In part 1 we talked about the need for high quality behaviors; splitting chains into base behaviors, polishing them up, and then chunking them into chains. At home you’re pleased with what you’re getting. Now what?
Starting extremely soon after my new dog or puppy arrives, we head on the road. Whatever we’re doing at home, we’ll be practicing a MUCH easier version of that same base behavior in a new place.
Here’s a pretty typical example.
In my bedroom my new dog is able to pivot left 90 degrees with a high degree of accuracy and can work for about five minutes in total with a very high rate of reinforcement.
In my front yard on cement, my new dog is able to pivot left 90 degree on a pivot disc with a high degree of accuracy for about two minutes in total with a vey high rate of reinforcement.
On grass in my front yard, my new dog is able to place two front feet on a pivot disc for about one minute with continuous feeding.
At the park down the street my new dog remembers that I exist for about three seconds out of every thirty seconds. Over five minutes of time, that means my puppy checks in with me about ten times and then we quit. On the second effort in the same park, that tends to roughly double.
The following week, it is very likely that this entire pattern would have shifted somewhat. Now, that same dog can do a full 360 degree pivot in my bedroom. And in the front yard, I now have 90 degrees with a high degree of accuracy, and on the grass in my yard I can get 90 degrees on a disc, and so on. You get the idea.
The above scenario assumes a linear pattern but you probably won’t see that. Dogs go through phases of abilities which can be affected by everything from hormones, to hunger, to anxiety to developmental weirdness. So your job is to figure out how much dog you have on any given occasion and then select both the environment and the work accordingly. You want your dog to win. A lot! Remember, we want a super positive CER (Conditioned Emotional Response) every time your puppy realizes it’s time to work.
One trap to watch out for…..do not accept poorer quality work simply because you are in a new place. Instead, lower the challenge level in that environment. Maybe make the environment easier (the cement vs. the grass), or change what you ask (90 degree pivot rather than 360 degrees), or raise the level of reinforcement (continuous feeding instead of a space in between each one). One of the hardest parts of dog training is picking the right work, in the right environment, for the right quantity of reinforcement at the right time. That’s ok; do your best. Your dog’s behavior will tell you if you have succeeded.
This process is repeated for every base behavior that you teach. First at home. Then away in a simple place. Then away in a more challenging place.
Some dogs will appear to make no progress. That’s because they are particularly immature or environmental and in new places they have a really hard time playing your games. That’s ok. For Brito’s first six weeks at a local dog training club, all we did was set up in heel position and eat. Then we progressed to some pivots. Now I can get some LOVELY heeling for five or seven steps, an adorable miniature dumbbell retrieve, a send to platform at five feet, and three scent articles. All in public! It took about six months but that’s ok. At home he’s learning plenty of new skills and he’ll knock their socks off when he’s ready. In public we are working on the skill of functioning in public. No race here.
Eventually you’ll probably be working on complicated behavior chains at home – maybe a ten piece chain! Good; now when you head out in public, break that into a much smaller chain.
For example, at home you have a fully finished retrieve on flat, but you know that running in the direction away from you is a risky proposition in public. So when heading for the local park, you might consider doing a retrieve on the flat instead and do not include the outbound send. Maybe leave your dog on a sit stay, walk 10 feet and place the dumbbell on the ground, and continue on another 10 feet. Now tell your dog to fetch the dumbbell and bring it to front. You’re still working on a necessary piece of the behavior chain, but by removing the part where your dog moves away from you, odds of success are much higher.
When you can take your dog to a new environment and complete the entire series of behavior chains required for your sport, are you ready to compete?
No, not yet. Now we need to make sure that your dog loves the competition ring. We’ll address that in part 3.