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Breaking it Down

Successful training doesn't come from the big questions but from breaking down the BIG THINGS we want into many little questions.
The BIG question: Can Oakley (right) stay on his mat while I sit across the room with his canine brother Gravy in the room + baby distractions? Oakley's answer: You Bet!

I recently posted on Facebook that a "placement" behavior is a favorite among dog trainers. Asking a dog to go lie down on a designated spot (bed, rug, etc.) solves so many problems. If a dog is lying down on his place he's not jumping on guests, harassing you at the table or chasing the cat. It's a perfect replacement behavior that's incompatible with lots of problem behaviors, so it's often a "go-to" for solving dilemmas that owners bring to us. You may be thinking - there's NO WAY my dog could lie down on a spot while *all these things* (insert your unique household chaos here) are happening. And you may be right - if you asked your dog the question "Can you stay on your spot while this is happening?" today, he might answer "Heck no!" In dog training, to get the answer we want we usually have to change the question. A good trainer knows how to take that BIG question and break it down into many little questions the dog can answer "Yes" to.

I received a call to come help Oakley (above, far right) who recently welcomed a human-brother into his family. In addition to addressing a little concern Oakley was feeling with the new sights & sounds of being a big brother, we decided that adding a base skill to manage his behavior would be useful for the family. Being able to ask Oakley to hang out on his spot would allow him to slowly be incorporated into family activities in a safe and structured way. Once a decision was made regarding the behavior we wanted to build, two additional questions needed to be asked: What does the final behavior look like (what's the BIG question?) and what can Oakley do right now now? Although there are many distractions in the final question, we always need to start our questions with something we think the dog can do today.

Oakley's family opted for day-training which made it my role to do the foundation training. I visited Oakley to practice for a few sessions before asking his family to work with him. I broke the big behavior down into many little questions all of which could be incorporated into our final goal:

  • Can Oakley stay while I place a tempting treat on the ground?

  • Can Oakley stay while I carry the baby's car seat through the room?

  • Can Oakley stay while his canine brother Gravy moves through the room?

  • Can Oakley stay while I sit on the couch across the room?

  • Can Oakley stay while I step out of sight?

  • Can Oakley stay while the baby's swing moves?

At each step of training, I made a deal with Oakley: if you answer "yes" (and stay in your spot) you earn yourself a food reward. If you answer "no" (and move from your spot), no food reward - we'll reset and try again. Each question was repeated multiple times to ensure his "yes" wasn't a fluke. If Oakley said "Nope, can't do it" more than once or twice, I rephrased my question to something smaller. For example, when I asked Oakley "Can you stay while I sit on the couch across the room?" and he repeatedly got up when I sat down, I changed my question. I asked "Can you stay while I walk across the room & pause?" then "Can you stay while I walk across the room and bend as if I'm going to sit?" and in a few repetitions and successful repetitions, I was back to asking my original question. Oakley quickly learned that regardless of what I did, his job was to stay put and wait for me to bring him his next food reward. (Not a bad deal for Oakley, eh?)

Through stages of his training plan I ask Oakley all the little questions: Can you stay on your mat while I'm across the room? While I carry the car seat through the room? While Gravy lies on the couch? (P.S. Doesn't he look like he's having a great time - that's positive reinforcement training for you folks!)

Finally, after 3 sessions on our own it was time to meet for a coaching session and add the final piece to the puzzle: it was time to incorporate his human-brother into the questions we were asking. At a comfortable distance and a leash attached for safety, we asked Oakley the question: "Can you stay while a little fussing baby comes into the room?" And Oakley's answer: "No problem!" All our practice breaking down all the little parts prepared him for the next step. I'm happy to report that Oakley nailed his practice with 3 adults, 1 baby and his canine brother all moving around the room while Oakley earned his treats for hanging out, relaxed on his mat.

The ability to look at any training question or behavior and break it down is the hallmark of a good trainer. We want to make training questions easy enough for our dogs to win more than they lose - it makes training fun and ultimately leads to our dogs learning what we WANT instead of what we don't want.


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