Effective dog training without force comprises, among other things, an understanding and utilization of three key factors, often called the 3 D’s- Distraction, Distance and Duration. These parameters allow us to build and proof behaviors in a way that make each step do-able for the dog along the way. If we fail to make the steps achievable, we are likely to not proceed as quickly and will encounter stumbling blocks. These stumbling blocks are what sometimes make people feel they have to turn to using force, as the dog isn’t “getting it.” The reality is, the onus is on us to set our dogs up for success by setting our criteria according to what he can do *right now* and building from there. But, before we start talking about parameters, let’s talk a little about criteria. Criteria is the contract you make with the dog. It is exactly what the dog needs to do to earn reinforcement. If you are unclear about your criteria, then you can be sure the dog will be, as well. It pays to know what you are looking for and not just winging it. Let’s look at building a down-stay as an example.
The first parameter we build in is distraction. We build do this in increments, starting in a low distraction environment and gradually increasing the level of distraction. Distraction can be quick leg kicks, steps to the side, waving arms, etc., while always “bungee-ing” right back to the dog to reinforce staying in position. We use small bits of food as reinforcement. You increase the level of distraction by moving to busier locations, with more stimuli, such as other people present, maybe children or dogs playing in the background. While doing this, we need to be careful to not inadvertently add duration, so we continue to bungee back to the dog. Why don’t we add duration? Why do we add it last? Because duration kills our rate of reinforcement and right now, we need to build up our trust account, so that when we do add duration, we have proven to the dog that we make it worth his while to remain in position.
But, before we get to duration, we start working on distance. Distance refers to how far we can get from the dog before he breaks the stay. Again, we do this slowly and set the criteria at a level the dog can achieve right now. So, we would begin by taking one step back and doing our bungee back, move on to two steps and so on, as long as the dog remains successful. We gradually proceed to working towards turning our backs and then out of sight. We reinforce as we go by heading back to the dog while he is still in position, still thinking of ourselves as being attached to the dog via a bungee cord. If we reinforce the dog when he is not in the down-stay position, we reward the wrong behavior and set ourselves up for a whole new set of problems- behaviors that are learned superstitiously.
Once we have mastered distraction and distance, we start to add duration in earnest. We increase the amount of time required for the dog to maintain the down-stay. Again, we do this in increments which are do-able for the dog. If we wait too long, we are likely to be greeted by a wagging tail at our side. Don’t push too fast and drop back if the dog is popping out of the stay after 2 trials. Slow is the new fast here. If we try to increase the amount of time too quickly, we set the dog up to fail. We increase slowly and we continue to build our trust account. In other words, we can’t go from 10 seconds to 10 minutes and expect the dog to be successful.
Hazel has mastered a down-stay on a mat. We call the behavior “Go to your mat”, though bed or place would work just as well. Just be sure everyone is using the same cue words so we don’t confuse the dog. We have worked hard on this, as she developed some habits that we needed to train out. One of those habits was licking the dishwasher when opened, and as rude a behavior that is, it is also messy. She’s got a white head and would often wear coffee, red wine or soda stains on her head after such expeditions. Another not-so-great habit was wedging herself in between whoever was cooking and the stove (dogs do love food, after all!) and this was potentially dangerous. Because she already had a down-stay on board, it was a matter of training in the targeting. To do this, I utilized the “Touch” cue to get her moving onto the mat, gradually increasing the criteria until she had her whole body on the mat and then cuing the down and then the stay. Once we did this, I had to re-consider my parameters and my criteria. Could I immediately expect her to maintain her down-stay when the dishwasher was opened? Probably not, this is a major distraction- lots of temptation in there! So, I made sure to do lots of my bungee-ing back to her *before* she moved and gradually increased the criteria as we went along. We accomplished the same goal with food prep, and even though her mat is on the other side of the kitchen, we were able to build this a bit more quickly, as her history of being reinforced by food as it was being cooked was little to non-existent. She also has lots of toys on her bed, so she found ways to amuse herself, which was a great bonus! At this point, Hazel will target pretty much anything that looks like a bathmat or dog bed and we use that to our advantage as much as possible!
You’ll notice in the video that I only mention building the terminal behavior in terms of duration, but, you need to factor in building your distraction-proofing and distance-proofing before you get to duration. So, a terminal goal might be: “Hazel will maintain a down-stay on her mat in the kitchen at a distance of 10′(distance parameter) for X amount of minutes (duration parameter) while food is being prepared (distraction parameter).” Another example would be: “Hazel will maintain a down stay for 30 minutes (duration parameter) while we are eating dinner (distraction parameter) at a distance of 10′ (distance parameter).”
Proofing behaviors is an important part of taking your show on the road. Practicing the behaviors in different environments, while retaining the awareness that changing the picture may cause us to have to make some adjustments furthers the proofing cause. Having the same expectations in the pet supply store as you do in your living room will set the cause back. Meet your dog where he is and build from there. You’ll both be more successful and training will go much more smoothly if you are mindful of your criteria (the contract) and the parameters (What are the distractions? How far away from the dog are you? How long must the dog maintain the behavior?) And, you’ll enjoy it a whole lot more, too!