Friday, January 21, 2022
Almost everyone knows to start training new cues or behaviors at home in a calm, quiet environment. Our dogs learn quickly there, then we head out to have some fun on a walking trail running into a friend and try to show off our dog's new skill to our friend...and the dog stares at you like you're speaking a foreign language and they have no clue what you are asking. Does this sound familiar? If so, you want to keep reading to learn all about generalizing behavior and how that applies to Planning for Success.
As humans we think of communication as talking, using our words, and teaching a dog to respond to certain cue words; sit, down, stay, etc. Dogs think more in the context of the environment, where am I right now, what is my person doing, what else is happening around me, and what behavior can I do right now in this moment to earn that tasty treat my person is holding? Listening to that verbal cue is the last thing on a dog's mind, and for many dogs the verbal cue is the last part of learning that they do with a specific behavior. Now that doesn't mean we have to stop using verbal cues as a way to communicate with our dogs. Instead that means we have to think of the bigger picture to help our dogs be more successful, especially early in their training of any new behavior.
First that means that we need to pay attention to emotional and physical language we are presenting to our dog when we are training something new. Hand signals are very common these days and most of us give visual signals whether we realize it or not. I've got some cool games if you ever want to try to see if your dog is responding to your verbal or visual cues! Distractions also play a role in how easily our dogs respond to our cues in other environments. I'll be doing a more detailed blog on how to add in distractions slowly to increase your chances of success in your training session. But one of the most commonly overlooked reasons that our dogs struggle to succeed is caused by environmental changes that are often out of our control. Since we can't walk around inside a tent to block all the distractions in our environments, we can work to generalize our cues in multiple environments in a way that helps our dogs be successful.
The very last step in generalizing a cue is to practice the behavior in new environments. This is especially important for working dogs such as Service Dogs & Therapy Dogs that visit new environments on a regular basis. It's important to remember that this is the step where frustration tends to leak into our training sessions. We tend to think that since our dog can easily keep a down/stay at home for 30 minutes or longer while we totally disengage to do a chore, we expect our dog to do this in all environments as well. It's important to remember to lower your criteria when you are first practicing a newer behavior in a newer environment! You will need to reinforcement much more frequently in places where distractions are more intense. If after just a minute or two, your dog is starting to show signs of stress while you have asked them to down/stay you need to realize this and change your criteria to be successful. Subtle signs of stress might be shifting their weight, whining, licking their lips, shaking off, etc. Learn your dog's warning signs so you can end the training session on a successful note instead of pushing them to far into a state of being uncomfortable holding the position. If you see signs of stress, allow your dog to stand up, change positions, take a short walk, or something else that involves movement before requesting another down/stay. Alternating between 2 minutes of down/stay and 2 minutes of action, can help your dog to adjust to the environment relaxing into the down/stay position where you can reinforce more frequently until your dog can handle the behavior while still feeling safe, calm, and happy about holding the position.
In the dog training world, this is called PROOFING the behavior; doing the behavior in multiple environments successfully. Once you have proofed a new behavior in multiple environments, you can start asking for that behavior in more real life situations vs just training sessions. But remember to adjust your rate of reinforcement based on the distractions in the environment to help your dog be successful. Reinforcement builds behaviors so if you want your dog to do a particular behavior such as hold a down/stay in a distracting environment you have to be prepared to reinforce that in some way. I like to change up reinforcement at this stage, maybe using a treat some of the time, but also adding in the use of praise, touch or petting, and ending with a jackpot reward or game at the end of your activity.
This video shows a practice session where Azul is practicing his Service Dog level stay in our training room at home. Cam is also practicing a stay in his kennel during this training session.
Yooper Paws of Love is dedicated to providing training "With Love" to you and your 4-legged friend! My mission as a trainer is to TEACH owners to ENGAGE better with their dogs to empowering them to ACHIEVE their goals using MOTIVATION to create the perfect team of handler and dog.
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