How Fluent Are You?

When clients begin a training program, they generally come in with a list of skills they’d like to teach their dog.  “I’d like my dog to learn to sit, lie down, come reliably when called, enjoy petting without nipping, greet strangers politely, walk well on a loose leash, go to the bathroom outside, and maybe, learn some cute new tricks.”  These are all reasonable goals for pets, and can be taught with a little patience, consistency, and reinforcement.

But while the clients attend class so the dogs learn new skills, the dogs are attending class so their owners will learn new skills.  On my “wish list,” skills that I would like new clients to have upon completion of the training program, you will find the following:

  • solid clicker mechanics
  • good observational skills
  • ability to identify, create, and employ novel and powerful reinforcers
  • ability to set criteria effectively
  • ability to manage the environment to prevent rehearsal of unwanted behavior
  • impulse control (when you are tempted to yell, jerk on the leash, shake that can of pennies, etc., just take a deep breath and walk away!)
  • ability to identify appropriate markers and fade their use
  • ability to create a training plan

Trainers will tell you that “dogs don’t generalize well.”  This basically means that when teaching new behaviors, dogs need lots of repetition, reinforcement, and appropriately-paced contextual change so that the dog learns that behaviors like “sit” or “down” are important not just in the living room when nobody else is around, but in a variety of contexts – new places, new situations, around new people, animals, smells, sights, sounds, in varied weather conditions, on different flooring or surfaces, etc.

People don’t tend to generalize well either when learning new skills.  If a dog likes to jump on guests, we would identify opportunities for reinforcement, manage the environment to prevent the dog from receiving reinforcement for the unwanted behavior, train an incompatible, desirable target behavior (replacement behavior), and set up learning situations where it is easy for the dog to be successful.  These same training steps, with slight modification, will work for that same dog if he likes to steal your $30 pair of panties from VS and run around the house with glee, stopping once you have given up the chase, exhausted, so that he can enjoy his quarry.  These same training steps, with slight modification, will work for that same dog if he likes to bolt out the open door and into the street, if he likes to steal food from your counters, or barks in your face, demanding that you throw the tennis ball again.  It takes time for these skills to become fluent enough where handlers can implement them in new situations.

I get really excited when my clients become fluent in their training skills.

Nicole, Beans, and Grey Kitty

Those of you who have been to our classes, attended some of my seminars, or read the blog regularly are probably familiar with Nicole already.  Nicole started out as a client with an extremely fearful rescued puppy, Leila.  Nicole and her husband Rob were so committed to Leila’s training that today, you would never guess Leila had the type of “issues” she had as a puppy.  The puppy that was once so fearful she would hide under the chair, trembling, peeing, growling, and snapping when approached, is now a veritable social butterfly with other dogs and people – she is a frequent “demo dog” for all kinds of classes and programs, attended doggy camp with me and Mokie this year as one of our “co-instructors,” and even strutted her stuff in one of Nicole’s college class presentations last year.  Nicole often assists me in classes and seminars, and has become a fantastic trainer.

Nicole lives with two kitties, Beans and Grey Cat.  For all the years that we’ve been friends, Nicole had some gripes about her kitties.  While she loves them dearly, her kitties are OBSESSED. WITH. FOOD.  So much so, that they will scream for food at all hours of the day and night, until Nicole would finally cave and feed them.  Essentially, the cats were exhibiting demand behavior.  Initially, because they were cats, Nicole felt there was little she could do to rectify the issue – she would have to live with these cats that she loved but that also were extremely pushy in requesting their meals.

I was so proud when Nicole told me recently she’d solved the problem!  Knowing that the laws of learning transcend all species, she decided to take control of the reinforcers by temporarily dropping the practice of feeding her cats kibble from their bowls and instead, she kept their food in her pocket and would only feed the cats when they were quiet.  This gave her quick progress, and the frequency and intensity of the vocalizations diminished quickly.

Nicole then faced a new “problem” – silent cats following her around everywhere, all the time, staring at her.  While this was certainly an improvement from the previous scenario, it still wasn’t quite what Nicole wanted.  She raised her criteria – now QUIET cats get food ONLY when they are not staring at or “begging,” when the cats were relaxing quietly in another part of the room, she would approach them, give them scratches and kibble, go back to whatever she’d been doing previously and repeat the process.

Within about a week, Nicole had two kitties that waited quietly for their food.  At that point, she could resume feeding most of their kibble from bowls, but still occasionally keeping a piece of kibble in the pocket to reward the kitties for being quiet.  If Nicole grabbed the food bowls and the cats began protesting that it didn’t come quickly enough for their liking, she’d set the food bowls aside, and wait for quiet again before reaching for the food.  Puppy class clients – sound familiar?!

This is what I hope for with my clients.  Much like a dog may initially need a lot of coaching and help to get the idea that “down” means “down” in all sorts of environments, clients need a lot of coaching until they can see a behavior problem, recognize what might be causing it, and try to create and implement a plan.  Relying on a trainer to coach you through every step only helps when the trainer is there – I’d like my clients to learn solid, fluid training skills so that they can be problem-solvers like their dogs!

Nicole, Beans and Grey Kitty, I’m so proud of all three of you.  Click to a great client and great training – yes, this stuff even works on cats!

One comment on “How Fluent Are You?
  1. Stacy Strickland says:

    Great Article! 🙂

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