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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

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.

You guessed it. She turned to face her dog; said, “Maddie, come!”; and then backed up exactly as she had when she said “stay.” Maddie was paying attention to one small component of the “stay” signal—the backward movement, which she had learned meant “come”—and bless her heart, she kept giving it her best shot, in spite of the confusing response of her humans. It’s a miracle they don’t bite us more often, truly.

Nothing’s Simple
These stories illustrate two perspectives about behavior that can illuminate our understanding of it. One is that a “simple” behavior like asking your dog to sit usually consists of several different sounds and movements, any one of which could be relevant to your dog. We may think that saying “sit” is a singular event, but to an observant dog (and believe me, they’re all observant!), there’s a lot more going on. You may be concentrating on the word, but as you say it, your hands, head and body are all probably moving in consistent ways, although you’re probably not aware of it.

My favorite exercise at seminars is to have a trainer ask her dog to sit, and then ask the audience how many different movements made up that “simple” signal. Usually we come up with at least six or eight movements and one spoken word, any of which could act as the relevant cue to the dog. The last time I played that game, we observed that each time the trainer asked for a sit, she nodded her head ever so slightly. Until her dog saw her nod her head, he would not sit. Once she did, he’d sit instantly. The dog was focusing on the nod, and the human was focusing on the word she was saying. I would bet money if you could’ve asked the dog to describe the signal for “sit,” the dog would’ve said, “Why, the head nod, of course!”

Bruno, the dog who finally mastered the “roll over” command, reminds us that even one continuous motion—like rolling over—is also the sum of its parts. The general principle of dividing an action up into steps is old news for many trainers, but we can profit from revisiting its importance. Even those of us who are long familiar with what’s called “shaping,” or the process of reinforcing incremental improvements in behavior, can benefit by remembering that it relates to everything that we and our dogs do.

Understanding that any behavior can be divided up into smaller parts is the guiding principle taught to all students of animal behavior. It was the first thing that I learned from my ethology professors at the university, and it’s the first thing good, psychologically based behavior analysts learn. The fields of ethology and psychology may have very different perspectives, but they agree completely on the importance of understanding behavior as a series of incremental actions. Step-by-step, brick by brick, the foundation of any behavior is built upon little things that add up to bigger ones. The better you are at deconstructing it, the better a trainer you’ll be.

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This article first appeared in The Bark,
Issue 34: Jan/Feb 2006

Patricia McConnell, PhD, is an animal behaviorist and ethologist and an adjunct associate professor in zoology at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, as well as the author of numerous books on behavior and training.

patriciamcconnell.com

Photograph by Raymond Truelove

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