Friday, December 16, 2016

Training the Dog 1: A Discussion on Distraction Training

Training isn't just about solving or stopping behavior issues from happening, it's about working towards being a team with the dog of your dreams. Every single time you train behaviors, you are teaching a dog--a living creature with her own thoughts, emotions, and personality.

In Basic Obedience class, where the dogs learn sit, down, come when called, etc they are laying down a strong foundation. However, many trainers, for dogs at this level, are focused on the behaviors, and, as stated before, every time you train behaviors, you are teaching a dog. So, other than the behaviors, what is the dog learning? Trainers who know this can better choose methods for each behavior which support their overall program and support the growth of the dog-owner team. Teaching actual behaviors comprises perhaps 10% of all training you do with your dog. The other 90% is maintaining behaviors and making them stronger in the face of distractions.

Let's focus a little bit on distraction training. Dogs will choose not to listen for many reasons. The top 3 reasons why dogs will get distracted, in my experience, is because: They want to play with that thing over there more than they want to play obedience with you, their nervous systems are overloaded with stimuli, and they don't understand what you want out of them.

I tell my students that we are building thinking dogs. I want a dog who has the ability to weigh the two choices in their mind, obedience vs distraction, and can clearly choose obedience over distraction. If they can do that, then the dog will actually be motivated to problem solve their way into achieving obedience in the face of difficult distractions. Which will mean that, when the dog is put into a difficult situation, they will not only be able to choose the choice that benefits the team (picking obedience over competing reinforcers), but that choice will create a dog that will value work even more. It's really cool. Here's an example of one of the games I play in Level Two to build this:

I also tell my students that dogs are emotional creatures and that, like people, they either make good decisions or emotional ones. When their nervous systems are overloaded, a dog is either just a crazy-bean going around and jumping on everything or they are super stressed out and withdrawn into themselves. Dogs stress up or down. The crazy dog stresses up. The dog that practices avoidance (looking away, trying to escape obedience) is stressing down. With my dogs, I try to build emotional self-control and a habit of calm. I also build the skill of the dog being able to calm themselves after being energized and to be able to think even while intense and hyper. This is one of my students showing the calm mindset I am talking about while playing another "choose work over reward" type of game. I tell my students that dogs usually have a lead foot, they get to 100mph pretty easily, but don't know how to apply the brakes and that's what gets them into trouble. Basically, the foundation the dog has learned should teach him how to drive at a speed (be at a level of arousal [excitement]) where he can best listen to you.

And sometimes, the dog doesn't understand what is asked of her. Some people can be frustrated with this one even though it's the most obvious. Dogs do not generalize well. What works in the living room, they don't know also works out in the real world until you explain it to them. One of my students didn't understand how to do a stay out in the middle of the pet store. I told the owner to break it down as if you were teaching it anew. Ahhhh, I see. The dog seemed to say. That thing works out here, too! He then added ten or fifteen feet to the stay plus added faster movement away from the dog. Just took an extra minute of explanation, then the dog was all about working and the team could progress. Imagine how unfair it would have been if the dog was corrected for not complying with a command when the problem was simply that he did not understand or was not confident in that environment.

When you train a dog, it's more elegant and cleaner training if the foundation games will eventually turn into distraction training and will help the dog be able to finish her behaviors in different environments. I believe that choosing work (obedience) over rewards, teaching healthy ways to cope with stress, and showing the dog you will always be a fair teacher are important things you should not neglect in your foundation.