For those of you who know me well, you likely know that I don’t really enjoy repetitious drilling. I am pretty sure that most of our animal learners don’t either. I had a riding coach who once told me “you got the move right, why are you practicing what you already know?” and I think she had a good point. Once you have mastered the behaviour, what exactly is the point of practicing it over and over and over again until it becomes stale and boring for your animal learner?
For me, this is one of the real challenges to training young puppies. The early skills that you have to teach puppies are important in order to build a solid training history, but once my puppy has a solid grasp on them, I want to move on. I DO train my puppies of course, and I encourage others to spend the time with their young naïve dogs teaching them the foundation skills that they will need too, but it is not my most fun training time. If I could just install sit, down, touch, go to mat, stay, come when called and you control the click as a little program without doing the work I probably would so that I could get on with the stuff that is more fun.
Here is the problem with dogs who have been in training for a few months. Most dogs get to the point where the foundation behaviours are known and they aren’t much fun for the dog any more! Sit? Got it. Not worth the kibble any more! This sequence is not an uncommon sight in my classrooms. The dog has learned the behaviour, and the owner then asks for that behaviour over and over and over again. The dog knows how to do it, and he has gotten to the point where asking for it, drilling it and repeating it leads the dog to start to mentally ask “what’s the point?” I will point out that he is not articulating that in words, but from what I can see an awful lot of dogs don’t want to keep practicing things just because you want them to do it. At this point in training one of two things needs to happen. Either the trainer needs to start to move the training along, or the trainer needs to start to apply the behaviour to something that makes sense to the dog! Both strategies are useful.
So let’s look at sit. If you have a young dog who knows how to sit, you can start to make that more challenging to the dog right away. It isn’t difficult. I like to make a mental list of all the places I have asked my puppy to do this. In the kitchen? Yup. The living room? Yup. The bathroom? Oooohhh! That one is trickier! I keep adding rooms until my dog is able to sit in any room in the house. Then I start to add in places outside. Front yard, back yard, on the porch, the driveway, the sidewalk, the park. When I run out of places, I add in objects. Can you sit on a mat? A cushion? That one is tricky! A boulder? A stump? A wall? A bale of hay or straw? In a puddle? The technical term for this process is generalizing. I am generalizing the dog’s ability to perform the behaviour to a wide variety of places and contexts. You can think of this as the Green Eggs and Ham of dog training.
There are other ways of generalizing too. Can your pup dog the same behaviour no matter who asks for it? When your dog is able to follow your directions in a number of venues, will he follow it for your brother? Your daughter? Your best friend? Your trainer? I am looking to train every cue such that my dog will follow that cue anytime, anywhere, for anyone, and that means getting very specific about what I am teaching. I cannot expect my dog to follow the instructions if he doesn’t know them and if he hasn’t had the chance to follow a cue in new places and with other people, I cannot expect him to be successful.
Still though, these are just foundational behaviours, and after practicing sit here, there and everywhere, my dog is going to start asking that all important question “what’s the point?” Why should he sit? What if he doesn’t want to? What if it isn’t worth a piece of kibble? I am willing to do many things, but some of the time, I just don’t feel like it, and it doesn’t matter if you offer me money or some other incentive to do it. the caveat is that if I think there is a good reason to do something, I will do that boring little thing, often for no reward. This is the important point to remember when our dogs hit that point where they have mastered the foundation behaviours but those behaviours don’t have context. When there is no point to doing the task, the dog may begin to refuse to play the game.
So how do we give context to behaviours? Simply put, we stop rewarding them with food, play or touch. We start to put the behaviour into other activities. Most dogs willingly sit for dinner; that is part of the ritual and routine for many dogs, so it makes sense to them to just do it. In fact, you can really annoy some dogs by offering them a treat before you put down the bowl. The reward for the behaviour is to get to eat dinner, however most of the time, the dog is just thinking about what the routine might be for getting to the meal. The same goes for dogs who are required to sit before doors open, or who have to sit before they get their leashes on. The sit just fits into the routine, and it has meaning to the dog.
We can go one better than that though. We can start making games for ourselves with our dogs that involve the foundation behaviours that get so boring so quickly. Using sit as our example again, we can start asking our dog to sit before we do things together, such as fetch, search or find me (or even better, find someone else!). The sit becomes embedded in other activities and gains meaning as part of other fun activities. Now the dog has a reason to perform the behaviour and that makes the behaviour itself much more meaningful to the dog.
You can kill the joy of the sit if it is the only behaviour you integrate this way however. If you only embed the sit, it is a little like playing scrabble where you only get four letters, a, e, s, and t. There are a very limited number of words you can spell with those four letters and if you try and play scrabble with these four letters, it is going to be a tedious and boring game. You might choose to play that way at first in order to teach someone the concept of the game, however in the end, you will get tired of the limits set upon you by having so few letters to use. As your dog gains more behaviours, you can start to play the same games with more “letters” or behaviours. Now, instead of only having sit to insert into your activities, you can make the required behaviour a surprise. You start making dinner for your dog, and before putting it down, you ask your dog to lie down, or sit, or touch your hand with his nose. When your dog gives you the behaviour you ask for, you can give him his dinner. In this way, behaviours become letters in the infinite game of training scrabble.
You can in fact extend this game into more and more complex activities that become meaningful for you and your dog. At Dogs in the Park, we run a games class each week for the dogs who have passed the foundation behaviours needed in order to play. We play things such as musical chairs (integrating leash manners, sits and downs into an activity), leap frog (go to mat) and recall relays (coming when called over and through distractions). By participating in group activities where the behaviours are applied instead of just drilled dogs become more willing and eager to perform those behaviours that have become stale and boring when you just drill them.
It is important to note that advanced behaviours can suffer the same fate as those foundational ones; drill the agility tunnel or the perfect front in obedience for too long and your previously enthusiastic dog will start to ask “what’s the point?” Once your dog asks that question about behaviours you have worked hard to polish, it doesn’t take long for an advanced dog to start asking that same question about more mundane behaviours too.