Before you start training a specific behavior, you need to know, in detail, what the finished behavior will look like. The more detail you put into that description, the easier it is to plan the road map for getting there. Some questions to ask include:
- What will the finished behavior look like?
You must be able to picture the behavior in perfect, precise detail. Don’t just focus on the obvious. Think about each part of the dog’s body — what must it be doing during each part of the behavior? Want a dog to win the heart of the judge? Include a wagging tail and pricked ears as requirements of the behavior. In clicker training, it’s all possible! By the way, don’t forget the dog’s mouth. So often people ask me how to stop a dog from whining or barking during the behavior. If silence is part of the behavior, plan it, and train it from the start!
- How will this behavior be cued?
Verbally? Physically? Environmentally? A combination? Remember that part of teaching a cue is making sure that only the cues you want become lasting cues — and that dogs are master discriminators. Include plenty of time for generalizing the behavior.
- What kind of latency is required?
Latency is speed of response — the time that elapses between the cue and the behavior. Zero latency is an immediate response. Fast latency is habitual, meaning if you train it for some behaviors, the dog will likely adopt it for all behaviors.
- Does this behavior have duration? Distance?
How long should the behavior last? If there’s a specific time requirement, plan to train fifty percent beyond that. For example, if you need a two minute sit-stay for competition obedience, plan to train at least a three minute sit-stay.
Distance should be trained similarly. Distance includes behaviors where the dog is sent to work at a distance, behaviors where the dog must respond to a cue when he is at a distance from the owner, and behaviors where the dog must maintain a behavior even when the owner moves away from him. Distance is challenging because the further the handler is from the dog, the stronger environmental stimuli become.
- Does your dog have to be in a particular place relative to you to perform this behavior?
Should the dog always be in front of you or perhaps always within a certain radius of you? If not — and especially if you specifically don’t want the dog to restrict his position relative to you — you should plan on spending time generalizing this element.
- Are you always going to be sitting, standing, or lying down when you give the cue?
Again, this is a generalization issue. Your body position can easily become a secondary cue for the behavior. This may work for you in competition heeling, but it can sabotage you for a household sit.
- In what locations will the behavior be cued?
Steve White trains every behavior in twenty different locations to ensure that his police dogs truly generalize their behaviors. You may not need quite that much generalization. For some behaviors, you don’t need any!
- What distractions might the dog face in those locations when performing the behavior?
List them, rank them, train them.
- How reliable does this behavior have to be?
Reliability is a number. You may need only 9 out of 10, or you may need 99 out 100 — or 999 out of 1000.
The definition of the behavior is a detailed description of where you want to go. The second step is to evaluate where you currently are. If this is a brand new behavior, that’s easy! You’re starting from scratch. If this is an in-progress behavior, evaluate the behavior for all of the above criteria. Keep records and let the data tell you exactly what your dog is capable of doing reliably.
The final step is to make a plan to get from where you are to where you want to be. Start with the behavior. Break it into responses, and shape it to perfection. When it’s exactly right, add the cue. Then one by one add elements like duration, distance, and distractions.
As you train, keep your training plans firmly in mind. Track your progress. Periodically review your training plan, and revise the definition of the final behavior, if necessary. Don’t stop working on the behavior until the behavior your dog performs is a reliable mirror image of the behavior you described.
Here is the initial training plan I put together for “Sit.” It isn’t complete – the steps here don’t give exactly the behavior described – but it’s well on its way. Note that the steps in the training plan are mid-level goals. It may require many, many micro-level steps to get from one mid-level goal to the next.
Cue: Verbal “sit”, hand signal, single blast on whistle
Description: On cue, dog will immediately drop into a competition-quality sit, no matter where he is in relation to me, and remain in the sit until released.
- Behavior specifics: Tucked, square.
- Duration: Up to five minutes.
- Distance: Respond to cue up to 400 yards away.
- Latency: Immediate.
- Position: Assume position from stand or while moving. Dog should turn to face me, except in specific situations where an alternative is specifically trained. I should be able to be in any physical position.
- Locations: Everywhere.
- Distractions: Anything and everything. Especially distractions common in a dog show or performance environment. Must maintain the sit when being touched by strangers or sniffed by strange dogs. Must hold the sit even if another dog is sent for a retrieve right next to him.
Other: Must maintain even when I’m out of sight.
- Capture the behavior
- Shape for tucked and square
- Add the verbal cue
- Add duration (up to 30 seconds)
- Generalize my position
- Add hand signal
- Add distance (up to 20 ft, 1 minute away)
- Handler goes out of sight for up to 15 seconds
- Distractions: dropped toy, tossed toy, rolling toy, jumping, running, door/gate, dropped food, dogs passing
- Take into field – all prior criteria
- Sit at distance (up to 20 ft)
- Add whistle cue
- Sit while moving
- Combine whistle-sit at distance with go out
- Increase duration (3 minutes)
- Handler goes out of sight for up to 3 minutes
- Handler goes up to 50 yards away
- Dog responds to cue from up to 50 yards away
Now to do this for every behavior I want to teach…. (See why I’m tired?)