Teaching A Novel Behavior

Our dog, Sam, and I were looking for something to do on a gloomy day, and so I taught him to unroll a towel using shaping and clicker training, just for the fun of it. I video taped it to give you some thought in working with your own dog. There are so many benefits to teaching novel behaviors, or teaching any behavior in a positive way. Just some of the benefits include: success can build both your pet and your self confidence, it builds value for listening and being around you, is exercise for your dog, increases your dog’s (and your) problem solving skills, and more.

A pre-requisite to teaching this behavior is teaching nose targeting. Please click here to read how to teach that.


Can I be of help to you and your pet? Please contact me

Why Learning Should Be Simple

“Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.” ~ Albert Einstein

Dog training tips for helping pets succeed by making the lesson as simple and clear as possible.I love this quote. In its great simplicity, it speaks volumes for both effective teaching and learning. This, from a world famous, brilliant physicist known for his general theory of relativity and recognized with a 1921 Nobel Prize.

I think about this often when I am doing dog training and behavior consulting. A question foremost in my mind is always, ‘how can I help my student succeed with this lesson?”

If the lesson is too difficult student frustration can lead to poor motivation, and with poor motivation focus on the teacher can quickly evaporate. When that occurs, teaching – at least teaching what we WANT our student to learn – is often not effective.

It is important to remember that in order for us to teach a behavior and strengthen its future rate, we first need to ‘get’ the behavior to occur so that we can follow that behavior with a reinforcing consequence. I continue to remember observing in a two day class with reknown trainer Dave Kroyer a session where he was coaching another trainer on teaching her dog to put his nose in a hole of a scent box. There was a moment when her dog was not ‘getting it’ and began pawing at the box. Dave’s response was to pick the box up and ask the trainer what they could do to help her dog understand. The answer was to put the box on its side. With that small change, her dog immediate went to the open hole and placed his nose inside.

And, once you and your student have success, then you can build upon that success from there by incrementally adding to the behavior as your learner can continue to succeed.

What are some ways in which you can make your lesson plan as simple as possible but not simpler?

For one, begin teaching in an environment with minimal other distractions. It is hard enough to focus on learning something new. With stimulus going on around you, it is that much more difficult to focus. Please read this column I had written on the importance of decluttering the teaching classroom.

Break the behavior down into small steps or approximations, and reinforcing your learning after each behavior approximation toward the final behavior. This is known as shaping, and it is a lot of fun to practice. Please click here to read a past post about it.

Be aware of the importance of timing when it comes to teaching new behaviors. Contiguity refers to the closeness in time between the behavior and its consequence while contingency refers to the degree of correlation between the behavior and its consequence (*if* I do this behavior, *the* this is the consequence that will follow). The less time there is between the behavior and its consequence, the quicker and easier the animal can build that relationship.  Please click here to read more. The immediacy with which you can ‘click’ and mark a correct behavior is one of the reasons why clicker training is so effective.

Use reinforcers that are of value to your learner. Remember, it is the learner that gets to decide what is of greatest value to him/her and that can change throughout a day. Learners will always choose to do the behavior that gets them a consequence of the greatest value to them so plan ahead and make sure you’ve stacked the deck in your favor. You can read more in this post.

Let’s Put The Fun In Dog Training

I was at a friend’s house the other day who was telling me she wished her dog would come when she called. “He just wouldn’t listen,” she’d say.

I didn’t have to observe long to get a sense of at least one of the underlying explanations. I’ll paint a picture to see if you get a sense too. Her dog was outside having a perfectly good time where there is so much sensory stimulation outside – noises, smells, sights. She opened the door and called him in. He did come (this time) and the reaction he received upon coming was simply a nondescript voice saying ‘good boy Willy’.

“Hmmm,” I could visualize Willy saying to himself. “Big deal. Why should I give up my perfectly good time to come for THIS?”

I see that a lot actually. Pet owners being frustrated because their dogs won’t follow their ‘commands’ and blaming the dog. Part of the whole problem is our thinking about what we want our pet to do in terms of a ‘command’. That word alone connotes dominance and force, not a very motivating and encouraging way to learn.

I’m not going to get much into behavior analysis in this post but I do want to offer a suggestion. What if, in dog training, instead of thinking about telling your dog to do a command, you think about how you can put the fun back in learning? You put the responsibility on yourself to make the behavior you want to teach, a behavior that is just super cool to do because what happens right after the behavior is so high value.

To everyone who has a dumb or obstinate dog, I challenge you. Instead of holding your dog up to expectations, hold yourself up to creating an environment that fosters a love of learning.

I tell people all the time how much our Sam loves to learn. The other day, in just a couple of five minute sessions, I taught him to scratch an itch on his nose. (Unfortunately Sam got adopted into a family with a very silly trainer.)

The truth is, Sam loves to learn because I’ve made it so much fun. (Well, I’m also very consistent in reinforcing the behavior I want to see but that is a separate topic for a separate post.) That time we share is really quality time together. When I’m initially teaching a behavior (usually through shaping), he loves the challenge of trying to figure out what he needs to do to get me to shout in my very animated voice, ‘GOOD BOY’, which is followed by a favorite treat. And when we are going through his repertoire of behaviors, he does each one so enthusiastically because we make it one great party.

To everyone who has a dumb or obstinate dog, I challenge you. Instead of holding your dog up to expectations, hold yourself up to creating an environment that fosters a love of learning.


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