So everybody knows I love the clicker when training my dogs. I like it mostly because it allows me to communicate things that I like to my dogs, and this speeds up the training process. But clicking does not equate to training. So if a clicker is a communication tool, then what is training?

The OED defines training as teaching (a person or animal) a particular skill or type of behavior through sustained practice and instruction. I like that definition, I especially like the words “skill”, “sustained practice” and “instruction” when it comes to dogs. And bear in mind that when we train non-humans we can’t use verbal language. If anything, our words gets in the way when we work with animals – all that white noise burbling from our mouths. No wonder dogs get confused by us, especially because the tone of our voices is often contradicted by the language of our bodies. But that’s a topic for a whole ‘nother blog.

Anyway, back to training. When we train our dogs, we’re trying to teach them a particular skill/behavior. Over time, we teach our dogs many skills that we like them to do. The more skills we give them, the richer our relationship becomes. Skills generally start with the simple “sit”, “down” and “stay” and go all the way up to complex and sustained skills such as tracking, search and rescue, drug or bomb-sniffing, and the much more serious business of saving human lives that our military and police dogs do. I love that little fruit-sniffing beagle in the international arrivals baggage hall at Philly airport.

I’m going to use “sit” as the example of a single skill to teach. If you think “sit” is straightforward, then read on to see my take on “sit”:

Each skill that we want to teach our dogs should get broken down into sub-steps or components, and it’s these sub-steps that we as trainers need to focus on. If you think about it, a “sit” is built up of many physical movements: the dog must lower his haunches, but keep his front legs at full length. The dog much bend his back knees so that his back legs fold up. The dog must raise his head and shoulders so that his front legs stay upright. The dog must plonk his butt on the ground whilst folding his tail out of the way. And we could ask for particular kinds of sits. Maybe we want a competition obedience sit where our dog has to sit straight up on his haunches, so that his body is neatly folded and upright, or maybe we don’t care, and he can slouch over onto his one of his back legs so that he is more relaxed. And we can get still more particular: if we’re training a pet dog to sit, we don’t mind if he moves his butt down to the ground first, so that his front legs need to paddle backwards to keep up with his backward-moving hind-quarters. But if we’re training a competition dog to sit, then we care that his front legs stay rooted to the ground, and he moves his hind-quarters forwards and down to the ground (also known as a “tucked sit”). Oh, and perhaps we’d like the dog to keep his head aligned with his body, so that he is not looking over a shoulder. And maybe we’d like that long bushy tail folded around his body rather than splayed out behind him on the ground. Can you see that asking a dog to “sit” is made up of multiple components? As trainers we need to decide which of these components are important to us, and teach each component one at a time. Once we can see that our dog has understood one component, we can add another one to the mix. And so we build up the criteria until we’ve achieved the final behavior that we’re looking for.

But it isn’t just enough to define this level of precision (what we want the behavior to look like), we also have to train the dog to do the behavior as soon as we ask it of them so that there is no hesitation between our giving of the cue and the dog starting to execute the behavior. And then finally, we also want the dog to do it quickly, so that the time between him starting to execute the behavior and his finishing of it, is as short as it can possibly be. We’ve all seen dogs that manage to take foreeevvvveerrr to lower their butts to the ground when we ask them to sit. “Are you sure you want me to sit? But what if I can’t be bovvered to sit? Must I sit? Oh <long slow sigh>, all-right then, I’ll give you this sit. Look, it’s coming. Okay, here you go, I’ve given you this sit. Can I have my treat now please? Now, now, now!”

Whether we’re training our pet dog for basic good manners, or we’re training our sports dog or military dog to demonstrate complex series of behaviors, it pays us, as trainers, to break these skills down into its components, and to train each component at a time. Whilst we’re training for one component, we ignore the others, and then we slowly start to combine them until we have exactly the behavior we’re looking for.

And having built the behavior this far, we now add yet more criteria to the mix: Trainers often talk about the three “D’s”:  distraction, duration and distance. We’d like our dogs to be able to execute the behavior we’ve asked for no matter what distractions are going on around them (the bully dog barking from our neighbor’s yard, or the police siren wailing behind us, or the helicopter hovering high over our heads). We’d like them to hold the behavior for as long as we’ve asked for (duration), and we’d like them to execute the behavior even if we are not standing right next to them (distance).

And that is what dog training is all about. It’s about defining the expected behavior to ourselves first (how far do we want to go, what do we really want it to look like?), breaking it down into its components, instructing the dog in each component, putting it all together, and practicing, practicing, practicing. Good training really is about being that detailed about our own expectations. The clearer our own expectations, the better defined are our criteria and the better our instruction to our dogs becomes, and the more secure the dog is that he is working with you and not in spite of you. Oh, and it’s also about enjoying the process of training, not just the end product, because this is slow work but it may never be painful work.

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