour, even if their skills match up otherwise.” She goes on to say “Trainers with good delivery lose the dog a lot less. Post trial loss of the dog’s attention is a common problem, necessitating time and energy to get the dog refocused before the next trial.”
Comment: Clarification of some of the terms used in the quotation above:
NRM – No Reward Markers:
Because we are verbal we tend to want to relay information to our dogs by talking or signalling verbally. A No Reward Marker is our way of letting our dog know that the behaviour that it has just offered is not the behaviour we want (it does not meet our criteria for that particular behaviour) and it must try something else. Not all dogs perceive an NRM as neutral, however, and some sensitive dogs might regard it as a mild punisher. If this happens you might find that, over time, the rate of emitted behaviour falls off and your dog becomes reluctant to experiment with new behaviours.
For this reason I hesitate to recommend the use of NRM’s and would much prefer that by clicking and reinforcing the choices you like and ignoring and not reinforcing the choices you don’t like, you allow positive reinforcement and extinction to work together in a powerful way.
Bear in mind that punishment can range from simply withholding a reinforcer on the one hand to physically causing pain on the other. I, personally, when I am training new behaviours try to keep the session as positive as I can. If I find that I am withholding reinforcers too frequently, I will review my criteria for that particular response. Be aware that if you have set your criteria too high and your rate of reinforcement is too low, you are in danger of extinguishing the behaviour altogether.
This rule, obviously, only applies in a formal training session. However, dogs are learning all the time, so your training in other circumstances needs to be more informal and you will make use of environmental rewards, praise and play. The important point here is that you must get into the habit of making the most of time spent with your dog.