Don't Be the Limiting Factor
Niko vaults across the room to jump up on the obstacle. He spins around and watches me for the next cue. We are working on control at a distance and I’m asking him to run to an obstacle, jump on it, and wait for the next cue.
He’s sitting there, brimming with anticipation of what he can do to earn his reinforcer.
My brain vapor locks. Do I send him to the next base or do I reinforce a beautiful send out?
I stutter. I begin to ask for another behavior then deliver his reinforcer as he launches off the obstacle. When I went back and watched the video it looked like my brain and my hand were not communicating. I’ll be honest: They weren’t – because I didn’t have a plan.
I’m sorry Niko. I will do better.
Niko happily took his toy and we played fetch; we didn’t partake in his favorite game, tug. This is how I mitigated my mistake of reinforcing a behavior not at criteria. My sloppy training resulted in the animal being deprived of his full reinforcer.
I know dogs do not understand an apology. The apology is to be more diligent in my training.
I have had to make that apology to each of the animals I’ve trained (dogs, mini donkeys, horses, goats, cows, and others). Reinforcing a behavior not at criteria only muddies the lines of communication – and this costs me and the animal big time.
I must not be the limiting factor in the training partnership.
Training should empower the animal to acquire the behavior faster, with fewer errors.
In the early parts of training I reinforce behavior that is approximately what I want; getting to the desired behavior as quickly as possible is my goal. This thought is forefront in my brain: Every time I reinforce an approximate behavior, I’ll need to reinforce the behavior at criteria twice as much. I need to spend as much of my precious training time as possible reinforcing the exact behavior I desire.
This requires a clearly articulated plan every time, because if my plan is sloppy, my training is sloppy.
Before putting dogs in the van, I write a training plan and training objectives for that session – then I follow it. I know exactly what I want before I hook up the lead. If I don’t take the time to write out my objectives, the session usually ends in a convoluted mess with dogs being reinforced for undesired behavior. But with a great plan, contingency for reinforcement is clear in my mind and it translates down the lead.
I usually train by myself and I am disciplined about recording most of my sessions. A video camera keeps me honest; it allows me to critically watch my body language and ask:
What body cues am I throwing? What are my hands doing? My feet? My shoulders?
Am I starting each trial exactly the same way every time?
Where can my timing improve?
What behavior did I miss?
How can I make it simple for the animal?
When doing odor work, I look specifically for the following:
Am I telegraphing to the dog?
What EXACTLY are my body movements?
I look for my bias to where the odor is hidden.
The camera doesn’t lie – how well (or poorly) the session went is on the memory stick. I was really disappointed in one session, but later when I reviewed the footage, the video showed in 18 out of 20 trials I reinforced behavior at criteria. I had been concentrating on what didn’t go well, but sometimes the camera reinforces the trainer’s excellent behavior too.
Of course there have been plenty of times when I was totally jazzed about how well a session went, only to review the footage and realized I was late, missed behaviors, and did not manipulate the environment sufficiently to make sure the dog was successful.
I try not make the same mistakes. Sometimes I’m a slow learner.
We all watch dog videos. I challenge you to watch them several times – the first time, watch the dog; the second time, watch the handler/trainer.
After you have watched the video to critique yourself or the other trainer, watch the video seven more times. Yes, seven. Each time, concentrate on a different part of the dog’s body. taught the importance of video in the first training seminar I attended in 2003. Each time you watch the video, concentrate on a body part of the dog. Watch the large and minute body movements the dog performs while it is in odor. I have modified this slightly to include off leash work.
List of behaviors or body parts to watch when in odor:
What is the position of the nose in relation to the dog’s body, ground, and previous carriage while not in odor?
Is the mouth open or closed? Is the position of the nose high or low?
Breathing fast or slow? Active sniffing or panting? Is there the turbinate pop? Deep or shallow sniffing?
What is the tail position in relation to the topline? Is it wagging or stiff? A slight wag or a huge wag? Is it curled?
Did the dog’s pace speed up or slow down?
If on leash, do they lean in or not?
Are they circling? In which direction?
For those of you counting, that’s watching a video nine times. You can watch more and use the questions about what the trainer is doing to help guide your viewing.
We have a larger brain, opposable thumbs, and technology that allows us to be better trainers. We must use all of them to do better.
In the training session with Niko where my brain and hand didn’t connect, I didn’t have a specific outcome in mind for the training session. I threw out some directional tables and tried to create my training objectives as I went along. I “just wanted to see what the dog would do.”
Learn from my mistakes. Have a plan every time you hook up the leash. Don't be the limiting factor.
Robin has been training working dogs since 2001 and educating working dog handlers and trainers all over the nation since 2008. She is the CEO of the K9Sensus Foundation, a foundation that focuses on training the human end of the leash. While working in corporate america, she managed relationships and people using the same behavior principles she honed training dogs. Not only can these principles transform your ability to work at an elite level with your dog, but apply to every animal you work with (humans too!).