Foundation Training Skills Part 1
Beginning obedience skills are usually what come to mind when owners ask for foundation dog training. Though many dog trainers already know the benefits of spending the majority of time training life skills such as polite greetings, leash walking and going to a mat, there is another set of skills that are easily over looked in a class or private setting that can raise the success of all other training.
There is a plateau point that seems to keep dogs and puppies that were excelling in puppy and novice class from reaching the same level of focus and cue response out and about with their owners. So often owners who were thrilled with how their 10-12 week old responded to positive reinforcement, are frustrated and exhausted with the behaviors of their 10-12 month old. The same thing can happen with a newly adopted dog; the beginning starts out great but the progress halts at a certain point a few months later.
To counteract this, I have written a list of pre-foundation behaviors that pet dog owners can teach their dogs early on to avoid the “adolescent plateau” later. These are behaviors I find more useful than obedience when starting a new dog or puppy. I will briefly explain how to introduce each concept and the benefits it offers for long-term success. This will be a two part article and I’ve separated the training skills into four categories: Skills that build owner focus, Skills that prevent frustration, Skills that teach delayed reinforcement, and Skills that support physical health.
SKILLS THAT BUILD OWNER FOCUS:
So often owners are really looking to keep their dog’s attention without having the skills to do so. Adolescent dogs in particular will soon begin to choose environmental stimuli over their owner if games are not implemented. Encourage owners to be spontaneous and fun, engaging the dog in a variety of new and interesting ways. Dogs love movement and they give great focus to novelty. Learning to use different treats, toys, and ways of praising dogs are all useful for dog owners to know.
Finding their hidden owner
An extra person the dog knows and likes is needed to teach this game. The trusted person will hold the leash while the owner walks away but hides close by. The dog should be able to watch while the owner is hiding. As the dog is looking towards the direction of the owner that walked away, the person should give the dog the full length of their leash and ask the dog to find their owner. The person should follow the dog at the dog’s pace and when they run to the hidden owner, the owner should praise the dog and give them treats. As the dog ages, the owners should hide further and further away, have the dog wait longer periods of time before being told to find the owner, have the dog practice other cues, such as spin or backup before searching, have the dog hold a sit stay while the owner hides and ask the dog to find the owner in new and busy environments.
Owners can build focus and make walks more interesting by asking the dog to crawl under benches, circle around trees, climb on top of rocks and weave between tables. Asking the dog to wait or do the behavior from a distance while practicing around other dogs and people will advance the game. An attentive owner will create an attentive dog faster than an owner who is paying attention to something else. Walking this way makes it less likely the owner will be on their phone or be surprised by something in the environment.
How to follow a treat that’s been thrown
Starting with the dog on or off leash, drop a few treats on the ground to the left and point them out for the dog. Next drop treats to the right and point them out to the dog. Continue pointing the treats out until the dog is readily watching your hands and they begin dropping their head towards the ground when you have let the treats go. Next, begin to roll or toss the treats 3-5 feet away from you on the left side. Once the dog is happily trotting off towards the treat and happily returning to see what is next, toss the treat to the right side 3-5 feet. Then begin walking and moving while tossing treats. The dog should happily follow the treat and then return to have the next treat thrown.
This skill has a ton of advantages. It builds owner focus and reduces frustration. The dog is no longer ignoring the owner or staring at the owner, throwing out behaviors and waiting for the next cue. The dogs will need this skill for learning “four on the floor” and “loose leash walking”. Following a treat is purposeful in getting the dog to move away from potential upsets or confrontations with other people or dogs. Following a treat is often used in reversing and avoiding resource guarding, teaching a “leave it” and “drop it” cue. Chasing thrown treats is fun for many dogs and adds value, especially when using it for recall or other fast moving games.
A basic search cue
This comes pretty easily after learning that treats are on the ground. Starting indoors, with the treat just a few feet away and while the dog can see it; ask the dog to find the treat. Gradually build the distance and difficulty of the search while the dog practices a nice “wait” behavior. Eventually, take the game outside, around other distractions and in new environments. Dogs gain great owner focus as they watch you intently hiding their stuff and tire themselves out in the process. Enrichment games are just as important to a dog’s life as physical exercise is, and they hold the added benefit of strengthening the reinforcement value of the owner.
GAMES THAT TEACH DELAYED TREAT DELIVERY.
I consider delayed reinforcement delivery to be the building block of duration and distance work. The reinforcement process must still begin within 3 seconds to mark the behavior, though the process of delivery and the anticipation of receiving the reward can take much longer. Anticipation is also reinforcing to the dog.
Waiting patiently for the treat to be delivered from another spot.
I start this one fairly quickly in my classes. Owners are given a station where they can leave their treats. Dogs are trained 5-10 feet away from the station and given a cue they already know. The owner can then mark the behavior and begin walking over to the treat station to reward. I find this a vital early lesson because it takes the frantic feeling away; it slows the owner down and allows the dog to begin understanding delayed reinforcement. As long as the owner is marking the behavior within 3 seconds, they are able to slowly move towards the station without worry that they haven’t been fast enough. They can take this time to talk to their dog and stay focused on the new skills they are learning in class. When owners feel rushed by treat delivery, they often have a hard time learning the rest of the lesson.
I consider this the most important foundation skill for the owner to preventing the plateau later on.
To ask for help
Lock treats in a kennel and allow the dog to work at getting them out until they look back at the owner. Mark the moment the dog looks for help and walk over and open the kennel and give them a treat from inside. The treats should be very high value. Repeat this, each time walking away a little further and asking for the dog to look a little longer at the owner until marking and walking back towards the kennel to release a treat. The owner should be encouraged to tell the dog how wonderful they are while walking back to the kennel. The dog will begin to understand that verbal praise while walking is the start of the treat delivery sequence.
Eventually work up towards a dog who sees the problem and after a few seconds goes to find the owner and look at them for help. This is a great foundation skill for preventing counter surfing, digging at toys stuck underneath furniture and created owner focus while preventing frustration. It’s an essential foundation skill for reactive and shy dogs. I always engage my dog whenever they ask for “help” whether it is because they want something out of another room (the toys are in the garage) or because they want to chase a squirrel. Usually my dogs will see the squirrel, back up and look at me, which then I try as often as possible to reward them for by taking them over to sniff the area. Do whatever possible not to reinforce barking. If the dog is barking, the frustration or excitement level may be too high. Rewarding the dog earlier or be less animated with verbal praise.
Settling without engagement
There should be a cue that tells the dog nothing is going to happen. I usually prefer that cue to be me giving the dog a good length of leash and then stepping on the rest of it. When owners come to class, I show them all how to be a tether for their dog. I offer the dogs a food toy or a calming pet and then disengage with them. Kay Laurence calls this position “park”.
How to get food out of a toy
Using food in toys creates value in the toys, value in the process of watching the owner fill them (focus), value when they are empty but being picked up (anticipatory reinforcement), and creates a unique way to reinforce the dog with food without presenting the food first. They can be used to add duration to many behaviors, such as staying calm around houseguests, riding in the car quietly, ignoring strange things or a safe way to have children reinforce the dog.
Coming when called away from objects and past other dogs
While fun objects and other dogs are around, I keep the dog on a 25 foot long line and practice calling the dog and then throwing a treat for them the opposite direction while also moving away. This game builds speed and dogs have an easier time focusing on objects that are moving vs non-moving. Owners should be taught that movement is given priority to a young dog’s attention, so all early training should require moving toys, treats or humans as part of the reinforcement. Using the long line allows owners a chance to practice management the environment to create strong training skills.