Bud is now 19 months and we’re having a great summer where his agility skills are coming together. There are so many exciting first times. I think I start most things a bit later than other people. It’s easy to get stressed out by all the younger dogs running courses at full height when your young dog is still working on foundation skills.
Bud has been very keen to work and easily excited all his life. But he has also been immature and easily excited also means easily frustrated if he doesn’t understand. I’ve had to teach each skill to fluency before putting skills together in a sequence. Lumping doesn’t work well with Bud.
I’ve also been reminded of the importance of letting the dog direct the pace of training. If something is not working, it’s often a good idea to not push it, but rather work on other things for a while. There are so many things that just didn’t feel right – he didn’t like them, or he didn’t understand. So I waited for a while and when I came back to it a few weeks later he could just do it, and he wanted to do it.
Bud has been jumping 40-45 centimeters for quite a long time. He did not seem ready for higher jumps and I was getting a bit stressed by it, but didn’t push it at all. Then last week, he jumped 55 centimeters on his own a few times (when just running around on the field at home). I tried to ask him to do it, and he did! And then he was able to run a fairly complex sequence with jumps on 55 without hesitation. He is still figuring out his jumping, but I’m very pleased with that he is thinking and trying his very best.
I started his weave training a couple of months ago. We’re mostly using a channel method, with some 2×2 thrown in. Things were going well until I started to close the channel. He seemed frustrated and couldn’t really do it. I tried to use guide wires because I know a lot of people are successful with the combination of channel and wires. This was very entertaining to watch, but gave me more problems than I already had. So we just stopped weave training for a while instead. This week, we’ve started our weave training again. I started with a fairly open channel, reminding him of all kinds of entries and staying in the weaves with different handling and distractions. I’ve now started to close the channel again, and everything is different. He is much more happy, much more confident and his body seems to flow in a much better way.
A third example is our running contacts training. We started about five weeks ago with a plank on the ground and he has been a joy to train. He really seems to get it and we’re having a lot of fun with proofing and teaching turns now. The only thing that has been difficult was to get rid of the thin and broad plank I used on the down ramp to smoothen the edge for him. My dogwalk has a pretty high edge at the end of the contact, and it gets more pronounced when the dogwalk is low. When I tried to take the plank away he’d have one nice hit and then it would fall apart and he’d avoid the low hits. So I didn’t take it away any more. I kept it there for a few more weeks, and then I tried to take it away again a few days ago. Now he didn’t have any problems and I think I can put the extra plank away and not take it out again until I’m training a new dog.
I’m very happy that I’ve had the patience to wait until Bud has told me that he is ready. It doesn’t mean that we haven’t been training – we’ve just trained other things (and you can never get too much foundation training). I think that a lot of problems can be avoided if we’re not pushing dogs beyond their comfort zone and if we allow them to mature. Every dog has their own timeline. I love training with Bud and I’m very excited to see him transform from my little puppy to a skilled agility dog. I’m not in a hurry to compete with him and he still has a lot to learn.
Here’s a video of to “firsts” from this weekend. His first sequence on large height jumps, and his first session on full height dogwalk with no plank.
Few things are more aversive to dog trainers than a dog that isn’t interested in the training. Sniffing, finding treats on the floor, running away to check something out, staring into space, or taking off to say hi to another person, are all dog behaviors that really stress people out in a training setting. Because they are so aversive, the trainer often finds strategies to stop them from happening. Often, the plan is something like this: Make sure that the dog is not able to find reinforcement anywhere else – pick upp all treats on the floor (and be very upset with other people that leave crumbs) and put a leash on the dog – and get the dogs attention back as soon as he looks away or stops working. Does it work? Well, it does work for the moment. The trainer might experience fewer aversive moments of a dog that leaves training to do other things. But it does not offer a long term solution. In my experience, it often makes the problem worse.
Desperately trying to keep the dog away from distractions often makes the dog want them more. This is something that we often take advantage of when we want to make the dog crazy about rewards. Restraining the dog and letting them “steal” rewards often makes the reward much more attractive than it would be if the dog easily could get the reward. This is what happens when we desperately try to make sure that the dog doesn’t find treats on the ground, or doesn’t run away to greet another person. The dog will also be successful in getting to the reward sometimes (but not every time), which also makes the behavior stronger.
Getting the dog’s attention back as soon as he looks away or looks like he might want to leave training to do something else is also a strategy that will backfire. It feels good in the moment to prevent the dog from doing something we don’t like, but what happens in reality is that we reinforce behaviors that we don’t like with attention and action. It is not uncommon for dogs to get much more attention when they do something we don’t like (sniffing, looking away) than they get when they do something we do like. In addition, the dog learns that he doesn’t have to take responsibility for keeping focused in training. The handler will always tell him when he should come back and work.
What should you do instead? This is of course a huge question and depends on a lot of factors, so my answer will be very general. Here are a few things to consider if your dog isn’t totally focused in training. They really work!
Quality of reward. It’s so simple, but sometimes you just need better rewards. Not just tastier treats or fluffier toys – you might have to be more engaged in the reward procedure. Praise your dog, play with the food. Let him know that you’re happy with his work. Don’t just stuff rewards in the dogs face – drag toys away on the floor for a game of chase, and let the dog come to you to chase his food instead of walking to him to feed him. Your dog should look happy when you reward.
Reward behaviors that you like. Reward behaviors that you want to see more of, like attention to you. Don’t take it for granted. Even if you planned to train something more difficult, you can always reward for more simple behaviors like just staying with you or looking back quickly when there is a distraction. This also means: Don’t reward behaviors that you don’t like. If you give your dog more attention and try to be more fun when he is looking away, you are reinforcing the behaviors that you don’t want.
Try to be neutral between rewards. Make sure the dog does something you like before you burst out with praise and fun. Training is a bit like acting – you need to quickly be able to switch between roles. One second you’re neutral (even looking very strict if you’re training for competition) and the next second you’re the most happy person in the world. Then you go back to neutral and repeat.
Plan your sessions well. This is probably the most important point. Most dogs get distracted and engage in other things because we’re not well organised and focused. We often require much more from our dogs than from ourselves. Keep your sessions short (3 minutes is more than enough if you’re really focused) and make sure that you’re focused on training all the time. There should never be anything other than response or reward in the session. Either you’re focused on the dog, waiting for a response to reward, or you’re rewarding your dog. Nothing else. No just walking from one place to another, no talking to your friends, no trying to get more food from a plastic bag deep in your pocket.
Plan so that you can transport while rewarding, take a break when you need to talk to a friend, have your treats readily available and play with your dog when you need to get food from your pocket. Set a timer if you tend to train for too long. Work on your mechanical skills so that you get more efficient. Evaluate your sessions (video analysis is great!) to see if you can do things in a better way.
Training should be fun – not you. A common advice given to owners with dogs that are not focused, is that the trainer needs to be more “fun”. I think this is the reason why many try to lure the dog back by being “fun”. You should not be “fun”. Rewards should be fun (and of course, you are a part of the reward), and training should be fun. Fun happens with good sessions and good rewards, not with an owner that tries to look like a clown all the time. I think a lot of dogs get nervous when the owner suddenly tries to be “fun”. They will try to calm their owner down by sniffing, looking away and moving slowly (and then the trainer tries to be even more fun…).
Be prepared to change your criteria. Sometimes I plan to train one thing, but when I get my dog out I realise that he is not at all ready to work on that. This especially happens in new and distracting environments. If that happens, I immediately change my plan and work on attention and engagement first. I might just play with the dog. If the dog isn’t ready to engage fully in play with me, I know that he isn’t ready for something more difficult. Or I might click for attention and reward by throwing a treat on the ground and then just wait for the dog to look back at me. When he does, I click and toss another treat. When he looks back at me within a couple of seconds after eating the treat, I know that he is ready for something slightly more challenging.
I always try to keep a very open mind in my first session in a new place. I try to plan only play and rewards for attention and engagement. A short and fun session to set the tone for the sessions to come. To make sure that my rewards are rewarding and that my dog is ready to work with me.
Don’t pressure the dog. As positive trainers, we’re often unaware of the pressure we can put on a dog when we expect them to do something. Our behavior can be put a lot of pressure on the dog even if there is no obvious aversive in play. When the dog feels pressured, he might not feel relaxed and happy in the training situation, and he will try to find other things to do to calm himself – or you – down. The pressure often comes from our expectations. I try to not expect anything when I train my dogs. I don’t expect them to want to train with me – I make sure I make it worthwhile for them to do so. I don’t expect them to offer behaviors – I observe them and reinforce behaviors that I like. I don’t take it personally if they leave me, get frustrated or just do nothing.
Don’t be afraid of distractions. Some distractions are really hard. You might need to work specifically on them and gradually decrease distance to the distractions. Most things that dogs get distracted by are not distractions any more if you change your training and make it more efficient and rewarding for the dog. During the ten years of professional dog training that I have done, I’ve met a handful of dogs that were so distracted by for example sniffing that it has been necessary to work specifically on that.
Many of the things that we consider “self rewarding” is rewarding to the dog because of our training. When I trained English Setter Pi, I was convinced that looking at small birds and checking out what was happening in a distance was reinforcing to her because of her breed and age. Therefore, I interrupted the behavior with her name, a command or just taking her the other way with the leash. She would come back to work, but she would not stop her checking out until I decided to just wait her out and reward coming back to me instead. I had taught her that she could look at other things and I would always tell her when she should come back to work. Once I stopped interrupting this “self reinforcing” behavior and gave her the responsibility to start me up instead, the behavior extinguished.
If your dog is so interested in small, dry crumbs of food on the ground that he choses that before your training, it might be necessary to look at why that is. Your training should definitely be more fun than sniffing for food (or other smells) on the floor. With good rewards, well planned training and a high rate of reinforcement, the choice should be easy! So ask yourself – why is this not the case? Look at all the points above and see where you can improve.
So… Have fun training. Make it fun and rewarding for your dog. Don’t expect anything from him. Plan your sessions well. Relax. Don’t take it personally. Laugh. Play. Think. Plan. Good luck!
I read and enjoy Patricia B. McConnell’s blog about animal training and what goes on at her farm. This week, the topic of shaping came up for discussion. I have so much to say about this topic that I thought it best to write a blog post instead of a long comment. In this blog post, I’m discussing shaping from a dog trainer perspective, as I don’t train other species much. I realise that this post will discuss a lot of things not at all mentioned in the original post, so it’s not at all a criticism of the blog post, just my thoughts on the practical applications of different modes of instruction in teaching dogs new things.
Definitions are hard! I feel like I don’t even want to get into a lengthy discussion on the correct terminology. Some people will argue that it is only true shaping if you sit on a chair, or always reward away from the direction of the behavior, and if I understand this article by Karen Pryor correctly, it’s not shaping but successive approximation if you make the behavior easier to accomplish when you begin training. If that is the case, I very rarely use shaping. And I don’t think anyone does seriously. So it’s not very interesting to discuss then, is it?
This is a clip (in fast forward to fit on Instagram) from Bud’s first session of weaving. I would definitely call it shaping even though I move, reward in the direction of the behavior and make the behavior easier by using only two poles and opening them up to begin.
What is interesting to discuss is where there actually is a difference in training. I realise now that my definition of shaping is fairly broad, yet I find it more useful for discussion. This is how I would define the training that I use that I sloppily define as as shaping:
Reward based – no verbal or physical corrections. (Of course, I can see how you could shape a behavior using negative reinforcement as well, it’s just not what I mean when I say I use shaping).
Builds on the dog’s own initiative. The dog is actively offering behavior in order to get the reward. He is not waiting for a command, prompt or lure.
Behaviors are split into smaller building blocks to make it easy for the dog
There are a lot of things that could be added to that list, but I find that many of them are in the “often, but not always” category for me. That would for example include the use of a marker signal. I do use a marker signal most of the time – because it helps my timing. But sometimes I can deliver the reward with perfect timing – for example by throwing a treat over the dogs head as he is focused forward, which makes a marker signal unnecessary or even distracting (because the dog might orient towards the sound and look back to me instead of keeping his focus forward).
In that category, I would also place that wrong responses are just ignored and the dog tries again. This is what I most often do, but sometimes I need to call the dog back to me for a new repetition if he makes the wrong choice. Most of the time though, wrong responses are met with no reaction and the dog just tries again. It is not followed by a verbal correction or by the immediate help from a cue, prompt or lure.
Here is an example of a puppy learning to sit up from down in about 3 minutes:
What’s the big difference?
The big difference from other methods of training is the emphasis on the dog offering behavior. This is what, in my mind, separates shaping from a method based on luring or prompting. This is what I find makes a huge difference in the way the dog learns and performs. If the dog and trainer team are skilled with the offering of behavior, it doesn’t matter at all if you sometimes use help (lure, prompt, target) to get a behavior started. As soon as the dog gets the idea, he will offer the behavior if you just wait, and there will be no need to gradually fade the help. At least, that is my experience. On the other hand – when dog and trainer are skilled with shaping, there is rarely need to use that kind of help.
Why is it important that the dog offers behavior? To me – it’s about the long term effects and the influence it has on the teamwork with my dogs. If someone handed me a puppy and asked that it would spin clockwise on cue tomorrow, I’d most certainly use a lure to get the behavior. Luring is probably a faster way to teach that kind of moderately-difficult-but-easy-to-lure behavior (if they asked for a sit or down I wouldn’t lure because that just seems like more work) with a dog that has no prior experience with training.
With my own puppies, there are lessons much more important than getting them to spin. My focus is on what makes them great training companions in the future and for the rest of their lives, not what gets me behavior fastest right now. I know that if I teach them to offer behavior, actively work to get rewards and try again if they fail, they will learn behaviors in no time in the future. They will also learn other very important skills, like:
I will not ask you to work, you have to engage me to get rewards – leads to a dog that will be focused and driven.
There is nothing bad about not getting a reward you were hoping for, just try again and try harder – leads to a dog that doesn’t find it strange to work for longer periods of time without being rewarded, and that doesn’t get frustrated or worried when rewards are not coming.
If you want something in life, try to impress me – leads to a dog that will look to work with me in the face of distractions
What do I mean by offering?
A dog trained by me will definitely offer behavior if we’re in a training situation and I don’t say anything to them. Some situations have default behaviors – like coming to heel if I stand or walk straight and competition like. In other situations, they might just offer something we recently trained or something they enjoy a lot. I don’t really expect them to be super creative. I will not just sit and stare at them and hope that they will offer something new out of the blue. Splitting behavior into small pieces and planning my sessions well means that I very quickly will get them on the right track. I will reward very simple behaviors to get the session started (for example just standing in front of me, or looking at an object, or lying down). The dog is not really offering much, I’m capturing a starting point. I will not raise the criteria and expect the dog to do something more until he is repeating the first behavior. Once he is on the right track, I can usually raise criteria quite quickly in small but frequent steps.
A puppy, or dog new to training is never expected to offer anything at all. I capture behaviors – small, small pieces of what I want, until I see the dog repeating them in order to get a reward. Dogs do a lot of things all the time – we just need to be good observers and have good timing. I think that one reason why my dogs rarely show any frustration is that I really don’t expect anything from them. If they need time to think, I’m fine with that. It doesn’t stress me out, so my dogs aren’t stressed about it either.
Offering never stops
I add a cue to behaviors that I shape when the dog repeats the behavior happily and isn’t dependent on my position, reward placement or the environment. I like my dogs to be good at responding to cues, to wait for cues and to differentiate between cues, so I work on it a lot. But I never take away the offered behavior. Any behavior that my dog has learned can easily be offered if I need it. This is for a number of reasons, for example:
If I want to work on some technical aspect of the behavior (not related to stimulus control), I want to be able to do it without using the cue. It gives me a better flow, and if there’s something I don’t like about the way my dog performs the behavior at the moment, I don’t have to pair my cue with that behavior until it’s perfect again.
If I want to add an element of difficulty, like distance, from movement or duration. My dog might be great at “sit” when he’s in front of me. That does not mean that he will do it on a distance. Taking the cue away and working on offered behavior makes sure that I don’t associate the cue with frustration when I ask for it in a new situation. The dog gets to offer the behavior until it’s fluent in the new situation, and then I add the cue back in as a “green light”.
If I want the behavior as a starting point for shaping another behavior. I might for example want my dog to learn to crawl. If I have to ask my dog to lie down to get started, I have a problem. My “down” cue means lie down and don’t move until I release you, so I don’t want to use that when shaping a crawl. An offered down (and no release) is a much better starting point!
If I want the behavior as a starting point for a chain or sequence. I like my dogs to “ask to work”, so I like any chain to start with an offered behavior of some sort. It might be that the dog offers heel position for me to start an obedience chain, or maybe that the dog offers a sit in order to get to work on holding a dumbbell. This also makes sure that I know that my dog is motivated and ready to work before I ask something of him.
It is difficult to write about this, because the subject is huge. My point is that I think the big difference is not in what techniques you use to get behavior started (even though it makes a difference if you’re always luring and never capturing), but in how much the dog offers behavior that is not cued or prompted in training.
Bud learned the jumping stand early. I like to teach it to small puppies because they are bouncy and you can often easily capture it by just standing and waiting for it to happen when the puppy has energy and is playful. I don’t care a lot about perfection at this point, I just click and reward any bounce where both front legs leave the ground until the puppy offers the behavior in order to get a reward. I also like to name the behavior early, because I think it’s good to work on stimulus control with my puppy, and they often learn to love this behavior quickly.
I have not planned for Bud to be an obedience dog, but I love to work on obedience behaviors and think they are great for anything I want to do in the future. I’ve used his jumping stand for cue discrimination, and I have added some staying in position after the jump too. But I haven’t really worked on it, and I realized recently that he always moved his back feet counter clockwise on landing. It wasn’t pretty, and he did it every time. And I had rewarded it every time. Now, I decided that I wanted him to stay straight infront of me when doing the behavior, maybe even be able to keep his back feet still and just bounce with his front feet.
If the dog is always performing the behavior in a way we don’t like, it’s not a good idea to just not reward it and wait for perfection. The dog will probably give up in the process. You could chose to reward the better responses, and not reward the ones where he moves his feet the most – but you’re still rewarding something you don’t really like. Another solution is to think about some other behaviors to train that might help with understanding and hopefully bleed over to the behavior in question. That’s what I started by doing. I worked on backing up straight, offering a stand (not a jump, just four feet on the floor) straight infront of me and some rear end awareness and finishes on my right side (moving back feet clockwise).
This helped enough for me to get much better behavior once I started the jumping stand again. There were a lot of offered jumping stands that I didn’t reward, but he did seem to remember the exercises we’d just done when I didn’t reward, and I could jackpot some jumping stands that were much straighter than before. I still rewarded back foot movement (which I don’t really see as a problem) as long as it wasn’t to his right. If I found that he reverted back to his old style, and rate of reinforcement got too low, I would remind him of one of the behaviors used before (often just standing in front of me, or some clockwise pivoting) and then go back to the jumping stand. But most important was criteria – not rewarding what I don’t want, and rewarding all the good attempts.
I made a little video of our training today. He was doing well and had some nice repetitions where he kept back feet still, and even could go from sit to stand with his back feet planted. When I found myself just rewarding many repetitions in a row, I decided to change something – challenge him. The behavior is nice, but it’s not ever finished. Just changing something small can make it a bit harder for the dog and increase his understanding of what we want. I chose to add an open hand with treats to the left. It made it harder, but he worked through it nicely and came out more confident in what I want. I usually don’t want to use a cue for the behavior when I add a challenge like this, so it would have been smarter if I’d let him offer it freely instead. Noted for the next challenge!
Anytime you train your dog, you set rules that dictate what the dog needs to do to earn a reward – criteria. Without a criterion, you’re just feeding (or playing with) your dog. We’re all aware of this, yet it’s very easy to slip into training where we just reward without thinking about criteria. It seems easy enough in the beginning, when we’re just capturing all behaviors that can lead us towards our goal. We love to reward, and all we need to think about is setting the dog up for success and having good timing.
When the dog is on the right track and repeatedly offers the behavior we’re after, it’s very easy to get stuck on still rewarding all tries. I often get asked about what to do with training problems like the dog moving his feet in positions, chewing on the dumbbell or crooked sits. First thing you need to ask yourself is: Am I rewarding it? It might seem like a stupid question, but my experience is that in most cases, people are rewarding the very behavior they consider problematic. How on earth is the dog supposed to know that we don’t want it?
Of course, one reason why people chose to reward is because they want the dog to get rewarded for working and staying in the game, and they don’t really feel like they know what to do about the issue. In other cases, trainers are just so used to always rewarding that they’re not thinking about the possibility of actually choosing which responses to reinforce. The problem is: You get what you reward. And the longer you reward something you don’t want, the more frustrating it will be to get rid of it. In a perfect world, you set the dog up for success so that you never reward the behaviors you don’t like. In reality, you’ll often reinforce behaviors that are close to what you want, but not perfect, when you begin training. With a lot of behaviors, I don’t find this a problem if you raise criteria and move on quickly.
There are a lot of reasons why trainers get stuck with a behavior they’re not crazy about. There are a lot of ways to tweak and adjust training that will help even if you’re still rewarding all repetitions. But the bottom line is: many trainers need to get more comfortable with setting criteria and withholding reinforcement if the behavior isn’t good enough. In the words of Bob Bailey: If you want more, you have to ask for more. Of course, you can’t ask for everything at once. You need to raise criteria in small steps, but do it often. The longer you stay at one step, the more difficult it will be to get to the next one.
Why am I writing about this? Because I constantly make the mistake, and because I see how quickly I get results when I’m conscious of criteria. I’ll tell you about how I problem solved using stricter criteria in my next blogpost. Please feel free to ask any questions you might have on the subject, and I’ll answer here or in my next blog post.
I also wanted to share these beautiful pictures taken by Thomas yesterday. He’s in the north of Sweden, in the mountains, hunting grouse with old Pax (11 years old!) and Alot (8 months old). They seem to have great weather and some luck with hunting. And Alot is learning a lot about scent, as well as steadiness to birds and retrieving.
Summer is coming to an end and things are starting to slow down a bit. It’s been a very busy summer with competitions both near and far away (European Open in Hungary), camps at home and abroad and not much time for anything else. We’ve had technical problems with the shop part of the website, so we had to postpone the start of our next Foundation Class Online. We promise to find a solution soon! I’ll also get back with more reports on what Wilco and I are doing. He just turned 6 months.
I came across an interesting article today regarding learning. Trainers often have the idea that error-less learning leads to faster and better results than learning based more on trial and error. While I like to keep my dogs successful, I’m never afraid of letting them try different things and try again when they’re not rewarded. I was therefore glad to come across these studies that suggest that off-target actions can be a key ingredient in quick learning. Even making mistakes happen (applying a force that pushes the action off target) can make learning go faster than striving for error-less repetitions.
Of course, we don’t know if this applies to dogs (although I would think so), and I don’t know about the quality of the studies or if there are other studies that suggest otherwise. Please let me know if you have any thoughts or added knowledge on this subject!
One of the hardest things to handle for our dogs in competition is the lack of reward. Not getting an anticipated reward can result in frustration, anxiety or reduced motivation. Those are not feelings that we want in training or competition, so it is critical that we teach the dog to master no reward events.
We want the dog’s reaction to no reward to be to focus and try harder, and we don’t want it to be a big deal to the dog. Shaping teaches the dog this from the start. It is normal in shaping for rewards to be withheld, and the dog has to focus and try again in order to get a reward. Good shaping makes intermittent reinforcement and training for competition easy later on!
I want my dogs to actively take responsibility for keeping focus and trying hard when we’re working together. I never want to have to ask them to work, but rather want them asking me for a new task at all times in training or competition. This is, I think, one of the key elements to success in the competition ring. Even energetic dogs that like to work will get lazy and lose focus if we constantly take responsibility for keeping them with us in the ring. Losing the dogs attention when training, or even worse – competing, is very aversive to most trainers and taking responsibility for the dogs focus (for example by asking for it, talking to the dog with a happy voice, moving in a fun way, commanding or threatening the dog) is negatively reinforced since it often works in the short term. Unfortunately, it only makes the problem worse in the long run.
What does this have to do with shaping? Everything! I believe that shaping is the perfect way of teaching the dog a great division of responsibility. I have great rewards, but the dog has to work to earn them. I will not cheerlead the dog to work, nor use the rewards as a lure to get behavior. I am quietly observing the dog and then rewarding good effort. This can be started as soon as I start training my puppy at 8 weeks, and the puppy will learn one of the most important lessons for success in competitions right away. Shaping teaches the dog to be the active part in training, always focused on working to get that great reward – especially when I am just quietly focused (just like in competition!).
One of the things I like most about using shaping (learning based on the dogs own initiative and no prompts or lures) to teach new things, is that I get instant feedback on the clarity of my teaching and the value of the rewards I am using. Dog trainers seem to focus way too much on getting the behavior and too little on actually reinforcing behavior. While luring might get you the behavior quickly, it is hard to tell if you’re actually building value for the behavior or for the prompts used. I think that using help often builds much more value for following our hand/the food/the target than for the actual behavior, and it is very hard to know what is what until you try to fade the prompt.
Using shaping gives you instant feedback on the value of your rewards (does the dog want to repeat the behavior that produces the reward). If you find that your dog loses interest in repeating the behavior, you should look at how you are rewarding rather than introducing a help (body language, encouraging chatter, cues, targets, lures etc.). This is harder than it sounds, it seems to be human to focus on prompting behavior rather than reinforcing it, but when you get in the habit of constantly evaluating value you will get addicted to the instant feedback that shaping provides in a much clearer way than luring does.
I taught the last weekend of four in the south of Sweden this weekend. It’s been a very nice experience, with great students that have a lot of fun together. The theme for the weekend was training for trials, so there was a lot of working on sequences and trial-like situations. We did also have time to work on details, and most chose to work on the heelwork. A common problem is that the dog choses the wrong position while heeling – walking ahead of the handler or drifting out to the side (dogs that hang to far back is usually just not motivaded enough). It’s common, and can also be hard to fix after it has become a habit. We did make a lot of progress this weekend though.
The first question we need to ask when the dog is not walking where we want him to is WHY? Why is the dog finding value somewhere else than where we want him to be? Our training is almost always the answer to why there is a conflict between where we wish the dog was and where he wants to be. It can either be an effect of us reinforcing behaviors that are incompatible with a good position – like teaching the dog that heeling is about watching our eyes. It can also be that we place the reward somewhere where we don’t want the dog to be. We might allow the dog to walk out of position to meet the reward coming from our right hand, or that we bring the reward to the dog (in a position we don’t want) instead of having him come to the reward (where we want him to be).
What you reward
It is of course important to reward when the dog is exactly where you want him. We often get annoyed when the dog does something we don’t like, but we keep rewarding it. How is the dog supposed to understand that we don’t want him there if we reward it? If the dog has found a position that we don’t like, we need to find a way to get him where we want him, so that we can reward that. You might have to start with the dog just standing in the right place, or place the dog on a platform next to you. You can also let the dog start behind you and then click and reward quickly when he is in the right spot – before he gets the chance to pass you and walk to far ahead. Re-training the behavior walking backwards can also be a great way to get a new start. Or maybe just reinforcing the correct position when you’re out on a walk.
Where you reward
Training a great heel is so much easier, and the result gets so much better, if the dog feels that the reward comes exactly where you want him. Placing the treat on the seam of your pant can be a good point for you to remember when training. I prefer to let the treat come from behind if the dog has a tendency to walk to far ahead. I usually keep a few treats in my right hand and then take one at a time with my left hand behind my back when I want to reward.
I used to reward in the opposite direction from where the dog had a tendency to go. Today, I’m more into rewarding exactly where I want the dog, but have some criteria for what the dog should do to get his reward. If I reward just by my leg, I won’t let the dog swing his rear end out when he is eating. I want him to keep his body parallel with me. I train this early, when I teach him rear end awareness with front feet on a platform, and when I start the backwards walking. It’s often a good idea to train your routine for rewarding before you start heeling training.
If the dog is good at ignoring rewards held in my hands, it’s so much easier to get good placement of reward. I don’t want the dog to think about the reward until it materializes in position. I can try to lure the dog out of position with treats in my right hand or behind my back, but the dog will only get them if he keeps a good position (I will then take the reward to the dog). I also want to test my dogs understanding of position by using external rewards like a bowl of food on the ground. I work with the dog very freely (I don’t start from halt and I don’t use a cue) and let the dog find his position by my side when I’m walking in order to get his “get it” cue.