Turns out, if I want Niko to use his brain, I have to use mine first. A lot.
Niko is a Dutch Shepherd. He is my first Dutch Shepherd. He is everything a Dutchie should be: smart, energetic, focused, driven, and loves his head massages. He’s also 73lbs of pointy ears and alert to everything, so walking through crowded spaces results in people parting like I have a leashed shark.
Until Niko, I have trained floppy ear dogs. Now, there is a wide range of floppy ear dogs in there including Labrador Retrievers, English Shepherds, Border Collies and a Labrador/Golden Retriever mix. Since my English Shepherd, I have not had a dog who required me to redirect the neuropathways that need to think, when the mammalian side of the brain wants to just DO.
We, the human end of the leash, often refer to this as a dog who needs focus, impulse control or better foundation work.
I really want him to use his brain. Vaulting at lightning speed over a rubble pile full of hazards can have unfortunate consequences.
We are actually training stimulus control and contingency for reinforcement.
When cued, do the sit.
When a goat runs in front of you, look at me.
When you smell the odor, sit and stare.
Often our own impatience gets the better of us and we ask too much. Whether it be of our dogs, children or a co-workers. We ask the animal to perform behavior in new situations too quickly.
Remember all those gentle prompts to say please and thank you to your children?
Creating a true solid response to a stimulus takes thousands of repetitions under myriad criteria, with appropriate reinforcement for meeting that criteria. We must log all the repetitions, figure out where we went wrong (or right), and repeat.
Wash and repeat.
This is the boring part of training.
Think about all the videos of dog training posted on the internet. They all show the sexy part of training. The animal performing the behavior perfectly in many different conditions. What they don’t show you is the unvarnished hours of training it took to get to that point. They (myself included) don’t show you the trials where the dog did not perform the behavior perfectly – or at all. Nowhere are the bloopers, when the trainer fails or the dog is distracted by a rabbit. Those clips ended up on the cutting room floor. They are boring to us; no one would watch past the first thirty seconds.
The boring part of training is crucial. This is where great K9 teams are built. We have the bigger brain – this is where the human end of the leash must use it.
The designing phase (see Training the Dog in Front of You) is where we design/develop/test what we want the animal to learn or do. We hash it out with our training partners, mull it over and practice (without the dog).
Only once we’ve ferreted out the potential land mines, gaps, errors, and mistakes in logic do we get the dog.
I’ll share some times I didn’t do enough designing and developing, as well as some of the times I did.
I hope my mistakes are teachable moments!
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.