Dog’s Eye View: Practical applications
December 2, 2017
Once our initial conversation about goals and management is complete, I usually begin any new client appointment by teaching what I call "foundation behaviors."
These behaviors, when learned and practiced, become a part of daily communication between the dog and the family. The key is to utilize the foundation behaviors in everyday life. Even with behavior modification issues, we need to start some reliable basic behaviors.
We normally review the "cues" (commands) the dog already knows. This is where the communication starts. How many times do you need to ask the dog to "sit" before he does it? It might sound something like, "Fido sit, sit, Fido sit, come sit, Fido down, sit, sit." Now we have a starting point.
The "sit" cue isn't quite as reliable as it should be. If you can't get your dog to sit right in front of you the first time you ask, can you realistically expect him to come to you off leash? I don't think so. The communication and dependability start with the dog's owner building consistency in when and how he asks for the behavior.
We build an expectation into the training for both the dog and the "handler." The dog's expectation comes first. This is the hallmark of positive reinforcement training. If we create a reasonable expectation that something good happens for compliance, we are well on the way to teaching a dog to listen to our side of the conversation.
Sitting the first time it is requested opens the door to reinforcement with something the dog likes. I personally believe that beginning training using yummy treats as a reinforcer jump-starts training with an exciting expectation. Pairing verbal praise with the food reinforcers adds value to all the "good boys" you can practice.
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As reliability progresses, other rewards — we call them life rewards — can be used to support the dog's correct and timely response. Reliability is reinforcing to the dog's handler. Timing of requests followed by reinforcement is good for the relationship you are building and builds confidence in your ability to train the dog.
To use a life reward as an example, let's look at the cue for sit. A typical use of this cue could be added to feeding time. Prepare the dogs food, hold the bowl and request "sit." Once the dog sits, follow up with verbal praise and place the food bowl on the floor.
OK, you say, you're using food anyway. Yes, but the context is different. Each situation that involves the sit cue is unique in the dog's eyes. Another example would be requesting sit before you attach the leash for a walk. This usually causes the typical rodeo of excitement versus frustration. Excitement about the walk for the dog and frustration because you can't get the leash attached to the collar. I have experienced this with our new dog Ruby. Argghhhh! This one takes a bit of time to get the point across.
In the beginning, if I requested sit and she sat, as soon as I began to attach the leash, the wiggling and squirming would start. The key here is to stand up and stop communication. Once the wiggling subsides we begin again. It might take a few minutes of starting and stopping but soon she gets it. The leash only goes on if she's sitting still.
Now, I do have to admit that when I'm in a hurry, my patience wears thin and I restrain her until she stops. OK, I'm human too! But making the time for teaching rather than abiding to a time schedule or my patience factor, really makes learning much more enjoyable. Ruby is 70% better now. We are building reliability along with me practicing patience.
Another major step in communication is teaching your dog what her name means. We changed the name that Ruby had when we adopted her. The first thing I worked on was getting her to respond to her name. This is relatively easy if you start right away.
The sound of the name creates eye contact followed by praise and yummies. Ruby loves the sound of her name. It only means "look at me," we are about to start a conversation. Practical applications mean incorporating your training into all facets of your life with your chosen companion dog.
Apply your cues in different ways throughout the day when communicating with your family pet: "Come here, sit… what a good girl you are!"
Laura Tyler is a Certified Professional Dog Trainer with 30+ years of experience and has earned Associate certification through the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants as well as Certified Nose Work Instructor through the National Association of Canine Scent Work™. She owns Total Teamwork Training LLC here in Northwest Colorado.