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The Art of Dog Training: Navigating Through Distractions

Updated: Sep 15, 2023

Art of Dog Training

Introduction: The Intricacies of Dog Training

Mastering the art of dog training is more intricate than simply getting your pet to sit with the promise of a treat. Our aim, indeed, is to nurture a dog that not only is free from behavioral issues (most of which can be addressed with obedience training), but one that can adhere to commands in any environment, under any distraction, without the necessity of a treat as a lure. This might appear daunting, yet, with a reliable step-by-step procedure, such an ambitious outcome becomes eminently attainable.

Setting the Stage: Building a Strong 'Reward Event

While I won't delve too deeply into the obedience training specifics, it is paramount to touch upon it briefly to connect the dots to our central focus for this article - integrating distractions into the training regimen.

Before starting any training, it's crucial to create a strong 'reward event' - a phrase I owe to the exceptional dog trainer, Michael Ellis. His teachings, incidentally, are well worth exploring for any dog enthusiasts passionate about optimizing their training methods. This 'reward event' forms the bedrock of any training, making every exercise enjoyable and rewarding for the dog.

A 'reward event' might be as straightforward as giving your pet a treat. However, it can be made more engaging by incorporating movement, praise, petting, and even toys, essentially turning the training into an enjoyable activity. The ultimate goal is to instill a sense of fun into your relationship with your dog, making them eager to spend time with you.

At the start, I recommend offering these events freely, allowing time to build a robust bond through play. This also offers an excellent opportunity to identify the play style that your dog finds most enjoyable. You can gauge the effectiveness of your 'reward events' by monitoring your dog's body language and enthusiasm during these interactions. A notable increase in their excitement is a positive sign that they anticipate these sessions eagerly.

Once your dog becomes enthusiastic about these 'reward events', the next step involves introducing challenges that your dog must navigate to access these rewards. This process could include engagement training, luring, leash training exercises, shaping, and more. The more enticing the reward event, the more effort the dog will put in to access it.

Moving Forward: Introducing Engagement Training

After establishing a reward event, the next stage in our program is what’s called 'engagement training'. In this exercise, we reward our dog for giving us their attention. This encourages the dog to focus on us, proving invaluable during more advanced training, and allows us to establish markers, also referred to as conditioned reinforcers.

A marker is a word or sound that predicts one of the four quadrants of operant conditioning. These quadrants consist of positive and negative reinforcement, both of which encourage the repetition of specific behaviors, and positive and negative punishment, which aim to deter the recurrence of undesirable behaviors.

During engagement training, we condition the dog to our markers that predict positive reinforcement. If your timing and execution are accurate, a dog can quickly become conditioned to these markers. To assess whether your dog is conditioned to your marker, say your marker word (like "yes") without providing a reward. Monitor your dog's behavior for changes, such as lip licking, mouth opening, paw movement, salivation, or tail wagging. If you observe a response, it indicates that your dog has successfully associated the marker with a positive outcome.

Proactive Training: Shaping Desirable Behaviors

Following engagement training, we proceed to 'proactive training' exercises, often referred to as 'shaping'. Implementing a proactive approach can greatly diminish your dog's reliance on visible rewards for executing a command. While dogs are initially reactive, meaning they require a visible treat to perform a command, through a technique known as 'free shaping', we can educate our dogs that their actions can trigger the provision of a reward.

When it comes to shaping, there are a few different sub-categories that fall under it, each having unique approaches and uses in training. These sub-categories include:

Assisted Shaping: This involves rewarding steps towards the final behavior you aim to instill in your dog. For instance, if you want your dog to follow a lure in a full spin but it only starts to turn its head, you can begin by rewarding this small action. As your dog gradually commits more to the spin, you can reward them incrementally until they can complete the entire spin with a single lure.

Fixed Shaping: This method comes into play when you have a specific behavior you want your dog to perform. Similar to assisted shaping, you reward small steps that lead up to the desired final behavior.

Free Shaping: This is a more open-ended approach where you don't have a predetermined behavior that you want from your dog. Instead, you simply reward behaviors that you appreciate. We predominantly use this method in our proactive training exercises.

Here's how this method unfolds:

Firstly, it's beneficial if your dog is already conditioned to a positive reinforcement marker, like a clicker or a keyword such as "yes". This means your dog would express excitement upon hearing "yes" as they anticipate a treat. However, it's not a prerequisite for beginning this training, as the process itself aids in conditioning your dog. The secret here is straightforward: always have rewards at your disposal or nearby. Once your dog demonstrates a behavior that you approve of, promptly mark it with the marker (for example, saying "yes") and then present the dog with the reward. By doing this, the dog doesn't see the reward in advance, no command is issued, and their behavior directly instigates the reward's 'magical' appearance.

The merits of this approach are multifold: it instructs the dog that their actions can influence their environment; it signifies which behaviors you favor; and it fortifies the idea that you always possess treats. We want our dogs to believe that rewards are always within reach. If they hold this belief, their performance will remain consistent. Consider this: would you be motivated to work for a boss who’s perpetually broke? I assume not, and the same applies to your dog.

After consistently marking and rewarding various desirable behaviors for one or two weeks, such as sitting, lying down, going to their bed, or maintaining eye contact, you can start to reduce the frequency of rewards. Nevertheless, it's beneficial to sporadically continue this practice throughout your dog's life. It's a minor effort on your part, but it yields substantial dividends.

By integrating proactive training and gradually lessening the requirement for visible rewards, you lay a robust foundation of obedience and reinforce the idea that preferred behaviors yield positive results.

The next phase we introduce is 'luring'. Initially, we keep the tasks straightforward, rewarding the dog merely for following the lure in a straight line. We start by rewarding one step, gradually demanding more steps from the dog to earn the reward.

Utilizing Luring Techniques in Dog Training

Subsequently, we use the lure to guide the dog into desired behaviors and specific physical movements, such as walking backward or transitioning into the heel position.

An essential aspect of this training stage is that we refrain from naming any of the behaviors. The objective is to have the dog focus entirely on the lure, allowing them to fully understand and anticipate the physical movement or behavior that the lure is teaching.

The Role of Leash Training in Dog Behavior Management and Training

The following phase in our training sequence involves introducing leash training to your dog. This entails teaching leash pressure, which naturally follows luring in the training schedule due to the initial use of a lure.

The objective here is to ensure that your dog responds to the leash in any direction, sits when the leash is lifted, and lies down when the leash is pulled downward. My goal of leash pressure is when the dog can perform these actions without the leash becoming tight.

For more advanced training, I like to teach the dog follow the leash for all preferred behaviors. By extending leash pressure techniques, we fortify the groundwork for future training and communication with the dog. This approach equips both you and your dog to successfully navigate more intricate tasks.

Using 'Teachable Moments' for Constructive Corrections

Upon developing proficiency in the ability to guide our dog using the leash, we gain access to what I refer to as 'teachable moments'. This milestone marks the appropriate time to select a marker word or sound that will predict negative reinforcement. Remember, negative reinforcement is about relieving pressure when your dog exhibits the correct behavior - you apply pressure, and once the dog behaves correctly, you release it. Choose a marker word that resonates with your style. Commonly used options include 'wrong', 'oops', 'uh-oh', 'retry', and 'reset'.

Consistency in using your chosen marker word during training is essential. The goal is to signal to your dog that they've made an error without sounding overly harsh or negative.

Now, with the dog's newly acquired proficiency in leash pressure training, we can begin implementing 'teachable moments' at home. These are opportunities for calm, constructive corrections when your dog errs. Instead of merely notifying the dog of their mistake, we show them what they should do. For example, if a dog breaks their 'down stay', we calmly voice the marker word, approach the dog, and use leash pressure to guide them back into position. This method can be similarly applied when the dog exhibits an unwanted behavior like jumping on the couch.

The 'teachable moment' concludes when your dog executes the desired behavior, like resuming the 'down stay' or dismounting from the couch. This strategy is applicable to most behaviors and provides a clear, non-punitive method to teach your dog the rules while they're still learning. This ensures that your dog's motivation and positivity remain high during training.

Here's the basic protocol: when your dog exhibits an undesirable behavior, calmly voice your marker word, pause for half a second (to avoid overshadowing), and then utilize the leash cue to guide your dog towards the behavior you prefer.

Bear in mind that your dog might repeat the unwanted behavior - that's okay! Simply replicate the process. It might necessitate multiple repetitions for your dog to comprehend the new rule. Lastly, avoid rewarding your dog following a 'teachable moment'. Since these moments stem from undesirable behaviors, rewarding your dog could inadvertently encourage the repetition of these undesired actions. Instead, offer a simple, non-exuberant praise like 'good dog!' when they perform the desired behavior.

Teaching Verbal Commands: Avoiding the Trap of Overshadowing

Upon establishing robust communication channels and the dog can execute all behaviors swiftly and precisely, I then introduce the command. While teaching a command, it's vital to ensure that the command precedes the pre-established physical cue. This technique teaches the dog the verbal command without depending on the physical cue.

A common mistake many people make is to pair the command with the physical cue - for instance, saying 'down' while luring the dog into the down position. If this is the approach used, your dog will never learn the verbal command, and you will always have to rely on the physical cue. This phenomenon, known as 'overshadowing', is scientifically validated. It suggests that if two stimuli are presented to a dog simultaneously, the dog will concentrate on what is most relevant to them and ignore the other element. In this case, they would disregard the verbal cue and focus solely on the physical cue.

Once I have the dog responding to the command, I introduce the 'stay' command, but away from our regular training session. The reason for this separation is that 'stays' can be quite mundane for a dog, and I'd prefer not to infuse our training sessions with tedious elements.

Training amidst Distractions: Preparing for the Real World

Finally, once the dog exhibits around an 80% proficiency in training, I begin to introduce distractions. I prefer to introduce one new distraction at a time, within the environment where the training has been taking place. A distraction could be a bystander observing the training, turning on the TV to add a noise distraction, or having another dog work on a stay command while the primary dog is practicing obedience training.

In a recent training video I posted, I am working with a group of students training to pass the AKC Canine Good Citizen test. One of the requirements is assessing the dog's reaction to distractions. In the video, we have a jogger run past the dog, rewarding the dogs for remaining calm. As the dogs get used to this, we gradually increase the level of distraction by having the jogger run past them a bit closer while clapping his hands. Be creative with your distractions and keep it enjoyable.

Progressing to New Environments: Navigating Challenges

Subsequently, we want to start training the dog in new environments. I ask all my students to list the different places they'd like to take their dogs as well as potential training locations. Once the list is prepared, we rank these environments from 1-5, with 1 being an easy environment and 5 being the most challenging. We initiate the training with all the environments rated as '1' before progressing to more challenging environments, moving sequentially from level 2 environments onwards.

When introducing each new environment, I approach it methodically. Initially, I fit the dog with a harness and a martingale collar, attaching one leash to the harness for pulling, and another to the collar to prevent any behavioral issues. The goal is to neutralize the new environment by simply standing or sitting in one spot with the dog until they either become bored or try to engage with me. If the dog engages with me, we commence the training session. However, if the dog becomes bored, we depart, planning to repeat the same process in the same location the following day. The reason I aim for the dog to either engage with me or become bored is that these reactions help to neutralize the environment. Once the environment is neutralized, we become significantly more interesting to our dog, which, from my experience, makes the training much easier. This is because we no longer have to compete with external motivational factors.

The following day, when the dog becomes bored again, we engage in training and play. After about three minutes, we leave, returning the next day. On subsequent visits, I progress through all the training steps, as if I'm training the dog from the beginning. The reason for this repetition is that the dog needs to generalize the training, understanding that the rules at home apply everywhere. This involves demonstrating all the steps again in each new environment.

The good news is that, with each new environment, the dog will progress through each step more quickly than in the previous one. Eventually (usually after 8 or more locations), the dog will respond to your commands in any environment, irrespective of the distractions.

A common problem people encounter is a failure to get their dog to listen in new environments because they jump from a level 0 environment (their home) to a level 5 environment, then wonder why their dog isn't following commands. Following a methodical process helps build success in training, strengthens the bond with our dog, and significantly boosts their confidence.

If I notice that a particular environment is too challenging for the dog at their current level of training, I either increase our distance from the stimuli or revert to an easier environment. As my good friend and legendary dog trainer, Tom Rose, says, "In dog training, success builds success." Ensuring our dogs succeed by taking all the proper steps and maintaining clear communication results in a dog that's excited to learn new things. By minimizing their chances of failure, they become more confident and learn to navigate our world in ways that other dogs can't!

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1 Comment

Sylvia McNeill
Sylvia McNeill
Jul 22, 2023

A really great, concise write up outlining the training program. It is so easy, for us newbies to dog training, to put the cart before the horse or the equivalent in canine training. And also to let ourselves jump into the deep end before either of us, human and dog, is ready. I, unfortunately, let myself be guided by over-enthusiastic trainers that kept insisting we were ready for a 5 environment (although they didn't call it that) when, in hindsight, we were barely ready for a 1.5. The wonderful reality, though, is you can back up and "start over". That is what I am constantly learning from your instruction, videos and articles: how to start over correctly which is f…

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