I’d like to give a final example where I do not allow Behavior Chains to drive my decisions.
When working with dogs that are seriously lacking in motivation or enthusiasm for performance training then worrying about accurate behavior chains is putting the cart before the horse. Developing excellence within behavior chains assumes that your dog will care if the behavior chain ends, because continuing the chain leads to something the dog wants, and being re-started creates just enough frustration to drive behavior in a new direction. If your dog doesn’t care about what you have to offer, then re-starting the chain will not be effective and indeed, is likely to cause trouble for you.
Have you ever worked with a dog who didn’t care much for your food and toys? A dog who prefers long naps in the warm sunshine to your training efforts? A dog who is more motivated by curiosity and exploration than any interactive activity you might have to offer?
I’m going to tell you a story about a dog who I work with regularly. Her name is Lumen.
When I first met Lumen, she was about 10 weeks old. Lumen ate to live, she did not live to eat. Her basic approach to food – any food – was to sniff it carefully, place it on the ground for contemplation, and then taste a tiny crumb before slowly chewing the whole treat. The process took as much as 15 seconds, and almost any change in the environment could interrupt the process. Lumen once went on a three day road trip with her trainer and ate close to nothing the entire time. Lumen was not sick; she was simply expressing a temperament trait that is very common in her breed – minimal interest in food. If you do not believe dogs like this exist, see my video blog on this topic: https://denisefenzi.com/2012/11/20/do-all-dogs-have-food-drive/
How about Toys? Lumen liked toys! Sort of. For up to maybe ten seconds and under very specific environmental conditions. For no more than five repetitions. And not all toys, mind you. Toys on lunge lines that allowed for a lot of movement.
Lumen did enjoy exploring, staring at movement and snuggling on her soft and fluffy dog bed. Toasty warm! But none of these were sufficiently motivating that they could be tied to work.
Lumen is calm, stable, gentle and self sufficient. The perfect pet, but not an easy competition dog.
Behavior chains are not a primary consideration with a dog like Lumen; it’s not realistic to hold out for perfection when you’re pretty much training a cat.
Here’s what is working for Lumen:
Use flow whenever possible. When working for flow, train with successive approximations and capture what you want. Ignore what you don’t like and keep moving, because flow is rewarding for most dogs and re-starting behavior chains breaks that flow. Every time you stop and start you interrupt the rhythm of the activity.
Allow a low motivation or low energy dog to develop a working rhythm and flow; this is not the time to fuss over details or stop and start! Remember, these dogs don’t get frustrated if you withhold a reinforcer because they don’t care if they get it or not. To succeed, they must develop an appreciation for the activity itself. Don’t interrupt the flow!
Here’s an example of training heeling with flow and successive approximations: Lumen’s trainer would get her moving with a toy attached to a lunge line, and then suddenly pull the toy around to the front of her so that Lumen would come in close to her side – effectively near heel position. As soon as Lumen showed up then the toy would come back out. Over time, Lumen figured out that coming in close to her trainer’s left side would cause the toy to re-appear. Soon Lumen would offer two steps on her trainer’s left side before the toy showed up, and then three… and one day, many months later, Lumen was heeling. On days when Lumen was showing more interest in food, the same game was played; if Lumen showed up on the left side, food was thrown straight ahead and then Lumen was encouraged to come back and re-start the game.
In effect, Lumen learned a version of “choose to heel” but with very loose rules and a long timeframe. On those (frequent) days when she didn’t want to engage with either food or toys, we moved on to other activities or worked her later in the day.
Holding out for perfection in the behavior chain of heeling would have been the death knell of Lumen’s early obedience career. “Heeling” simply became a fun game that Lumen controlled when she was in the mood to engage.
Structure “non flow” training sessions to be short, sweet and, hopefully, successful. Some behaviors cannot be taught with flow. Positions such as sit and down come to mind, as do stays. When practicing these types of behaviors, work in the quietest location possible with a super high reward schedule while working for no more than a minute. Think: muscle memory! Use errorless learning wherever possible (platforms, channels, etc.). That means you’ll get only a few repetitions, considering the time it takes to eat each treat or bring out a toy, and that’s ok. If your dog gets tired of the game, simply move on to another activity or end the session with an upbeat attitude.
Use a crazy high reward schedule. Use as much reinforcement as your dog will accept. If that means 90% food, toys or play, and 10% work then go for it! If your dog shows no interest in work even in a very simple environment, then cheerfully end that session.
Train on the dog’s schedule and at the dog’s pace. Forever. Find your dog’s best time of day. You may well find that certain environmental realities make all the difference. If your dog hates the cold or wet, then don’t train on wet grass in the early morning. And if you get to the point of showing, then pick shows very carefully to account for her opinions.
Learn your dog. You must know exactly how much energy to give to keep your dog in the game without becoming overwhelming or hyper intense. When it comes to energy, more is not better. That’s easier said that done, because the sweet spot of “enough energy but not too much” can be very hard to find. Learn your dog; with time you can find the energy that gets you the maximum amount of engagement for your team. Take it!
Set process oriented goals. Dogs like Lumen are working to humor you, at least in the beginning. They might learn to enjoy their training time, but recognize that they did not pick their career path; you did. Be grateful and appreciative for the skills they show you, and celebrate every single success and improvement.
So…what’s the prognosis? How far can you take a dog like this?
Lumen is now almost three years old and she is almost unrecognizable from her younger self. She knows almost all of the work through Utility in obedience and she has all of the skills for agility with amazing speed. When she wants to. With plenty of reinforcement.
Age helped with her interest in food. She’ll never have an impressive ability to work for a cookie, but at least she enjoys them most of the time.
Plenty of exposure helped with her toy interest. After seeing and experiencing toys almost every day for two years, they have gained significantly in value. Lumen will now work with enthusiasm for a toy under a range of circumstances, but there is still much progress to be made.
Ignoring mistakes and rewarding generously helped her overall willingness to try, and it’s hard to over state the importance of her trainer’s attitude. Lumen’s trainer is always accepting and upbeat. I work with this trainer towards her OTCH with another dog, and towards whatever we can accomplish with Lumen. The ability to accept each dog in this manner is something I cannot teach, but I know that how much fun you have with this type of dog is in direct proportion to the trainer’s ability to celebrate the process rather than the outcome.
Short, properly tailored sessions which were structured for success have helped to develop a habit of working even when she’s not quite as engaged.
Lumen is getting stronger, and as she gets stronger, she has more fun with her training. As her engagement and interest in the game grows, her ability to work longer increases. Her speed picks up. Her focus sharpens. She’s learning, albeit slowly, to enjoy the games.
While Lumen happens to be from a non-traditional performance breed, the fact is that her temperament can show up in any breed. Sometimes dogs are born this way, and other times trainers inadvertently create them by poor training that removes all of the initiative from the dog.
So what does all of this have to do with behavior chains?
If you train in this way you will likely end up with poorer quality behavior chains, because the dog practices a lot of bad habits on the way to each cookie. But if your dog cannot handle the pressure of focusing with intensity, or if your dog could care less about any food or toys, then let’s be realistic. Rough heeling is better than no heeling at all. And you never know…over time that heeling just might become more and more inspired, at which point you can raise your criteria. Slowly.
In the next blog is this series on behavior chains, we’ll consider the role of No Reward Markers (NRM’s). Should you use them with your dog? Under what circumstances? And exactly how are they related to Behavior Chains?