In my last blog I talked about “making your dog’s radar”.
Now I’d like to talk about how much you might want to be on your dog’s radar under different circumstances and your options for adjusting that using dog-friendly methods.
Here are a few broad categories to help structure your thinking.
100% radar – no alternative focus. You are dead center on your dog’s radar, and your dog is dead center on yours.
50% balance between you (and what you have to offer) and the world.
50% balance between you (and what you have to offer) and alternative sources of intense focus, like obstacles in agility or the helper in protection work or stock in herding. This is a bit of a misnomer because it’s quite likely that the dog flips back and forth between intense focus in each direction, keeping the alternative on the periphery, but work with me here….
0% sound asleep!
Because this is a concept there’s no reason for me to refine it more than that; simply recognize that there are a thousand variations on this theme. For example, at any given moment, a sheepdog may be giving 80% focus to the sheep and 20% to you, and then that might flip 90% to you and 10% to the sheep, etc. Honestly, I cannot think of any reason to put in the time to try to figure out EXACTLY how much focus the dog has in one direction or another. What matters is that you have a basic rough idea of where the dog’s focus needs to be at any given time and an idea of how you might get there, if you have concerns about the current state of affairs
So. How will you get there?
In this blog, we’ll talk about those times when you want 100% focus; intense training on a skill when it’s all about you at the center of the radar! This would also cover generic skill training in sports like agility, or even task training for service dogs because within those training moments, the dog really is focused on you 90% of the time and only 10% on a possible external focus (like going over a jump or picking up the object for the handler). Long-term, that will adjust to less handler focus, but not in the skill training phase.
But before we get to the dog, take a moment to ask yourself if the dog is on the center of YOUR radar. It’s fine to say that your dog, husband, spouse or child should care what you think, but your odds of success aren’t too good if their experience is that you aren’t giving them 100% attention. Start where you have control; yourself. Where is your focus? If for any particular reason you cannot give your dog 100% on this day and at this time, don’t train. You’re better off not training at all then creating long-term bad habits caused by your own issues.
Feel pretty good about you? Are you giving your dog 100% in intense training events – dead center on your radar? Nothing for the instructor, a book, etc? Excellent! Let’s continue…
Let’s consider the dog.
100% focus – What do you have that absolutely magnetizes your dog? Water from the hose? Your dog’s meals? The opportunity to work in a highly desired sport? A highly valued toy? The best treats? You’re well on your way! Tie those things to what you want your dog to do for you. Snappy sit? Spray the garden house! Lovely front? A delicious piece of steak! You get the idea.
But..even with those amazing resources, you find that in some places, your dog cannot give you 100%…what then?
You have asked too much – the environment is too difficult for your dog at this time; you are NOT the center of the radar! You are competing with something else of interest!
Now I’m going to tell you the most important thing, the secret sauce, so listen carefully….
Your dog will develop a habit of giving a certain amount of energy, so every time you allow your dog to work with you when you are not at the center of the radar, it becomes your dog’s habit, so simply don’t allow it to happen! If you don’t want your dog to get in the habit of working at 80%, only work in places that your dog wants to make you the center of the radar! You will find that over time, a combination of habit and an ever growing love of the work (and whatever it is you are offering to get your dog to 100%) takes care of the rest.
Like people, dogs develop habits of attention or inattention. Under circumstances where you want your dog to have a habit of paying attention to you, for example, when you head into the training yard with your dog, you want your dog to have a habit of knowing what is coming and automatically shifting their focus to 100%. It’s fine to do things to help your dog get to 100%, like using environmental acclimation or low-key play, but training is not one of them.
But wait, there’s even more! When your dog gets to the point where he has a habit of giving you 100% and you are thrilled with the results, ask yourself, how are you getting that focus? Let’s say you are using steak because that is what got your dog motivated six months ago when you started this process, and now your dog 100% absolutely positively loves to work! So the new question becomes this… Are you sure you need steak to stay at the center of the radar? Is it possible that the combination of habit, maturity, and a growing love of work means that you could downgrade to tasty dog treats?
It actually matters that you do not over motivate your dog beyond what you really need, and there are a few ways to accomplish that. Either ask your well-trained dog to work longer for each amazing thing, make the environment more difficult so the dog actually has to work harder for the amazing thing, or downgrade the quality of the reinforcement to something less amazing while maintaining a high rate of reinforcement,
Did anyone notice that I did not include personal play or praise on my list of valuable motivators? That’s because in my experience, those things do not magnetize a dog at 100%. Which doesn’t mean I don’t use them… As a matter of fact, I use them a ton. But I use them to develop my general relationship with my dog – my place on the periphery of the radar as an interesting and valuable part of my dog’s life.
For example, BEFORE I get out that amazing cookie, or the hose, or the toy, I start the process of engaging my dog up to 100% a teeny tiny ratchet at a time. I might take a dog who is sound asleep in the house, and move them to the center of the radar by talking about how much fun we are going to have together! THAT is the time when you want to apply your personal play and praise! Build up the excitement towards what you’re going to do together! But once you actually start training? Where you want 100%? Make sure that the reinforcer you are using can actually get you there – and by all means, combine your praise and play with that amazing reinforcer! Now, if you have one of those unusual dogs that will work at 100% for a chance to play, then, of course, you should use it, but it will not be a realistic expectation for the vast majority of dogs. That is nothing to worry about. When we talk about training at 0 – 50% we’ll talk more about play and praise….and how those influence your chance to remain on the periphery at all times.
Soon we’ll talk about moving from 100% to….less!