I had the rather unpleasant privilege of seeing myself training with Shelby on video the other day. Unfortunately, after watching the video twice, I promptly deleted it. Now, I sort of wish I hadn’t, but only sort of.
The reasons I deleted the video had little or nothing to do with my training with Shelby. Mostly, I objected to the way I looked – wow, that outfit makes me look fat. Jeez, do you think I could have ironed the back of my shirt? Does my hair always look so tangled? And the way I sounded, “Joe, do I seriously sound like that? My God, my voice is annoying.” To which he responded, “–”. Smart man, I knew I picked him for a reason.
I have this weird aversion to seeing myself on camera, which actually goes to the point of – positive reinforcement works better than corrections. When I was young and just beginning to get serious about riding competitively, my trainer would videotape all of our shows and a lot of our lessons. After the show or the lesson, she would play the video back to us and point out to us every single little flaw. “Your heels weren’t down.” “Your calves were bouncing.” “You were too far forward.” “You were not forward enough.” “Your lead was wrong.” “Your girth was loose.” On and on, an endless litany of insults without any positive reinforcement whatsoever. While she corrected, she would walk around the room with her riding crop and lightly tap whatever body part she was talking about at the moment with the crop.
Needless to say, this was not a very pleasant experience. That is not to say that it didn’t make me a strong rider. It definitely did. I performed very well, and I brought home a lot of blue ribbons. It also caused me to quit riding the show circuit in less than a year, even when I was moving up quickly, and I could have potentially had a very bright future. It caused me to burn every single one of my blue ribbons and quit riding. For two years, I didn’t go near a horse. Just the sight of a horse turned my stomach.
When I finally did decide to walk into a barn again, it wasn’t because I wanted to, quite literally, “get back into the saddle”, but because I had just quit my job, and I desperately needed employment, and I happened to know that there was a local barn hiring. Seeing as I was eighteen years old, a freshman in college and had no experience at anything to speak of, I went with the barn. That, at least, I knew something about. I actually had no intention of riding, but a few months went by and the owner needed a trail guide, and I was the only one available.
As soon as I got onto the back of the horse, I remembered why I started riding in the first place – because it was fun and freeing and I loved horses. Oh yeah. Right. Before all the joy got sucked out of it and it became a chore instead of a game. Shortly after, I got Jules and riding went back to being a stress reliever instead of stressful.
But I never recovered from my fear of video cameras.
Which is why I don’t have the video of Shelby and me training to show you what I’m talking about. Sorry!
What I can tell you though, is that there are a lot of things going on in my training that I didn’t realize were going on. There are a lot of really great things (I had to focus very hard to make myself see those), and there are some other…not so great things. Before I began my journey into the world of positive training, I would have obsessed over these things, now, I just say “whoops” and “hopefully I’ll think about it next time”. Well, in a perfect world that would be what I did, and I try to do that, but I’m still improving, hopefully every day I’ll be improving.
So here are some common problems (with some tips) I noticed in my training and that you may be noticing in yours:
1. Dropping Treats
Yep, this is a biggy. I do it constantly. I know I do it, but I didn’t realize just how much I do it. I noticed that it is partly my fault and partly because Jaws – I mean Shelby – wants to try to take my hand off every time I feed her a treat.
Now, this can be handled on two different fronts. You, as a trainer, can just practice the simple motor skills of clicking then moving the treat from your pouch/pocket, to the dog’s mouth. If you want to get advanced, try doing it with a leash with no dog attached. I know it sounds silly, but trust me, you would be really shocked at how complicated a skill this actually is.
On the dog front, there are two things that you can do to improve your own little Jaws. One, you can practice impulse control skills, but be sure that these impulse control exercises are done separately from your normal training. For example, don’t tell your dog to sit, click that sit and then use the same treat that the dog is getting for sit in an impulse control exercise (i.e. “sit” then don’t give the treat until the dog looks away or takes it nicely). This is just going to frustrate your dog and probably you. (“But MOM I sat, didn’t I? What else do you want me to do?”). Instead, try doing a five minute session working only on impulse control and leave your regular training as it is. It may take a little bit for the impulse control to really kick in (especially if you are working with a puppy), so in the meantime, there’s item two.
Figure out a different way to hold the treat. Seriously. I mean, I should have taken a picture of my hands before I figured out a different way to hold the treat to go along with this statement. If your hands are red, swollen, scratched up and your fingernails have those little white puncture spots on them, you should probably find a different way to hold the treat. Try making a little cup with your hand so the dog has to use his/her tongue to get the treat out. Or try feeding the treat like you would feed a horse, with a flat palm. Or you could try just slipping the treat in the side of the mouth. Whatever you end up doing, practice it with your pup by just clicking and treating, or playing the name game and clicking and treating. When you think you have it down, incorporate it into your regularly scheduled training. Trust me, your fingers will thank you for it.
2. Repeating Yourself
“Sit.” “Sit.” “Sit.” “No. Sit.” Yeah, it’s a common problem, and dog trainers all over the world are cringing right now and probably cursing and kicking things. It’s a dog trainer favorite to rant about. I have ranted about it. But you know what? I still do it. And I didn’t even realize it.
Worse yet, is the “Sit.” “Sit!” “SIT!” This chain is actually so human that there is a way to put it into words that actually physically shows the escalation. Your voice gets louder, you get more frustrated, and your dog still doesn’t listen.
The best way to work on this problem is to try and pay more attention and focus yourself on only using the cue once. It’s hard, it takes some practice, like most things, but it’s a good thing to try to keep in mind. You don’t want to desensitize (sometimes this process is called “habituation”) your dog to the cue. Your cue becomes ineffective, and you are essentially communicating to your dog, “Oh, I was just kidding, go ahead and sit whenever you want.” Or, “I clicked your sit after I said it seventeen times, the new cue is for me to say sit seventeen times.” You get the picture.
Instead, wait. And this ties into my next whoops too. Just wait. Sometimes dogs take a little bit to figure out what we are doing. Give them a minute to think about it. Remember, your brain actually started processing the thought of the cue before it even came out of your mouth. The dog’s brain didn’t start processing the thought of the cue until after. So there’s a time gap. Give it a chance. If the sit happens, but it wasn’t quick enough for you, don’t click. This is called “proofing”. If you are looking for speed, reset your behavior with a release word, like “Okay” or “Free” or “All done” letting the dog know you’re resetting, and then try again. If the sit happens faster this time, even if it isn’t as quickly as you want the final product to be, click. Reset, and try again, now clicking only the sit that happens a millisecond faster, and faster and so on.
Another way to proof is to try this. Make three small piles of treats. In one pile, put one treat, in the other, put three treats, in the other, put five treats. Put the treats on a table and take your dog five to ten feet away. Call a sit (or whatever other behavior you’re proofing). If the dog sits, click and run back to the table, dog in tow. Give him/her the pile with one treat. Then go back to the starting position five or ten feet away. Call a sit, click and race back to the pile, feeding the three treats one after another without clicking in between. Be sure not to feed them all at once. Race back, sit, then race back to the table and feed the five one at a time. I bet you your dog will sat faster every time the pile gets bigger. Now, this isn’t every time you train, but it is a fun motivational game that also aids the proofing process.
The other thing to keep in mind when you’re proofing, is don’t go for it all at once. Work on one facet of the cue at a time. If speed is the most important to you, and you don’t really care how the sit looks, work only on speed. Then come back and work only on position (i.e. only clicking the sits that you like or that are on the way to a sit you like). Remember, we’re setting the dog up to win with all this training, to win and to keep it fun, so don’t overwhelm them and don’t set them up to never get a click because “Oh, that was too sloppy even though it was really fast, but sorry you still don’t get a click.”
3. Being Impatient
We all want what we want when we want and most of the time we want it now. I know, it’s the human condition, hence why that phrase exists. Your dog probably doesn’t want the same things that you want. He probably wants the treat, or a pet, or a scratch or a happy “good boy”. He may not actually want to sit. But he’s going to do it, although sometimes, he may take his sweet time with it.
I witnessed myself doing this constantly with Shelby. I would tell her to “sit” or “down” or “hup up” or any other thing I was working on, and after about five seconds, which I’m sure I thought was an eternity, just as her butt was about to hit the ground, I reset. She didn’t get clicked, and she got frustrated. She needed just a little more time to get there, but I didn’t give it to her. I set her up to fail, first, by not properly proofing and second, by not waiting for her to come to the right conclusion.
Think about it – your dog probably knows a lot of cues. Even the “basics” consist of half a dozen. “Sit” “Down” “Come” “Stay” “Stand” “Wait”. Your dog, at six months probably knows a dozen more. That’s a lot of hand signals and words for an animal that didn’t speak anything human four months before. Slow down your impatient self and give them a minute to think about it. Do you hear that self? I see you typing it, but are you really listening? Deep sighs. Yes. I’m listening.
4. Paying Attention to your Body Language
This is the hardest of them all, mainly because it’s not something we’re accustomed to doing, and also because your dog is actually really, really good at it.
Have you ever had a friend tell you that you have a particular habit when you are going through a particular emotional state? Say maybe when you’re thinking really hard, you twirl your hair, or when you’re upset you rub your hands together? You probably weren’t aware that you even did it, but your friend caught on. Well, she can see you outside of you, and you can’t. So can your dog.
There are a zillion little hints that we are giving our dog that we don’t even know about all the time. That’s why it seems like they can be mind readers when it comes to our emotional states. They always seem to want to hop on the couch with us when we are sad, or they know when to run away when we’re mad (particularly when we’re mad at them).
They pick up on all these signs when you’re training as well and a lot of the time we are throwing them mixed signals. For example, when I was watching the video of myself (I’m cringing right now, that’s some body language I’m observing), I noticed that when I ask Shelby to sit, I raise my right pointer finger up. Last night at training, I noticed that Joe, when asking Shelby to sit, uses his pointer finger and his middle finger and pushes them down. Shelby instantly hit the deck. “She doesn’t listen to me,” Joe complained. I shook my head and said, “No, she thinks you’re communicating ‘down’.” I explained to him that my hand signal for “down” was to push my hand, palm down to the ground. I showed him how I signal “sit” and she immediately sat. Voila. Problem solved. And poof, the “stubborn”, “not listening” dog was gone and replaced with the obedient, happy puppy we both love.
But not only can signals get crossed in between family members, but you can cross your own signals. For example, I noticed that when I do the “close” or “place” cue, for Shelby to sit by my left side, I hold my left hand out in a fist parallel to my waist, with my right hand behind my back…most of the time. When I just held my left hand out but didn’t put my right hand behind my back, Shelby just stood there, confused. Even though I was saying “close”, she wasn’t responding, because I hadn’t given her all the body language she associated with that cue.
That’s the reason why a lot of trainers try not to use hand signals at all. A lot of obedience competitions don’t allow the use of hand signals, so if you think you can stop your hands from moving and still be loose and have fun, try the verbal signals alone, it might help. If you can’t, like me, then just try and pay a little closer attention and visually map or write down exactly what your hand signals are and then try to stick to those and only those. Eventually, you will be able to fade out the hand signals and replace them with a verbal cue alone, but sometimes it’s easier to start with hand signals.
5. Have Fun!
This last one is one that should be easy to grasp, but for me it’s not. I noticed on video the same thing that my trainers have been noticing for weeks. I get really rigid when I train. It’s probably a consequence of the way I was trained and also the traditional trainer still in me. I am much looser when I am playing training games with Shelby and when she comes out of those games, she seems to do much better. I think that has a lot to do with the fact that I am much more relaxed, and she can loosen up and have fun too.
One of the reasons we love dogs so much is because they are like perpetual children. Dogs play all the way into adulthood unlike almost any other species (including wolves). We love that about them. We love their free abandon, their desire to romp anywhere and everywhere. We love that the twelve year old lab next door will play bow to my puppy and join in on a great game of “chase the butterflies” or “try to eat the gnats flying around in the air”. So take a page from their book and ENJOY YOURSELF!