Like a red-headed stepchild, it’s easy to overlook those little, everyday logistical behaviors, like taking off (or putting on) the leash, getting in and out of the car, taking the dumbbell from the judge. They are small, you usually don’t get any points for them, and frankly… they are not at all sexy.

These forgotten behaviors are never an end in themselves, rather they are usually just something that happens on the way to the thing we really want to train. So they are very easy to gloss over, because who wants to waste a whole training session taking the leash on and off? I don’t got time for that!

The good news is we can work on these skills without having to spend 10 or even 5 minutes repeating the skill in formal training setups. In fact, once we get a little homework in place, often the best place to work on these behaviors is in context, in the stream of events in which they are actually occurring. IRL, you know?

The cool part is that many of the cues for these logistical behaviors are present in that sequence of events (context cues). So once we get the needed skills on board, we can insert those skills into the sequence and make use of those cues by deliberately pairing them with the behavior we want.

When we train that way, one really well-structured repetition of the behavior, on cue and reinforced, will carry over more effectively than 20 repetitions at home, out of context. But that does mean we need to bring our focus to that moment and be very clear on what our cues are and deliberate with our reinforcement. Those context cues are going to be present either way, and will be associated with whatever behavior the dog performs. So, it’s to our advantage to make sure we are rehearsing what we want on those cues.

For example, in the obedience ring, there are many situations where a judge or steward will approach you and either stand nearby or you’ll exchange some object (leash, dumbbell, etc). That can be a pretty big distraction! In fact, it’s one that Rugby has struggled with.

Here’s an example from a match we went to a while back. In this video, we are setting up for a Novice-style recall.

Click Here for link to video above.

I couldn’t find the example of ricocheting off the steward handing us the dumbbell, but honestly that’s ok because it was even worse, and I’m sure you can use your imagination. (Very embarrassing. Can anybody recommend a good dog trainer?)

Obviously, this isn’t really part of my ideal picture of our performance. I want to fix it, but I have two problems. First, I don’t actually want to spend a whole lot of time handing the dumbbell back and forth. And second, I usually don’t have anybody around to hand it to me anyway.

On the rare occasion that I do have somebody available to help, I don’t want to spend that extra time on this little skill… I would much rather use the time to train the components of exercises that will earn actual points. Like retrieving! Maybe we can compromise?

I know at the very least, I want my dog to stop *practicing* jumping up on the judge (it really doesn’t help your score in anyway, no matter how well-intentioned and adorable the dog), and ideally he’d ignore the judge entirely and stay in heel position. So I need a plan to prevent the undesired behavior, and I guess while I’m at it I may as well plan to train the darn thing, too.

I did put some time and thought into how I could break this down and what exactly I wanted to happen. What cues are involved and what behavior do I want the dog to do. Since this was all in my head (or on my whiteboard) I could do it at home with no other humans present.

Then when I did have a chance to meet up with a few buddies, I did a few rounds with them present to lay the groundwork. Since I am using behaviors we were already training (sit at heel), all I needed to do was add a bit to the picture and continue to reinforce those moments.

Click Here for link to video above.

In this case, I swapped in a high five for the dumbbell or leash to keep it simple and efficient. This way I could just do a couple reps in the course of a short training session, reinforcing each one and then moving on to something else. It didn’t take a whole lot of time, but I did have to plan for it and be very deliberate. Quality, not quantity.

The next step is to put it in context. At our next match, I didn’t want to use my ring time messing around with the dumbbell (let’s get straight to the retrieving!), but I did want to make sure we rehearsed the sequence the way I wanted it to look. So I went into the ring with that in mind.

When dumbbell time came, I gave the cue I planned on, stayed focused on my dog during the handoff, and reinforced him for the desired behavior before moving on to do the exercise. One reinforced, in context repetition, with my full focus. Success!

Click Here for link to video above.

(I left the retrieve itself in just for fun, and so you could enjoy the adorableness.)