By Dr. Sophia Yin
Have you ever been watching professional tennis or golf on TV with a friend and then suddenly heard him blurt, “I swing just like that but that’s not where the ball goes. Those players must have special equipment that makes it work.”
I’m guessing, probably not, unless your friends have mashed potatoes for brains. Most people understand that the reason professionals are able to make consistent and stellar shots is that they have skills that they build up through many hours of practice, coaching, and drills.
However, when it comes to dog training or behavior modification, it’s the complete opposite. Owners will watch a video, such as one on my web site, and say, “I do exactly that but my reactive dog barks and lunges in that situation instead of focusing on me.” What they fail to realize is that training dogs is a technical skill just like dance, golf, tennis, or figure skating. Often when something looks as simple as a sit-spin in ice-skating or a perfectly placed serve in tennis, it’s actually much more complex. It’s not until owners try the techniques under the watchful of eye of a skilled instructor that they find out that the problem is not the dog or the technique, it’s them.
A Good Coach Can Break the Technique Down
In sports, the best coaches are those who can break down the moves into simpler component pieces that the athlete can drill on first until the athlete can build up to the final move. Little changes in how the athlete positions her arms or legs or other parts of her body can result in big changes in the effectiveness of the move.
Similarly when working with dogs, little differences—such as speed and direction of movement, body posture, arm placement, as well as exact timing and placement of the rewards can have huge differences in the ability of the owner to communicate what they want, and hence in how the dog performs. Luckily it’s possible to identify and break training and behavior modification skills down into their component pieces and to develop practice drills. Once a person’s technique improves, their dog immediately starts performing better for them.
Can You Deliver a Food Reward Skillfully?
What kind of skills am I talking about? One example is the speed at which humans deliver food rewards to the dog. While you may know that the timing of a reward should be within a second of the correct behavior, you may not be aware of how important it is to actually get the reward from your hand to the dog’s mouth quickly. Some of you may even think, that because you use a clicker the time it takes to actually deliver the treat can be quite long. But, imagine you’re playing a game show like Jeopardy and every time you hit the buzzer and give an answer it takes 30 seconds for the host to inform you of whether it’s right. The long delay to reinforcement in what’s supposed to be a fast-paced game would bore everyone including the viewers who would make a quick channel switch. Similarly, when training dogs, you should keep one thing in mind, and that is that dogs like MTV, not Masterpiece Theater. For dogs, it’s not just about getting a food reward, it’s also about having fun because the pace and challenge of the game is exciting.
In the following video I demonstrate five treat-delivery speeds in a system I’ve developed where 1 is the fastest and 5 is the slowest. As you watch, imagine what must be going through your dog’s mind. Is he thinking, “Oh, I’d better keep my eyes glued to my mom or I’ll miss the delivery,” or is he thinking, “This is so slow, I think I have time to look for squirrels in the distance and look back in time to get the treat.” Also watch the behavior of my dog, Jonesy, in the video. He already performs the exercise well and has good focus, but note how he sometimes jumps to meet the treat when it is delivered in slow mo.
Body Posture and Position
Not only is treat speed important, good posture and positioning while giving the treat are essential too, especially in the dog’s early learning stage. Extraneous movements can confuse the dog or distract him, which will slow down his learning, just the way you would have trouble learning a foreign language from a CD if the CD kept skipping and producing extra sounds. The point here is that when delivering treats, the delivery movement should be clear with few distractions from other flailing body parts.
As with treat delivery speed, I score body posture and position of the handler on a 5-point scale where 1 is perfect 5 means the handler needs improvement. For instance, I recommend that the default position is that you stand with arms bent so that your hands are at your belly button or higher if you have a tall dog. That way, when you deliver the treat by just straightening your arm, it’s a distinct movement. On the other hand, if one or both arms are hanging, it may be unclear to the dog when you want him to reach for the treat. Now the reason it’s important to have the treat come from the center of your body is that you want to reward the dog for looking at your face and if the treat comes from off-center you’ll draw his attention at the last minute away from the head position you want to reward him for. Lastly, it’s good to avoid leaning over to give the food reward because by leaning over you’re often accidentally soliciting the dog to jump up. Plus it takes a longer time to actually deliver the treat.
Once you develop a fast treat-delivery speed and clear body posture, it’s time to work on treat interval. In this exercise, these students are practicing delivering treats quickly as soon as they see the ball hit the ground. Watch them during the first part of the video and see what you notice them doing correctly or incorrectly in terms of posture and position and also evaluate treat speed.
Next, try it yourself. Watch this video again and practice delivery treats as soon as you see the ball hit the ground. That is, watch the ball hit the ground and then deliver the treat as fast as possible. I’m going to drop the ball in several interval patterns. See which pattern requires you to focus more closely.
Most people can tell right away that when the ball is dropped in at a variable rate such that you don’t know exactly when it will drop, you have to focus on the game much more carefully. The same goes with dogs. If we fall into a predictable and easy pattern of treat delivery the dog doesn’t have to pay attention well. In his mind, he probably thinks he can look around in between treats because he knows when the next one will come.
This is Just a Taste of the Subtle Difference in Technique That Make Training Easy or Hard on Your Dog
So there it is, your introduction to the importance of some of the subtle technique factors important in modifying an animal’s behavior. So next time you see a behavior modification videos, especially one of mine, if you try to mimic the technique and it doesn’t work for you, don’t assume the problem is the dog or the technique, instead first look to you own skills and consider, “Am I doing it right?” Then find out more and work towards improving your skill.
Dr. Yin passed away in 2014 but her legacy lives on.