Thursday, March 8, 2012
Jane Killion Seminar: Overcoming Training Challenges
Everyone who trains dogs has training challenges. Whether it is something as minor as a puppy who doesn't want to lie down when asked or something as serious as aggression, we all face difficulty with our dogs. Jane has created a four-step protocol for overcoming these challenges. Today, I'm going to share it with you.
Step 1: Define the Behavior You Want
This might seem easy, but it's actually the hardest part. When faced with a challenge, we humans tend to describe it in negative terms. We talk about the horrible thing our dog is doing, about what we wish he would stop doing. But what we really need to do is start thinking about what we want to see instead.
Not only do we need to shift our thinking, but we also need to be specific. What exactly would that behavior look like? How would it play out? Jane cautioned us not to fool ourselves by simply following the rules; we need to branch out and figure out what the spirit of the rule is.
So let's say you're having trouble training your dog to stay. Maybe it's in competition obedience, maybe it's at the agility start line, maybe it's in your kitchen. What does it mean to stay? Well, it's when the dog sits and doesn't get up until you tell him, right? Oops- that was describing it as a negative.
Okay, how about this: a stay is where the dog sits and holds that position. Well, that's not bad, but Jane challenged to think more deeply about the behavior. How should he be sitting- straight and square, or kind of flopped over on one hip? Does it matter where he's looking? Should his head be held level or is it okay if he tries to sniff the floor while sitting there? Think about the purpose behind the behavior. If you just want him to stay put, these variables probably don't matter as much. However, if you want him to go from sitting to full speed and over a jump or through a tunnel when told, they matter a great deal. Decide what you need the behavior to accomplish.
Step 2: Train the Behavior You Want
This is actually the easiest part; the average seminar attendee (and I'd guess the vast majority of my readers) can figure out how to teach her dog to perform any given behavior. If you're not sure how to get the behavior you want, consult with a professional trainer.
Step 3: Find the Envelope
If you've ever been to a dog training class, you've probably heard someone lament, “But he can do it perfectly at home!” It's true, too; we all know that her dog can do it at home because of the lack of distractions. Once other dogs or tennis balls or interesting scents are added into the picture, the dog's behavior breaks down. “The envelope” is the specific context in which your dog can perceive, understand, and respond to the cue.
When you first teach a behavior, the behavior envelope is quite small. The dog can only respond when everything is just perfect. In this step, you only need to figure out where that envelope is. What needs to happen for the dog to be successful? What causes the dog to “forget” the behavior? Find out where your dog's training is.
Step 4: Work the Envelope
Now that you've found the envelope, it's time to start making it bigger. Doing this creates more contexts in which the dog can perform, and helps him understand that the cue word means the same thing, no matter where he is or what's going on.
You need to work right at the edges. If you push gently, the envelope will expand. If you start pushing and shoving, though, it's likely that you'll tear the envelope. You might be able to tape it shut and repair the behavior, but you might also need to start all over again with a new envelope.
When Jane was working with dogs in the seminar, she would work at those edges a lot. Her goal was to be at a level of distraction where she was on the verge of losing the dog to the more interesting thing, but where she was also reasonably confident she'd get him back. Because she doesn't like to nag or beg a dog to work, sometimes the dog did leave. Although her goal was to set up the situation so this didn't happen, sometimes she misjudged how much distraction the dog could endure and the dog (and let's face it- a seminar setting is a difficult place to work with a dog). This was okay; she'd simply wait the dog out and let him make the choice to come back to work because she believes that's where real learning occurs.
By following these four steps, the dogs all made a lot of progress. Most of the working dogs did agility, so the demonstrations were largely focused on solving challenges specific to the sport. While much of it went beyond my understanding, even I could see that the dogs improved a great deal. It was very fun to watch.
What do you think? Would following this protocol help you solve the challenges you're currently facing? Why or why not?