Recently, I made this very short iPhone video in which I am running Hazel through a chain of behaviors. They are all behaviors we have practiced before, but probably not in this particular order, as I like to keep things random to keep her on her toes and using her brain. It occurred to me that while I consider this to be fairly simple, do not get frustrated and am willing to keep trying if she makes a mistake, the average dog owner doesn’t have all of the tools and knowledge at their disposal that a dog trainer does for something like this to look anything other than impossible for their dog.

Often people think that there is something special about a dog (and I am not gonna argue that there isn’t a lot about Hazel that is not special, but special abilities are not one of them) or the person doing the training has magical skills that makes success happen more easily. Almost like the dog is smarter than average, the trainer has some Superhero-like skills, and therefore they are able to achieve things the Average Joe never could. Not true.

If I break this video down and walk you through behavior by behavior, there is one consistent theme: repetition. Other themes include criteria, timing and mechanics. These are the key elements to successful dog training. So, in this video, the first behavior I ask for is “Sit”, but Hazel is in a down position. For many dogs, this is a problem to be solved, as even though we are asking for the same behavior whether a dog is standing or laying down, the action is different, and most of us focus on teaching our dog to sit from a standing position. To get a sit from a down, we started with a food lure at her nose, moved in an upward direction. After many repetitions, the food lure was faded, she was prompted with just a hand signal and then the verbal cue added. One thing to note is that many repetitions, we do not mean 5 (though we typically do 5 in a row.) We mean more like 50-100 over the course of multiple sessions, depending on the difficulty of the behavior.

Here’s some video on how to fade a food lure:

The next behavior is “Spin.” This one, too, was built by repetition. But, for this behavior, I would say that the more important building block is criteria. Criteria asks the question, “What exactly does the dog need to do to earn reinforcement?” And, the *exactly* is important. The criteria for spin typically looks something like this:
-Dog follows food lure with head to 90 degrees and gets food reinforcement.
-After several successful repetitions, we up the criteria to 180 degrees, still using the food lure.
-We only move to the full spin if the dog is successfully following the food lure at 180 degrees reliably.
-After we have practiced these steps and been successful with a food lure a number of times, say 50-100, we move to a hand signal.
-Once the dog is reliably doing the behavior with the hand signal, we add the cue “Spin!” why are we waiting to add the cue? Because dogs don’t speak English. The word spin is meaningless unless there is a behavior attached to it. This is true of any behavior we are installing.
Think of a behavior like spin this way: our final goal is a 360 degree turn, which is probably too hard, so we break it down into do-able steps that provide the building blocks. Timing is critical, too, because we can’t reinforce the dog at 45 degrees, if what we are looking for is 90 degrees, so if the dog starts to turn back out of the spin and we reinforce, we are not reinforcing the desired behavior, unless we have effectively marked the 90 degrees with a click or “yes!” and even then, we run the risk of getting it wrong. Timing is that important. You have to have a very clear picture in your head (better yet in writing, for reference) because if you don’t, you can bet the dog doesn’t.

From the spin, we go into a “Down”, which is probably Hazel’s biggest default behavior. I see it going in her head a little like this,
“We do down a lot, I’ll try that one.”, so I like to ask for it to keep the cue strong. For most people, a dog doing a down off-cue is not a problem, because it’s generally a nice calm behavior that we like. So, I do reward it off-cue from time to time. But, just like the other behaviors, down was built in steps, or approximations. Some dogs will not automatically do a down when initially lured with food and will need some help along the way: like reinforcement early on for elbows slightly bent and head lowered, then bent with forelegs closer to the ground and so on. And how do you do this? You guessed it right if you guessed knowing what your criteria is (Fido will be reinforced if his elbows bend and his head follows my hand and that you need to reward him when he is in the desired position.)

From there, we go back up into a “Sit” and end with a trick, “Wave.” Wave is one that I very much don’t want her doing off-cue. Why? Because it’s funny and makes me laugh, which she finds reinforcing and that does not help build stimulus control. Wave is not a particularly useful behavior, but I don’t want her throwing it around in hopes that it will earn her reinforcement. And, we are working on this one for a fun project, so I want it to be fluent (meaning done with ease) and only offered on cue. *This is not something that would be necessary or important for most people with a behavior like this.*

Here’s a confession: I think people who can teach their dog “Bang” are amazeballs. I have pretty much convinced myself that I’ll never be able to teach a dog that behavior. Not sure why, but it’s always seemed rather daunting to me. I recognize this, and realize that even though it seems daunting, I could do it because I know how to break things into steps to build a behavior. Most people do not, and not because they lack the ability, but because they just don’t know how. It’s that simple. And, that’s why people think they can’t even get their dog to sit. Sure you could, you’d just need to know the steps to get that butt on the ground. Or, hire a trainer to teach you and your dog how to do it. Once you understand that behaviors are built and don’t just happen magically, it frees up your mind to be able to work with your dog in do-able pieces for both of you.

You’ll also notice that in the video at the top that Hazel is not given any reinforcement until the very end, when I say “Yes!” She was given a treat after that, I just stopped recording prior to handing it to her. But, this, too, took a long time and each behavior has a solid history of reinforcement. We also have a strong trust account: she knows that I am not going to ask her to work and not pay her. But, as time goes on and you practice more, the way you pay changes and becomes more variable. This keeps the dog in the game: think of a slot machine. You keep playing because there is a chance you might win; this is variable reinforcement. But, you don’t want to move to this schedule too fast with your dog, because they need enough wins early on to stay in the game. So, when installing behaviors, we can’t be stingy with reinforcement and praise usually ain’t gonna cut it. Find a food reward your dog will work for, or use toys and play when appropriate.

Here’s a good example of what food rewards will work among varying distractions. The truth is your dog is not going to work effectively for Milk Bones in a distracting environment (and probably not even in a non-distracting environment), so it’s worthwhile to know what he will work for.

Here is an excellent example of using play (in this case, Tug) as a reinforcer:

So, there you have it. The Magic of Dog Training is actually not magic at all. There are no illusions or deception, no supernatural control over a dog in training. There is consistency, mechanics, good timing and the importance of understanding that criteria is making a contract with a dog. You can’t change the contract and expect results. You can’t not have a contract. Whatever you are asking of your dog must be something he can accomplish and must be reinforced, and reinforced well if we want it to continue.

In case you need further reassurance that success can be had with any dog, including a barbarian: please check out our series “Growing Up Gomez.” We think you’ll find lots of inspiration and hope there, as well as being able to identify with the struggles and successes.



A great resource for the average dog owner is a book by our mentor, Jean Donaldson, Train Your Dog Like a Pro