Monday, January 10, 2022

Plan your Training Sessions


Creating your training plan for a 3 month, 1 year, or whatever length of time is only the first step in the process to becoming more successful as a team.  The next few posts in my series "Plan for Success" is going to be all about setting up successful training sessions.  You have to be able to take your bigger picture plan and now figure out how that applies to where you and your dog are today.  And the best way to do that is to decide which training method you plan to use to accomplish your goals.  Here are a few examples:

Luring is the most commonly used training style where you use a treat or other reinforcement to lead to your dog to do what you want them to do.  To get a sit, you use a food lure near the puppies nose, raising it slowly and as the nose goes up the rear end goes down.  Repeating a few times until you get consistency, then start teaching the cue that goes with that action.

Capturing is one of my favorite techniques because you simply reinforce the things your dog naturally does to encourage them to do it more often.  Your young puppy chooses to lay down by your feet, you give them a belly rub or a small food reward and go back to what you were doing.  If they stay there, you reinforce again every few minutes until they chose to get up and move away at which point the reinforcement stops.  I use this method to reinforce heel and recall as well!

Shaping is relatively new to the dog training world and is all the rage among the best trainers!  For shaping you basically start where you and your dog is at working toward taking baby steps to slowly move up the staircase from steps 1, 2, 3...until you reach the end point.  This is a simplified explanation, but there will be another post on this topic later this week! 

There are other methods as well, but this gives an idea of the most common possible ways to teach a dog to repeat a behavior.

Choosing the Environment

This is a huge part of whether or not your session will be successful!  You need to examine your training area thoroughly before you begin the session.  What you look for will depend on your dog, so here a few things to keep in mind.

When training something completely new, especially if it's more difficult, it's always best to do this in a very low distraction environment.  It's nearly impossible to create a no distraction environment, but there are a few things you can do to help reduce distractions in environments that you can control. 

  • Block access to your training area with gates, chairs, or other objects to prevent your dog from leaving and other dogs or people from walking through while your training.  My dogs are trained to hold a place while I'm working with the other dog.  But no matter what I do, I can't seem to prevent the humans from walking through our training area...and I live in a very quite household!
  • Pick up any unwanted distractions.  If your dog is really into tug toys like Azul is, picking up the tugs can help him focus on me but balls laying on the floor are not a distraction.  You may not need a totally distraction free room to hold your session, but for sure remove any items that you know are going to be extremely distracting.  If you are using these items in your session, keep them up and out of the way until you are ready for them.
  • Limit outside interference.  I use my phone to record my training sessions, so my phone is always in the room.  Yet setting my phone to silent so that it's not beeping and buzzing during the session, distracting me even if it doesn't distract my dog, is a big help.  Another tip, when using my phone to record is I will set up before I start and then just let it record for the whole session instead of trying to start it and stop it aiming to get that perfect video that I can share.  If you want your dog to be totally engaged with you during the session, you need to commit to being totally engaged with them during the session.
Once my dog is doing the behavior I'm after, I will start slowing adding distractions back in.  To do that, I start right in my training area by allowing distractions to move around us; dogs and people we are used to is my first step.  Then I might add some other mild distractions in that environment before moving to other rooms of the house to start generalizing the behavior.  

I will also have future posts next week about generalizing behaviors in multiple environments!

Choosing the Reinforcement

Often trainers refer to reinforcement as a paycheck for doing the job.  While this is a simple explanation of what reinforcement is, I'm not really a fan of this analogy because it then implies that you can also bribe your dog to get what you want.  My end goal is that my dogs see value in doing what I want them to do and will choose to do this whether or not reinforcement is immediately available.  But as trainers we walk a fine line of trying to figure out when to use reinforcement correctly and efficiently without becoming reliant on needing to constantly being able to produce treats to get the correct behavior.  Learning to use alternative forms of reinforcement has been a challenge for me, but has also made me a much better trainer.  Here are a few of my best reinforcement tips:
  • Treats are by far the easiest reward to use when training new behaviors!  Especially if you are luring, capturing, or shaping behavior.  This why so many people get stuck here.  It's easy and it works most of the time.
  • Toys are a bit harder to learn to use in training sessions and comes with additional challenges that are not involved with using treats.  Toys make it easier to add speed to behaviors your dog already knows.  If your dog is ball motivated and your working on recall, tossing that ball between your legs can easily get a slightly distracted dog to recall to you very quickly.  Since Azul loves tug, I've used this to reinforce tons of positions around me and switching between those positions rapidly simply by capturing those positions in our tug sessions.  Learning to use toys are reinforcement takes some practice, but it something every dog owner can learn and will help improve your team work much faster then relying on food rewards for everything.
  • Talking as a reinforcement can be difficult to harness but surely the most easy way to provide reinforcement in real life situations.  Let's face it, most of us talk to our dogs and most of us like it when someone gives us a compliment so telling our dogs "Good Dog" seems like it is too simple.  But with some thought, this praise can be used to your advantage to get more out of your training sessions if you put some thought into your timing and how praise is offered.
  • Touching is also reinforcing for many dogs, but definitely not the place to start with dogs that you haven't already developed a relationship with.  I use touching in the form of belly rubs with my young puppies as a reinforcement for choosing to lay down near me or snuggle with me.  This helps build value for the physical contact.  If you haven't taught your dog to love your touches, it's not going to be an effective reinforcement for you.
Learning what your dog loves and how to use that as a reinforcement during your training sessions and real life situations will definitely help you plan future training sessions more successfully.  I'm going to posting more on reinforcement, I'm just not sure when I will get around to that.  Stay tuned this week to learn more about using this information to set up successful training sessions that will expand the teamwork between you and your dog.

For your entertainment, here is a video of Azul and I using tug as a reinforcement for capturing basic behaviors.  Keep in mind that none of these behaviors are new to Azul, we are simply practicing known behaviors to keep our reinforcement history high.

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