Start at the beginning

When it comes to training something new, it’s really surprising to find out how slicing down those first moments into super easy requirements pays off. Many people feel like making things so simple will compromise progress. But, in fact, it works the opposite way! Let’s look at a pretty involved project of training a dog to perform multiple, unexpected positions on a treadmill.

At first, most dogs aren’t going to be comfortable with this ‘crazy noise machine that moves strangely’. And I know a lot of you would try things like luring the dog straight onto the belt as your 1st step. It might even work out that you have a happy dog in a short while, marching along with his tail wagging. Some dogs (dare I say most?) would experience quite a bit of fear and unpleasantness with this approach. So, with experience as my guide here, my first goal didn’t involve turning the machine on…nor did it require the dog get on. They didn’t even have to touch it with a paw.

My first goal is to convince these dogs to LOVE the treadmill, to teach them that the machine is the source of fantastic reinforcement. Nothing else. I am not going to wait or ask for more. I’ll even interrupt the dog who’s ready to jump on by clicking the approach and throwing a treat the opposite way for a bit. Depending on a dog’s experience and skill at learning new behaviors through shaping, I’ll raise the stakes to touching the machine, then bearing weight on a foot on it…but, even with the most experienced dog, I will start by just rewarding approaches and investigation with enough “payment” (i.e. rewards) that the dog’s impression of the treadmill becomes, “I like this thing. Let me at it”.

How basic do I make those first steps? I don’t stand by the treadmill and try to pull the dog toward it. Instead, I sit in a chair (casually placed in the same room) and let them show me what they would do. ANY investigation of the apparatus earns a click followed by the treat thrown AWAY. Away because it relieves any pressure this new item may be putting on them. Running away to collect a treat is doubly reinforcing because it’s relief from any demands to do more, and, obviously, because it’s delicious food.

After chasing down that treat, the dog naturally turns back to where they just earned a treat, and can approach right up to the distance she was last comfortable at to earn another, pretty much “free” treat. What happens in the wake of these freebies, is, the dog figures out what earns, and starts running back faster and closer in an attempt to get treats out of me more quickly. Do that enough times and Voila! Now you can raise your criteria (which your dog is already offering)…but still only raise it a hair!

It’s so easy to get greedy. It’s reinforcing to YOU to see your dog climb up on the machine. Sure, you could probably have the dog walking on the belt in one session, but, I guarantee you that in a couple months, the dogs that started out slow will be much more confident than the coaxed dog, and likely will be dying for a chance to play the easy treadmill game. This quality of the performance makes all the difference in your and your dog’s enjoyment in training. Enthusiasm usually can’t be added in later if you don’t build it from the start. It’s counter-intuitive to realize this without experience learning that doing less will get you so much more in the long run. And, starting at the beginning actually takes less effort in the long run.

Zeal, who is usually very timid about putting his body on new surfaces, ran back from eating a treat and jumped on. I clicked before he landed, and threw the treat off the belt. Soon, he was happy jumping on and off from every direction, and we were able to next work on various positions where he has 2 feet on and 2 feet off. It’s important that he learns all these positions without the treadmill being turned on. Yes, it’s involved. But, ultimately, the goal is for him to move in a relaxed and healthy way while stepping in unusual ways. So, it takes a considerable amount of time to build this up. Not because we couldn’t turn on the belt sooner. But because I want him to be totally comfortable around the treadmill before the next big scary step: the moving belt.

Turning it on for the first time, start by rewarding for the same easy steps from the 1st day.  Take as much time as your dog needs to feel comfortable. Abandon your goal of exercising your dog already on the machine, and teach your dog in a way that allows him to build confidence. Build from approaching, to touching with a paw, to bearing weight on a paw, and position yourself straddling the belt to prevent the dog from hopping on with all 4 feet. Allow your dog to stand on with his hind feet on the firm ground and give him time to understand how this moving belt works. Let him choose to get on and walk with his front feet. Keep rewarding the dog by throwing the treat away from the machine. For most dogs, this moving contraption will occasionally startle your dog during these stages, and you don’t want to give your dog the ultimatum of having to put himself at risk to collect the treat held over the belt. Here’s where you’ll really see the payoff of “relief”.

Only after your dog starts to move on the belt without fear should you consider rewarding them while they are actively walking on the belt. It could take anywhere from a number of days to weeks to get to this level of comfort. Don’t rush it. Unless using the treadmill is a passing fad, you want to solidly develop all the movements so that you can really use it for conditioning exercises. By the way, most human treadmills are too short for medium and large dogs to walk/run with 4 feet on. You could train them to an unnatural, shortened gait. However, you can train a number of variations with a simple human treadmill.

But, back to the point. If you want to develop a dog’s work ethic, you can’t just throw them into a situation and ply them with treats and think that you’ve built something reliable. Using positive reinforcement well involves more than just feeding your dog lots. The how and when and placement of reinforcement along with the selective additional environmental challenges makes a big difference.

Likewise, you can’t use traditional methods and correct a dog who isn’t paying attention or working for you and achieve a strong work ethic (that’ll earn you a dog that doesn’t totally trust/enjoy working with you). A dog trained that way only behaves so long as you have “controls” in place. Take away the leash and fear of you (usually achieved by a enough distance from you), and your imagined power over this dog fades fast.

You’ve got to use good training strategies, build value along the way, remain your dog’s friend throughout, and prepare him for challenges. The only way I know how to do this is to have the dog be an active participant in the learning process. There’s so much more to it than just “obeying”. A very “obedient” dog that never developed thinking is often trained to be dumb. But, a dog that makes choices throughout the training journey, with criteria adjustments made neither too difficult, or too easy for too long, becomes a very clever “kid”,  because he’s practicing learning all the time. This is fun for a dog. And, purely for the sake of this fun, such a dog wants to work, and a work ethic is born.

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