Maggie, a little Russell Terrier that I train, is worried of moving feet, moving people (especially steward/judge types), people not moving, people looking at her too long and people who at any point say that she is the cutest dog they have ever seen. Pretty much all our warm up before the ring, and ring entrances. have the things she wants to avoid, people. Sigh……………………
So in training we have always worked on desensitize her to these things, present them at the level that she has no reaction and reward not reacting. I have literally probably fed her hundreds of pounds of treats to pay attention to me when these things are present. Here’s the thing though, when I actually went to a trial, and she went in to work, she reacted to the stewards and judge, and was worried about them. So worried, she walked right out of the ring with an article in her mouth, “I quit!” she yelled at me.
So, what to do? I was going to go back and start at baby steps, someone by the ring gate, lean over her, she stays with me, C/T and release. Then I started thinking about letting her really learn that she controls the path to reinforcement. She controls it completely; I will not baby her along. She knows how to heel, she can heel past people (if I put a cookie in my pocket, she would be fine). So, in my Tuesday class comes and I set up ring entrances, and I ask her to heel past the stewards, to a set up. Success! Reward/release. Then I put the stewards in motion, and here is where it gets good, they start really getting into it, jumping up and down, waving their arms, and way more than I would have gone to, but I go for it, and Maggie fails, she looks at them, doesn’t want to heel. So, I release her, let her have about 10 seconds of no work, and on the fourth try she could do it. She could not only do it, she was crying to do it!!! She wanted to go by the stewards; she wanted to go in that ring with the crazy people! Whoa! I had never done that with her before, let her quit when she got a little worried and asked her if she wanted to work again. Normally I would have instantly lowered my criteria and rewarded sooner, and for less attention most likely. But not now, now I want her to experience what it feels like to work through that distraction and WIN BIG. Fine to quit, quit any old time, I don’t see a lot of cookies for not being able to heel through the stewards. Heeling through the stewards is the path to reinforcement.
Why is this a big deal to me? Because I see really well-meaning trainers make the mistake of bribing their dogs through distractions and proofing, and actually never letting the dog feel what happens when an error is made, they lose their chance to reinforcement. I had a student recently that wanted to heel her agility dog to the line, and so was just rewarding every step they took. That’s great when you are in your training building, and you have cookies. But, what actually was happening was that the dog was being prevented from making an error, and so he really wasn’t learning anything. So, it looked good at the training building, but once it actually went to the show, it was very unreliable. So, in the pocket went the cookies and now the dog had to maintain left side position with heads up attention, a loose heel position. I could see the doubt in my student’s eyes, and so I really amped up the distraction, and every time he quit heeling, she broke off and pretended to eat the cookies. Light bulbs went off in the dogs eyes, he liked this game! In a very short time in the building, he could heel past pretty strong distractions to criteria. Quickly! Not 7 months of training, a short period of time. You know why? Because she let him fail! She let him make a choice and see where it led, and then offered him a chance to work again and make another choice. Rewarding the choice she wanted, and aborting the training when she didn’t want the choice he made, gave him clarity of task and confidence in what she wanted to do.
After that session she wrote me a couple of days later saying that her dog was at a match and showed noticeable improvement not just in the heads up/heel behavior, but in self-control over all. Since this is an ongoing training skill for her dog, she was very excited.
I used to get worried when my dog made mistakes in training, but now I am glad to see it! If you training looks great and you are super happy, you probably aren’t making much progress. Your dog should be allowed to make choices and find the path to reinforcement. Always pushing their ability to make the choice you want by making the distractions different, more intense, unusual or closer to the dog. You can always adjust the reinforcement rate to the training. Maggie got 4 really good cookies for successfully making it through the entrance gauntlet. When I had one of my students run around her article pile while she was working, and when she could finally do it (it took a couple of tries), I made sure that she got her overtime pay!
Obviously, if your dog cannot work in the environment and is too shut down to eat.then no training can take place! You must lessen the trigger/distraction to the point that the dog can work, but don’t forget to ask more!
Do not be afraid of failure! Just don’t reward it 🙂