Updated: Jan 3, 2019
We walk out of the garage on our way to the training field. Dash is bounding beside me, excited, bouncing off various boulders and barking at me. We are on the way out to train, working on the fundamental skills that create a detection dog. He is oozing energy and excitement at the thought of playing with a flying disc.
Then he sees it, the one thing he enjoys chasing.
Our billy goat, Henry. Dash’s entire body goes still; he freezes in the most beautiful pose of heightened Labrador awareness. Head up, ears perked, perfectly stacked on all four feet, tail fully extended and at its full height. I smile. I have planned for this moment. I have rehearsed it in my head. I triple checked to make sure all of my tools were present before even releasing Dash from the crate. Before Dash has an impure thought, I give him a suggestion. “This way’ I softly call. Immediately, he orients on me. I have .02 seconds to make this work. I BURST into action.
I throw his flying disc away from the goat, verbal praise flowing loudly and constantly as the disc sails through the air. It sounds like I just won $10M and will never have to worry about finding that next consulting gig. Dash leaps after the toy and brings it back. Then we party like it’s 1999, complete with the toy, treats and squealing.
Henry the billy goat vanishes into a nearby shed to closely watch the circus playing out in the yard.
I have confirmed with Dash that I am more fun than chasing a billy goat. I have made a significant deposit into the account labeled “Playing with a toy is THE BEST thing on the planet”. Today, my training mojo is strong. I planned well. Each time an opportunity like this presents itself, I plan to confirm that the toy – and interacting with me – are much more reinforcing than chasing something like a billy goat, a deer, a rabbit or any other critter than may pop up on us during a search.
How do I know? The next time we go out to train, Henry is there. When Dash sees him there is different body language. Dash makes note of Henry, orients on me and we go about our business of moving to the training field. I continue to deliver calm verbal praise to Dash until Henry is out of sight. He doesn’t give a second glance to the goat.
Henry has given me several opportunities over the past week for teachable moments with my puppies. Henry is spending a lot of time next to the pen where his lady friends are currently residing, awaiting the birth of their kids. I affectionately call this pen the maternity ward. Currently the maternity ward contains one miniature donkey baby with his mother, one pregnant miniature donkey and three pregnant dwarf Nigerian goats. (I promise, there will be many cute goat pictures.)
Henry is very concerned that his ladies no longer find him interesting, so has become our resident yard goat. The location where he spends most of his time is directly in the path between the dog kennels and my training field.
This has required me to plan on how to train off a prey distraction, which I do before I even release the dog from the crate. I have thought of contingencies. I have experimented and gotten it wrong. I get the dogs out three to four times a day for training – this allows me to get a lot of ‘training sprints’ in per day to get past Henry.
Niko currently requires a leash to make it to the training field. I have not created enough value yet to counteract his reaction to chasing prey, but we’re close. As long as Henry doesn’t run, I have enough training mojo to redirect him into productive behaviors.
Planning a training session can take 3 minutes or 30 minutes. Some of my best planning happens when I’m driving in my car. I am evaluating how the session I just had went and am planning out where to go from here. The dog just gave me valuable information; I must take that information and construct the next steps.
Planning out a training session prior to getting the dog out of the crate or stepping onto the field takes discipline. I have often heard the words “I‘m just going to see what happens” from trainers, and those words have even come out of my mouth. Then I end up spending more time training out a behavior the dog learned because I didn’t think it through. (For single event learning, it only takes once. @drjensdogblog has a great article on fear periods and single event learning that is definitely worth the read.)
Here are some common phrases that indicate trainers have not thought out their training session, created a contingency plan or developed specific goals when getting their dog on the field:
Let’s see what happens.
I’m going to let the dog figure it out.
It will be fine. They knew it yesterday.
Of course they can do it here, they did it at home.
Let’s wing it.
There is a certain time in a dog’s career where they will have become proficient and generalize the behavior. That is the time where I can stop sweating the small stuff – but until then, I have to sweat the small stuff.
All. The. Time. I have to create enough history with the dog getting reinforced for the correct behavior to counteract the desire to do anything it’s not supposed to do. You have to create a habit for the behavior you desire. This takes repetitions. Correct repetitions. Not approximations, but the exact behavior chain desired. What does this take? Discipline. I have to be disciplined. A good training plan can help define the next steps I need to take, giving me a clear, uncomplicated path forward. As the animal provides me with feedback, I adapt my plan. This allows me to focus on the difficult part of training: how my actions and behaviors are providing information to the dog. A team is only as good as the weakest link; unfortunately, it’s often the human end of the leash. A good training plan is one tool to counteract our human failings. I look forward to sharing more about this journey.
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 (humans too!) you work with.