Expanding your horizons

You want me to what?

You want me to what? Sit? Here? Why?

When I teach a behavior to a client I recommend that they practice this new skill in every room in the house where their dog is allowed, so that the dog learns to generalize the behavior. Dogs, by and large, are not particularly good at generalizing. As a result, we have to help them learn that “Sit!” does not simply mean “put my bottom on the ground facing Mom in the kitchen,” but rather, “put my bottom on the ground no matter where I am or what is going on around me.” 

When you move to another location, it is important to understand that your dog sees this as something new and may not respond as quickly to your request as he does in a more familiar locale. Therefore, I tell clients to lower their expectations and ask for something easier or give their dog more time to respond. For example, last night I took Zuzu to her first agility class. At one point, we were told to get our dogs to lie down. This is not Zuzu’s strongest trick (she tends to pop right back up) but she will generally follow my hand and lie on the floor, especially if I have a small treat in my hand. So, in this exciting environment I made sure we had at least 15 feet between her and another dog, and I used a fistful of chicken to lure her into a down. It took her a moment to understand what I wanted, but when her belly hit the ground, a lot of chicken happened. Subsequent downs went more quickly and smoothly, and I was able to reduce the amount of poultry needed to produce the desired results.

I recently received an email from the Whole Dog Journal about training your dog in a new location. Here is a part of what they recommended:

In each new training space, first test that your dog can perform with a cookie in your hand. This is important because the total number of additional distractions (beyond what you are deliberately introducing) is going to increase simply by changing locations. You will continue to create controlled distractions for your dog, and you want them to hold his attention more than the stuff in the environment. This might sound counter intuitive, but the truth is, if the dog is paying more attention to the smells in the neighborhood than to the training exercises, you have a problem! You need to start with a distraction (and a reward) that is MORE interesting than the rest of the world.  (From Beyond the Backyard by Denise Fenzi)

Zuzu’s bumper

The point that you need to be more interesting than the rest of the world is the key to teaching your dog to be responsive to you in any environment, especially in the beginning. Having a good assortment of rewards* is also useful to keep your dog’s focus in new surroundings. To keep Zuzu’s attention last evening I varied the rewards I used: chicken, string cheese, and her favorite toy. While she has unlimited access to most of her toys, her bumper is one I keep special by limiting it’s availability. She zoomed through the tunnel to me and a chance to chase the bumper. Looking at me in line (right behind a really cute lab she wanted desperately to play with) earned her the right to hold the bumper as we waited our turn. Chicken enticed her into a down on the table, but her bumper was her reward for staying. 

Zuzu had moments when she couldn’t focus due to the excitement of a new environment. But they were moments, not eons, and it was reinforcement, not detention, that got her to reengage with me. Be patient with your dog as you teach her to behave under exciting or distracting circumstances. Reward her well for a doing what you ask, even if it’s only for an instant. The instants will begin to add up and sooner than you think, you will have a truly engaged dog, eager to work with you, no matter where you are. 

Zuzu and her beloved bumper.

Zuzu and her beloved bumper.

 

*Knowing what is reinforcing to your dog helps you choose the right reward for the level of distraction. I have written a lot about rewards or reinforcers but two blogs in particular are relevant: What if my dog isn’t food motivated? and What does your dog love?

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