Have you ever thought about how you use your energy in training? Do you use it to reward good attention or do you increase your energy and interactiveness when you lose your dog?
In an ideal world, your dog has a spectacular Conditioned Emotional Response (CER) to training; your dog loves to work and learn. In an ideal world, you have a dog that understands the idea of “offered focus” (see Fenzi Academy if you need help), and who chooses to interact with you and your training games. In an ideal world, you are selecting training environments that allow your dog to succeed, but at the same time provide distractions that your dog can master. In an ideal world, your dog is set up to make good choices all the time.
But most of us do not live in an ideal world, so we need plans for those times when we run into less than ideal circumstances. I do not believe in begging dogs to work, nor do I believe in correcting them to try and force attention, so…what’s left?
My training yard is surrounded by trees with squirrels. It just so happens that Brito’s favorite thing to do is to watch them out the windows while he chatters and vibrates from head to tail. There are so many windows and so many squirrels that management isn’t going to work; I’m stuck training in Squirrel Hollow.
I rarely teach in my yard because he can’t concentrate that hard when he’s working on new behaviors, but I do practice and proof there. Most of the time I spend on engagement – making time spent with me worth his while.
For a long time, I trained when the squirrels were less likely to be outside. I kept him on leash or on a long line. I trained with the highest value motivators I could find and at Brito’s best times of day. But now I take more risks. He is off leash and we do more complicated behaviors that take him further away from me. That means that sometimes he loses his focus. Indeed, in most sessions he loses attention, and about one out of every five sessions he runs off and I have to get him back. We’re progressing, but I’m far from relaxed.
When I train in the yard, Brito has 110% of my attention at all times. I give all of my energy, and I work hard to train short sessions that will keep him engaged. And if I see the slightest loss of attention, I deal with it immediately. How I respond depends on how hard I think he’s locking in on an alternative. Ideally, I give only enough help to allow him to succeed.
Let’s look at this video I took today:
1 sec – right off the bat I lose him to a smell near his ball. I move in quickly while I playfully threaten to steal his ball. He does have the temperament trait of “possession” so that catches his attention and causes him to engage with me.
17 seconds – he locks in on something in the distance – I move in and take his ball; he hears my playful voice (a soft lure), and he knows from my tone that I’m taking his toy. A soft lure is using anything that is relationship based (voice, body movements, praise, etc.) to get the dog back. Offered focus is better but I’ll use a soft lure if needed, and you’ll want to ensure that your best interactions and praise are when he is already paying attention, not when you are re-engaging him. On this occasion a soft lure works and he re-engages.
24 seconds – he looks towards a squirrel tree – I stop asking for behavior and move towards his tail. This often re-engages dogs because you disappear from view and they notice your movement. It works this time; I get him back.
47 seconds – I lose him to the same tree and move around to his tail. This works but I lose him again rather quickly.
51 seconds – I lose him and this time I get to his tail before he notices me. I could have either backed up or called to him if I really thought he was going to run off, but he turns and stays in the game.
1:40 I lose him again and I use the squeak of the ball to get him back. This was an error on my part – squeaking the ball is a hard lure. A hard lure is basically begging with the motivator, and while this is a good choice if you really think you are going to lose the dog, it is not a good choice if you don’t truly need it. I wanted to get back to work so I took the easy way out when I should have prioritized our distraction work.
2:06 I lost him briefly but simply moving slightly towards his tail brought him back
On balance I am pleased with this session. He is able to perform three second behaviors (front, bounce, sit and down hand signals, and back up) and in most instances I asked for two or three of these behaviors before rewarding. He was also able to chase his ball up to fifteen feet way from me and still return directly. Finally, we had several opportunities for Brito to choose me over work – and with the exception of the one hard lure, he did so with little help from me.
It’s worth noticing how much engagement and attention I give to him when he is doing well. That is the time to give both my best energy and also my classic motivators.