Category Archives: TRAINING TIDBITS

Thinking about dogs…

Does your dog truly understand? —An examination of fluency

“But he does it perfectly at home!”

We instructors hear this all the time. We know a lot of the obvious problems that the dog needs to work through. You have to teach a dog to generalize, work in distracting environments, etc. But there’s a lot more to training than that.

What I am just coming to appreciate is how imperative it is to develop behaviors to fluency before asking a dog to learn or do more: like perform chains of behavior, especially if the performance is at an event with environmental challenges.

What is fluency? Well, fluency is when your dog totally and completely knows the behavior. For example, I’m just polishing up the behavior of backing around me in a circle counterclockwise with my younger dog. This may be the fastest I’ve taught a new behavior yet. In a period of 3 short sessions one evening, I had Irie backing around me, weaned off of the dependency of the encircling gate I used to get the behavior started (with shaping), and was attaching the cue (saying the cue before she’d follow up with the behavior). In under 48 hours she had performed the behavior in no less than 5 different locations, was beginning to understand the verbal cue, and I was actually rewarding staying in heel more than circling back in an attempt to negate a tricky stimulus control problem of her sucking backwards in anticipation of backing around (which is inherently more fun because there’s a lot of movement to it).

By the next week, we worked hard on stimulus control. In a class we tested her. In a sort of ritualized way us humans tend to approach training, I took her out of a crate, walked up to the place on the floor we were going to work, and cued the behavior. She did it so I rewarded her and exited. Returning with the exact same set up, I tried to trick her by verbally cuing alternate behaviors, like spin, forward circle around, standing still in heel, sit, etc. No problem. It looks like she’s starting to get it.

“Starting to get it?” you may ask. Most people would say their dogs “knew” a behavior before even developing this level of proficiency. I, myself, have often moved on to the next new and exciting trick without completing training of the 1st behavior…with most of the things I taught!

But why does teaching a dog to truly understand matter? It is detrimental to your dog’s joy and confidence to suffer too much frustration and confusion. Even more so if you’re working with a dog that has any issues. What often happens is you put your dog in a position where she has to guess. This gets worse when you’ve trained more behaviors, because there are even more answers to chose between. I tormented one of my dogs by teaching him a whole slew of new tricks in a few months. It wasn’t so bad with the behaviors that looked really different, but, with the ones that I cued with a similar set up or body position, my poor dog got so confused he would just melt down. I thought it was just him. He was already a very aloof dog outside, a rescue that is hyper-prey focused. But the real problem was that he was being asked to discriminate between multiple behaviors that he hadn’t been given a chance to learn completely, one at a time.

Now, back to this idea of Irie just starting to get the back around. Yes, starting. She still needs to keep progressing to different set ups to proof her skill: to teach her to really know this behavior. Try cuing it without a ritual-like set up…like while walking along (in motion). Try changing your body position. Don’t be surprised if your dog has a complete melt down when you try to move into sitting on the floor and asking for the behavior. And the hardest, in my opinion, is counter motion from the handler. With this behavior, the hardest set up might be her circling backwards while I spin the opposite direction. I could also really challenge her by putting her favorite toys on the ground. Her herding qualities make staring at the toy so mesmerizing that she can barely process a command, especially if she’s off ahead of me lying down “eyeing” the toy.

I am so grateful to have known to work through these various contexts before moving on. Spend a number of training sessions teaching that it’s the same behavior when you start to change your body slowly from standing, to bending, to a crouch or sitting on the ground. You can incrementally go back to that upright position to help if your dog fails too much. Teach your dog to work around available reinforcement (zen bowls). Introduce distracting movements and actions (like clapping) from you. And only work on one direction at a time, treating the opposite direction as another behavior.

It isn’t until now that the truth of dogs knowing a behavior is coming to light. I realize that while Border Collies may have intensity, drive, and a great interest in training, many of them don’t suffer frustration well. While moving into a lower body position, poor little Irie got pretty frustrated. I’m sure glad that I was only working on that step, and not asking for her to do a bunch of other things she didn’t know well at the same time!

What a humbling experience to realize that most things we train have never been completely trained!

Start developing a “work ethic”

It’s more common to meet dogs that have not had to “work for a living” than to encounter people with dogs that know how to “say ‘Please'” and who enjoy training for the sheer pleasure of the activity. Not to say that that could remain intact without positive reinforcement, but it’s a totally different story training a dog that is accustomed to getting his way…let’s call them “privileged” ;). A few years ago I met a very privileged, one of a kind Portie. By nature, she’s “cool”—mellow, social, pretty low energy level. When I first started with her, I had her for at least a couple of weeks while her owner traveled. He said, ‘Maybe you can teach her some agility or something’. Unfortunately for his dreams, agility is not the place to start training. Agility is akin to a college level curriculum, while engagement is a mandatory pre-school skill that always takes priority over anything else you want to train.

At first she was “not having it”, and couldn’t be bothered to work, no matter how clever I was at making it worthwhile. It took literally months for this dog to finally learn that it is fun to “earn”. And then, there was a major turnaround. Can you believe she is one of my most keen and clever “students”! She learns things so fast these days, with me alone training her. Most recently, it took her just a few short sessions (about a couple of minutes apiece) to pick up a trick I affectionately call “Tailspin”. Here’s a video from a typical Pacific NW kind of day…please excuse the dirty, foggy mess.

These days, this dog begs for a chance to train. She caught the joy! 😉



Courteous City Dogs

City dwellers, I feel your pain. So many dog owners are blissfully ignorant of the efforts you go through in your daily dog life. In particular, those who live in multi-story buildings are committed to slogging down the stairs/elevator, around the block, through traffic, for a minimum of an hour a day, just to get your dog relieved. Those of us with a yard who merely open the door (or let the dog nose a flap open) have no idea about what sort of time allotment you’ve dedicated to your best friend. Before getting a taste of your experience, I’d often just heel with my dogs each on one side of me, since I only have 2 at the moment. While it looks cool to have 2 dogs escorting you along, it is not functional when you encounter others in small hallways or staircases. So, I decided to train both of my beasts to walk side by side, tucked tidily close in on my right side (since those of us who drive on the right side of the road tend to like to organize our walking paths by passing that way, too) to keep my body between my dogs and those we pass (left to left). Surely everyone would prefer polite passing.



Well, wouldn’t you know it, training this sort of bundled heeling was harder than I expected. Both of my dogs know how to heel on the right side, but when asked to do so simultaneously, who gets the choice spot next to me? Knowing that the more specific you are with training criteria is actually kinder to dogs than just letting them choose their variation, should I ordain one for the immediate right and the other for 2nd position? That’s sound training logic. My dogs will find it easier to meet the criteria of walking close to my side if there is only one position for them to assume, not 2 to choose from. And the people pleasantly surprised to be able to pass, say “Hello”, and not have to deal with a wet nose or worse on their clothes.


Sorta like the Dog Whisperer?

I like the Dog Whisperer. He’s got a sense of humor to go along with a lot of understanding of and experience with bad behavior. But what Cesar Milan does is kind of like the flip side of the coin from what I do. Cesar teaches people how to recover their dogs’ ability to behave by moving them out of excitement and into a more passive state. One of my big goals when working with students trying to develop a performance dog is to help them learn how to wind their dog up, make them super excited about playing (good training is actually playing), and teach the dogs the skills to be able to think while aroused. This is difficult for any animal, humans being no exception. Just look at the fact that sometimes in an emergency situation a person will scream out, “What’s the number to 911?” I’m not making this up. I often use the analogy of teaching our dogs to be able to perform while excited is much like trying to do calculus on a roller coaster. Not only do you need some level of calculus prowess, separately you need to train the skill of being able to function while your bio-chemistry is sending you emergency messages.

So, the answer to the question, “Sort of like the dog whisperer?” is, “Uh, no”. I don’t think Cesar would be very good at what I do, although I’m pretty sure I could teach him. But, to tell you the truth, his path might require him to overcome the dogs being a little “too well behaved”, or, in other words, often shut down. There is a fine line between disciplining your dog (respect must exist for a dog to be bearable to live with (remember, they are your pet, you are not their bitch!)), and shutting your dog down. At this stage of my life, I let my dogs be a little bit more naughty in some ways, because I like it when they have a lot to offer. My dogs jump on me when we train, because I want to have a Disc Dog who will gladly push off of my body to flip through the air for a catch. When I throw a toy out, my dogs fetch by coming bounding back and pouncing into me, bringing the toy right up to the height of my hands, and growl playfully. It’s a lot like the difference between raising a child to be quiet and polite to such a degree that they don’t question and wonder aloud with you. It’s in that latter behavior that you find some of your most treasured expressions of that young human being. But there is a huge difference between your dog walking all over you, or growling for real vs. in play, just like there’s a big difference between a brat mouthing off and talking back to you and a child inquisitively looking at the world through the precious perspective of a young one. And, as the leader or the parent, you will have to, from time to time, sometimes more than others, make adjustments and corrections to make sure your dog or child is on the right side of that fence. So, I appreciate that Cesar is out there, helping with all those “bad kids”, because I much rather invest my time in teaching a training style that allows an individuals (both dog and handler) to blossom 🙂

Aloha from the “human Border Collie”.

Yes, I am an overly enthusiastic character with an unforgivable intensity, just praying that you will find that to also be my charm;). Today I’m seeking to let you know that here thrives a unique dog training instructor that would love nothing more than for you to have an even cooler relationship with your dog. I have so many ideas that might just spark off a departure from your daily and launch you into a new hobby that is sure to turn you into a smile spreader.

Keep an eye on this blog and wander the wacky world of a fun-loving, smart, efficient, talented dog trainer and instructor as I encounter a variety of challenges and accomplishments in my professional and personal pursuits of a life full of dogs. We’ll talk about trick training, clickers, clicker training, dog behavior, agility, rally-O, competitive obedience, on-going obedience training, puppy training, shortcuts, eliminating unnecessary aids…I could just go on and on. So, I will, here, with random thoughts to get you thinking. Please don’t hesitate to share your thoughts whenever something resonates with you. It’s nice to know your out there with us!

But for now, I gotta go and find the ball 😉