If you haven’t yet read my post about the importance of clarity in dog training, you can take a look at that here.
Making clarity a priority in your training and competing can boost confidence and efficiency for both you and your dog. Here are seven ways to get clear.
Start with Yourself
Answer any questions you may have before involving your dog. If you’re not certain you’re doing that fancy reverse spin correctly, go watch a video and then practice it by yourself. Still figuring out how to work your new Treat and Train? Sort that out before using it in training. Concerned about your aim on dumbbell throws? Get some consistency before you bring your dog into the picture.
Create a Plan
It doesn’t take much time to run through your training session in your head or on paper before you begin. What is my goal? What space would be best? Is food or toy the better reward for this skill? How will I deliver that reward? How many repetitions should I do? What props do I need? How will I end the session? If things are going south, what should I do? Then setup your training space accordingly. A little bit of planning can really up the clarity of your training.
Check your Mechanics
Is your hand reaching into the treat pouch before you click? (I STILL catch myself doing this from time to time!) Did you say your “tossed treat” cue, but actually mean your “eat treat from hand” cue? Are you adding subtle cues like motion or eye movement into your verbal cues? Small details like this can create confusion for our dogs.
Be Specific with Rewards
Location-specific reward markers can communicate some valuable information to our dogs. Having different cues to indicate how a reward will be made available can reduce stress a dog may have about acquiring the reinforcement. They don’t have to wonder about how the reward will be delivered. Think of it like this: Some weeks you pick up your paycheck from your office mailbox, but sometimes you have to go to accounting to get it and then occasionally it’s delivered to your desk. That would get annoying fast. I know trainers that have ten or more reward cues. I haven’t taken this concept quite that far, but at a minimum, having a cue for “get the reward from my hand” (mine is “yes”) and another for “the reward will be tossed on the ground” (mine is “get it”) can be very helpful to our dogs.
Differentiate Between Working and Non-Working Times
Think of your training in terms of whether or not your dog is working. If they are not actively engaged in work, they need something to do. When your dog is walking around the space while you’re setting up, the line between work and not work is getting hazy. If you abandon your dog while you reset a knocked bar or ask your friend if your dog hit the contact, you leave them wondering what they’re supposed to be doing. So if for any reason you need to stop work, ask the dog to do a behavior that doesn’t require your attention. This will require some training. Perhaps a simple sit or down stay. Or maybe you have the dog settle on a mat. Or maybe you use a crate. Train the behavior to a point where it no longer needs reinforcement, so that you can do what you need to do. Then release the dog back into work.
I recently listened to a podcast featuring trainers Denise Fenzi and Shade Whitesel. They mentioned a third category: Almost Work. I really liked this concept as a way of letting your dog know that it’s almost time for work. This can be as simple as turning to face your dog, who is settled on a mat, making eye contact for a second and then releasing them. They discuss some other options for Almost Work in the episode, if you’re curious to know more.
Make Splitting Your Friend
There is a common phrase among dog trainers: Be a splitter, not a lumper. Splitting refers to breaking the goal behavior into small pieces that build on each other, aka approximations. Lumping means taking bigger leaps between the steps that create the final behavior. When we move too quickly and expect our dogs to fill in those gaps we skipped over, it can result in confusion. If I teach my dog to wrap a cone from two feet away with success and then back up thirty feet and ask for the wrap, I’m likely setting the dog up to fail because I didn’t give them the skills they needed to understand what I was asking. And sometimes we need to slice things thinner still if our dog is displaying lack of clarity, even if we are already using approximations. Splitting further will add more clarity for the dog and build more confidence into the behavior.
Consider the Skills You Need for Success
A surefire way to confuse and frustrate our dogs is to put them in situations we haven’t prepared them for and then ask for skills they don’t have. This often happens in competition settings, and I am guilty of this mistake. We trained our dogs with rewards in our pockets and delivered that reward inside the ring. Now at a trial, there are no rewards in sight and they happen outside. We didn’t spend much time helping our dog learn that crate time is for resting, and now they’re surrounded by other dogs and people and they can’t settle. These are concepts that can take time for dogs to understand. Delayed reinforcement isn’t taught in a session and comfort in a crate requires some effort on our part. Splitting and proofing come into play here. Building up our dog’s understanding of these concepts will add a lot of clarity to their behavior and what we expect of them.
Clarity is hugely empowering for both us and our dogs. Really, it’s just good training. In no way am I perfect, but it’s something I think about a lot. I’m still learning ways to make my training more clear, so if you have ideas to add to the list, please comment, I’d love to hear them!