Monthly Archives: September 2010

Making a training plan

Before you start training a specific behavior, you need to know, in detail, what the finished behavior will look like. The more detail you put into that description, the easier it is to plan the road map for getting there. Some questions to ask include:

  • What will the finished behavior look like?

You must be able to picture the behavior in perfect, precise detail. Don’t just focus on the obvious. Think about each part of the dog’s body — what must it be doing during each part of the behavior? Want a dog to win the heart of the judge? Include a wagging tail and pricked ears as requirements of the behavior. In clicker training, it’s all possible! By the way, don’t forget the dog’s mouth. So often people ask me how to stop a dog from whining or barking during the behavior. If silence is part of the behavior, plan it, and train it from the start!

  • How will this behavior be cued?

Verbally? Physically? Environmentally? A combination? Remember that part of teaching a cue is making sure that only the cues you want become lasting cues — and that dogs are master discriminators. Include plenty of time for generalizing the behavior.

  • What kind of latency is required?

Latency is speed of response — the time that elapses between the cue and the behavior. Zero latency is an immediate response. Fast latency is habitual, meaning if you train it for some behaviors, the dog will likely adopt it for all behaviors.

  • Does this behavior have duration? Distance?

How long should the behavior last? If there’s a specific time requirement, plan to train fifty percent beyond that. For example, if you need a two minute sit-stay for competition obedience, plan to train at least a three minute sit-stay.

Distance should be trained similarly. Distance includes behaviors where the dog is sent to work at a distance, behaviors where the dog must respond to a cue when he is at a distance from the owner, and behaviors where the dog must maintain a behavior even when the owner moves away from him. Distance is challenging because the further the handler is from the dog, the stronger environmental stimuli become.

  • Does your dog have to be in a particular place relative to you to perform this behavior?

Should the dog always be in front of you or perhaps always within a certain radius of you? If not — and especially if you specifically don’t want the dog to restrict his position relative to you — you should plan on spending time generalizing this element.

  • Are you always going to be sitting, standing, or lying down when you give the cue?

Again, this is a generalization issue. Your body position can easily become a secondary cue for the behavior. This may work for you in competition heeling, but it can sabotage you for a household sit.

  • In what locations will the behavior be cued?

Steve White trains every behavior in twenty different locations to ensure that his police dogs truly generalize their behaviors. You may not need quite that much generalization. For some behaviors, you don’t need any!

  • What distractions might the dog face in those locations when performing the behavior?

List them, rank them, train them.

  • How reliable does this behavior have to be?

Reliability is a number. You may need only 9 out of 10, or you may need 99 out 100 — or 999 out of 1000.

The definition of the behavior is a detailed description of where you want to go. The second step is to evaluate where you currently are. If this is a brand new behavior, that’s easy! You’re starting from scratch. If this is an in-progress behavior, evaluate the behavior for all of the above criteria. Keep records and let the data tell you exactly what your dog is capable of doing reliably.

The final step is to make a plan to get from where you are to where you want to be. Start with the behavior. Break it into responses, and shape it to perfection. When it’s exactly right, add the cue. Then one by one add elements like duration, distance, and distractions.

As you train, keep your training plans firmly in mind. Track your progress. Periodically review your training plan, and revise the definition of the final behavior, if necessary. Don’t stop working on the behavior until the behavior your dog performs is a reliable mirror image of the behavior you described.

Here is the initial training plan I put together for “Sit.” It isn’t complete – the steps here don’t give exactly the behavior described – but it’s well on its way. Note that the steps in the training plan are mid-level goals. It may require many, many micro-level steps to get from one mid-level goal to the next.

Cue: Verbal “sit”, hand signal, single blast on whistle

Description: On cue, dog will immediately drop into a competition-quality sit, no matter where he is in relation to me, and remain in the sit until released.

Elements:

  • Behavior specifics: Tucked, square.
  • Duration: Up to five minutes.
  • Distance: Respond to cue up to 400 yards away.
  • Latency: Immediate.
  • Position: Assume position from stand or while moving. Dog should turn to face me, except in specific situations where an alternative is specifically trained. I should be able to be in any physical position.
  • Locations: Everywhere.
  • Distractions: Anything and everything. Especially distractions common in a dog show or performance environment. Must maintain the sit when being touched by strangers or sniffed by strange dogs. Must hold the sit even if another dog is sent for a retrieve right next to him.

Other: Must maintain even when I’m out of sight.

Training Plan:

  1. Capture the behavior
  2. Shape for tucked and square
  3. Add the verbal cue
  4. Add duration (up to 30 seconds)
  5. Generalize my position
  6. Add hand signal
  7. Add distance (up to 20 ft, 1 minute away)
  8. Handler goes out of sight for up to 15 seconds
  9. Distractions: dropped toy, tossed toy, rolling toy, jumping, running, door/gate, dropped food, dogs passing
  10. Take into field – all prior criteria
  11. Sit at distance (up to 20 ft)
  12. Add whistle cue
  13. Sit while moving
  14. Combine whistle-sit at distance with go out
  15. Increase duration (3 minutes)
  16. Handler goes out of sight for up to 3 minutes
  17. Handler goes up to 50 yards away
  18. Dog responds to cue from up to 50 yards away

Now to do this for every behavior I want to teach…. (See why I’m tired?)

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Training plans

I have a problem: I have too many behaviors I want to train. I suppose it’s not a monumental problem in the scheme of things, but since I have limited time, I have to focus what I’m doing.

My interests are pulling me in different directions.  First, there are the highest priority behaviors –housetraining and the recall. Those are non-negotiable, top of the list. Then there are the behaviors he has to learn for his puppy class, the behaviors I want him to learn for the field, level one of Sue Ailsby’s new Training Levels, behaviors designed to create impulse control, and finally, pre-agility obedience behaviors a la Kim Collins’ From the Ground Up book. (And that doesn’t include conformation or tracking or other nose work….)

Fortunately, a lot of the behaviors included in each category overlap. I built a table to try to get a better view:

The recall, sit, and down have the most x’s, so I guess that puts them at the top of the list. I don’t know that number of x’s is the best way to measure though. Some of the “one x” behaviors – like crate games and creating tug and toy motivation – have a payoff big enough to justify prioritizing them.

Ugh.

Truth is, I want to train them all. If I stagger them a little, I can ensure that I have behaviors in every stage of training, which is a good thing. The downside is that I have a finite amount of time, and River has a finite number of reps he can handle per day. If I train a lot of behaviors, each behavior will get fewer reps than it would if I trained fewer behaviors. (Does that make sense?) So I’ll need to pick the most important behaviors – like the recall – and ensure they get the most consistent work.

It also means that I need to keep records and be scrupulous about criteria. Otherwise, I’ll progress even MORE slowly, because I’ll be working inefficiently.

I’m tired, and I haven’t even started yet!

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Some pictures for your viewing pleasure

River had a play date this weekend, but I totally forgot to bring along my camera. Too bad, because Jake — a 15- or 16-week-old Daschund — is totally adorable, and they had a great time together. Then Mr. River settled in his crate and chewed a chewie while I got a facial. What a lovely afternoon!

In lieu of pictures of puppies playing, here are a few of my own brood I shot in the last couple of days. I really love this first one.

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Pax and his Mini Me

Some pictures I thought you might like:

Things have been going well. Monday during the day, I had the puppy to myself, but I managed to keep a close enough eye that we had no housetraining accidents. Jay was home in the evening to give me a break. Jay took Tuesday and Wednesday off, which gave me an additional break. We shared responsibility, but it was a lot easier for me to focus on my work and meetings when I needed to. With all that help, we made great strides in the housetraining — almost complete success in getting him to potty outside.

Today I was back on my own. We had some great moments. Three times he came to me and told me he needed to go out. This is FANTASTIC. Of course, the door was wide open, and he could have taken himself out… but this is a definite step in the right direction. Unfortunately, the last time he asked, I was on the phone, and I didn’t jump up and take him right out. Bad me.

I haven’t done a whole lot of training. I got Jay’s cold, and it wiped me out. Between work and basic puppy duty — even with Jay’s help — I’ve been wiped out. Everything else is going well though, including the puppy’s nighttime ritual, so I’m not complaining.

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Who’s training who? (or “How I taught my dogs to give them a cookie for eating breakfast”)

Long ago, we used to let the dogs out into the front yard — the area between the dog fence and the road — for a good airing after meals. At the time, the area was *mostly* dog fenced, but there was an area, if the dogs ran to the northeast side and allll the way down the length of the dog fence, where they could get into the horse pastures.

With Pax or Rain, this was never a problem. Great recalls. Heck, I can call Pax off a deer. (Or at least I could in the past. Been a long time since I tested that.) Aslan was another story. There was a certain imaginary line on the way to the horse pasture. If I called him before he got to that line, he would come back. If not, he was gone. And gone meant gone. Over half our property is populated with thick woods and swamp (and various wild animals), and once there, he had no desire to come back to the boring people and the irritating fence.

So every day (weather permitting, which means it wasn’t every day, but this is my story and every day sounds better) we would let the dogs out to have a good run. The area in the front of the house is big, and since the horses occupied it occasionally, it always had lots of fun things to smell and entertain them. They would play for five minutes, and then I’d call them in with the never-fail recall word: “Cookies!” The dogs would RUN back to the house, and we’d have a ritual handing out of their favorite cookies as a reward for the lovely recall.

This was a great ritual until Aslan ran away once too often. (It was probably the time he ended up in the middle of the swamp at laste dusk, and Jay not only had to crawl through a dark swamp to find him, but then we had to lift the muddy smelly [giant] dog over the fence to get him home.) I declared that he would never, ever have free run of the front area again.

And he didn’t.

But somehow the cookie tradition didn’t change. The dogs would eat their meals, go out to pee, and then come back and demand cookies. And I… gave them to them. Eventually, smart dog that they are, they skipped the whole go out for a pee part, and simply demanded their cookies at the end of their meal.

And that’s how my dogs trained them to give them cookies for eating breakfast.

Things are better with River. Starting Wednesday night, things got really, really hard. He wanted nothing to do with that new crate, so sleep-time became protest time. I’m working a lot of hours, and I just can’t handle significant lack of sleep. On top of the sleep issues, the housetraining took about a dozen steps back. It seemed no matter how hard I tried to watch him, how many gates I set up to keep him contained, he was peeing and pooping everywhere but outside. That last straw was the lake he peed in my bed at 2:30 Saturday morning. I broke down. I’d had it.

Jay is the best husband in the world. He had a doctor appointment on Saturday morning, but when he got back, he took over puppy duty. Really took over. He watched River with 100% focus. He made sure River went potty outside every time and was rewarded mightily for it. I went back to bed and slept, Pax curled up beside me. (Pflouff takes care of River, and Pax takes care of me.) In the afternoon, after my nap, he and I took turns with the puppy. I have a big project due Monday morning, and without complaining, Jay took more than his share of puppy time so I could work. When he wasn’t watching the puppy, he was running errands — like driving to town to bring back Mexican food for me.

He’s the best. Really. (Did I mention that he’s doing all this while SICK?)

By the end of yesterday, I was feeling a lot better. I had slept. I had accomplished a fair amount on my project. River had had no potty accidents in the house. We had even done a few (very successful) training sessions. But I dreaded nighttime. I knew we would be back to screaming in the crate and no sleep.

But it was perfect. It was like the prior three nights had never happened. He barely whined, even when brought in after peeing in the middle of the night. He slept in the crate until 6:30, then came up on the bed and let the family doze (more or less, as much as possible with a shark in the bed) until 7:30. And the morning has been easy since.

Do I think our problems are past? No. Tomorrow Jay will be back at work, and I expect the backslide in housetraining will begin anew. But maybe he’ll surprise me. All I can do is take it a day at a time. Puppyhood *does* pass, and soon I’ll wonder where my baby went.

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