It was to be the second time I was helping a friend solve her dog’s door dashing problem. We were teaching her dog to lay down on a rug several feet from the door, and remain in that position, before we would open it. The ultimate goal: her dog would go to the rug on cue before opening the front door, and remain laying down until released.
The first time around, we ended training on a positive note when her dog remained laying down while I opened the door a small amount. Betty was to continue practicing in short sessions, always ending on a positive note (when her dog stayed down while the door opened a little) and wanting more learning. Betty (not her real name) told me and showed me that she understood how she was to teach before our next lesson.
However, when I got to her house that next time, the behavior had fallen apart. Betty was discouraged because she didn’t understand why.
We sat down for a few minutes as she proceeded to tell me in detail what had happened. “Most of the time’ her dog was able to remain in the down position near the door when it opened but “sometimes’ her dog got up and ran to the door, at which point Betty told her dog to go back to the mat and lay down. Then she gave her dog a treat for laying down.
That was really great feedback. I saw several things going on. Neither one had to do with a dog being dominant, bull headed, dumb or stubborn.
The first thing I saw was that all important phrase, ‘most of the time’ which tells me right away that her dog did not understand what it was she was supposed to do to earn reinforcement. If she did have a clear understanding, then she would have made the appropriate choice. With further questioning and watching Betty practice, I realized Betty was expecting too much from her dog too soon. She was taking too long to mark her dog’s choice of laying down which was not giving clear enough feedback for her dog.
The other thing that was going on was that her dog was actually being reinforced for a chain of behaviors (getting up, running to the door, going to the mat and laying down) which was serving to do the opposite of what Betty had intended. She was actually building value for getting up and running to the door because that resulted in her asking her dog to go to the mat, lay down and get an awesome treat.
What was our solution? We needed to provide very clear, consistent and immediate feedback to her dog of exactly the behavior we were teaching. And we needed to do that BEFORE the chain of behaviors began. Below is an overview of what we did (not in full detail).
We set out for our second training with me being responsible for the door and my friend responsible for marking her dog’s behavior (well, I was also responsible for making sure she marked the precise moment). This time as I moved toward the door and her dog remained laying down, Betty clicked BEFORE there was movement by her dog to clearly tell her dog, ‘yes’ that is exactly what I want you to do. We did ten repetitions of this and then stopped for awhile and came back to it. Very quickly we got back to where I could first touch the door and she could click for her dog remaining laying down, proceeded to my opening the door a crack and her marking her dog for remaining laying down in a little but longer increments (before there was any movement from her dog).
Then, when we were having success, we worked on more duration in tiny increments. I opened the door and this time we counted to two before clicking, then four, then back to two, then ten before marking with a click, releasing her dog and beginning again. Stopping and taking a break after about 20 successful repetitions.
It really did not take long this time before I could open the door fully and her dog remained on the mat until released after 10 seconds. The difference was in the clarity of our lesson.
Now the foundation was laid to continuing building on this skill with both duration and distractions outside the door. And Betty had a much clearer vision of her role as teacher.
It is important to remember, as your pet’s teacher, if your pet is not doing what you want in a training session, to think through your lesson plan and see how you can make it easier for both your pet and you to succeed.