I recently asked my Facebook friends for some blog topics and I got a wide variety of possibilities in response. Some were foundation training specific, others related to problem solving and yet others were more general in terms of training philosophy.
As a rule, I can only write about training philosophy if that topic is bouncing around in my head when I sit down to write, so I eliminated those. Then I went through and looked at each of the training oriented suggestions one at a time, and I found myself dismissing most of the problem solving ones with the mental note, “it depends on the dog”.
But, what does that mean?
What about the dog does it depend on? Temperament? Sports specific? Exercise specific? Is it fixed for life? Why is it that when someone asks me how to solve a specific challenge the most common thoughts that comes to my mind are not a series of solutions but a series of questions?
Today I want to consider some of the questions – the things I will want to know about a dog that I do not know personally and cannot see- the invisible problem dog. Not because the problem is necessarily challenging but because coming up with a solution without understanding the dog is quite challenging indeed.
To illustrate this, let’s consider a dog that is missing 25% of his scent articles in training.
What is the dog’s foundation? The first step to solving a problem is finding the hole in the dog’s base behaviors. If I know how you trained the base behaviors and which ones the dog has mastered, I am more able to offer you a solution that will make sense within your training system and which the dog can understand quickly. If I learn that you used the tie down method with a retrieve instead of a shaping method with an indication, then I will go back to your foundation for some possible solutions. It would make no sense to apply shaping based answers to a dog that doesn’t understand shaping unless the trainer had decided to retrain the entire exercise from scratch. The opposite is also true – I would not suggest tying down articles for a dog that has a shaping foundation and who is comfortable indicating articles as a base behavior instead of always retrieving them.
What is the dog’s age, stage of training and rate of progression? Some dogs do not have a problem at all; they simply haven’t had enough time or experience to cement their learning, so it “appears” that they have a problem. A dog who misses 25% of their scent articles won’t cause me to bat an eye if they are in their first month of training, but if the dog hasn’t progressed at all over the past two months then we need to take a closer look. And if it’s been a year then we probably need to consider changing methods altogether.
What is the dog’s source of motivation and how does it affect his behavior? A dog working for toys vs. food is often in a very different mental state. Knowing why the dog cares about work and how much the dog cares can give me clues to both the source of the issue and some possible solutions to explore. Sometimes switching the source of motivation (either increasing or lowering the value of what you have to offer) will solve the current challenge.
What is the dog’s emotional state? This is a big one because dog behavior is often misunderstood in the world of dogs sports. For example, dogs that are grabbing articles are often seen as “driven”when in reality their speed is hectic (nervous) movement, and dogs that are excessively slow are labeled as “unmotivated” when they may simply be afraid of making an error. If you can accurately recognize the cause of a dog’s behavior, you can select solutions that will place that individual in their best place for learning. It is possible that changing the dog’s stress level around the exercise will allow for success, while separately you work through the issues causing the dog’s discomfort in the first place.
What is the dog’s base temperament? Dogs are individuals, much as people are individuals. The more closely aligned a dog’s interest is to the handlers and the more the dog wants to play our games, the more freedom you have with your problem solving options. For example, a “sturdy” dog who is missing the correct scent article can cheerfully accept a no-reward marker (NRM) when returning with the wrong article whereas a “softer” dog prone to worry might shut down and leave training altogether for months after if you tried an NRM. Understanding temperament is critical to allow for maximum success with minimal fallout
What is the handler’s basic temperament and skill level? This matters more than some individuals may realize. An excellent application of a mediocre technique will often work even if it is not elegant from the perspective of training excellence. Less skilled handlers need to be given techniques that are easier to understand and to apply. Personally, the tie down method of article training is not one of my preferred choices, but I might recommend that method to a handler who has no interest in the alternatives, and with a dog that has the temperament to accept it.
What makes training both an art and a science is often the interplay between a variety of factors including base temperament, motivation, and the dog and handler’s background, and each of these should be considered when working through a problem.
If this topic interests you, consider buying the book I wrote with Deb Jones titled “Dog Sports Skills; Book 2: Motivation“. We tackle this topic in depth, with two full chapters on case studies to make this concept as clear as possible. Hopefully this blog has given you enough information to start thinking about the topic for your own training challenges.