Sunday, August 20, 2023

Slow is Fast, Fast is Slow in Dog Training

 Quick fixes often provide a temporary fix to any problem! But if you want real results, you'll work toward making slow steady progress based your dog's needs!


I attend a ton of dog training webinars and workshops, therefore I quite often here the quote, "Slow is Fast!" yet so few times is that quote every really explained. I've been thinking about this quite intensively lately as we are holding a chat for Service Dog Handlers next week on this very topic. That chat will focus on why it's so important for Service Dog success. But I also wanted to take a moment to let my pet parents know why we need to slow down too.

Slow in Adding Cues

In traditional training, you take a 6 week puppy class the focuses on teaching basic skills such as sit, down, heel, stay, and come on command. Those are the only objectives, to learn to teach those common cues. However in our 6 week puppy class we focus on training foundations and concepts that will help your puppy succeed in life. This includes training the human how to use food as a lure and as a reinforcement, plus the difference between the two. 

Most puppies will do just about anything if you wave food in front of their nose. I can get a pup to heel perfectly in just 2-3 minutes with the right food. But that doesn't mean the puppy learns to heel. They simply learn to follow the food. This is luring, using food to get the behavior you want. We quickly switch over to a type of shaping as we teach the pup to respond to hand targets and teach the owner how to remove the food lure and transition into using the food as a reward, aka positive reinforcement. Then we build in delayed reinforcement and longer duration behaviors. This whole time, we are working on the same basic behaviors listed above; sit, down, heel, stay, come. But instead of simply getting the behavior everyone is learning how to apply that to real life situations. 

During my puppy classes, many are surprised that I don't use any cues when we use food lures. If you need a lure, the cue is meaningless to the dog and they haven't learned what words have meaning and what doesn't. You can lure a puppy to sit with a treat above their nose, but that doesn't mean they can sit on cue without a treat to follow. When you're training with a Slow is Fast mindset, instead of rushing to teach the word, we teach the behavior first. Then we have the behavior we want and repeat it again and again, we can begin to add the cue word for the behavior.


Slow in Building Duration & Delayed Reinforcement

For many of us, we get stuck with our eyes on the prize or the end goal. We set or goals or see a list of things we want to accomplish and we jump straight there or move rapidly toward the goal. The faster we move in dog training, the greater the chances we have for struggles to set in. When we struggle is when we tend to look for ways to correct or punish the dog. Those harsher corrections based training can be totally avoided if we just slow down and move at the dog's speed.  Each dog processes things a bit differently, so one dog might learn a basic concept more easily and progress rapidly while another dog needs a bit more practice and smaller baby steps in training.

If you follow my FB page, you've seen picts and reference to the Husky Boys, which are 3 brothers that I've been working with since they were quite young. While the genetics of these pups came from the same place as littermates that live in the same household, they are all very individualized. Sammy moves at slower pace, thinking before he does anything but catches on very quickly. Eli needs a bit more time to look around and see what others are doing which means he kinda just goes with the flow wherever he can and is more easily distractable. Eli doesn't like to make mistakes, so he likes to make sure he knows what your asking for before he attempts to do it. Then there's Charlee! LOL Charlee learns new behaviors real quick, but he also forgets new behaviors real quick. He's typically first to respond, but that means he will keep throwing out random behaviors that you've asked for in the past hoping that something will eventually earn him the cookie. When it comes to navigating the environment, Charlee is the type to rush in guns a blazing or ready to handle anything. But when it comes to strangers, Charlee is more likely to sit back and see what his brothers or Roz do. Sammy the slower paced one is more eager to make friends with everyone, both human and dog.

You may be wondering what an evaluation of the Husky Brothers has to do with training cues. This is a unique situation where all 3 dogs have the same genetics and live in the same house so they get the same amount of exposure to the world, the same amount of training time and exercise, and have the same daily household routine. Yet when they are learning new skills they need a bit of a different approach. Slower paced Sammy, even though he wants to always be right in the behavior he offers, can actually learn more quickly with some delayed reinforcement. When we teach heel we start with reinforcing getting in position, then one step, then two steps, 3 steps, 5 steps, 10 steps, etc. Sammy moves through those steps more rapidly being successful at 10 steps rather quickly. Eli on the other hand needs a bit more reinforcement along the way to keep him focused meaning he spent a ton more time practicing at 5 steps then Sammy needed. Eli needed that reinforcement more rapidly or he lost focus. Charlee learned the cue much more rapidly for heel, yet he's still the one the struggles with it the most because if the rate of reinforcement is spread out too far, Charlee will start throwing out other behaviors like jumping, barking, or switching sides in an attempt to earn faster reinforcement.

This individualized difference is why we don't add cues until the dog is doing well with the behavior. Otherwise we run the risk of giving the cue and the dog not being able to do the behavior because they are distracted, bored, frustrated, or simply don't know what that cue means yet. There is another common saying, "Name it when you love it!" which basically means, don't add the cue until the behavior is exactly what you want your dog to be doing. This might only take 1-3 training sessions for some dogs while it takes 4-6 for others. Our puppy class is designed to help the owner and puppy make as much progress as possible without rushing them to hit a deadline or achieve a hard and fast standard by the end of the 6 sessions. The beauty of that is, most puppies that complete the class can easily exceed the national standards that are widely accepted for those basic behaviors plus the owners then know how to continue to increase those skills in a wide variety of environments and around distractions.

Slow in Adding New Distractions & New Environments

Let's fast forward past puppy class, into working with an adolescent dog. In adolescence, the dog's brain is changing from what is there to help keep a puppy alive to what an adult dog needs. Puppies need to stay close to their family, safety in numbers and rely on mom for direction. Adults need to seek food, water, shelter, or whatever their assigned family job is which means means they need strength, confidence, and skills to do the assigned job. The needs of a puppy are vastly different than the needs of an adult, which sticks us dog owners in the middle trying to help our adolescent learn the skills they need to fit into their role in the family and world around them. With the brain basically doing change after change as our adolescent dogs grow up, they tend to forget or struggle with doing things they did really well just last week. This means we need often need to slow down our training during adolescence.

Dog owners tend to forget how challenging this time is. The dog, especially for large breeds, is becoming quite big and strong therefore we tend to put higher expectations on their skills then we should. Azul was almost 70 lbs by his first birthday and as a husky, he's built to pull. While I started teaching Azul to heel at about 4 months old, at 12 months old this was near impossible outside because everything smelled so wonderful to Azul. He quickly would become over stimulated and unable to focus on anything. Those reading this with 1 year old large breed dogs, know exactly what I mean! This is when frustration sets in for dog owners as we feel like our problems are getting worse rather than better. 

As owners pull their hair out in frustration, this is when we really need to slow down are training and take a look at the distractions that are in the environment. Often it's the distractions that make our young teenagers forget what they were supposed to be doing. This means it's up to us, the human to chose environments that have a reduced chance of distractions. Perhaps instead of walking on the most popular dog walking trail in town, we choose to walk in areas that are not so popular. Less foot traffic means less things we are going to see on our walk and less smells that are going to be left behind from other dogs, people, and wildlife.

Adolescence is where we really need to think about, "Is my dog ready for X environment!" Perhaps your dog has had great leash manners at the park, he greets strangers nicely and loves everything in life so you start thinking maybe he'd like to go with to watch a parade. His first parade, how exciting! But a busy parade is filled with distractions so if you make the leap from a quiet park to a loud crazy parade, bad things often happen; the dog starts pulling on the leash, jumping on people, perhaps barking, etc. We need to build up to exciting environments, perhaps moving from the quiet park to a bigger or more active park, perhaps watching a school playground from a safe distance, perhaps sitting in the car with your dog in a busy parking lot and watching people walk passed, etc. 

The goal should be look around your area and slowly build up. A farmer's market in my area may only have 50 people including vendors and shoppers so that might be a great environment for some manners around strangers. But in some towns a farmers market might have over a 1,000 people therefore it might not be the next step up from a quiet playground. This is where having a network of Canine Coaches or other dog owners who have dogs at this same age can help you figure out what might be next for your and your dog.  Check out the Crazy Canine Adolescents FB Group if you want to connect with others struggling through this craziness too!

We will have additional Slow is Fast resources coming in the near future!

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