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Take Dog Training One Step at a Time
In dog training, taking things one step at a time can make a world of difference
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Maddie was a lovely little dog, with creamy white fur and an open, smiley face. She seemed willing and smart and ready to learn, but her guardian had brought her to me because the dog was driving her crazy. Every time the family asked Maddie to sit and stay, she jumped up and licked their faces. No matter what they did, they couldn’t seem to get her to stay still, even for an instant. Someone told them it was because she was trying to assert “dominance” over them. Someone else suggested she’d been abused. Maddie had nothing at all to say on the topic, but kept cheerfully bounding up like a jack-in-the-box every time she was asked to sit and stay.

The same week, I had another client whose treatment plan included teaching his dog Bruno a variety of tricks. The first trick had him stumped, because no matter how hard he tried, and how many tasty treats he used, he couldn’t get Bruno to roll over. He tried and tried, and finally came into the office convinced that his dog was deficient.

Getting to the Heart of the Matter
Neither of these explanations had anything to do with the issues at hand. Both dogs appeared to be normal and happy, capable of learning as much as anyone wanted to teach them, and their guardians were dog-loving, intelligent people. The problems, though superficially different, were based on the same important truth: Anything that we think of as a “behavior,” like rolling over or asking a dog to sit and stay, is actually a summation of a great many tiny movements. These incremental movements add up into what we call “rolling over” or “giving a sit signal,” each of which is the sum of many parts.

Understanding this—that all actions are actually made up of many smaller ones—can elevate you from a moderately good dog trainer to a great one. The seemingly dim dog Bruno ended up learning to roll over in one session because all I asked him to do initially was to lie down and turn his head toward his tail. Of course, I helped him at first by luring his nose in the right direction with a piece of food, but in no time at all, Bruno was happy to offer the behavior on his own. “Look at my tail for chicken? I can do that!” Bruno began throwing himself down on the ground and enthusiastically twisting his head toward his tail, tail thumping furiously. Next, I asked him to move his head a bit farther back, this time turning it toward his other side, enough that his top foreleg began to rise off the ground. Bingo! More chicken. Step three included luring his head around even farther, until his body followed and completed the roll over in one smooth motion. The humans clapped and cheered, Bruno wagged and grinned, and the pile of chicken pieces rapidly decreased.

Bruno’s guardian, a relative novice at dog training, had tried to teach Bruno to roll over by luring his head around with tasty snacks, but because he thought of “rolling over” as, well, rolling over, it didn’t occur to him to give Bruno the snack until the dog had executed the entire action from beginning to end. Dog trainers see this problem on a daily basis—people who try to teach a dog to sit up or roll over, and end up throwing in the towel because they can’t get the dog to do what they want. This is one of those times when it would help if people were more anthropomorphic (rather than less so as we’re often advised). We don’t wait to praise our children until they play Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony perfectly, do we? Yet, that’s common behavior with our dogs—we often expect them to do it right all the way through the first time. Anything less is categorized as a failure.

We’re even less likely to think of our own actions as the summation of many tiny behaviors. Take Maddie, the dog who wouldn’t sit and stay. In the office, I suggested the guardians give it a try so I could see what was going on. The mom of the family stood up, turned to face Maddie, and said “sit” and “stay.” As she said “stay,” she backed up about a half a step. In response, Maddie sat politely, but then leapt up as soon as she heard the stay signal. “See what I mean!” her guardian said, with no small amount of exasperation in her voice. Next, I asked her to call Maddie to come.

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