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Dog Training Fundamentals


12.) Teaching your dog.


Congratulations! You made it. If you read through all of the previous sections, you should have learned the fundamentals of teaching your dog in a positive and rewarding manner. Now let's talk about how to get started with the actual training.


Location, location, location! Eliminating distractions is a critical part of training a dog in the early stages. In the beginning, we want 100 percent of our dog's attention and this is just not going to happen if there are other things or family members around. You can start in your backyard or even in the kitchen. If you have other dogs or family around, get them outside and close the door. Once your dog has made some progress, we can gradually introduce distraction while making sure the dog does not looses his focus.



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Brevity is the soul of wit. Back in the days when I started out working with dogs, I met a lot of people who spent their entire Saturday and Sunday afternoons at the dog cub going from one routine to the next. You could always tell by the look of their dog how long they had already been there: There was no real heeling. Instead, their dogs trailed behind them with their heads down, only speeding up after getting one of the frequently applied "motivational" jerks on the leash.


Not a nice picture. So how often should you train with your dog? Follow the principle that less is more. At least initially, don't train more than a few minutes at a time, do only focus on a single behavior and make sure that you always finish your training session on a high-note. We want our dogs to be excited when the next session starts. Repeat your training sessions several times per day, but always make sure that your dog is fully motivated. Don't train if your dog seems tired or distracted and don't even think about training if your emotional state is anything other than friendly, calm and well balanced. Over time, you can increase your training sessions, but always make sure that your dog does not get tired or disinterested before you finish.


The how question. There are seven easy steps for teaching your dog a new behavior:


Step 1: Entice your dog to get to a new behavior by either capturing, shaping, luring (or even modeling or molding). Don't use a verbal command quite yet - we don't want our dog to make an incorrect connection with this command.


Step 2: Mark the right behavior at the moment it is displayed. Your marker should come instantaneously with the desired behavior, but in no even later than 1-2 seconds thereafter or your dog might not make the connection.


Step 3: Reward your dog for the correct behavior. Always keep in mind that the marker does not trigger or reward the behavior, it merely is a confirmation that our dog is about to get a reward from us.


Step 4: Repeat the behavior. Once your dog displays the new behavior with ~80% reliability, we can start to combine a verbal command or clue with the behavior.


Step 5: Use the verbal command to elicit the newly learned behavior. If you have used any physical signs to get to the new behavior (such as moving your hands to the ground to get to a down), continue to use such signs with the new verbal command another 10-15 times.


Step 6: Take a break. One of the biggest mistakes (that even some professional dog trainers make) is to "over-train". We have just accomplished something great and our dog is having fun. You should be proud and after some well deserved play time we can start thinking about what we want to do next. If we have done things right, our dog will perform the newly learned behavior with a lot of motivation and excitement. If we don't stop at this point but instead continue to "practice" the new behavior again and again and again, our dog's excitement will soon turn into frustration or even avoidance behavior.


Step 7: Now that your dog knows the behavior and understands the verbal/tactile clue combination, we start to separate both clues from another (signal-timing). Dogs tend to respond better to tactile signals then to verbal clues. If we want our dog to reliably respond to a verbal clue only, we need to teach him that the verbal clue is of greater importance than the tactile signal. This can be accomplished by having the tactile signal follow the verbal clue with a short delay (1-2 seconds). This way, we teach our dog that the verbal clue is simply a precursor to the more powerful tactile signal. Since motivated dogs don't tend to wait, our dog will soon start to respond as soon as the verbal clue is offered. If you want to make sure that your dog responds exclusively to your verbal command and not some other subtle physical sign, put your arms behind your back, face away from your dog and then give the verbal command. If your dog still performs the command, you are in the clear.



Chaining and back-chaining . Before we conclude the fundamentals section, I would like to spend another minute on how to train more complex behaviors or tricks. Teaching our dog any single-action behavior (such as to sit down) is easy, but what about the more complex behaviors that require our dog to perform multiple actions after another?


Just think of the dumbbell retrieve in competitive obedience. The exercise starts with your dog waiting in the basic position to your left while you hold the dumbbell with your right hand. You throw the dumbbell - your dog continues to wait calmly. You give the "bring" command - your dog gets up and runs towards the dumbbell, he picks it up and promptly returns to you where he has to get into the sit position again, this time however right in front of you while holding the dumbbell calmly up to your waist until you take it from him.


This exercise involves at least a dozen of different sub-exercises:


(1) waiting in the basic position,

(2) running to the dumbbell on command,

(3) picking it up and quickly returning with it to the handler,

(4) getting into a sit position in front of the handler,

(5) holding the dumbbell calmly in front of the handler's waist, and

(6) releasing the dumbbell upon the "out" command.


We would ask way too much of our dog if we would try to train such complex behavior as a single lesson. Instead, we need to break these complex multi-step behaviors down into their basic components and train each of them individually. This is called "chaining or back-chaining" Once our dog has learned all individual components, we can start to piece them together into a complete behavior. Click here to go to the lesson overview.


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