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Training Tip – A Look at Methods for Teaching Behaviors to Dogs

This issue’s training tip is contributed by Julie Hill of Mandeville, Louisiana, who has enjoyed much success with her All-American Dog, MACH Up and Running a Mile a Minute CD MX MXJ MJB MXF.

Julie has a master’s degree in geophysics and worked in the oil industry until she left it to work part-time as a dog trainer and part-time at her local humane society. She is now a full-time obedience and agility instructor at her own Fido Finishing School, which began as a competition and pet obedience training program with agility added in 2000. She trained and showed horses before getting involved with dog obedience in 1991. Her first competition dogs were a Greyhound, a Bloodhound and a Pointer. Working with these atypical agility and obedience dogs helped Julie to develop her training technique, which has proven to work just as effectively with traditionally easier-to-train dogs as it does on more challenging breeds.

Miley, Julie’s mixed-breed dog, was found in a Walmart parking lot. “For the first few years, Miley sat on the back burner as I trained and competed with my other two dogs. Last year, I retired one of my dogs so Miley came to the forefront as my next competition dog. She qualified for the 2017 AKC Agility National Championship and ended up seeded fifth for the finals round. Even though we had faults in finals, I was thrilled with how well she did in the very competitive 12” jump height class.” Julie and Miley are preparing to attend the AKC National Agility Championship in Reno, Nevada.

In my pet training classes, one of the assignments I give my students is to teach their dog a “stupid pet trick.” Dogs can have very large vocabularies if you know how to get them to repeat a behavior that you like or create a behavior that you want.  Teaching a trick is an exercise in dog training.
The four most commonly used methods for teaching a dog to do something are: (1) making the behavior happen; (2) luring; (3) shaping; and (4) capturing.   A trainer can use any one of the methods to teach any behavior, but I’ve found that some methods may be faster for certain behaviors or produce better results, in terms of precision or accuracy for competition.  Also, some behaviors may be taught using a blend of the methods.

As the first example, we will look at “sit.” I teach dogs to sit by holding a leash and treat in my right hand and pushing down on the dog’s rear end with my left hand.  To create a sit with good form, I want the dog to lean forward into the treat and move his rear end forward toward his front feet to sit.  This method avoids the problem of a “rock back” sit, where the dog’s front feet move back towards his back feet, which commonly happens when a dog is lured into a sit by holding a treat over his head.   The “rock back” sit causes dogs to pull back out of heel position or pull away from the trainer in the front position.  I could also shape or capture the sit, but I would have less control over the dog’s form and I may or may not get the tightest, most accurate sit for competition purposes.

An example of luring to teach a dog behavior is teaching a dog to spin in a circle.  I teach this trick by getting the dog to follow a treat in my hand as it makes a circular motion over the dog’s head.  A common problem with luring is fading the lure — that is, getting the dog to do the behavior on command only, without a hand gesture.  Generally, that is accomplished by first doing several repetitions with a treat in the hand, then doing repetitions making the same motion but no treat in the hand, and then slowly diminishing the motion.

I teach dogs to retrieve a dumbbell using shaping.  In shaping, we are creating a final behavior through a series of approximations.   In my opinion, shaping is one of the most powerful dog training tools because it makes a dog problem-solve, which is usually very motivating for both the trainer and the dog.  In shaping, we are waiting for dogs to offer a behavior that we like so that we can mark it verbally or with a clicker.  The marker lets the dog know he is moving in the right direction. With the retrieve, the first approximation is to get the dog to look at the dumbbell, followed by interacting with the dumbbell, interacting with his mouth on the dumbbell, biting down on the dumbbell, etc.  Depending on the dog, there may be fewer or more steps along the way.   To get the dog to move from one approximation to the next, the first approximation is marked and rewarded every time the dog offers it.  When the dog understands what behavior is causing the reward and repeats it ad nauseam, withholding the mark and reward usually causes the dog to get frustrated and to try something else to get the reward.

Capturing a behavior means waiting for a dog to do a behavior on his own and then marking and rewarding it.  Eventually, the trainer can add a verbal cue before the behavior happens, and the dog learns to associate the verbal cue with the behavior.  I have taught some of my dogs to “bounce” by capturing the behavior at feeding time when they are jumping up and down in excitement before I put their dinner bowl down.

I blend the lure method and the making-the-behavior-happen method for teaching the down position.  I lure with a treat to get the dog’s head to go down, but also make the behavior happen by putting light downward pressure on the front part of the dog’s shoulder blades.

Trying to figure out how to teach your dog to repeat a behavior or create a behavior that you like is one of the challenging but fun aspects of dog training.  It can be an exercise in creativity and in mastering a technique.  It is a great activity to do with your dog for not only teaching dogs to respond to our commands, but also for creating a good relationship, better communication, and a better understanding of how your dog learns.

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