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Teaching Concepts - Duration, Distractions and Distance

Laura Tyler, CPDT-KA on November 02, 2010

During any new teaching phase, the key to success is setting your dog up to be right as often as possible. Keep your training sessions short and fun! Several minutes per session a few times every day will build reliability and structure into your dog’s life.

1. Duration

Improve your dog’s ability to “hold” the position for longer periods of time. It’s important to build duration before you even think about teaching your dog to Stay.

A new trainer needs to learn several things in order to help a dog be successful. To visualize this exercise, let’s use “Sit” as an example.

At first the trainer needs to stay as close to the dog’s head as possible to reward with several treats in succession, in order to maintain his position. This builds value in the dog’s mind to remain sitting. If he gets up, stop the food and become still for a few seconds. If he doesn’t sit again on his own, then start over. Give him the opportunity to sort out the information and comply. Remain as silent as possible. Train as though your dog can’t hear you.

After the first several treats (varies from dog to dog) begin to slow down the speed of reinforcement. Reward every 2 seconds and then 3 seconds and then 5 and 9 and so on. As you continue to slow the rate of reinforcement, begin to straighten out your position. This can be a sticky point,so gradually straighten up (stand up), then lean over to deliver the treat (for small dogs) and straighten up again. It’s a common mistake with new trainers to “hover” over the dog and shovel food into his mouth relentlessly. Allow your dog to take the treat from your hand. Present the treat close to, but not touching his mouth so that he can take the food comfortably. Keep the food presentation just below the dog’s chin level. Begin to notice if your dog’s body relaxes into the position. An example might be transferring his weight onto one hip. Pay attention to his body movements!

Once your dog reliably responds to your hand signal, begin to add the verbal cue. Continue to slow the rate of reinforcement by inserting verbal praise (good sit or yes) every other treat or so. Now you might begin to use “Sit” as a request for everyday situations, such as “Sit” for petting, “Sit” before being released to go outside or “Sit” before being let back inside. “Sit” to put on the leash for walks etc.

Critically, learn to recognize your dog’s body language. This will help you to anticipate when he’s “thinking” about moving out of position. Your goal is to have him hold the position until you end the exercise by releasing him with “free dog” or “all done” or whatever cue you decide to use. Now you are building duration! When you get to a silent count of 5 it might just be time to add the “Stay” cue. Remember: Stay is always followed by your specific Release cue!

DO NOT add distance to your “Stay” cue yet!

2. Distraction

Begin to add minor distractions in his comfortable environment. The first new distraction to begin with is changing the environment. Move from room to room inside your house with your dog. Notice which rooms are most distracting to your dog and set your criteria appropriately for your dog be successful in that new situation. Again, you are learning to “read” your dog’s body language.

When you add distraction, it’s important to temporarily lower your criteria in order to help your dog. You can do this by going back to a higher level of reward/reinforcement. Increase your criteria as you “read” that your dog is ready. Quit while you’re ahead. End on success and then go back to it later.

Training is a Process, not an Event!

Once your dog is reliable in every room of your house, it’s time to move outdoors. Start on your deck, in your back yard or even in your garage.

It’s very important to remember that when you move your training outside, you have changed EVERYTHING to your dog. Sights, sounds, temperature, all the lovely doggy smells of outside, textures under his feet, etc…. Don’t be surprised if you have to start again at step one; lure and reward. Build up duration as you did in the beginning. Move to new areas as your dog is ready.

3. Distance

When is your dog reliable enough to respond to your cues from a distance?

When teaching distance control, you need to go back to the least distracting environment. Begin by stepping backward one step at a time. Distance is sometimes built in inches, not feet. Put duration on the back burner for now and concentrate on distance, returning to the dog to reinforce right away. For “Stays” circling around the dog from either direction should be a prerequisite before moving away.

A very common mistake is to add too much distance in a distracting environment and then expect the dog to hold the position for a long duration of time. Remember to raise your criteria when your dog is ready. Keep your expectations in check. If your dog blew it, figure out how you let him do that!

Understanding these concepts can seem daunting, but by following this plan and keeping track of your progress, you will be rewarded with a deeper level of trust and communication with your dog. Training your dog is a lifelong process, just like developing and maintaining any long term friendship.

4. Reliability

We expect reliability from our dogs. We expect them to do as they are told and to be reliable under all circumstances. Unless we set that example and become reliable for our dogs, we can’t expect them to mirror the expectations we do not convey. Stay fair. Be consistent. Take responsibility. Take credit or blame for the behavior you have enabled or reinforced in your dog.

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