In my previous two posts (the antecedents to this one), I've been discussing how to help your dog learn to respond to cues and requests even with distractions. The idea is that by breaking down all the factors that influence dogs’ learning, you can adjust your training to take these into account.
We’re considering the ‘ABCs’, all that is associated with a Behaviour from the dog’s point of view. To recap those building blocks:
- A are the ‘Antecedents’. That means everything that comes before the behaviour. What else is in the environment, what you are doing, what the dog is doing, how he feels, what has happened earlier that day, and so on.
- B is the Behaviour itself, performed by the dog in that context with that set of antecedents.
- C is the Consequence. What happens as a result of the animal performing that particular behaviour, when it follows that specific set of antecedents.
In part 1 of this mini series of posts, the focus was on what happens as a result of a behaviour i.e. the Consequences (you can read more here) and in part 2 (which you can read here) I considered the value of those consequences to the dog, especially for dogs who won't take treats ion training. By manipulating the consequences and their value, we can influence the likelihood of a dog repeating a behaviour.
But that of course all depends on the dog performing the behaviour in the first place! Little point considering the relative value of chicken versus liver cake if the sight of a rabbit scurrying into the undergrowth has Fluffy in a different zone before you have chance to ‘give your recall cue’, whether that's 3 short blasts of a whistle, "Fluffy, come" or "Oi, get back here you little *****" depending on the day you’re having 😉.
So let’s look at what we can do to improve your dog’s (and your) chances of success.
1. Limit the options to promote good choices
Once learning has happened (because a particular behaviour led to desirable consequences), the events or factors in the environment that happened before that behaviour become signposts to the dog. When the signposts are there, it predicts for the dog that the conditions are ‘right’ for him to do that thing again.
“When I see a person coming towards me, that is my signal to jump up and enthusiastically lick them in the face, because I get stroked and fussed over”
If certain things cause behaviours from your dog that you don’t like – try and remove them from the training environment while you build his skills. It’s pretty hard for him to do two behaviours at once, so remove things that get in the way of his success. The more you can engineer the environment to help your dog make good choices/perform the behaviour you want, the more practice he gets of the good stuff, and the more reward he’ll gain. Win-win.
So, if the sight of next door’s kids jumping on the trampoline sends puppy into a fence-running frenzy while you are teaching him to come back in from the garden; make sure (in the early stages at least) that your training sessions happen when the kids aren’t there to begin with.
2. Consider the dog’s needs and motivations in that context.
It’s true to say that dogs don’t lose focus, they shift focus. Your dog is always going to pay attention to his most immediate needs first.
As I’ve discussed in a previous post (see here) the motivation for a behaviour (or the decision to not perform a behaviour) is linked to the consequence of that behaviour. A movement towards or away from something in the context might be to achieve personal safety or fulfil another immediate need.
Sometimes, the dog may apparently ‘ignore’ you. He’s not doing anything, he’s just sniffing the ground with his back to you. Double check – maybe he’s actually keeping his eyes and ears on something in the distance, just to make sure he doesn’t have to ‘act quickly’ because in that moment, turning his back on the possible threat to come back to you for a piece of kibble is not his most likely choice.
And of course, those needs may be internal to the dog. He might be hungry (or full), thirsty, need a loo break, be too hot and so on. Millie ignored my recall yesterday, which is really unusual for her. Then I realised she was busy drinking out of the stream. As soon as she finished, she turned and ran straight back. Yes, some would argue that if she was ‘perfectly trained’ she should have stopped drinking, spat out whatever was still in her mouth and run headlong back. But I can appreciate that getting a drink when you need one is high on the list of needs – and my criteria allows for drinking and peeing (for dogs!) on a walk.
With some dogs, breed traits will also form part of that internal antecedent picture. For example, collies are selectively bred to work in non-changing environments, with laser focus on minute details – because it’s the differences and changes (a lame sheep moving differently, or a sheep breaking off from the ‘whole’ of the flock) that is at the crux of their job. Noticing differences and responding to sudden movement is their raison d’etre.
3. Ensure the behaviour is consistent to begin with.
Before you even think about dealing with ‘real’ distractions, make sure those foundations are in place during the initial training stage i.e. does the dog respond to your cue every time without the distraction. That means a certain amount of groundwork for you both.
When your dog learns a new behaviour, everything in the environment at the time of the learning forms a part of the picture, from where it took place to what you were wearing. Studies have shown that even when an animal ‘knows’ and performs a behaviour very well in one situation, as soon as something changes, their performance deteriorates. The change could be moving to a different room, but even things as subtle as a different scent or a human putting on a pair of sunglasses is enough to affect the animal’s response.
So, keep practising the behaviour in lots of different situations, gradually changing things like the location, your position relative to the dog and even ‘who’ gives the cue if you need the dog to respond to different family members.
Change or add one thing at a time. The dog is practically ‘re-learning’ the behaviour over and over again, until with enough practise his mental picture of what the ‘right conditions’ for the behaviour are becomes so broad, it covers all eventualities.
This of course goes hand in hand with ensuring the outcome or consequence for the dog is always a positive one that keeps on strengthening that reinforcement history, so that when a choice is to be made, the dog is more likely to choose the option with the most credit in the account.
As a side note here, pay attention to anything that might accidentally become an ‘essential’ antecedent in your dog’s mind. For example, if you always put your hand into your treat pocket just before you recall the dog in training – guess what your dog will ‘require’ in order to be successful in future?!
4. Introduce distractions into your training gradually.
This is really just an extension of the step above, changing and adding different things into the picture that forms in the dog’s mind of the conditions before a behaviour. However, when adding distractions, think about the size or intensity of the distraction. Start small and gradually increase that intensity.
For example, if someone throwing a ball were super distracting for Rover. Start by having someone just hold a ball while you recall (or whatever the struggle is). Then have your helper place the ball gently on the ground, then roll it slowly, then drop a short distance away….you get the idea. Depending on the distraction it might be about distance, volume, speed etc.
At this point you’re probably thinking – “Well that’s fine if the problem is a ball - but I can’t get a friendly rabbit to help me train”. If bunnies (or deer/pheasants/sea-gulls) are part of your pup’s special focus, it’s essential not to skip the foundation stage of proofing the behaviour while at the same time as building your reinforcement history. Then, when you are ready to introduce distractions, consider the concepts you could work with that mimic your problem. So if your desired outcome is to call the dog off chasing a deer, you can build to calling him off a moving toy/person, and of course making the consequence a very valuable one that includes chasing/catching (e.g. a toy).
There’s no denying that to really get to grips with extreme distractions and challenges, there’s a lot of work involved. It’s not just a case of practise a few recalls in the garden, feed him a piece of chicken and theree you go - training of recall complete! Sometimes, you might need a little extra support to break down all those different pieces to achieve the results you desire. There is no harm in asking for help.
If getting your dog to respond around distractions is part of your challenge, I can guide you through the steps.Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org to find out how!
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