I’ve been trying to give all of my students some tips to improve their mechanical skills as trainers. Over the last few sessions I have come up with my “5 Tips to Successful Training”. These are just very simple changes in the mechanics that can make the world of difference in the fluidity of your training and the rate of learning from your dog. I’m frequently bringing up these topics to my students/clients and those who improve these skills begin to see a difference in their dog during training.
I noticed that this session I’ve been much more focused on pointing out these tips to my students and I’ve definitely seen the handlers become some of the most skilled that I’ve worked with (which is fantastic).
Really focus on your timing and make sure you are using your marker word/sound. “Yes!” “Good!” *Click* are very important in this type of training. When you clearly mark a behavior you are becoming much more clear in your communication with your dog. They know, without a doubt, what it is that earned them the reward so they can replicate it. If the treat just happens, dogs often do not know exactly what caused the treat to happen so they do not know what to repeat so it can take a few more repetitions to connect the dots. If you have precise timing with your word/click you can cut down the time it takes to make a connection to the desired behavior.
To practice timing I suggest people sit on a bench at a mall and mark/click as people pass a certain point, or as their left foot hits the ground, or other similar moments in time. You can have a friend bounce a ball and mark the upper and/or lower vertex (highest/lowest point in the bounce).
When I was growing up I was very into horses and riding (shocking right?). I took dressage lessons for 5 or 6 years I think starting when I was just 5. I remember learning a lot about keeping my hands quiet and instead communicating by shifting my body weight and leg pressure. I think I took that to heart because it’s something I’m always reminding my students. Keep the leash quiet. Don’t rely on the leash to guide your dog or communicate with your dog. We can use our body language, hand targets, vocal cues, and even lures to maneuver our dog around… we don’t need to rely on tugging on the leash. I noticed that lots of people (with prior training experience or not) would raise up the leash waiting for a response from the dog… it wasn’t a leash pop but simply raising their arm until the leash was very tight. This tightening of the leash often hinders the response of the dog so I was regularly remind them to “lower your leash hand” or to relax the leash.
One of my favorite things to practice quiet hands is to work dogs off-leash or on a hands-free leash. If there is no leash or the leash is not in your hands, it’s a lot more difficult to have a leash being tight or used to maneuver a dog around.
Rate of Reinforcement
The quick and easy response is… professional trainers reward more frequently. There was a study done (I cannot find the source) but it looked at the rate of reinforcement of trainers v.s. typical dog handlers and trainers were rewarding at double the rate of typical students. In a 90 second session with a dog (for fast behaviors like sits, downs, or “follow me” game) I aim for 30+ reinforcements. My goal is to treat my dogs at least every 3 seconds. Some human handlers don’t even get 30 rewards in 3 minute long session. If you are working your dog on “fast” behaviors, increasing your rate of reinforcement can do wonders for building focus and improving the response.
I try to practice by getting 10 treats in my hand and try to reward 10 behaviors within 45 seconds (to start, eventually I decrease that to 30 seconds). Often times it’s maintaining that rate of reinforcement that is difficult so I start small and help them work their way up.
Do Not Repeat Cues
Be patient with your dog in the beginning. Do not be afraid to wait for 30 seconds for them to respond to a cue. When you repeat the cue you are simply undermining yourself. You are teaching your dog to ignore you the first time you ask for a behavior. When you become aware of your rate of repeating cues (are you a “sit, sit, sit sit” or a “sit… SIIIIIITTT” type person) you can begin to start focusing on keeping quiet when you would normally want to repeat the cue. It’s terribly difficult to just wait it out but it can be the difference between having a dog who responds to “sit” and one who responds to “sit, sit, sit”.
For students who are quick to repeat a cue (sit, sit, sit sit), I tell them to say “sit” and then take in a long slow breath and then breathe it out long and slow. This generally gets them through the first moments they would normally repeat the cue. Similarly for people who say “sit…siiiiiit” I have them cue the behavior and then when they feel the urge to repeat it to, instead, breathe out a slow breath. It’s building an incompatible behavior 🙂
Precision Placement of Rewards
There is a big difference between bringing the reward to the dogs nose and having the dog come to the reward. Depending on what behavior you are working on you could do either. One of the most common loose leash walking mistakes I encounter is that the people are putting the reward to the dog’s nose. Eventually the dog pushes further and further away from the person OR they start getting their hip/butt out so they are more perpendicular to the person and side-stepping along. Instead of giving the treat TO the dog, rewarding right next to the seam of the pants brings the dog to exactly where you’d like them so they tend to stick closer since they have to get back to that position anyhow to get the treat. When you are asking/rewarding for a down, instead of rewarding if the dog breaks the down (in between the click and the treat delivery) use the treat to get them back into the down position and reward in the desired position.
Just be mindful of what you want… if you want to reward a down, make sure the pup is still in a down. If you want to reward LLWing why give the treat 18″ away from you? Dogs will return to the place where rewards have happened, use that to your advantage. So yes, even if your dog breaks the down between the click and food delivery they will know what earned them the reward BUT you can send home two messages that maintaining the position is also rewarding since the food happened in that position.