Thursday, September 1, 2011

Patterns, Rewards, and Embracing Mistakes in Training

Schema heeling just as nice on my right side 
One of the things that is important when teaching something new to your dog is to be constantly moving and changing things towards the perfecting of the desired behavior or criteria. Of course, it's important to understand and know what you want that end result to look like, too. Many dog trainers - when teaching a new behavior, exercise, or obstacle - will continue to remain in a "safe" and successful place because the dog is not making mistakes. Or they just plain avoid the steps and the mistakes and jump to the end result while helping or aiding the dog too much. The dog never figures out how to perform without help or sort through any issues by doing them in smaller increments.

Most trainers are afraid of mistakes because they are concerned that the dog will not figure it out without help and lose animation or focus. So, when a mistake is made, they impatiently - and too quickly - jump in to help the dog or correct the dog. So, to avoid mistakes, they continue to allow their dog to practice something that should only be temporary on the way to putting all the pieces together for the final result. Or an even more common issue is that trainers don't complete the process of training so that the dog fully understands their responsibility for what has been taught because they feel that it is good enough to qualify and they can handle through it. The behavior/exercise/obstacle is minimally trained or too formally trained and yet the expectations for trials is to just trial and get experience and continue to train at home to develop the needed skills.

Unfortunately, trialing before foundation skills have been fully taught, is limiting and can lead to unwanted behaviors at the trials. "Practice makes perfect" so it's important to be MORE than ready when entering the dogs in a performance event. I do not want my own dogs to be practicing unwanted behaviors in the trial setting as those issues can become more difficult to solve when the dog learns to view criteria and reinforcement differently than I do in a trial setting.

There will always be issues that arise at the trials that are different than in training - those are to be expected and those are the issues that give us knowledge and perspective as to what more is needed in training. I certainly had plenty of issues when I started trialing Schema in agility that did not occur while I was training her. However, she had great skills and impulse control and a wonderful relationship with me. Knowing what pushed her past her ability to focus on task at the trials was important information for me in order to continue to develop her ability to bring her skills to the trials.

Mental maturity, impulse control, focus and a great relationship with your dog will ensure a better transition from training into the trial experience. When it comes to obedience trials, I believe it is even MORE important for the dog to have mental maturity, impulse control, and focus as there is so much more down time and precision in a very quiet setting. The quiet setting can be even more distracting to the dogs because any noise sounds louder and any movement seems more pronounced (dumbbells, retrieves, handlers running, or even just the judge in the ring). In herding or field work, the reinforcement is so high that the impulse control and relationship must be very well developed or bad "line manners" or issues walking to the post will develop and adversely contribute to poor focus and compromise in that run and future runs.

What is a reward? A reward can be any of the following and there are endless examples that are not listed. Some of the better known rewards would be:
  • food
  • toys
  • running and chasing something
  • sending a dog to a bird, dumbbell, or any other highly valued retrieve
  • sending a dog to sheep or allowing them to work sheep
Some of the following rewards are not recognized and dealt with as rewards or reinforcements for the dog and that is why the unwanted behavior continue to happen. There are many more than are listed below.
  • Pulling on the leash is reinforcing when you continue to move forward
  • Breaking a start line stay, contact, or table before you release them is rewarding them for doing that if you allow them to continue
  • In obedience, chewing, mouthing, or playing with retrieve objects are rewards for dogs that are stressed about fronts, stressed about corrections, or are not understanding requirements.
When dogs continue to practice unwanted behaviors in any setting and are continually rewarded for them (whether recognized by the handler or not), they develop a pattern and expectation for that particular behavior. It's more difficult to break that pattern, once it has developed and has become a habit. The other issue that occurs is that the dog has been prevented from making mistakes while they are learning and then they can not problem solve or cope with mistakes in training (without help and intervention from the handler) and the ring/trial performance then becomes something very different to them. This is what creates the so called "ring wise" dog (which is a really poorly labeled term). Basically the "ring wise" dog is created by a handler that has allowed patterns to develop as well as providing too much help and not enough independence in understanding the requirements. And because dogs are such brilliant observers, they notice the difference between training and the real thing and they respond differently as well.

So, in conclusion, what can be done to break this cycle of making the ring or trial a more comfortable place for both you and your dog? Ensure that your dog is well prepared and can train each exercise in obedience or each sequence in agility at a much advanced level than what is expected in the ring. Break teaching of the exercises down into small parts and challenge the dog's understanding by embracing mistakes. Be patient while the dog learns to solve problems and use rewards for correct behavior rather than corrections for incorrect behavior. Make sure that you are not rewarding something that you want to eliminate. Teach the first steps of any complex exercise or obstacle simple and as distraction free as possible and simplify the task when there are lots of distractions. Keep a good attitude and stay focused on your dog while you are working them.

We all make mistakes in training, but the most important thing is to find someone - a mentor or instructor - that is willing to help guide you to breaking those old patterns that are holding you and your dog's performance from becoming better.