Reducing stress, leveling out arousal, and achieving the optimum working state in our dogs are all things people in dog sports or dog training are interested in. Most of the emails I receive are about these things; people want help for their crazy dogs, their shy dogs, their too-eager dogs, and their reluctant dogs. There is one piece of information all of these people need, and it’s here, in detail, for free. Season of giving, and all.
A while back I talked about consent in dog training and care, and I wrote about the concept of incorporating a “yes” signal for your dog in husbandry training. Fresh off a Perfect Patients workshop in Portland, I am more jazzed than ever about this topic. I watched it pave the way for a safe and cooperative learning environment for the participants, and it left me bubbling over with love for my job.
Here’s Bogart, French Bulldog Extraordinaire, and his wonderful trainer Molly:
Molly is introducing Bogart to a stethoscope, and each time she does so he is reinforced away from the platform so that he has an opportunity to consent to more training after each repetition. He readily and eagerly returns each time, so we know he is ok. This dog is in an optimal learning state, and we know he feels safe because his choices tell us so. In my opinion, this is the only way husbandry training should ever be done; with a clear language of consent established. Dogs can’t verbally agree to what we are doing, so we have to establish a way for them to communicate this. Using the station behavior (hopping onto the platform) is a clear and easy way to accomplish this. Bogart is readily returning in the video above, but there were times in the seminar when he and other dogs hesitated to return, or stood next to the platform instead of hopping on. When this happened the dog was either given a break or another activity to engage in, and because the answer of “no” (for the absence of yes always indicates no) was respected the handlers learned about their dogs’ preferences, and the dogs only grew more comfortable.
A yes signal can and should be incorporated into all of our training, not just husbandry. Shade Whitesel teaches this for her IPO and Obedience students by incorporating toy games that the dog is able to start and continue with his actions. Rather than always cueing the dog to return the toy to us, we can wait for him to do so. When he is sluggish to return it, we can take that as information about his comfort level, rather than see it as an act of defiance.
I like to teach my dogs a variety of what I call “start button behaviors” which are yes signals that are specific to the many tasks I might teach my dogs. Felix’s current repertoire of start button behaviors is:
- Returning to station–largely used for husbandry work
- Dropping a toy at my feet–for fast-paced agility work like running dogwalks, or anything else that requires a thrown toy as reinforcement
- Requesting that I play tug by sticking the toy in my hands–for both agility and obedience work
- Returning to a work area after eating a cookie that was either placed or thrown away from the work area–used for shaping new behaviors, agility and obedience training
- Voluntary sit at my side–this is my default start line behavior for agility
- Voluntary eye contact–used for any high-intensity activity, usually agility
Some of these behaviors will occur automatically (like returning to the work area after collecting reinforcement elsewhere) if the dog is engaged in the task, and some of them need to be trained (like eye contact or stationing). For the behaviors that must be trained the process looks like this:
- Teach the behavior through shaping or capturing, and incorporate an environmental cue (my proximity to the platform is a cue to station, and my stance indicates that a sit at my side or eye contact will be rewarded)
- When the dog will assume the position anytime the necessary environmental cues are present, stop reinforcing this response with food or toys, and apply the new consequence–that of beginning the training. For instance, when Bogart stationed, Molly proceeded with the stethoscope, rather than clicking and treating the station.
- Let the laws of operant conditioning work! If the dog finds what you do after the behavior reinforcing, he will continue to offer that behavior. If he does not, he won’t. That’s his choice; his option to say no.
- Respect your dog’s choice each time and be consistent.
- Resist the urge to cue the start button behavior verbally. My dogs have a station cue (I say “up” to ask them to get on something) and I would never give that cue if my dog hesitated or refused to hop on the station during a husbandry training session.
In this video, you’ll see that I keep Felix’s arousal in check by utilizing these start button behaviors. I give him a break when he indicates he can’t participate. He understands that hands behind my back indicate that eye contact will start the game, and that my legs separated with my hand held outstretched behind me indicates that sitting at the side I am indicating will start the game.
In giving our dogs a clear way to say they are both ready and excited to begin the game we can help them always perform in their best state of mind. Give it a try!