So, you and your dog have just started attending training classes at the Club. You practice diligently at home between classes and your dog happily does his ‘puppy push-ups’ (sit, drop, sit, drop), stays put while you move around him, waits to be released to eat his dinner, and comes as fast as his legs can carry him when you call him from the back door. You arrive at class ready to impress and he acts as if you are speaking a foreign language! You hear yourself saying plaintively to your instructor: “But he does it perfectly at home!”
Don’t worry – you are not alone. This is a common experience and a normal part of the training process. Home is a safe, familiar environment and you can control what is going on while you practice. You can ask the family to go to another part of the house and you can focus solely on what you are doing. Come to the Club and you have to contend with other people, dogs, noise, strange smells—in short, distractions!
It is really important to teach your dog to behave appropriately at home, as this is where it will share most of its life with you. But, if you want your dog to behave appropriately in other situations—on the street, at the café, at the park, at a holiday house—you need to systematically help it to develop this capability. The goal is to make behaviour reliable in any context. In training circles this is commonly referred to as ‘generalising’ or ‘proofing behaviour’.
Follow these steps to help your dog develop reliable and resilient behaviour.
1. Get the behaviour
Work in a familiar, boring environment with minimal, if any, distraction (eg your bathroom, kitchen, laundry). Use a favourite treat or toy in your hand to guide (or ‘lure’) your dog to perform the behaviour you want (eg sit, drop, spin, touch) — just like your instructor showed you in class.
Mark the behaviour at the instant your dog responds and follow up with a reward. Do this every time you repeat the exercise. Only use the movement of the lure to get the behaviour. Do not tell your dog what you want it to do at this stage—he doesn’t understand what the word means yet.
2. Fade the lure
Continue to lure the behaviour but only mark and reward your dog’s better responses. Substitute verbal praise when you don’t mark and reward to keep your dog engaged and to help him understand that praise is part of the reward system. Split the number of lured repetitions over a couple of short training sessions so your dog doesn’t lose interest.
Next, put the lure away but move your hand as if it still has the lure in it (this will become your physical cue). Mark as soon as your dog performs the behaviour and then reward it from the other hand. Make sure the reward is something your dog really loves to acknowledge this breakthrough moment! Repeat a couple of times without the lure (mark and reward each time your dog is successful) and end the training session on a high!
3. Name the behaviour
At last! You can ‘name’ the behaviour when your dog successfully responds to your physical cue. Add the word just before you give your physical cue. This way your dog will associate the word with the action. Mark and reward your dog for every correct response. Vary the location of your treat pouch or toy (on the left, on the right, in front, behind your back) to keep your dog guessing where the reward will come from.
Slowly introduce some distance or duration to the behaviour—but only change one variable at a time (eg number of paces, number of seconds). Mark and reward every correct response when you add a degree of difficulty
4. Take it on the road
When your dog can respond to the physical and verbal cue in a familiar environment, change the environment. Build up the level of distraction slowly – from the bathroom, to the kitchen, then the back yard, then driveway, street, local park, neighbourhood shops. Get the idea? Think about all the places you’d like your dog to be reliable.
If necessary, briefly go back to luring and fading the lure in each new environment to help your dog understand what is expected. You may also need to reduce the distance or duration and build them up again. Mark and reward every correct response each time you change the context. When you dog is reliable in each new location, only mark and reward the better responses to keep him guessing and working.
5. Consolidate and maintain the behaviour
Integrate the behaviour into everyday activities in lots of locations. Reinforce it on a frequent but random (unpredictable) basis. Introduce a wide range of rewards (food, toys, praise, touch, life rewards – such as sniffing, peeing on a tree, playing, running) to reinforce the behaviour.
Not sure when to move on to the next step when training a new behaviour?
Just like learning any new skill, you will develop some intuition or ‘feel’ for the right moment as you continue to work with your dog. Until then, apply the ‘Push, Drop, Stick’ rules taught by US behavioural trainer Jean Donaldson. Practice five repetitions of the same behaviour in a row (over one or more training sessions). If your dog performs the behaviour correctly 4/5 or 5/5 repetitions then ‘Push’ (go to the next level of difficulty). If your dog performs the behaviour correctly only 3/5 repetitions then ‘Stick’ (stay at the current level of difficulty a little longer) and if your dog can only perform the behaviour correctly 0/5, 1/5 or 2/5 repetitions then ‘Drop’ (temporarily make it easier and revert to the previous level of difficulty). As well-known Australian trainer Steve Austin says “Small steps of success are much better than giant leaps of failure”.
How will I keep track of the number of repetitions?
- Count out five treats.
- Cue the behaviour five times. Each time your dog responds to the cue correctly, mark and deliver a treat.
- Each time your dog responds incorrectly, do not mark or treat. Set the treat aside as a ‘counter.’
- Repeat until you have no more treats.
- Count the number of treats set aside. This will indicate whether you should ‘Push’, ‘Stick’ or ‘Drop’.
Not sure when to stop using the marker?
Once your dog is reliably performing a behaviour on cue in a particular context you do not need to use your marker in that context to give feedback to your dog. But remember, if you want the behaviour to remain strong you must continue to reward it occasionally. So, if your dog appears to have forgotten something that you have taught him well, it’s probably because you’ve stopped reinforcing it! Go back a step or two and rebuild the behaviour until your dog is practically perfect again!
Image: ID: 310380590, Super Cat, Shutterstock ©
Anne Robertson is an Instructor at the Club, a Full Member of the Delta Institute and a Full Member of the Pet Professional Guild Australia (Dog Training Professional).