Last week we discussed a common issue in dog training: the gap between professional and novice dog trainers. Everyone starts out as a novice, and I remember how incredibly frustrating it was to watch my dog perform like a trick pony for the class instructor and then go back to blowing me off when his leash was returned to me. The good news is that training is a skill that can be developed just like any other.
Returning to our example of a ping-ponging dog, let’s look at the overall picture with both the owner and myself teaching the dog how to walk nicely on leash.
As a reminder, here’s where our hapless owner was at last week: “My student’s dog lunges to the end of the leash, gagging a bit as his collar presses against his windpipe. His owner stops and waits, and within a second her dog moves back towards his owner’s side. The owner takes a step, clicks her dog for walking attentively alongside her, hands her dog a treat, and sighs in frustration as her dog immediately lunges out to the end of the leash again.”
Now, what happens when I take the leash? The first thing I do is to take a minute to get myself and the dog organized. The leash and clicker go in my right hand. If I’m using food rewards, my left hand holds the treats. If I’m using a tug or ball as a reward, this gets tucked up under my right armpit, with my left hand free to grab the toy and swing it into position right after I click. I position the dog at my left side, where I click and reward him several times before ever taking a step. Every time I reward him, I do so by my pant seam, since that’s where I want his head to go. I aim for continuous interaction, rewarding the dog so quickly that he doesn’t have time to get distracted by anything else.
Once the dog is interested in the game we’re playing, we can start adding in movement. I won’t move unless I have attention from the dog, so I look for bright eyes and alert eye contact. I talk to the dog: “Are you ready? Ready…? Let’s go!,” and step off, clicking and rewarding the instant the dog moves with me. He doesn’t have time to dart to the end of his leash, because I’ve rewarded him after just one step.
This sequence gets repeated several times, with me clicking and rewarding for each step as the dog follows me. Within a minute or so, the dog is really getting into the game, and I’m able to take several steps between rewards, telling the dog how brilliant he is for following me. I’m moving quickly, so the dog has to work to stay with me. The rewards continue at a steady pace, and after about a minute of work I stop moving and tell the dog how brilliant he was. In that minute, he never ping-ponged to the end of his leash. He was too busy earning good things!
If you watch the dog’s owner work him and then watch me working him, one huge difference will stand out immediately. That difference is the number of rewards that the dog receives for one minute of work.
Here’s a secret: good trainers are generous. We give a lot of feedback in a short amount of time. Most novice trainers tend to reward about three times a minute. I reward about ten times that.
To those new to training, this can seem a bit horrifying at first. That’s a lot of treats if you train with food, or a lot of work if you train with toys! If we look at it a bit more critically, though, it’s actually a very efficient use of our training time.
Here’s the thing: in one minute, I can accomplish the same amount of learning that would take a novice trainer ten minutes to accomplish. Furthermore, I can do so without the dog making nearly as many mistakes. And since I’m giving the dog more feedback, he learns more quickly, and I can ultimately fade the food or toy rewards faster.
You see, training is a bit of a numbers game, and that means that smart trainers use generosity to their advantage. Every behavior will take a certain number of repetitions for your dog to learn. Those repetitions can either happen over the course of 10 one-minute training sessions (using 30 rewards a minute) or 20 five-minute training sessions (using three rewards a minute), but either way, there’s no getting around the fact that they need to happen.
If there’s one skill that makes trainers in my Beginning Obedience classes the most successful, it’s their ability to be generous. It’s better to train in short bursts with lots of rewards than to train for long periods and be stingy. When I’m training a new puppy or newly adopted adult dog, I will often feed the dog continuously just for looking at me in a new location. This sort of interaction quickly creates a dog who won’t take their eyes off me, even if the midst of lots of distractions. Once I have the dog’s undivided attention, it’s easy enough to begin weaning them off the rewards. The hard work of building the behavior has already been done, and just like building a strong foundation for a house, the structure needs to be solid. If I didn’t reward as generously, it would take much longer to pour the foundation for attention, and along the way my dog would probably make quite a few more mistakes which would set our training back even further, weakening that foundation.
So, how can you become a more generous trainer? I suggest that you start by finding out where your baseline is. Train your dog for one minute, and see how many rewards you go through. Then, count out two more treats than you used before and train for another minute, seeing if you can get through all of the rewards before your timer goes off. As you practice with your dog, you’ll find that your ability to reward your dog quickly and generously improves.
Next week we’ll discuss more ways in which you can use rewards to increase your dog’s compliance. In the meantime, I’m curious to hear what you think! What rewards does your dog work the very best for? Which behaviors did you struggle to train when you were just starting out, only to find that becoming more generous made all the difference? Please share your experiences and questions in the comments below!