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Does your dog "get" training?

One of the most fulfilling things to me, as a trainer, is when I see a totally novice dog suddenly "get" training.

This happens all the time in class. The first day (well, really the second day, since the first day is a "humans-only" orientation) of class, if you videoed it you could probably put it to the soundtrack of clowns or Baby Elephant Walk or some other silly music that highlights the confusion of both dogs and handlers. 

The dogs have NO idea why they're there. I wonder what they're thinking, and guessing... "Well, I'm on a leash. Is it a walk? But there's a lot of other dogs here, and a big open space. Is it a dog park? Oh, I'm not supposed to play with the other dogs? Why -- are they unsafe? Am I supposed to be protecting you? Oh, you've got food -- is this dinnertime? WHAT IS GOING ON HERE???" 

From here, we jump right into attention work. Lesson One: When in doubt, look to your handler for direction. For the beginners, we don't even worry about the "direction" part of that rule. We start out just by teaching "look to your handler." Usually within 5-10 minutes the noisy, barking, chaotic classroom is suddenly quiet and focused. The dogs don't know any commands yet, but they are starting to get the basics of "pay attention to the handler." To me, this is one of the most beautiful bits of training.

Teaching the dogs "how to learn" is, in my mind, every bit as important as teaching the specific behaviors. Let's break this down a bit by looking at one common beginning training method, "luring."

With luring, you use a food treat (or sometimes a toy) and lure the dog's body into the correct position (such as lie down.) Once the dog is down, he/she earns the treat as a reward! A simple concept, right? In fact, lure training is one of the most common dog training methods and is one that you will learn in many beginning obedience classes! But now, let's look at it from the dog's perspective. Here are some possible interpretations your dog could have to this training method:

"Oh, a treat! Give me that treat! Give me that treat! Give me that treat! I want that treat! Give me that treat!" (Doesn't understand that he can have the treat if he simply does something in exchange for it. Sometimes this happens with young or clumsy dogs, who don't have great control of their bodies yet.)

"Oh...food in your hand. Mustn't reach for or try to get the food in your hand. Nope. Pretending like I don't even SEE that food in your hand." (This is sometimes the best guess of very polite, submissive dogs who'd never dare to take something from your hand, or from dogs who have been trained "leave it" with particularly harsh training methods.)

"Are you going to give me that treat? No? Okay, well I'll just go sniff around over here..." (Dogs who either are not very food-motivated, or who do not work very hard or who give up easily)

"That treat looks nice...but, honestly, I'm not in the mood for food right now. I'm unsure of the surroundings; I'm trying to keep my eye on that scary-looking dog over there, and on that other scary-looking dog over there, and I'm not so sure about that instructor, she's awfully tall..." (Common in dogs who are nervous about the surroundings or not socialized to this sort of thing.)

Confusion already! How are you ever going to teach "down" if the dog doesn't even understand what you're trying to do?

The good news is that dogs become "savvy" to lure training very quickly. Once they have mastered one lure-trained skill, the next one comes a little easier, then a little easier, and then many dogs need to be lured only once or twice before they learn a new command. Here are some ways you can help your dog get over its initial confusion about lure training and really start to "get" training:

For the first dog, a lot of patience is key. You can even break down the "down" into a few steps. First just lure the dogs head to the ground and treat there. After a few repetitions of that, practice luring down and then stretching forward a few steps.

For the second dog, you've got to convince him that in training, taking food from the hand is fine! Some people like to hand-feed dogs before starting training; this often helps. You can also use your marker (word or clicker) and then toss food onto the ground, so the dog learns that after the marker, the food is fair game.

For the third dog, increasing the "value" of the treat reward is a good idea. Think string cheese, cooked chicken, etc. Many students don't feed their dogs before class and this has great motivational value! (Hungry dogs work harder!)

For the fourth dog, forget all about "down" until your dog is more confident in the situation. Helping a dog with fear or stress is much, much more important than learning "down." Do all you can do to ensure that your dog has a positive experience in whatever situations s/he finds stressful, and once the stress melts away, the training will bloom!

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