Sunday, January 24, 2010

From the Beginning

Today was the first day at training for several new dogs. Whether puppies or older dogs, there are a few things that apply across the board.

One is that you need to bring a hungry dog to training; if you expect to use food reward in training, food must have high value to the dog. That means fixed mealtimes, so that you can use meals to your training advantage. A dog that eats when it feels like it can elect not to listen to you now, knowing it can have a hearty serving later at his convenience. Or make goo-goo eyes at "mom" and get more treats because "bad daddy" starved him/her! Since some of our handlers are women, and many men are easy touches to sweet brown eyes as well, you can exchange the genders as you wish and it applies equally.

Bring training treats that can be easily swallowed without stopping to chew. Many of us use "Natural Balance", cut into small pieces. Don't use a bait pouch or obvious container that signals to your dog "this is training". Yes, you will now be living with pockets that smell of meat by-products and perhaps have strange dogs following you from the market, but your dog will not see a different picture than in trial. Most of the time I will keep all my reward systems in my left pocket/left side but often in the beginning I will load up both pockets so that I can feed consistently using both hands. Feed while reloading the other hand.

Even before you begin, make a list of the commands that you use with your dog and what they mean. If your dog is a free-roaming house dog you will probably want to have words that you use around the house that are different from your training words. For example, when we ask our dogs to lay down in trial (platz) we expect it to be in a sphinx position, at the ready and watching for our return. Not laying on his side or licking daisies. At home, however, you may tell the dog to lay down and then leave the room or forget for a few minutes and the dog is now lounging on his side. If you use your training/performance word, you will have undermined it for that purpose. Instead, tell the dog to "lay" or "rest" or anything that tells it to lay down but rest comfortably. Most puppies or young dogs who come to us do not understand proper heel position or attention, so if you are telling them to heel (fuss) you are rewarding them for an improper behavior.

Foundation is a slow process. I think that sometimes new handlers want to march down the field and emulate what they see the big dogs doing. And in some clubs, that is exactly what happens. Throw on a prong collar and yank that dog up and down the field. Feel good yet? We don't subscribe to that theory. Building a foundation in dog training is the same as a foundation of a house. Brick by brick. If the foundation is not solid, the building will crumble under stress. The process may seem slow, but good workmanship is.

The very first stage of that foundation is one of trust. Teaching your dog to trust you, using the verbal markers of "yes, uh-uh or nope, and good." When you mark a behavior with "yes" you are telling the dog that at this exact moment this is the behavior you wanted, terminating the behavior and promising reward. If you promise reward and withhold it, you undermine the reward system and the dog will not trust you to deliver in the future. So the very first thing you do is much like clicker afficianados do, called "charging" the clicker. You teach the dog to drive into your hand for the treat by moving backwards slowing, hands at the center of your body and alternating in the delivery. Each time the dog pushes in for a treat, mark it verbally with "yes!" and release a treat. Continue moving backwards so that the dog does not think it must stop to take or eat a treat. Also remember to think of the marker as a photograph in time, not a movie. In other words, at the EXACT moment of the behavior you desire (or wish to mark negatively) you mark it. Five seconds later, the dog may be performing an entirely different behavior that you do not wish to reward (or correct). I will also mention here that the reason I prefer the softer "nope or uh-uh" rather than NO to mark a behavior I do not desire is that people have a tendency to say "NO" too often during the course of a day to a dog in the house and they intend it to shut down the dog. Stop that! What we want is to communicate that while this was not the behavior we wanted, we do not want the dog to stop trying to learn, to find the desired behavior.

While it seems like a long way to the image of the finished dogs that you see working, each baby step brings you closer to that. But it begins with the dog pushing into your hand and wanting more.