Monday, May 2, 2011

Each Step is Important

This post is a result of teaching my club members a method that I saw demonstrated by Debbie Zappia, for teaching attention and position at heel. One of our members posted to the club list about the success she was having now that her dog believes the reward may be forthcoming at any moment and is not "checking out" on her.

I want to tell you how important the first step is; how important EACH step is.  When you begin heeling from a sit, unless the dog understands this, the head will naturally drop and they will likely walk without attention until the point where a reward is normally forthcoming, or a physical correction is made. The dog who relies on a physical correction to fix problems does not have to think. It simply waits for the leash pull, and responds. As a result, the dog learns that only when it feels a leash correction does it provide a behavior, instead of learning that behavior drives reward.

Our dogs are not born knowing this; we have to teach it.  The foundation of teaching is understanding that where we place our rewards tells the dog what we value.  If we begin walking and only reward after walking 5 steps, for example, the dog will only begin to pay attention at 5 steps.  We have told him, by withholding reward, that the first four steps are unimportant to us.  What does this mean?  When we are teaching, we must reward the FIRST STEP.  This is difficult for handlers who just want to get out there and go!  They feel that they are making progress by virtue of the number of steps they take, no matter what those steps look like.  It is hard sometimes to take that step backwards and make baby steps again, but the end product of beautiful, correct heeling, is worth it.

What we teach is consistent between all three phases.  In tracking, the first thing we teach is what tracking behavior is, and that each footstep is important and contains reward.  In obedience, the dog learns what heeling behavior is (position and attention) and that each step is important and contains reward.  And, in protection, we break down the striking, gripping and barking behaviors and underscore the same lessons. In beginning steps, the dog learns the behavior.  In the intermediate phase, they learn that the behavior can occur anywhere.  Finally, in the advanced phase, distractions are added.

The actual physical method that we are using, having gratefully borrowed it from Debbie Zappia, is difficult to explain and is better show in photographs, but involves providing a target for the dog and marking the proper behavior.  Next, the target is removed from the picture and comes back in after the behavior is marked, with reward.  It keeps the target and the reward on the left side of the body.  Ideally, you continue to run to re-load your treats, so that the dog learns to give you the behavior without having pockets of food, much as he will experience in trial.

Most importantly, as we shape the behavior, we must reward the first step before we can expect two steps with attention.  Don't tease your dog and never allow him to access reward. You will make a liar of yourself and he will not trust you, and will stop trying.

We must create "believers" of our dogs and not be predictable in where our rewards will appear.  How many of us have seen dogs that drag around at the end of the leash but suddenly come alive with attention at the halt? That is because the handler has not rewarded motion, but instead has rewarded the dog for the stops. Once we have shaped the proper behavior, we can demand more of the dog and he will know that his efforts will be rewarded.  For example, the dog has learned to respond to the motivational leash pops (which is not simply a series of nagging, but a specific action in conjunction with a behavior and reward) and you can use this to create the dog driving with their rear end underneath them and signal via markers that THIS is the behavior you want and will reward.

The people who train with me know how the system comes together.  Just remember, as you begin, that each step is important.  You will be evaluated on the picture you present which begins at that first step, so do not neglect it or try to hold your dog with physical correction; those will not sustain the dog through the routine. 

I challenge you to take that first step................together.