I’m a competition obedience trainer. Someday I might play in agility as well. As far as I can tell, there are certainly no more than a couple hundred tiny behaviors that I need my dog to master, and many fewer that I’ll actually name or consider an “end” behavior. When I string these behaviors together in different sequences, I should be able to create any exercise I might want for competition obedience (AKC or schutzhund), or agility. Add a good dose of generalization in as many environments as I can create, and I’d hope to have a trial ready dog. With those same behaviors I also have the option of creating fun tricks, should I be so inspired.
When I start a training session, I know what I want my dog to learn. I want Lyra to look to me – so I can quickly help her figure it out. I understand that this approach will remove true creativity from her repertoire. That is the downside of avoiding free shaping. On the other hand, it makes it likely that she will learn what I want quickly and with “clean” behaviors. She won’t offer random behaviors when in doubt, because I don’t allow doubt to develop. I talk when it makes sense. I’m quiet when that makes sense. And when something spectacular happens, I cheer like a mad person. Lyra will learn what each of these means, and she will learn to respond appropriately.
If I wanted a trick dog, or a very flexible freestyle dog, I’d consider a program developed around free shaping. Heck, it’s fun to see what a dog will come up with, especially if your dog happens to be a clever free shaping dog. But right now, I’m not there. I know what I want, and I know how to help Lyra get there.
The following few paragraphs will give some examples of “object” cues and how I teach Lyra. I teach many object cues at the same time so that she will stay flexible.
When presented with a new object, I do not want Lyra to rely solely on her mouth, feet, or sense of smell. Each object has a specific expectation associated with it. Dogs learn this very quickly, as long as you use different objects for each objective.
If I put a platform on the floor, I want her to climb on the platform. It is not wrong if she noses it, barks at it, or scoots her butt up to it, but in the end I want her to get on top of it. I am ONLY going to reward behaviors that move me towards that end behavior. Maybe one cookie for looking at the platform, and one for sniffing it, but after that, I want to see feet. Feet and only feet. One foot up? That’s feet – she gets a cookie. Two feet up? That’s more feet – she gets a cookie. Once I know she can do two feet, there will be no more rewards for one foot. I’m aggressive and fast; I rarely reward for an easier behavior once I’ve seen a more complex behavior more than five times or so. Next, I want three feet. Then four. At that point I’ve got the behavior that I want. Four feet on the platform. She can sit, down or stand, but all four feet must be on that platform, or nothing else will happen. My goal is a fixation with the platform and her feet, because I plan to use that as a foundation behavior. Rewards may be cookies or toys. For the next week, the only thing I do with the platform is reward for feet. I want her absolutely committed to four feet on the platform.
If she had received more than one or two cookies for nosing the platform, then that possibility is going to stay in her repertoire much longer than if she got no cookies for nosing the platform. By the same token, if each time I started a session she got a cookie for one foot on the platform, then she is not going to become committed to my end behavior of “four feet on the platform”. Have a goal and work towards it.
At the same time that Lyra is mastering the platform, she is also learning about retrieving. Within a few days of introducing the platform, I introduced another category of objects that are for mouthing, but they are not toys. I start with the dumbbell. I hold the dumbbell behind my back and then show it to her. Curiosity will cause her to walk over and sniff it. I click for that, but only a few times. Then I want a nose touch. I stay at this level a tiny bit longer, but not more than the amount of time it takes to convince me that she touches the dumbbell “with intention” in order to get me to click. Then she must offer more. I want teeth. Or mouthing. And since she is a puppy, and puppies are mouthy, that comes quickly. If I had stayed at the nose touch past the point that she knew it would earn a cookie, what would cause her brain to kick in and offer more? Nothing. That leads to frustration. So I keep her flexible by constantly (and quickly) raising my criteria. If I asked too much too quickly, I’ll know it because she’ll walk away from the game. That’s my cue to rethink my criteria. Normally I would switch to a different exercise and return to the problem area after breaking it down more effectively.
Speaking of nose touch, I need that too! Soon after starting on the dumbbell, I also started a nose touch to my hand. That took five minutes because the end behavior is pretty much the same as the start behavior – touch my palm. I can name it now – touch! Next I’ll teach her to touch other objects besides my hand, but not yet. I still want a solid retrieve of objects before we move on to nose touches of objects. It’s easier to get an interrupted behavior (nose touch after retrieve) than to add on to an already established behavior (retrieve after nose touch). Sometimes order does matter.
But wait, there’s more! Sometimes I want Lyra to sniff objects to find scent – easiest scent to find is food. I used another set of objects for that; right now I’m using empty (and washed) Altoids mints tins. I put food in one on the floor, and when she sniffed it I picked it up and gave her the cookie. Next (within two days) I put down multiple tins side by side. Only one had food in it, and it happened to be the only one I touched with my hands. If she sniffed the tin with food, I clicked and gave her the cookie. Then I went ahead and added the retrieve, since she was offering it. If she picked up an empty tin, I opened it and showed her it was empty, and then I removed it from the pile (since my scent is now on it). That’s the start of scent discrimination. I intend to start teaching her to look for my scent without food present - soon. When I do that, I will switch to an object that she cannot easily pick up, to refocus her on the scent rather than the retrieve.
I push and move forward so she learns to think and work hard at each session. If she masters a skill, there must be a new skill on the horizon. When I take Lyra out to train, I want her thinking, figuring out how to please me. I want her to use me as a resource; because I may well be giving her clues about what I want based on where I’m standing, what I'm looking at or what I’m holding. Each step of a skill is tiny. In a given session, she will likely work on seven or eight skills, all building towards different end behaviors. Many of her behaviors are rewarded with toys (mostly tug but a little retrieve), because toys keep her energy and enthusiasm high.
I consider a session successful if she stays engaged in the game, improves on a few small skills, and covers a range of behaviors with good flexibility.
And don’t forget play. Every day we play in as many ways as I can think up. She must love interacting with me, because one day we’ll be in the ring together, and all she’ll have is me.