Many years ago, I had two clients in class. One very energetic bouncy happy lady had a very energetic bouncy happy border collie. The other very quiet laidback low key lady had a very quiet laid back low key Malamute. When it came time to teach the dogs to come when called, the very energetic bouncy happy lady handed me her dog’s leash, I held the dog by the collar and she jumped up and down and up and down and made squeaky enticing noises and ran away and called her dog. Her very energetic very bouncy happy dog raced joyously to her and promptly bounced her to the ground where the two of them had a very energetic, very bouncy happy love fest. Next, the very quiet laidback low key lady handed me her dog’s leash and I held her dog by the collar as she ambled slowly away and stopped half way to the end of our training field to tie her shoe lace. She got up and slowly continued to the end of the field where she turned and calmly asked the dog to come. I released the dog’s collar and he very slowly, very quietly and calmly ambled towards her, stopping once to sit down and scratch, and then to sniff and go pee, and then he wandered off towards the other dogs in the class waiting for their turn at the exercise.
Week after week, I coached these two trainers on how to get better recalls. Relax a bit I told the very energetic bouncy happy lady, and he won’t knock you over when he gets to you. Get a little more excited and interesting for your dog I coached the quiet laidback low key lady, so that your dog is a little more excited to get to you. The more I coached them, the more extreme each of these ladies seemed to get. The very bouncy lady got bouncier, and the quiet lady got calmer and even more reserved. One day in exacerbation, I had them trade dogs and each dog had a much better recall. Of course over time, each of the handlers DID improve however the bouncy lady was still bouncy and the quiet lady was still quiet. Luckily they each had dogs to suit their own temperaments!
This scenario really highlights something I see in my classes though. We have to give the dogs what they need in order to learn. We can only teach the dogs what they have the foundations to understand and we must present the material we want them to learn in such a way that they will be successful in their activities. If we don’t we won’t be successful in our training. In short, we have to travel at the speed of dog.
When I see dogs struggling in class I start out by asking myself if the dog has all the information he needs in order to learn the task. If we are teaching a dog to go away from us for instance, and we start by asking the dog to move out 20 metres, and the dog doesn’t know how to go two metres away from us on cue, then we are very unlikely to be able to build a solid, happy and energetic go out. We need to understand the mechanics of what we are working on (coming when called usually works better when the person is a longer not shorter distance from the dog for instance), what motivates the dog, and what the dog already knows in order to be successful. I have taught the long distance go out a number of different ways, all depending on which dog I am working with. The point is that I have to travel at the speed of dog in each and every instance.
Another thing I need to consider when I am teaching dogs is what their own way is of moving through the world. I tend to be a fairly intense, high energy handler. I do best with confident, pushy dogs who enjoy my big personality, but as a professional dog trainer, I have to train calm quiet dogs, timid dogs, energetic silly dogs and dogs who just defy classification. In other words I have to be flexible in the way that I interact with dogs.
I also have to be flexible in my behaviour when I am teaching different exercises. When I am teaching a dog to perform a self control exercise such as the down stay, it is better to start out by being low key and neutral. When I want to teach a dog to come to me from a distance, it generally pays better to be a little bit exciting, unless of course you are working with a dog like my student had who was charging her and knocking her over.
Another aspect to travelling at the speed of dog is the rate at which we give the dog information. Ideally we want the dog to offer enough iterations of the behaviour that he can get sufficient rewards to tell him what it is that we want. We have to set up the dog so that he gets the right answer quickly and efficiently and if he has not received a reward recently we cannot be surprised when he disengages from the activity and does his own thing.
Not only do we have to give the dog enough information to know when he is right, but we also have to give him cues in a timely manner. I have watched many students say the dog’s name and then wait and wait and wait before giving the dog the cue to the behaviour that will earn a reward. The only thing this achieves is a dog learning that in the training context, he should disregard his name! If your dog is engaged, you likely don’t need to use his name at all. You can learn more about how to effectively use your dog’s name at https://mrsbehaviour.com/2015/06/13/your-dogs-name-an-operating-manual/ . Similar to this issue is when you have a dog who has performed a behaviour, and the handler delays the next cue for a very long time. This leaves the dog hanging so that he doesn’t quite know what is coming up next, and if he is not eagerly engaged in the activity to begin with, he will just wander off to do his own thing.
Travelling at the speed of dog requires us as trainers to be aware of a number of variables and factor them all in when we are working with our dogs. If the dog we are working with tends to be excitable, we need to tone down. If that same dog needs to perform that behaviour with exuberance, then we can bring our own enthusiasm up a bit and help them to express the appropriate amount of energy for the given activity. We need to avoid overwhelming the dog with too much or too little information. Developing the ability to juggle all these factors can feel very overwhelming for many of us, however then they are all in balance, the dog travels along through the training game along side of us and learns effectively and efficiently.