Adding distance to a behavior is one of those things that sounds simple on the surface, but can get sticky in practice.
Intellectually, you know that the secret (which isn’t really a secret) is to gradually increment the distance, reinforcing your dog for performing the behavior farther and farther away from you. But so often, when you set out to do just that, you hit bumps. It happens to all of us! The behavior falls apart at some invisible threshold. Or suddenly becomes unreliable. It’s a common problem and one that comes up often in seminars that I teach.
I think there are 2 main reasons for this effect.
Reason #1: We are lousy at judging exactly how far away a certain distance is.
By default, I know that I tend to count distance by “steps”. As in, “I’m going to give the cue from 8 steps away” or “I’ll take one step back and send him to the target.”
The problem, which becomes apparent on video, is that my steps can vary in size by quite a lot. It’s almost as bad as women’s clothing sizes in terms of consistency. I also have noticed that I will tend to drift from whatever reference point I think I’m using between reps.
Have you ever thought to yourself, “I’ll start at that patch of white flowers”, which (in the moment) seems so unique and useful a landmark? Only to look up and notice there are about 402,997 white flowers in the yard.
Which flower was your original starting point?
I’ve personally done this, and have been absolutely certain I was anchored in place, and then discovered on video playback that I was all over the place while in the process of reinforcing my dog… ending up in a totally different spot when I went to repeat the behavior.
The result is that in any given session, let alone from one session to the next, I might be totally disconnected from reality when it comes to my increments and absolute distance at which I am asking my dog to perform.
Lousy record keeping tends to contribute to this, too. A lot.
Reason #2: We get blurry about what counts as a “successful” rep at any given distance.
Yes, you can and should relax other criteria while focusing on building distance. But I don’t want you to do that at the expense of the behavior itself. When adding distance, DO reduce distractions, requirements for duration, etc, but don’t change the way the behavior looks.
For example, if the behavior is actually: run straight ahead of me and touch the target. Then a rep that included: run straight, spin, bark, repeat cue, run, touch target – would not count as a success.
This is where I find it helpful to differentiate between criteria for reinforcement and criteria for advancement. If I gave my dog a cue at a new distance, and he did do the behavior, say he ran out to the target, but stopped and looked over his shoulder halfway before continuing (I like to think I would not put myself in a position where I was repeating the cue), I would still reinforce that performance. I know reinforcing that target behavior is likely to give me a stronger response the next time.
However, I will not increase my criteria and add more distance to that behavior, because I would be building on a very shaky response, and I’m more likely to see that error, and probably other errors, in future reps. That would do nothing to build my dog’s confidence with this behavior, and would very likely erode his motivation.
There are a few tricks that can help you avoid these pitfalls.
Use Pre-measured Visual Markers
Outdoors, I like to use landscaping flags (as for tracking, since I don’t really do anything resembling landscaping around here. Or washers with a bit of bright colored landscape tape tied on. A friend of mine uses brightly colored clothespins in the same way.
Indoors, you can use tape or stickers. Mats often come with really helpful seams or lines that can act as visual markers, but I often find adding a few pieces of tape as insurance helps keep me honest.
Before you get your dog out, measure whatever increments are relevant and mark those. Don’t forget to mark where your dog will be (if walking away from the dog) or where your target will be if sending the dog away from you.
Decide What Specifically Counts As A Success
Define the behavior. What does a successful rep look like? What does an unsuccessful rep look like? Consider factors like latency and speed. Will you count a rep that is slower or more hesitant than usual to be successful? (Hint: The answer here should be no.)
Keep Good Records!
Ok, I admit this is the part that is hardest for me. I am so much better at those first two. But truly, if my goal is to systematically add distance to Rugby’s signals and go outs, I need to know exactly how far we practiced in the previous sessions. That information informs my training plan for the current session. And having that in one place and at a glance is critical. When it comes to record keeping, I have to make it easy on myself if I’m going to do it at all.
So, here is how I can help you! Since we are thinking Open and Utility thoughts these days, I actually am working on adding distance to Rugby’s behaviors. Which is what reminded me of this problem. So, I created a little checklist to help me keep track!
The idea is simply to decide in advance what distances each rep will be (I like to alternate easy/hard/easy), and then get my dog out and do them, checking off if we were successful at each distance. I also added a little space for notes so I could jot down anything relevant, especially any kinds of specific errors I noticed.
Would a record keeper like this help you? Feel free to use the one I created for my own training for distance sessions. Just add your email in the box below.
P.S. Here’s the video I referenced above related to systematically adding distance to go outs.