Sunday, January 8, 2012

Can you count on your dog to perform?

Buzz doing his Dock Diving Thing!
Can I Count on the Dog to Perform?
Author, Jan Casey
For me, there is no greater pleasure than working with a dog and watching him catch on to what it is this silly human is asking him to do. Without a doubt, if my Buzz could talk, one of his most common questions would be "You want me to do what?" Trainers ask for bizarre behaviors – playing dead, weaving through legs, throwing rear feet on to a wall. As we start down the path of learning yet another ridiculous trick, Buzz usually gets quite vocal. I think I'm glad there is no such thing as a Doglish-to-English translator. Once learned, can I count on him to perform the behavior reliably?
What does it mean for a dog to have a behavior that is "reliable?" Basically, when you ask the dog to perform a behavior, he does so at least 80% of the time (or 8 out of 10 times for those who equate math to a foreign language). That means 20% of the time (2 out of 10 times), the behavior may not happen. What? You mean the dog doesn't do as asked every time? Is he rebelling? Doesn't he know who is boss? I mean, we are the superior beings who must be obeyed, right?
There's a saying in the training world that a behavior must be repeated 1000 times before a dog is considered to be proficient at that behavior. That means if you practice the behavior 10 times a day, it will only take 100 days before the dog performs that behavior reliably. Now think about the last time you tried to teach your dog something new. Did you practice that behavior 10 times a day, every day, for 100 days? Most likely not. You have a life and that life often includes other things like a job, eating, sleeping, and family. How many behaviors has your dog practiced 1000 times?
Perhaps one of the worst descriptions of dog behaviors I've heard is "He's blowing you off." Wow – you mean the dog is equating me to a leaf in the wind? Chances are, he's not. Dogs fail to respond to cues for a variety of reasons. One of the most common is the dog does not really know the behavior completely. Humans too often feel if they train the behavior in the living room at home, the dog will understand the behavior everywhere. Unfortunately, this is not the case. The behavior must be trained in a number of places with a variety of distractions. Try this simple experiment. Ask Princess to sit. Now ask her while your back is turned to her and then again as you are lying on the floor. Unfortunately, "sit" probably only happens when you are standing in front of her, with your hand lifting upward while you give the verbal instruction to sit. Continue the experiment in new places with distractions like tennis balls rolling by. How well does Princess really know the cue to sit?
If you've been a good owner, training your dog in the behaviors that are considered necessary for him to be well-mannered, perhaps the most frustrating experience you will have is when your dog backslides, he fails to perform a behavior that you know he knows, one you've practiced in all types of situations. Is he angry with you and trying to make you look foolish? Probably not. It is so important to initially rule out any kind of medical problem since a change in behavior is often the first sign that something is wrong with the dog physically. For instance, it makes no sense to try to fix a lapse in house training if the dog has a thyroid problem. He has no control over the need to urinate.
So what do you do when your dog stops being reliable and it's not physical? You back up. Yes, it's that simple. Make the behavior a little less challenging. Reduce the duration and the distractions and the distance. Bring the clicker back in to the picture, break the behavior into smaller steps, and increase the rewards when you get a response that shows the dog is headed back in the right direction. It's amazing how well dogs respond to something simple and familiar. The best part is it won't take long to regain the same excellent behavior you had previously.
Check your signals and communication to your dog. One of the great agility tee shirts states "Great dog. Shame about the handler." Double check your own body language, your cues. Have they changed? Is there something you are doing differently? Our dogs are so in tune with us that even slight changes in our cues can confuse them.
Retaining one's composure, accepting that the dog is not disrespecting you, can be far more challenging than it appears. I've seen experienced trainers lose their cool and incorporate physical punishment in an effort to correct a less-than-perfect behavior. A swift kick might get the dog back into alignment for a heel, but at what cost? When the pressure is on during a performance, will the dog associate that behavior with punishment or reward? What one gains in position may be lost in confident body language. I've never been willing to trade my dog's trust in me for a ribbon. Are you?

Jan Casey is a
reward-based trainer in Florida
at Courteous Canine, Inc.
and owner of Smiles and Wags Pet Services Mrs.
Casey is a member of the Association of Animal
Behavior Professionals.
Casey is a columnist for the Cookeville,
Herald-Citizen Pet
and Kid's Korner .
This column was originally written for the Herald-Citizen

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