Tuesday, January 25, 2022

Picking New Training Environments Wisely

It's just as important to pick an appropriate environment to train in as it is to plan your training sessions properly.  There are a few things you need to consider when choosing that environment.
  • What emotional states will my dog experience in this environment?
  • What distractions might be present in this environment?
  • What management tools do I need to have in place to ensure safety?
  • What type of reinforcement is going to work best in this environment?

Emotional States your dog may experience and how that impacts the environment.

Probably the single most important emotion to consider when thinking about choosing an environment for your training session is FEAR.  If you have a younger puppy or older adult that gets stressed out in new environments more easily, you have to plan for that taking baby steps in each new environment you enter.  I'm going to touch more on this topic in my upcoming post on "New Environments for Working Dogs" but I wanted to help you understand how fear impacts the environment in this post.  Fear is one of the basic emotions that all animals have no matter whether they have training with humans or not.  Most often fear causes the animal to slip into a fight or flight stage of brain activity that totally leaves them out of their mind and running on instinct.  That means that we have to be especially careful if we are going to be holding a training session with a fearful dog so that we can work at a level that can remain comfortable and in control of their actions with just a slight fear association that we can apply desensitization and counterconditioning techniques to.  If this is your dog, please consider contacting me or another professional dog trainer for assistance with creating a plan to help get you started!

Another strong emotion, but often overlooked is Over Arousal.  This emotion can present much like fear with inappropriate behaviors of barking, lunging, jumping, etc.  But since this over excitement is often considered happy or joyful, it doesn't tend to freak owners out or worry them as much.  We really need to consider this emotion when choosing a new environment as well or we will often regret it later.  Basically over arousal leads to a brain change that turns the brain off and sends the dog relying on instinct too, instead of fight or flight thinking the dog often goes into hunting or herding mode.  This of course throws almost all ability to recall your dog out the window and can have serious consequences.  It's important that owners learn to be able to see the subtle changes that occur with their dog when they move between excited/aroused into the over excited/aroused states.  If you can see the early warning signs of the change in your dog, you can end the session on a good note before something bad happens.

There are other less challenging emotions to consider as well.  If a dog is bored because you use the same training environment all the time, they may start searching for ways to spice up that environment in ways that you do not approve of; digging, rolling in the mud, hunting for trash, etc.  If your environment is one that you haven't used for a long time, the new smells might be too exciting so gaining your dog's focus may become challenging.  

So you may be asking, how do you choose an environment that will best fit my dogs emotional state for the training session? 
First, consider the goals of your training session.  If you are going to be focusing on something new that you've only practiced at home previously, choose a location that you've been in frequently and been able to easily capture your dog's focus for previous training sessions in that environment.  Of course you want to take a few minutes to all your dog to explore that environment before you actually start the session.  If you want to practice something that you've been working on awhile so you are looking at more of a refresher or expanding current skills to the next level, you can choose a somewhat more challenging environment then the one you were successful at previously.  

For example, between 6-24 months you spend a lot of time working on leash manners as your dog does awesome some days and not so great other days unless you practice often.  Azul and I walk lots of different trails when weather allows, but we have 2-3 favorites that we use more regularly if we need to touch up on specific leash skills based on what that environment offers us in the way of management and potential distractions.

If your going to choose an environment that you know while raise your dog's emotional state towards excitement or fear, be sure to use better management and higher level reinforcement methods while lowering your expectation of what your dog is capable of in that environment

Considering Distractions in a Training Environment

No matter what environment you choose for your training session, if your not inside a closed place such as your house, you really can't control the distractions that pop up during your session.  That means you have to consider what is naturally in an environment before choosing that place for your session.  Some things are obvious and anticipated distractions such as wildlife on a nature trail or children playing in a park.  While other things are not common distractions, such as a moose walking through a downtown environment.  Then you also have distractions that are dependent on time of day, driven by nature or common human routine.  This would be more like more dogs walking on a public trail when weather is nice and after work, school busses or larger groups of children walking/playing right after school gets out, or weekend vacationer traffic if you live in a tourist area like Michigan.

You can use predictable distractions to your advantage when deciding where to hold your next training session.  The more challenging the behavior you are working in is, requires a less challenging environment with minimal anticipated distractions.  The more you practice any specific behavior, the more challenging the environment can become.  Going back to my leash manners training example of earlier, I want my dogs to move to the side of a trail when distractions are coming from us from the opposite direction.  Choosing my environments wisely, means that I will start this on a less crowded day at a trail we walk often so that my dog can practice a few times but not be totally overwhelmed by non-stop passers.  Once my dog is starting to catch on, I will slowly choose busier times of day until we can be successful at the busiest time on weekends in great weather.  Some days this backfires!  I may expect a low turn out of strangers to pass us by and find no people on the trail or the opposite and have way more then I expected.  Since we can't control other people on the trail, we need to be flexible in our training and adjust accordingly by moving further away from an over crowded trail or inviting a few friends to join us for practice during quieter times on the trail when we don't have the distractions we want.  

Then there are distractions that we can't predict or control, such as wildlife which is an ongoing battle while your training loose leash walking!  On these occasions, we need to rely on our skills of management to prevent bad things from accidently happening during our training sessions.

Choosing the correct tools to manage your dog in the environment you choose for training.

I'm not going to turn this into a push for my chosen tools because that is a different post and one I've covered previously.  Instead I'm going to talk about ways to decide what is best for your team in specific environments with some safety in mind.  Let's instead focus on how you choose which tools are right for your environment.  

One of my big personal rules is the more distracting or crowded the environment is, the shorter leash I use.  On our property where I can control most distractions, my choice is commonly a 50 ft longline where Azul has the option to make as many choices as possible and I can reinforce his great choices yet still manage his not so great choices.  Scaling down to a not so frequently used, but public walking trail or an open field near a busier park, I tend to use my 20 ft longline so again Azul has to make some choices, but he's not able to go very far away which makes the choice to choose me easier for him.  Scaling down yet again to a wider, nature trail environment I'm prone to using my 10 ft leash so Azul can explore the environment in a closer proximity to me and I can quickly get him back at my side when a distraction is heading our way.  If we are training in public area such as a downtown district or outdoor event, I will use a 4-6 leash typically with Azul expected to walk in a loose heel position or settle near my feet if we are sitting down somewhere.  Then my final scale down is for public places such as pet friend stores and Service Dog level public access situations where I use a 2 ft or shorter traffic lead attached to my shoulder strap for hands free leash management.  

Another big thing I consider is the amount of distance I want Azul to be away from me to participate in the skills we are training during the session.  If I'm practicing recall or down/stays, I want more leash to build up a greater distance where as if I'm practicing heel work, I want less leash so I don't have to much in my hands.  If I've been working on a particular skill for quite awhile, proofing it in multiple environments, I want to use as much leash that I feel is safe for the environment to give Azul as much freedom in choice as I possibly can with safety driving the final tool selection.  

No matter what leash length I use, I'm most likely attaching that leash to a back clip on a harness with an option of creating a second attachment at the front of Azul's harness if there are more distractions than I anticipated or if he is struggling with focus.  Plus I almost always have my leash clipped to a shoulder strap or waist belt as my hands drop things too easily and I want to prevent Azul from bolting on a dropped leash.

Choosing the correct reinforcement for the environment.

All dogs are different as to what is reinforcing to them, so knowing what your dog loves can make all the difference in whether your training session will be successful or not.  This is especially true in more challenging environments.  A puppy might work just fine for kibble in low distraction environments, but it's common to need a higher value reinforcement in more distracting environments, especially if there is going to be a presence of even slight fear in the new environment.  As dogs age, they tend to find certain behaviors more reinforcing which tends to overpower the use of kibble as a reinforcement.  Sure they might still work for kibble in low distraction environments when their hungry.  But if they find sniffing the ground reinforcing, a low value kibble or food reinforcement is not going to be enough to encourage them to stop sniffing.  This goes for the behaviors we don't like such as jumping or barking and difficult behaviors such as recalling during puppy play sessions.  The more food motivated your dog is, the easier it will be for you to determine low, medium and high value reinforcement options to load into your treat pouch for the session.

What if your dog is not food motivated?  Or what if you don't want to carry kibble & treats for the rest of your life?  Then how do you reinforce your dog for choosing to do the behaviors you like?  I'm not a fan of the whole paycheck idea when it comes to dog training.  While I do believe in heavy reinforcement for the all of your dog's lifetime, I don't like when it becomes a transactional partnership of perform a behavior get a paycheck.  This is where you need to work on developing other ways to reinforce excellent behavior.  For example, getting to go on a hike and sniffing all the trees around becomes an awesome reinforcer for not pulling me over.  If sniffing becomes too distracting, we take a break of not moving for a bit so that my dog can settle down a bit before continuing the walk.

Once you've learned how to use some other reinforcers such as praise, petting, and games you have to then think about which reinforcer is going to work best for the environment you want to hold your training session in.  If we are working in an exciting environment, I want to make myself more fun than anything else in that environment.  This is where I'm going to play my dog's favorite game of tug or chasing the flirt pole or laser.  If I'm working in a less stimulating environment, then some well timed verbal and hands on communication can let my dog know that I'm happy with their choices.  And some environments call for both types of reinforcements depending on the behaviors I'm asking for.  If my pup is super chill and not wanting to participate in a training session out of boredom, I'm going to choose a reinforcement that is more fun based.  If my pup is extra hyper or excited and I want to reign them in a bit for more focused trained, I'm going to switch to something less exciting such as petting.  Having the right motivation for the job is one of the toughest things to learn when it comes to dog training and planning successful training sessions.  There will surely be more help in this manner in the future.

Having realistic expectations for the environment.

And last but definitely not least in picking new environments wisely is to set realistic expectations for the environment you've chosen for your training session.  It's not uncommon to need to back up a few steps in your training when you first move into a new environment.  If it's a skilled behavior such as sit, down, or making eye contact that you've only been working on a short time, you may need to go back to step one with luring the behavior with a reinforcement.  You also have to keep in mind that there may be a barrier or unexpected challenge to a certain behavior in some environments.  Your dog may struggle to sit on a slippery floor and so you make need to change your expectation into a down position instead.  A down could be challenging in some environments due to fear or an aversion to the surface which could make your dog dislike the behavior you are asking for.  These challenges take time to work through and probably require a higher motivation then what your offering.  

Other things that have happened your dog's day can also effect their behavior and cause a need for you to change your expectations; say weather prohibited the typical walk you would have done before the session so you may want to change your goals for the session from working on down/stays because your dog has too much energy for goals of working on loose leash or heelwork where your dog can move more.  Another thing that is common in the training world is the quote, "Work the dog in front of you at the moment!"  This is very important when we are trying to set our training sessions up for success.  If our dog is really struggling with a behavior during a specific session but has been more successful with that behavior in other sessions, it's up to us to figure out why and how we can fix that for our dogs.  That might mean we need to give our dogs a break to relax or play a game before circling back to the training session.  If there are other challenging in the environment that we didn't expect, we may need to cut a session short or work on different skills then we planned.  It's important to keep our expectations realistic for the dog we are working with in the environment we asking them to work in.  It's ok to push the expectation slightly to strengthen your teamwork, but be careful not to push too far too fast or you'll be stuck in one place in your training for a very long time.

Next up on blog for the January Theme: Plan for Success is applying new environment training with family and friends.  Watch for this post later in the week!

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