Three Things You Must Know to Have a Reliably Trained Dog
by Robin MacFarlane
My dog knows Sit, now what?
It is a typical day when I have dog owners tell me "He already knows all that" in reference to the obedience I am demonstrating to them with my dog sitting, lying down, heeling or coming when called.
The next statement is usually something akin to "But I need him to stop chasing the neighbor's cat" To which I then respond "Tell him to Sit or come back to you when he starts to chase."
And therein lies the problem. The dog really doesn't know "all that", at least not when there are other interests competing for his attention.
Understanding how to create strong reliability is the key to having a really well trained dog. So it is important that you move into the proofing phase of training as soon as Fido understands the basic mechanics of a behavior.
Proofing the training means to expose the behavior to variables that include the concepts of Duration, Distraction and Distance. By working through these variables a dog learns to perform regardless of distractions. As you practice that Sit is sit and Come is come "no matter what", you build a relationship with your dog that becomes pretty bomb-proof.
It is a bit of work, so let me break it down and clarify each step.
Duration: is a measure of how long your dog will continue to hold true to a command.
For instance, if you ask your dog to Sit, how long will he remain in that position? Does he sit for a brief second, until you turn your attention away from him, or until you give him an indication he is finished?
My preference is to teach a dog to remain in position until you indicate with a permission cue (Ok, Free, Take a break) that he is finished with the task. The simple addition of permission cues for release defines the exercise and adds clarity to the dogs understanding. Now the dog understands there is a definitive ending to an exercise, and you will determine it rather than him having the burden of making that decision and perhaps making a wrong choice. This is how you create the concept of 'Stay" in the dog's mind.
Duration is the first concept I focus on with the vast majority of dogs I train (there are always exceptions to a rule, but for most dogs, duration is the place to start in building reliability). I believe duration helps the information sink in, and there is no logical reason I can come up with that a dog can't learn to hold simple stationary positions (with limited distraction present) right from the start. By the end of a week, I typically have dogs holding 15 - 30 minute Down or Place commands.
Distraction: is a measure of the dog holding true to a command while there are other things competing for his attention.
For instance, will the dog remain sitting when someone walks up to chat with you? Will he remaining sitting when another dog walks by or when someone rings your doorbell?
Issues with reliability around distractions are the most common. It is easy to get a dog to sit or lie down when there is nothing else interesting going on. It is another thing to have them follow through when other excitement is in the area.
The key with adding distraction proofing to your dog's repertoire is about starting slow and building on success. We can't expect a reactive dog to remaining sitting when another dog charges the fence if he can't even sit when we bounce a ball in front of him. Start with small distractions and build up in intensity as the dog gets the hang of it.
Distance: is a measure of how far away things are (you or the distractions) from your dog, and he will hold true to a command.
This is by far the most challenging piece of the puzzle for most people and often times the overlooked key in building to higher levels of success.
When you add distractions to a dog's proofing work, keep them at a tolerable distance in the beginning. Tolerable means finding a distance where it challenges your dog, but is not so over-stimulating that it makes it impossible for you to get things back on track.
The biggest key to success in the proofing process is learning to layer these 3 pieces appropriately. If you keep the distraction low when you start building your distance from the dog, it is easier for the dog to learn the proper response. If you want to work on higher levels of distraction, stay nearby in the beginning, so you can quickly intervene and fix mistakes if needed. If you want to work a long duration exercise, don't immediately add the second variable of going out of sight from the dog. Add variables in a way that allows you and the dog to succeed.
It is important to remember that practice does not make perfect. Only perfect practice makes perfect. If you are repeatedly setting the dog up to fail, failure is what you end up teaching.
Robin MacFarlane is a professional dog trainer and owner of Thatís My Dog in Dubuque, Iowa. Her best-selling dog training DVDs, JUST RIGHT and JUST RIGHT 2 have helped thousands of dog owners teach their dogs basic obedience and fix problem behaviors through a system of training that you can easily work into your daily routine.