There are a few basic principles in training which most good trainers follow. Examples include rewarding a dog in the position that you wish to reinforce, marking behaviors at the exact moment they occur (timing), and training behaviors in small and manageable pieces.
Today I’d like to talk about a problem solving technique along the same lines. I call it, “What’s more___than____?”
Here are a few examples.
Your dog has a tendency to go down with her elbows slightly elevated on the signal exercise. Since the behaviors that follow the down are in the upwards direction this is logical; your dog is simply consciously or unconsciously anticipating what will come next. So what can you do to change this?
Ask yourself, “What is more down than down?”
How about “drop head or chin on ground?”
Since it’s impossible to have your head down and your elbows up, your dog is quite likely to drop their elbows fully if the next requested behavior might be “more down than down”. With dogs that are inclined to hover their elbows above the ground, I frequently include a signal to “put your head down” as often as I might request a recall, sit, etc. It becomes one of the options in the signal exercise.
Eventually, I use “chin on ground” as a correction since my dogs don’t much want to put their chin down when their toy might be thrown soon. In that case, the only time I insist on chin down is when I notice hovering elbows. Your dog quickly figures out that keeping elbows down on the down cue is more desirable than being asked to put your chin on the ground (especially if I then make them stay in that position for several seconds), so the problem of elbows down tends to resolve without any additional effort on my part.
This worked beautifully when I was training Raika in Mondioring – she’d break her down cue into a sit when the “bad guy” would rattle the stick. My correction was 1) bad guy stopped agitating, 2) block Raika’s vision of the person by standing in front of her, 3) re-cue the down signal 4) cue head down 5) re-introduce the bad guy into the equation. She didn’t particularly like the expectation to keep her elbows down on the down cue, but she truly hated being asked to hold her chin on the ground. Voila – she learned to keep her elbows down, even under extreme agitation.
How about a dog that hovers their butt a few inches above the ground when they sit? For example, each time you halt in heeling, your dog “almost” puts their rear end down, but not quite, in anticipation of either a toy reward or moving again?
Ask yourself, “What is more sit than sit?”
How about sit up and beg?
If the dog hovers their rear, then I’d cue them to sit up and beg on every halt. When I notice that they begin to sit properly in anticipation of being asked to sit up, then I no longer require that secondary behavior unless they fail to sit properly. Since most dogs hover because they want to continue moving, the “sit up” eventually becomes a correction and I only cue it when I see a hovering sit.
Here’s a short video with Raika showing the head drop for both the signal exercise and the drop on recall. In this video I only ask her to duck her head; if she had failed to do that I would have asked her to put her chin on the ground. Since she doesn’t particularly mind ducking her head but she does object to chin down, I can use whatever degree of “reminder” makes the most sense based on the dog’s behavior: