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Muscle Memory vs. Conscious Thought

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Many trainers (including myself) use a variety of props in training.  Sometimes we use them to “teach” a dog how to perform but more often than not we are trying to create muscle memory.

For example, I will teach my dogs how to sit straight in front position by using a small platform.  Over time, my dogs learn how to hop up and sit straight when they get to front.  This is not something that they have to think about (sitting straight and square) because the platform forces the matter – it’s too small to sit crooked.

Training fronts and finishes this way has some real advantages.  It allows the trainer to practice other behaviors without considering the fronts.  For example, if I want to work on my dog’s speed of return on the retrieve and I want to include the front, then a platform allows the dog to practice coming in fast and straight without really thinking about it.

When used in that manner, the dog is not experiencing operant conditioning at all – they do not have to think about their front or make any effort – the platform does the work.

That doesn’t mean that learning is not occurring; muscle memory is still learning – it’s just not operant learning.

At some point we have to get rid of that platform.  Some dogs will continue to nail fronts even when it is gone.  Those dogs are highly susceptible to learning through muscle memory and they probably have a naturally tight sit.  That’s wonderful!

Other dogs, however, dont make such a smooth transition.  Once the platform is gone, they sit however they might arrive.  Maybe straight and maybe…not so much.  If this is your dog, it’s time to train your dog to be conscious of sitting straight.  How you do that is up to you but the important thing is that you start by recognizing that sitting on a platform is not an operant learning event (except actually getting on it) so one cannot assume that just because a dog is correct on a platform that they will be straight without it.  Some dogs will and some dogs won’t.

So after the aid (in this case, a platform) is gone, I move into another phase of training for precision behaviors – I use small movements of my body to help the dog become aware of what they are doing.  In the following video, I will give some simple examples.

With Brito, I start by showing him moving towards me as I back up.  Dogs that are walking straight usually (but not always) sit straight.  I reward that – first just the walking straight and then adding in the sit.  If the dog is crooked, I try to catch it a second before the butt hits the ground and make a tiny adjustment of my body to make the dog just wrong enough that they will not complete the sit, will move with me a tiny bit more, and then will sit straight.

Once I can do that (with my movement generally backwards and easy) I will add in other movements like sideways or partially backwards and partially sideways, or fully sideways, or on a circle.  When working like this, I’m watching the rear of the dog for effort – if I see the dog make an extra effort to get straight, then I stop moving and hope for a straight sit.  If I get one – dog gets a cookie.  If I don’t I praise and then try again.  If my dog fails twice in a row (getting praise for both efforts) then on the third attempt I’ll do something easy like going to straight back so that I can hand over a cookie.  Or I just move to something else altogether while I think about my challenge.

I would probably benefit from using platforms longer than i do, but I find them awkward once I start more “drive building” training because I am always moving, and rarely are the platforms where I want them when I want them.  At that point, they hinder my ability to flow with my dog in training.  At that point, I have to switch over to the use of games or quick drills (as described above) to get the straight sits.

Over time, the sits get straighter and straighter, both as a result of muscle memory and also as a result of conscious thought.

Some dogs benefit greatly from a series of fronts on a platform immediately before a show, so if this is your dog, by all means bring out the platforms before your competition and help your dog regain their muscle memory!

About dfenzi

I'm a professional dog trainer who specializes in building relationship in dog handler teams who compete in dog sports. My personal passions are Competitive Obedience and no force (motivational) dog training. I travel throughout the world teaching seminars on topics related to Dog Obedience and Building Drives and Motivation. I own Fenzi Dog Sports Academy, a comprehensive online school for motivational training of performance sport dogs.

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