January 6, 2020
How many of you arrive at your training venue and stand around for ten or fifteen minutes before you start trying to figure out what to do and not able to remember what you did last time? And then after having cobbled something together leave at the end of the session frustrated and demotivated with a dog that is still making the same mistakes.
The most common problem facing many people with respect to developing their dog’s skills over time is the ability to plan. When dog owners and trainers take the time to organize their objectives and action steps for a given week, month or even a year, they almost always are successful at implementing the plan. Far too many dog owners and trainers feel as though their actions during a single training session or practice is what will lead to positive change, when in fact it is the planning that occurs before these actions that accounts for the true gains.
If you have never planned your training sessions before it is best to start simply. Do not get bogged down by too much detail and only work on one or two skills at a time. Get a piece of paper and write down where you would like your dog’s training to be in four weeks. It could be learning to walk on a loose leash. It could be coming when called, every time. It could be self-control. Think about how far you could get your dog in four weeks and to what degree of competence each skill should be. Think about the skill sets that are involved in each of these activities and write them down.
Now that you have put your thoughts down on paper you must look at the time available for the training and be more specific about the what and when and where of the plan. Keep a notebook and write down the successes and failures with each training session. Follow up by tweaking your plan to take care of the failures by lowering your criteria or approaching the training a different way if necessary.
Most behaviours you require from your dog are quite complex. These complex behaviours are made up of “skill sets” which include all those physical and mental capabilities needed to perform the behaviour at a prescribed level. It is often best to teach a skill set independently from the actual desired final behaviour. This way you can largely prevent the dog from rehearsing errors more than necessary. The best predictor of success usually is the number of (correct) reinforcements. The higher the error rate the slower the progress and, usually, the more variable the final behaviour. Breaking down complex behaviours into skill sets and working on these using reward-based training will reduce errors. It helps to work with a training buddy to identify glitches in your training or get someone to video you. It is not always easy to detect the small errors in your handling that creep in despite the planning and care you put into your training programme without constructive help.
This system can easily be applied to 6 months or even a year. Just follow the same type of procedure as mentioned above – set out an objective for the time frame and decide where your dog needs to be within that time frame. Let’s say you have a 12-month old dog and you want to determine an objective and plan for the next six months.
- Take out your notebook and write out where you want your dog to be in six months – for this dog it could be learning some basic obedience skills.
- Be descriptive – what skill sets do you want him to have mastered? What will he show competency in? Go through the skills you’d like him to master and choose three or four skills that possibly need improvement.
- Now break those large objectives down into more manageable ones and make them your first 4-week objective and from there break it down even further by deciding on how many training sessions you will have over the course of the next four weeks and design them in accordance with your four-week objective.
- Next month, do the same thing.
When you create objectives and plans like this you will start seeing results in your dog that will surprise you. Taking training session by session with no vision or thought to the longer-term does not create a successful team. The more you practice planning your training around objectives and a plan the easier it becomes.
October 14, 2019
What qualities make a good trainer? We’ve all seen someone who makes training a dog look simple and effortless. What is it about these trainers that sets them apart?
- Good trainers reinforce correct responses rather than punish incorrect ones.
- Good trainers raise criteria gradually.
- Good trainers split behaviour into tiny slices instead of trying to teach large complex lumps.
- Good trainers learn to observe what the dogs are doing and how they are responding.
- Good trainers are prepared to go back a step or two if the dog is not succeeding.
- Good trainers keep their rate of reinforcement high in the early stages of learning and are careful about the timing of their responses.
- Good trainers consistently give the dog feedback.
- Good trainers know that undesirable behaviour only happens because it has, in some way been reinforced, either inadvertently by themselves or members of their families, or by something in the dog’s environment.
February 25, 2018
To train: Bring (a person, child, animal) to desired state or standard of efficiency, obedience, etc., by instruction and practice.
To test: Critical examination or trial of qualities of person or thing; standard for comparison or trial.
One of the biggest problems we face as trainers taking part in any kind of competitive dog sport is to be satisfied with behaviour that is not exactly what we visualized when putting our training plan together but one that is “good enough”. The biggest problem with this is that we tend to go out into our training area and put these behaviours that are “good enough” to the test without following good training protocols. This often leads us to a place where we end up either having nothing to reinforce and end up with a demotivated dog or, even worse, punishing our dogs for their “disobedience” to the point where the dog either shuts down altogether or stops doing the behaviours that we want because it is in avoidance mode. The result of this is that we go away from the session in frustration and often in tears having damaged our relationship with our dog and created problems that are going to take a lot of patience and time to fix. Very often, rather than stepping back and looking at from the dog’s point of view we tend to put blame on our dog. He’s “giving me the finger”; or he’s being stubborn; or he’s being stupid!
I’m not saying that testing behaviour does not have a place in our training. Often the only way that we can find holes in our training is to test it. However, the test should always be set up to test the qualities of the behaviour being trained and not to make the test so difficult and outside the scope of the training that the dog is bound to fail. This will only lead to a demotivated dog and frustrated handler.
There are a couple of points that are essential to avoid falling into this trap.
- Design a training plan
- Know what YOUR dog is capable of and what stage of training he or she is at. Be aware of what tests that may be set by others during a group training session will cause your dog to fail so that you can either modify the test to suit yourself or step away altogether.
- Learn to read your dog so that when he becomes stressed or frustrated or shut down you can withdraw until you are both composed enough to continue.
- You are your dog’s advocate. Do not stand by and watch someone bully your dog.
- Teach yourself to recognise the difference between excellence and mediocrity.
- Learn about the science behind training. More and more it is just not enough to embark on a training plan without knowing why some things work and some don’t. There is a lot of information out there about Classical and Operant Conditioning. The cornerstones of learning.
- Don’t be afraid of going back a couple of steps in your training. If you do make a mistake (and you will make mistakes – we all do) do not hesitate to go back and start over. Making mistakes is part of your learning curve but don’t obsess about them. Rather than worrying about what NOT to do think about what you SHOULD be doing.
And finally, to quote Bob Bailey who has had a hand in training hundreds of animals and many different species to undertake complex tasks…
|Here is my very simple philosophy of training: THE MOST GOOD REINFORCEMENTS POSSIBLE FOR THE MOST ACCURATE AND FASTEST BEHAVIORS IN THE TIME AVAILABLE.
Putting it another way: You want to give as many trials and well selected and timed rewards as possible to shape the sharpest and most precise behavior of your choosing, within the time that is available.