Consider any skill you have ever learned to do well. Is there a sport you have learned how to play? How about a musical instrument? Is there a task at your job you were trained to perform? How did you learn these skills? What is the common element of playing clarinet, having a solid tennis serve, and knowing how to operate a lathe? Practice. Practice is what we do in that magical time after we understand the goal, and have learned the basic mechanics, but before the outcome actually matters. Too often, much too often, we ask our dogs, and ourselves, to perform in front of audiences, long before we are ready. Long before we have practiced enough to be comfortable performing.
Agility, obedience trials, and nosework are all accurately referred to as “sports.” So are field trials, dock diving, and conformation. We don’t refer to everyday life as a sport, but it helps to think of it that way. Consider a guitarist who plays a wrong note in concert, or a singer who forgets the words to a song. Why did they make these mistakes, and what would have helped? What about the basketball player who misses more free throws than she makes? Or the tennis player who serves more double faults than aces? All of these performers would benefit from practice, and none of them are being disobedient or stubborn. They need more practice before they are ready to perform.
As with music, sport, or any skill, context matters. In dog training, we talk about generalization, which refers to a skill being performed in various locations, and under various circumstances. It is the lack of practice, or lack of generalization, which causes many of the more common concerns clients bring to professional dog trainers. “My dog comes to me in my yard, but doesn’t listen at the dog park.” “My dog will sit when no one is around, but jumps on me and won’t sit when I first get home.” “My dog walks well on a leash but pulls when he sees a squirrel.” These and countless other concerns are usually matters of practice. How much practice depends on the individual dog, their propensities, their history, the quality of the behavioral plan, and the consistency of the handler. To perform well under more difficult circumstances will usually require more practice.
Working on skills for fun will often prevent or solve many behavioral problems. Once the basic skill is learned, then difficulty should be increased only incrementally. ”Difficulty” can refer to any number of circumstances, including more people or dogs nearby, distance from people or dogs, frequency of reinforcement, weather, traffic, or any other condition which causes the dog or handler to be challenged.
Below is an example for a behavior which is both fun, and has countless practical applications.
Goal: dog holds cued stay while handler gets into car, backs out of driveway, drives around the block, parks back in driveway, and releases dog within touching distance. A platform or mat will make it easier.
Prerequisites: 1 minute out of sight stay, 5 minute in sight stay, and conditioned to be comfortable near moving cars. Each step performed in sets of 5. Only when 5/5 is trivial will next step be attempted.
1) Dog is in settled stay, handler walks to car, returns, rewards.
2) Dog is in stay, handler walks to car, touches driver door handle, returns, rewards.
3) Dog is in stay, handler walks to car, opens door handle, opens door 1 inch, closes door, returns, rewards.
Day 2 (Dog is in settled stay for all steps)
1) Repeat 1 – 3 once or more, only proceeding if difficulty is trivial
2) Handler walks to car, opens door, closes, returns to dog, rewards
3) Handler walks to car, opens door, sits in driver seat, returns, rewards
4) Handler walks to car, opens door, sits in driver seat, starts car, idles for 5 secs, turns off car, returns, rewards.
5) Handler walks to car, opens car door, sits in seat, starts car, idles for 10 secs, turns off car, returns, rewards.
Take a break or start again next day
1) Walk to car, open door, return, reward
2) Walk to car, open door, sit in car, start engine, leave idling while returning to dog, reward, walm to car, get in, back car 1 foot, leave idling while returning to dog, reward.
3) Walk to idling car, turn off, turn on, back up 1 foot, pull forward 1 foot, turn off car, return to dog, reward.
4) Walk to car, touch handle, return to dog, reward.
1) Work through steps from prior day 1 time each. Go to prior step if not trivial.
2) Walk to car, open door, sit in driver seat, start car, back car out of driveway, pull back in, turn off car, return, reward
3) Walk to car, open door, sit in driver seat, start car, back out of driveway, drive around block, pull into driveway, turn off car, open door, return to dog, reward, release.