Training helpers (also called “decoys” or sometimes “stooges”) can be invaluable in training your dog. They are there to bridge the gap between initial training phases and “real world” training. The real world involves things you can’t control, but since you can to some extent control your decoys, they can provide a great transition.
Here’s an example of one way decoys can be used to help.
Let’s say you are training your dog not to jump up on people when greeting. You practice the routine – turning away when your dog jumps, rewarding with attention when it remains standing with four feet on the floor. Pretty soon your dog is greeting you correctly every single time.
Now you take the dog outside, and a friendly stranger asks to pet your dog. You decide to allow this, and your dog is SO excited about this new person that it immediately jumps up on the new person.
“Oh, you’re friendly!” says the new person, laughing and petting the dog enthusiastically as it jumps more and more.
“She’s not supposed to jump!” you try saying, “you’re supposed to turn away if she jumps! No, don’t let her jump!”
“Oh, it’s okay!” the new person says, happy as can be as you stand there seeing all your hard work slowly being erased. What lesson has your dog just learned? “DEFINITELY jump on strangers – they love it!”
The general public has no idea how they’re supposed to interact with dogs, or even how you’d like them to interact with your dog, even if they have great intentions and really do love dogs. Your decoy person is there to help solve bridge that problem.
In the best case scenario, you know your decoy but the dog has not met him or her yet. The decoy, however, is prepared to interact with your dog in whatever way is needed for its training plan. So, back to that first jumping dog scenario – your dog either stands to greet the decoy and gets petting and attention as a reward, or it jumps on the decoy and gets nothing as the decoy turns and leaves abruptly. What lesson has your dog just learned? “The same no-jumping rule applies to strangers as well as family.”
Decoys can be your friends or family members; ideally someone the dog hasn’t met before or doesn’t know very well. Before you and your decoy start work, explain exactly what you want to accomplish and give specific instructions. Be very specific on this; for example instead of saying “Ignore the dog,” try something like “Play a game on your cell phone and don’t look up.” Instead of saying “Walk about 50 feet away from the dog” you can instruct “Walk between this tree and that tree.”
If you are dealing with any sort of aggression issue, your main concern is going to be safety. If your dog has bitten someone or if you think it will bite, you should be using a muzzle. Put in whatever other safety features you think are needed, also. You can even use a “protected contact” scenario, where your decoy is safely behind a fence or gate, just in case you drop a leash or something happens.