In the last episode, we talked about what errorless learning really means. And I shared a few strategies that might make it easier to apply in your training.
Of course, the major benefit to using errorless learning concepts in your training is the outcome of behaviors with a cleaner learning history and less emotional baggage.
Of course, we don’t want attempts to avoid errors to mean we also avoid making progress. We still want to get where we’re going, just with fewer wrong turns.
In this episode we discuss:
- Behavioral momentum.
- Using behavioral momentum to avoid a lack of response to your cues (a common form of error).
- The importance of starting with low criteria and be in a position to raise that criteria quickly, rather than starting with an error and being forced to lower that criteria (Thanks, Bob Bailey!).
- Examples from starting a heeling session, to working with distance on go outs, to teaching a pony to move forward on cue.
- Using an indirect, “lateral” approach to selecting your criteria to avoid hammering on the most fragile aspect of a behavior you are trying to train.
- Examples include teaching hold with duration (after breaking it), and working around emotionally-loaded challenges with heeling or loose-leash walking.
- And probably other things I forgot!
This podcast is supported by: Zero to CD
Zero to CD is an online group mentorship program designed to provide support, structure, and accountability for people who are new to competition obedience and looking to earn their Novice level title AND to make competition obedience accessible to all dogs and handlers through force-free, positive reinforcement-based methods.
Hannah Branigan: [00:00:00] If you run into something – some variable, some distraction, some stimulus, some aspect of a behavior that you’re trying to train – that seems to create a high likelihood of errors, stop working on that thing! Don’t run straight at the hardest part of it. Work around it. Take an indirect approach.
Hey there, fellow training nerds. You’re listening to Drinking From The Toilet. If you like to geek out about combining the science of behavior with positive reinforcement philosophy in real life, you’ve come to the right place. And I’m your host, Hannah Branigan: teacher, trainer, podcaster, and author of the book Awesome Obedience and its companion, Awesome Obedience: The Field Guide, which are both [00:01:00] available from clickertraining.com.
So we are now in the month of October, which means, among other things, that it is Zero to CD enrollment season. The program will open on Monday, October 23rd with Orientation for the new cohort on the following Wednesday, November 1st. It’s a little weird this year because of November 1st being on a Wednesday, but that’s when the official orientation is going to be.
So, if you’re not familiar with it, Zero to CD is my online mentorship program that is a little bit about obedience and a lot about applying good training practices in real life. So, very nerdy, very comprehensive. We cover aspects of training that you really can’t find in a class or webinar or, I mean, really most other places, particularly when it comes to tackling a large, long-term training project, like training for an obedience title. Teaching the skills is [00:02:00] relatively easy. (Everything’s relative.) But how do you integrate all the different skills into larger, more complex behaviors, incorporate distractions without ruining everything and turn these isolated components into a cohesive performance in a complex environment when you don’t have any food in your pocket? And do it all in a way that’s consistent with modern, progressive, positive reinforcement philosophy and standards.
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This week we’re talking more about strategies of how to train without errors or to minimize errors in training while still being effective and making progress.
Of course, before we dive into that, I need to thank some really amazing special people who are [00:03:00] supporting this podcast right now on Patreon. So thank you to Michelle C, Jenn M, Nick T, Carol L, and Christina K. Y’all are amazing. I really can’t thank you enough. I appreciate you and love you so much. If you would like to join their ranks and support the podcast, get your questions answered, get access to some super-secret extra podcast episodes, join our monthly Q&A where I’ll answer your questions – in the last Q&A, I also did some live training demos, worked through some troubleshooting stuff that I’m working on with Rugby. So if you want to get in on that, you can go to Patreon.com/DFTT.
So last episode, we talked about what errorless learning really means. [00:04:00] And I shared a few strategies that might make it easier to apply in your training. If you did not catch the last episode, that would have been number 178, you’re probably gonna want to go back and listen to that. You’ll hear me talk more about what errorless training is and the history behind it and why it matters. So, of course, the short version is that the major benefits to using errorless learning concepts in your training are that the outcome is behaviors that have a cleaner learning history and less emotional baggage, which is kind of a big deal, right? Like, we can get behaviors, but the how matters, and those pesky little emotional associations tend to stick around and they’re a lot harder to eliminate. So teaching clean in the first place – or at least cleaner – is always going to get us where we want to go in the long run a lot faster.
But [00:05:00] the important part… Well, that’s the important part. Here’s the other important part. The other important part is that we don’t want attempts to avoid errors mean that we also avoid making progress. Life is short. We have stuff to do, places to go. We still want to get where we’re going, just with fewer wrong turns. Sort of a behavioral GPS of sorts? But like one that doesn’t take a tone with you when you miss your exit and like start sarcastically telling you to take an illegal u-turn until you turn off the volume. Different. But, you know, kind of like that. But different.
And I know I said it repeatedly in the last episode, I’ve said it in other episodes talking about errorless learning, I say it frequently in workshops and seminars: It’s always really critical to keep in mind that when we say errorless learning or errorless training or errorless teaching, we don’t mean literally never making a mistake or never not reinforcing the dog (or horse or emu or whatever).
What we [00:06:00] mean is that we’re not using extinction as our primary training strategy. We’re using, honestly, good training practices. We are setting our animals up for success, setting our learners up for success, so that they’re practicing what we want them to do.
A thing that I always circle back to with this kind of topic is that reinforcement drives behavior.
And in fact, the only thing – literally the only thing that’s going to increase the frequency, increase the likelihood of getting a correct response in the future, is reinforcement of correct responses. So extinction of a lot of other responses doesn’t really help us. The most efficient path is reinforcement of correct responses. So what we really want is a whole boatload of correct responses that get reinforced because that’s what’s going to help us see [00:07:00] more of those again in the future. That is how behavior works.
Alright, so we want to waste fewer training minutes doing behaviors that are not the ones that we want and maximize – optimize even – the number of training minutes that our animals or learners spend doing behaviors that we do want to see, or at the very least on the path to what we want. Win/win all the way around everybody. Everybody wins in this scenario.
But that’s easy to say. How do we actually make that happen? And I do think that that is where many of us stall out. I’m fully bought in, a full believer in the benefits of using errorless learning strategies, and still sometimes I’ll get stuck with a particular behavior or situation and I’m like, “Well, how do I apply this? What do I do? I’m getting a whole lot of errors, so something is wrong and I need to change the program,” right? That’s ultimately what this comes [00:08:00] down to.
Dr. Susan Friedman talks about “Errorless learning is more than a set of procedures; It’s a whole mindset.” And the mindset is if your learner is making mistakes, it is not a problem with the learner. It’s not the learner’s fault or responsibility to figure that out. The responsibility lies with the program.
And I actually like that. In fact, this is not on my outline at all, but let’s take a moment here.
Because I think also one of the things that can happen with us as trainers is that when we are bought into errorless learning and positive reinforcement and then our learner is making mistakes, it’s very easy to fall into the emotional trap of, “Well, I guess I’m just garbage and I shouldn’t be training at all and I should give this dog back to their breeder, and I should give up everything because I’m never going to meet my goals.”
And if we’re really, like, fully internalizing an errorless learning mindset, it’s not the dog’s fault. It’s not your fault. It’s the program’s fault. I [00:09:00] don’t know that we need fault at all in this conversation, but, if we have to, let’s pin it on the program. So we just need a different program.
Okay. So what kind of differences are we talking about? Well, one strategy or tool that I lean on very heavily is called behavioral momentum.
Now I’m going to read to you from an abstract. This is from Mace et al. 1988 ([remarking at the date] Goodness!), describing behavioral momentum. So “behavioral momentum refers to the tendency for behavior to persist following a change in environmental conditions. The greater the rate of reinforcement, the greater the behavioral momentum. The intervention for noncompliance consisted of issuing a sequence of commands with which the subject was very likely to comply, i. e. high probability commands, immediately prior to issuing a low probability command.”
Okay, so let’s step away from the science language because I think that can get us a little [00:10:00] tangled up. What does this actually mean?
Well, it is the tendency for a behavior to continue, right, even when something has changed in the environment. The conditions have changed and the higher your rate of reinforcement, so the more reinforcements per minute (or I would say the higher success rate actually; both of those things matter), then you’re more likely to see the behavior continue even when a change is made.
When they are talking about noncompliance, what I think of is the times when I give a cue and my animal doesn’t do it. I’ve said sit and the dog just looks at me like he’s never heard that word before in his life.
Now, it’s possible that he really didn’t understand, but it’s also possible there’s other things going on. And this also applies, as far as I’m concerned, in a shaping or offered kind of framework where the setup of the session is functioning as the cue [00:11:00] just as much as a word sit when we’ve isolated that down. So I’ve set up a shaping session and I’m getting nothing. I’m not getting the behavior.
So what can I do? I can set things up so that I cue or reinforce a series of really likely behaviors, stuff that’s very likely to occur, before I provide the opportunity (that’s what a cue is; it’s an opportunity to earn reinforcement) of something that’s a little less likely to occur. Now I’m not looking for– This is not going to be magic, right? I’m not looking for behavior that’s never happened before. I don’t think there’s any chance that my dog is going to fold laundry. So no amount of reinforcing nose targets is going to get me laundry folding, right? So no magic happens here. But if it’s a behavior that I’ve created a setup I think that is reasonable to expect and I start off with reinforcing a series of behaviors or cues, which may or may not be on cue– [00:12:00]
(I know some of us have a little response, the emotional response to the word “command” that was used in that abstract. This was in the 80s and I was still using the word “command” in the 80s. Well, I was an infant, but step away from that. If we put that on a shelf to talk about later…)
If we present a cue to do behaviors that we are think are pretty much sure thing – a nose target is one that I’ll often use in this, or much easier versions of the behavior – and we’re much more likely to get the harder version of the behavior. And the higher the rate of reinforcement, the higher success rate right before the lower probability behavior, we have a higher likelihood of that momentum carrying us forward into the harder behavior.
So I think there’s a range of different ways that we could apply this concept in practical training. One thing that I think about is that I’m always starting my training sessions – in general, but especially if [00:13:00] I’m in a situation where things might be a little bit hard or I’m planning to raise criteria in a way that I’m expecting to be challenging. Again, I’m still want to apply good training practices, avoid lumping as much as possible, split things into reasonable increments.
But let’s say, for example, that I want to work on a heeling exercise. I’m going to start by reinforcing– Usually what I’ll choose is an earlier behavior, like a component behavior that’s a piece of heeling, that’s on the progression that goes towards that exercise.
So let’s say that I’m going to work on left turns and I want a really sharp collected left turn where my dog is really working his rear end to line up and move with me and it’s just a beautiful in sync moment of beautiful teamwork. So, the way that I work towards that is that I teach left turns on a pivot platform. So, most of my sessions where I know that that’s where I’m going to [00:14:00] work are going to start off, the very first thing I reward– I call my dog off of the station and I’m going to set him up to offer taking just a step or, you know, whatever’s reasonable for this dog (this is where it may vary), into heel position with a pivot platform. Or maybe I do an independent pivot where they pivot past me and do it separately from heel position, but they’re pivoting around and then I step into heel position. And then I do what we call a rubber band pivot, where I toss the treat out and my dog offers to step into heel position, pivots right into beautiful perfect or even past perfect, even extreme heel position. And then maybe I remove the platform and I move away from it and I go right into those left turns.
So I’m starting with behavior that’s really supported. It’s high probability because it has a massive reinforcement history. All, every single dog that I have, loves popping up on that pivot platform and throwing themselves into heel position. That’s a big goal that I have when I’m training my dogs and the teams that I work with as well. And so having reinforced several of those in a row, [00:15:00] bam, bam, bam, bam, bam, and then I step away from the platform, I’m much more likely to get that sharp left turn that I’m after. Among other things (there’s different explanations here, but in this case) that momentum is going to carry our behavior into that left turn.
When I’m thinking along these lines, I also think about something that I learned from Bob Bailey, which is that it is always better to start with low criteria and get to reinforce a correct response and be in a position to raise your criteria very quickly from there, than it is to start with an error and be forced to lower your criteria.
I think about that all the time because I am by nature kind of a greedy person. And so as I’m stepping out to start a training session, I always look at “what do I think is a reasonable first rep, first thing to go for,” and then I cut that in half or even more. Maybe I drop it back to 25% [00:16:00] of what I think is a reasonable first repetition. And that usually gets me where I need to be.
An example of kind of this thought process – I probably talked about this one before – but in obedience, in the higher levels of obedience, utility, there is an exercise called directed jumping where you have to send your dog across the ring 50 feet away from you. You stand at one end of the ring and you have to send the dog ahead and ask them to sit at the other side of the ring. So 50 feet of distance, which is not an insignificant amount of distance.
Now, of course, in the performance, you walk into the ring and you will have to send the dog cold. They have to go the full 50 feet on the first cue. That’s is in fact the exercise. And so when I go to a match or a run-through, the more anxious parts of my brain are telling me that I need to send him cold from 50 feet away, because that’s what he’s going to have to do in a [00:17:00] trial. And at the same time, I know that he’s less likely to do that. So if I stand 50 feet away– This is what old Hannah would have done. And maybe did do. Maybe. Walk into the ring at the match or the practice trial, right? And stand the maximum distance, give my dog the cue, he runs part of the way there, doesn’t really have confidence and stops and turns around to look at me, I cue him again, he goes a few more steps, he turns around to look at me, and then I walk up with him and I cue him to do the behavior from half the distance or much closer, and then he can do it.
And so the pattern there is I get two errors, so we’re not really an errorless learning strategies anymore, and then I finally get something I can reinforce.
If I’m going to be completely honest, Old Hannah would then go all the way back to the 50 feet and repeat that whole process again. New Hannah, something that I learned, I finally put [00:18:00] together. Rehearsing that error in the moment and particularly in a formal dog-show-like, trial-like setting is not only unhelpful, it was probably damaging. It probably slowed down our progress and reduced the likelihood that I was going to get the the response that I wanted in an actual trial.
So now what is my strategy?
Well, if I have a training opportunity, especially one that’s trial-like, I go into the ring and I’m going to cue that very first send on that go-out, I’m going to cue it from, gosh, like 10 feet away. Like really close, where I’m almost guaranteed a correct response.
And then I might go back and send it from half the distance, like 20 feet, and then I might send from 50 feet away and get a correct response. And that has served me so much better than setting my dog up to rehearse an error, even though that means a lot of the time I’m walking into the ring in practice – and in a trial, I would be sending on a cold 50 foot [00:19:00] go out – I was still getting better results, which kind of doesn’t make sense. But then also, well, failing 50 foot go-outs doesn’t also help either. So starting where I’m going to be able to get guaranteed success that I can reward and be in a position to raise my criteria quickly is always going to be faster and cleaner than getting greedy and getting an error and then being forced to lower my criteria to get to something reinforceable.
So that’s another example. Another example, not dog related, that has come up for me really recently in my training. I’m working with this pony that I’ve talked about for the last couple of months, and we’re to the point where we’re working on getting him to respond to cues to go forward, increase his speed, with someone on his back when the person on his back is giving the cue.
So, of course, in traditional horse training, this would be taught with pressure and release. And I [00:20:00] have always taught this with pressure and release. I’ve always cued it in a pressure and release fashion. And this time, and particularly for this pony, I really want that cue to be maintained by positive reinforcement and not negative reinforcement. So I don’t want to be in the position where I’m escalating the cue to get him to go forward. Because, well, one, I want to do it differently and I believe that it can be done differently. And also, I think for this particular pony, he’s so food motivated and he’s so insensitive that honestly, positive reinforcement is going to work better than having to apply so much pressure to get him to go.
So, working really hard on that. He’s got it from the ground. I can stand next to him, I can put someone else on him and give him the cue, but when one of us is up on his back and we give him the cue, sometimes we get a nonresponse.
Now this nonresponse, where I cue the pony to move forward or to increase his speed, is a particular problem for me as a person, as a [00:21:00] human, because I have decades of practice escalating those pressure cues to get a horse to move forward or to speed up. So if I give them the cue and they don’t go fast enough or they don’t respond, give the cue a little louder or harder. In this case, it’s with your legs squeezing, tapping, eventually kicking, and I don’t want to go there. That’s not where I want to go for a lot of reasons.
And that response for me is so ingrained that it’s really, really hard to replace. And that’s for me to work on, right? Like, that’s something I need to work on when I give a cue and I don’t get the response, to not escalate that cue. That’s something I need to work on, period, in general. And for the most part, I’ve managed that in a dog training context, but honestly I was riding horses before I was training dogs and so that goes back to childhood.
So, knowing [00:22:00] that about myself, I really need to set up my training sessions so that I don’t get that nonresponse because I’m likely to then go down a path of negative reinforcement which I don’t want to. So this is about modifying the session to both manage my behavior and to train the pony to do the outcome that I’m hoping to get.
So he has a series of behaviors that he loves to do. And I have lots of other things that we’re doing in terms of working on fluency and using reinforcement strategies. I’m not going to go too deep into that here, but he has some behaviors that he loves to do. He loves to go to his mat. He loves to touch a target. He loves, right now, one of his favorite behaviors is to move his hindquarters over, to do a pivot, basically, to do a little pivot.
So, one of the things that I incorporate into our sessions is that before I cue him to move forward, I will cue him to do a series of these other behaviors. [00:23:00] I ride with a target stick, so I’ll offer him a target and he’ll touch that. And I’ll cue him to move his hindquarters over and he’ll do that. And I’ll reinforce that and maybe target and he does that and cue him to go to his mat and he does that. And then I cue him to move forward. He does that. Oh my gosh, big reinforcement!
And I just keep working through that so that I do these high probability behaviors. He’s never not going to touch a target. If anything, he’ll look for the target and try to take it off the fence if he can. “Can we please do targeting today?” He loves a mat. In fact, he’ll show a little extinction burst if we ever try to walk past a mat. So I have to be thoughtful about setting those things up.
These are behaviors that I almost can’t stop him from doing. Especially since, even though he’s a pony, he’s still like 800 pounds. If he’s gonna step on a mat, he’s gonna step on a mat. And by reinforcing several of those in a row, I can then cue him to move forward. He’s much more likely to respond. And for the most part, that works really really well. So we’re carrying forward with [00:24:00] that.
So every time I get on him, I’m prepared to target, target, mat, target, and then go forward, he does it, reward and then a lot of times I’ll do a bunch more targets because I want to reward that too and we mix it up that way.
And then one of the things that I love about approaching my training this way is it also gives me a built in error handling strategy that is an alternate behavior for me. So if I do cue him to move forward and he doesn’t, instead of escalating the cue, I can go right into that high probability sequence. I cue him to go forward, he didn’t, take a deep breath, regulate myself, and then target, cue him to go to mat, get a couple of those behaviors rewarded, and then try cueing him to go forward again. Far better than escalating the cue and getting myself stuck in digging a little bit of a hole.
So, speaking of digging holes, which is one of my [00:25:00] favorite things to do in training any animal, and parenting it turns out. I just love to dig a hole. Here’s another strategy that I use. This is one of my favorite strategies to get myself out of a hole that I’ve dug. And that is what I think of as an indirect approach, or lateral training.
So if you run into something – some variable, some distraction, some stimulus, some aspect of a behavior that you’re trying to train that seems to create a high likelihood of errors – stop working on that thing. Don’t run straight at the hardest part of it. Work around it. Take an indirect approach.
I use this all the time. This is also a feature that is actually built into the Zero to CD program – and I’m not even sure if members fully recognize that it is, but it is. We work to find some other facet of the same behavior [00:26:00] or an adjacent behavior that we can work on more successfully and create a clean loop around.
Now this variable, or this behavior, may only be tangentially related to the original issue, and that’s okay. It may look a lot different. As long as there is some overlap between where you’re hoping to go and this kind of lateral– like I can’t keep walking straight at the wall, so I’m going to move sideways until I find an opening. That’s what I mean by like “lateral.” I don’t mean like literally like the dog is walking sideways. I mean that conceptually. We’re moving along this obstacle until we find an opening.
Okay, but what overlap does exist will be strengthening the whole behavior. And it’s gonna end up giving you more behavior to play with that’s less fragile, so harder to break. And that’s important for [00:27:00] real humans training real dogs in real life because we will break things. I really like robust behavior that is harder for me to screw up when I have a bad day. That’s what we’re after.
Here’s an example. Figment– If you follow me on social media, you may have seen some of the stuff that I posted in my stories and I think I did a reel. (I don’t know. I’m trying to figure out the whole reels and TikTok and whatnot.)
So one of the behaviors that’s been something that we’ve struggled with is his retrieve. Now he has no trouble following a moving toy. It took a while to convince him to pick it up with his mouth. That wasn’t something he did automatically; that’s fine. But the aspect of the retrieve that we’ve really gotten stuck on is building duration of the hold. Holding the object in his mouth quietly. And I think it’s safe to say that I broke it pretty good.
So one of my little projects this year that I’ve been working on intermittently has been to try to fix it, to [00:28:00] unbreak it.
So a little bit about retrieving. Normally I like to back chain. I do backchain my retrieves, and I like to backchain to the hold specifically: that part of the retrieve where your dog has returned to you with the object you wanted them to retrieve and they’re holding it in their mouth. Their mouth stays closed, the object stays in their mouth and you have some control over the situation. (Not that I’m a control freak…. But I am.)
So of course with backchaining, you can teach the behaviors in any order at all. Those component behaviors don’t need to be taught back to front. But I still really like to work through a good solid hold fairly early on in the process of teaching all the other components of the retrieve. It’s a nice low-impact behavior, I can train it sitting down without a lot of putting a lot of energy into setting stuff up, and honestly, I’m usually pretty good at it. I’ve trained a lot of dogs to hold objects quietly in their mouths without putting a lot of effort in.
And of [00:29:00] course, the universe heard me having that thought, thinking that I know what I’m doing. Anytime I think I know what I’m doing, that is a big red flag and the universe will then decide to take me down a notch. Dogs are good at that. Horses too. Chickens as well. And for that matter, children.
So, whether it’s the result of one bad click or possibly it’s a genetic flaw in my dog, which I personally prefer as an explanation – instead of a quiet hold, I have taught an enthusiastic fling.
So instead of returning to me with the object and then holding it quietly in his mouth for me to take in a controlled manner, he comes flying back and then throws it at me, which is… it’s unproductive. It’s not terribly practical or helpful. And depending on what was in his mouth at the time, is potentially painful and dangerous.
And so initially, as I was trying to fix this, the more [00:30:00] sessions where I tried to split the duration component small enough so that I could click him while he was still holding it before he flung it, everything that I did to try to get a clean loop to capture the moment of holding, the more times I ended up clicking the exact moment that he opened his mouth to fling.
So let’s all have a moment of silence because you probably know what that feels like and how much I just wanted to give up on dog training and just move to a different state and start over again as a barista or something. I don’t know. I haven’t really thought through the alternative.
Okay, I dug a big hole and I needed to undig it, I needed to unbreak it.
I put the teaching the hold, particularly in any formal way, on a shelf. I’m still going to come back to it (in fact, since then I have), but I put it on a shelf. I’m not going to work directly on trying to teach him to [00:31:00] hold something in his mouth.
And instead, I started working on some adjacent behaviors.
One of the things that we did was that I worked on teaching him to stack bowls. So if we take two bowls that are sized such that they could nest together and he picks up the one and he places it in the other, that’s a trick I love to teach anyways because it’s kind of fun and fancy-looking, but also in order to successfully put one bowl inside the other, there needs to be a certain amount of control. Flinging does not result in bowl stacking. It results in flinging! But if he’s gonna have the one bowl nest in the other, he has to hold on to it and be a little bit thoughtful about where he’s putting it.
And what I like about something like bowl stacking in this case is it’s using a lot of the same behaviors, a lot of the same muscle movements, probably the same kind of brain circuits in there as well. But my hands aren’t part of the picture. There’s not a formal sit attached to it. The target is separate. [00:32:00] So the muscles he’s going to use are the same, but the context is different. And that’s a feature that I really like when I’m trying to unstick something like this with an indirect approach.
We also worked on putting toys in a basket. Also, separately, I’m working on lots of other aspects of retrieving, so: distractions around the pickup, adding different angles to picking it up, asking him to pick up and then target, pick up and come to a platform. Lots of things that I can do around picking up that have him holding the object in his mouth differently.
And some of those differences are going to mean holding it in his mouth longer, or holding it more firmly, because in order to keep a hold of it while he’s getting up on a platform, he’s going to have to have a pretty good grip.
So: lots of lateral work and now we’re just now starting to bring that back into a more formal picture. I’ll update you when I have an update with that.
This kind of indirect approach is something that I find is especially important in my experience [00:33:00] if the behavior is one that has an emotional component to it, either for you or for your dog. And especially if it’s both, if both of you have feelings about the behavior.
An example where I use this a lot is with dog/dog reactivity and particularly dog/dog reactivity as it applies to to sports, although the principles apply in general as well.
Now there are a lot of good resources, great resources, out there for working directly on the dog dog reactivity behavior (lunging and barking at other dogs). It’s a really good thing. This is separate from that.
So the temptation when you have a dog who lunges and barks at other dogs and there are things you would like to do together with that dog, we get very emotionally invested– Among other things we want to do the things that we wanted to do: the sports, we want to go hiking, the things that we wanted to do that are why we have this dog.
And yes, there’s a whole conversation to be had about adjusting expectations, but that’s not what [00:34:00] this podcast episode is about.
You’re emotionally invested and your dog’s behaviors in this context I think are safe to describe as emotional in nature. There’s stuff going on there.
And so the temptation is to make it all consuming. This is the obstacle between you and your dreams and it’s so easy to get tunnel-vision and make every training session about finding dogs when you perceive that this is the major obstacle to getting where you want to go: competing a sport or even just loose leash walking around your neighborhood. It’s so easy to just keep ramming at that wall! And so what we tend to do then is we push! push! push! on the most fragile aspect of the behavior and we get locked into a mindset where we only measure progress based on that one variable. So then if it doesn’t go well, we quickly fall into despair about training in general and abandon all hope of ever meeting any of our training goals.
So let’s talk about heeling as an example. You could substitute loose [00:35:00] leash walking. It’s the same difference. They’re very much functionally the same behavior, just slightly different applications.
So if you or I, one of us, feels that the presence of other dogs is going to be your dog’s biggest distraction, and especially if you’ve already racked up some number of errors with that behavior related to the presence of other dogs, it’s easy to get hooked.
And my recommendation is to unhook and stop trying to work on “heeling around other dogs” as your project. Like, “the reason I can’t get in the ring is because I have to have my dog heel around other dogs and he’s really distracted by other dogs and so I need to be around other dogs to practice heeling so that I know that he’ll heel around other dogs.”
Instead, so put that on a shelf, put the “heeling around other dogs” part on the shelf. Think instead: What are some other things that you might do to enhance the fluency of your heeling [00:36:00] separate from the presence of other dogs?
For example, could you work around other kinds of more neutral distractions like heeling towards or around different stationary objects in the environment? Could you focus on improving your cuing and the precision of your turns or the precision of your halts and other components of a heeling pattern? Closeness? Could you work on varying the number of steps that you take? Increase the number of steps in a row with good, high quality heeling? Or perhaps different combinations of turns and halts? So, left/left/right/halt. Left/right/halt/left. Like, what are other ways that you could mix things up that have nothing to do with other dogs being there? Could you work on incorporating other kinds of reinforcers? For example, if you’ve been training heeling by feeding food in position, could you toss the treats? That’s a little weird. Could you work on heeling for a toy in some way? There’s lots of [00:37:00] ways to work that in. What about heeling for some kind of a real-life reinforcer, like going to sniff the bushes or opening a door or a gate or opportunity to go greet people? Reinforcers that are, again, unrelated to the presence of other dogs.
So save the specifically hard variable for later when a lot of the rest of the behavior is much stronger.
And it is just wild to me how much better the training goes when we do finally add back in that hard thing having reinforced so much else of the behavior and just created a much more full and robust behavior in general and then add the harder distraction back in. It tends to stick really well without having ever– And specifically heeling around unfamiliar dogs, which I may or may not be speaking from personal experience.
It is really cool to me how all that other training when there weren’t even any dogs around then pays off when I am [00:38:00] back in the training club or a similar scenario where there are other dogs present. It’s not magic, but really pretty powerful.
Now of course you’re probably thinking, am I saying that this is how I train reactivity around other dogs? No, not at all. Is this a full and complete strategy for working with dogs that lunge and bark in the presence of other dogs? Of course not. So please do not come at me saying that, “Oh, Hannah said you should just force your dog to do heeling around other dogs in order to fix their behavior around other dogs.” That is not at all what I’m saying. I actually think that taking this approach by working on other aspects of heeling or fill in the blank behavior (could be jumping, could be contacts, it could be lots of things), I think this actually combines really nicely with applying a procedure or a method that a program that focuses more on general behavior and emotional response around other dogs.
So you might be doing this with your heeling, making your heeling really very strong, and then separately be doing [00:39:00] something like Control Unleashed to work on kind of the other side of it. It’s not an either/or is my point. So we can work on these things in parallel and then combine them.
But at the very least, it keeps you from continuing to rack up errors while trying to train heeling. Because those really are kind of two different things.
Alright, so I hope that those strategies give you something to work with, something to inspire you, to get some material to help problem solve your personal training problems.
And of course, if you have questions about how to apply these concepts to your specific situation, Patreon is a great way to ask those questions and I’m totally happy to help brainstorm or troubleshoot or even demonstrate with my own dogs if it’s something that I can demonstrate. And of course, also remember that Zero to CD is going to open on October 23rd, so if you want to get in on a larger training program that integrates all of these concepts together over a longer period of time [00:40:00] with a lot of support, go to zero2cd.com to find out more.
Thanks for listening. If you liked this episode, well, you have good taste. And I hope you’ll hit the subscribe button on your podcast app to make sure you don’t miss the next episode. It might be even better than this one. If you are already subscribed, well, thank you. I really appreciate it and there are still some ways that you could reinforce me if you were so inclined. You could always leave me a five-star review on iTunes or Stitcher or wherever you happen to be listening to this podcast. And you can also check out and support the sponsors because they help make the podcast possible. You can find links and information about them and the other things that we’ve talked about in this episode by going to the show notes, which can be found at www.wonderpupstraining.com/podcast.
And while you’re there, you could also pick up a free PDF training template to help you plan your training sessions. There’s also some other articles and previous podcasts and that sort of thing, which you could always find if you’re interested.
So until next time, happy training! [00:41:00]