Regularly I get students in my classes who tell me that they want other family members to attend classes so that everyone will be consistent. Consistency is important in training, but what I mean by consistent and what my students often mean by consistent is often different. My students often spend a lot of time trying to replicate cues to their dogs that look identical regardless of who is giving the cue. I have often watched students who give an absolutely perfect imitation of one of the instructor’s body postures and positions when it comes to giving the cue and I know of people who have practiced cuing in the mirror. I am fairly sure that the dogs don’t care how consistent the cue is however. When learning, I think that MOST dogs care a lot more about how consistent the outcome is.
There are several learning stages that dogs go through when they are being trained. An easy way to think about the stages of learning in dogs is what I refer to as the 4 As. The first stage is awareness. During the awareness stage of learning, the dog gets a vague notion of what you are trying to teach. Either you lead him through the activity, or you shape it, or you capture it, but you make it easy for him to develop an awareness of what you want him to know. At this stage, you would not normally use a cue to tell the dog what you want because he does not yet know what it is that you are driving at.
The next stage is acquisition. This stage is where you add the cue, and the dog gradually develops proficiency in the behaviour. The third stage is application and this is the stage during which the dog learns to do the behaviour in a wide variety of circumstances, and if you have been using prompts, props or lures, you would fade these. In the fourth stage, always, the dog always performs the behaviour in context and on cue and never offers the behaviour when it would be inappropriate to do so.
In the first two stages, awareness and acquisition, it is essential that the outcomes are always consistent. If for instance, you are teaching your dog to stand on a platform, then in the awareness stage each and every time the behaviour occurs, the trainer MUST produce some sort of an outcome, and that outcome must be consistent. I like to use marker training for sits, and sits are an early foundation behaviour for my dogs, so I click and then throw a treat away from the dog for each and every sit until sits are super reliable. I would bet money that in a given training session if I have been reinforcing sits, the dog will finish that session up by offering me a sit after each treat. Why wouldn’t he? I have been extremely consistent, and he likes treats, so he is going to do what gives him treats! The click just marks exactly what it is that I am training (the sit) and the click is always followed by a thrown treat. This makes training very, very clear to the dog. Our job as trainers is to help our dogs to understand what behaviours will predict what outcomes.
If you have been in the world of dog training for any amount of time you have likely heard about variable schedules of reinforcement as a way to maintain known behaviours. While this is a very useful way to help dogs to learn duration of behaviour, it can backfire when you are working on the early stages of behaviours. In the first two stages of learning, you really want to work hard to make sure that your dog understands exactly what will result in a predictable outcome. In the final two stages we can start to change up the variables, but only when we are certain that the dog understands what the cue means, and what will happen when the behaviour is carried out.
An important part of consistency is to know which stage you are in and to work within that stage. The first stage, awareness, is all about learning the mechanics of the behaviour. You may need to use equipment, the landscape and your reinforcers very carefully at this stage to “explain” the behaviour to the dog. You know that your dog is ready for the second stage when he starts to offer the behaviour readily after each reinforcement is delivered. If you have been consistent, your dog will get through this stage in very short order and be ready to move on to the second stage.
In the acquisition phase, you can start to name or attach a cue to the behaviour. From the dog’s perspective the only thing that really changes between awareness and acquisition is that a cue is attached to the behaviour, and if you don’t give the cue, the predicted outcome won’t occur. At this phase you might start to do the behaviour in slightly different locations or under slightly different circumstances, but your dog should still be able to count on the consistent outcome to his behaviour. Coming back to the example of teaching your dog to step onto a small platform, and he is offering to put all four paws on the platform willingly and eagerly each time after he has received his treat thrown off to the side, then you are ready to name it. As your dog is on the way back to the platform you might say “pose” as he is on his way back to get all four feet onto the platform, and then mark the correct behaviour and throw a treat away for the dog to get. Over several repetitions, the dog will begin to associate the cue with the behaviour. Although the cues should be accurate, keep in mind that repeating your cues absolutely exactly time and again will not necessarily serve you well. If you have been careful to cue accurately in a certain pitch and cadence, then there is a pretty good chance that if you have a cold, or if you get startled when cuing your dog may not feel that the cue is sufficiently accurate to follow. In my experience, slightly messing cues can actually help the dog. Now this doesn’t mean using “pose” some of the time and “pretty” at other times, but saying the cue word slightly differently is not the end of the world. What will degrade your training more than anything will be if after your dog starts to offer the cued behaviour you suddenly start to use difference consequences. In these important learning phases, your dog counts on your to provide the same outcome to the behaviour he offers, each time he offers that behaviour.
You know you are finished with the Acquisition phase of the learning process when you can cue the behaviour, casually, formally, while sitting down, while standing up and still get the same high quality behaviour that you built in the awareness phase. If you have been careful to not move beyond this phase until your dog is truly ready for it, then you will be able to move smoothly into the phase where consistency starts to run the other way; instead of you being consistent for your dog, you can start to teach your dog to be consistent for you. The third phase of learning is Application and this is the phase where we start to work towards anytime, anywhere for anyone.
To start the Application phase, I want to continue to be consistent for my dog. Now though, I will start putting my new behaviour in a chain. Let’s say that my dog knows how to come when called and he is really good at it. Returning to my go to platform example, I might ask my dog to come away from something that he was doing by calling him, and when he came to me, I would ask him to pose. This is a two behaviour chain (come to me, pose) and the pose behaviour is the one that I reinforce. Once I had marked and rewarded the desired behaviour, in the case the pose, I would ask for a different behaviour such as the sit and then ask for the pose again and mark that and reinforce. I would keep doing two chains and then three, four and five chains until I could get pose into a very long sequence of behaviours, consistently reinforcing that last. Once my dog was willing to pose even after doing a whole bunch of other behaviours, then I would ask him pose and add in a second behaviour AFTER the pose. For the first time, I am being just a tiny bit inconsistent. I am starting to teach the dog that when I ask for a behaviour, I need him to consistently give it to me. This is where the nuances of consistency come into play. When he is reliably giving me two chains, then I start asking for longer chains, and I really start to take the behaviour to new places. If the new place is particularly difficult (say in class with a big and active adolescent beside you), I might go back to the second phase of learning, Acquisition, before practicing chains with the dog. The more you mix it up at this point though, the better your dog will get at consistently offering you the same behaviour over and over again. This is the point at which you can also start to offer a wide variety of reinforcers for the behaviour. If you started out using food treats, you can switch to using toys. The dog has a really good idea about what the behaviour is, and now you can start integrating the behaviour into his life.
When you would bet me a nickel that your dog will do the desired behaviour on cue, you are in the final or always stage of learning and you can expect that your dog will consistently offer the behaviour when you cue him to do so and not offer it to you when you don’t ask for it. At this point you need to know where you want this behaviour. With the pose behaviour, you might practice it from time to time to maintain fluency, but you really don’t want to just ask for the behaviour in random situations and expect to get it. Gratuitous tricks annoy dogs just as much as they annoy people. If you know how to type, you will willingly do that when you want to communicate, but you won’t likely be pleased if I ask you to do so at a dinner party or in the middle of a game of tennis. Just because you CAN type, doesn’t mean you will want to do so all the time. Let’s say you taught your dog to do this behaviour so that you could get him to stand still on the vet scale. By all means, practice it and reward it from time to time, but don’t just ask for it randomly. Ask for it in context and it will be there. Throw it into behaviour chains from time to time to ensure that he is fluent in the behaviour, but don’t ask for it all the time or you will decrease his consistency in giving you what you ask. If you have been consistent all the way through, he will continue to be consistent when you need the behaviour.