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!

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