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We are ALWAYS training

April 24, 2017

We are always training because animals are always learning

I had not really considered the props we use as significant objects for the dogs when competing in a ring or training environment. We are aware of using bedding or crates to give the dogs a sense of security, but our props can change the unfamiliar ring environment into something familiar – provided they have a really good history of reinforcement, carefully trained.

I love cross learning! Both Alex and I spend hours closely examining perfectly normal protocols in each of our own areas of training but are refreshingly new viewpoints of looking at training. In this blog Jen Digate clearly shows that for horses away from their herd has a different response than for dogs.

We always have to be considerate when training the dogs at the Barn. Our usual practice, certainly for play, is individual training for each dog one after the other – this gives everyone a chance to have the whole barn, without the worry of watching dogs, or the stress caused to watching dogs.

For most dogs, going on lead and getting into the car, when at home is an opportunity they never want to miss out on. It is exciting and performed without question. A strong behaviour.

But, going on lead and getting into the car when leaving the Barn has a completely different consequence. It is often the end of the connection, learning and focus (leaving the Barn), it is back to the car, and then most often abandonment (the owner wants to return to the Barn to watch the next dog, learn more).

When we (inadvertently) change the consequence of the behaviour, we change the behaviour. The behaviour then breaks down, often very fast, under these specific conditions – when at the Barn, but the behaviour stays solid and enthusiastic when leaving home. Because we are focused on the behaviour we often do not notice the start of the break down, or only pay attention when it comes to a complete stop.

We have to become aware of the conditions that give our learners salient information as to the likely consequence of these (similar) behaviours.

There is a parallel when taking dogs into competition environments. If they are normally strong, solid, enthusiastic behaviours when training, but in competition they break down, become uncertain, then the dog is learning the different outcomes of the similar behaviours depending on the environment. The environment cues are directly related to the different outcomes. (Note: these are not poisoned cues!)

In Training, behaviour: walking back = food / toys (in the normal training environment)

In the Ring / competition behaviour: walking back = no food, not toys, usually another behaviour.

This is sometimes labelled “ring wise”. Errm, well, yes, dogs are not that dumb. It is a survival skill to pin down and remember what works and results in success and what doesn’t. The dog will selectively choose to respond when the consequence is reliable. Good, clever, bright dogs, we cannot con them for ever.

Prevention is always more effective than trying to fix this once the person realises what is happening.

Training and environments need to be fluid and not directly related to consequence.

In the training environment the dog should be introduced and familiar with the conditions that may occur in other environments – such as food only being delivered in a certain spot in training. You may train in your kitchen, but after the mark / click, travel to a different part of the house to collect and deliver the food. This means the wearing of food does not become part of the training environment. The reinforcement should be consistent, but variable in location. It should be a graduated process, where the dog only has to travel a few steps to their reinforcement station and then extended when the behaviour is showing stability and maintaining its strength.

For the going on lead/getting in the car, at home this is usually followed by an exciting outing. We need to build in variation to the outcome of these patterns. Take the dog on your errands but no external outing, travel then becomes a resting event. At home pop your dog in the car and spend 20 minutes going to and fro, loading the car, general car chores, and then go for an outing.

I am very, very conscious of developing patterns of behaviour that the dogs quickly discover results in something of value to them. We cannot expect to train our dogs in operant processes and them not use those skills round the clock. In the morning my dogs go to the orchard and then come in for their breakfast. In the evening they browse around the orchard after they have eaten. They have worked out the difference, the behaviour of returning to the house is influenced by what happens next and sometimes those differences can be as subtle as the time of day or the fullness of your stomach.

We are ALWAYS training, because animals are ALWAYS learning.

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