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Tuesday, June 8, 2010

A TIP for Tuesday: TIMING

No matter what technique is employed to train a dog, an essential skill to have is correct TIMING. As my trainer-friend Katie says, "You have 1.5 seconds--to praise a good behavior, or correct a bad behavior. Any longer than that and you've missed an opportunity."

At our puppy class at the Leader Dogs for the Blind School last week, we learned a new command: "STAND." I knew this would prove difficult for FLD Mike because his favorite thing to do is lie "down." When I tell him to SIT, he frequently slides to a "down." Teaching him to "stand" from either a "sit" or a "down" will be a challenge!

FLD Mike never did "get it" during class. After each Mike. Stand, I would have to fake a step forward in order to get him to pop up into the standing position.

While it is rewarding to witness an eight-week-old puppy finally "get it" and SIT on his or her own at the command, teaching a new command to an eight-month-old puppy like FLD Mike is more dynamic. Mike has learned "how-to-learn;" he quickly becomes eager and focused with our training routine. It is my job to show him the new thing I want him to do.

The day after class, my husband Andy and I relax on our backyard patio. FLD Mike enjoys hanging out here with us. I decide to work on the "stand" command, so I grab a handful of Mike's food--a sure sign to Mike that something fun is up. He immediately gives me his full attention, although his eyes dart frequently to my hand. I move my hand behind my back and warm up with commands that FLD Mike already knows. Mike. Sit. Good boy! Mike. Down. Good boy! Mike. Sit. Good boy!

He surprises me with an enthusiastic "sit" from the "down," so it's time to add the new command to the mix. From a "sit" I say, Mike. Stand. He ducks his head and starts to go "down," but then looks back at me with a turn of his head and pushes back into a "sit." He glances around; I can tell he is confused.

It is remarkable to me how FLD Mike thinks through things before he acts. His thinking is not just the typical (and adorable) head-tilt-to-the-side. When I tell him to "sit," he looks at me, then gazes away in a pause that makes him appear to ponder to himself, "Hmmmmmm, SIT. S....I....T....Sit. OH! SIT! That's what she wants me to do!" And then he will sit, in an incredibly deliberate motion.

To help him learn this new command, I make a move as if to get up from my chair, which causes Mike to stand up onto all fours. But then he keeps right on going. Yes, yes! That's it! I cry, just as he dashes past me and off of the patio.

Ok...we try it again. Mike. Down. Good boy! Mike. Stand.

When FLD Mike hears my "stand" command on this second attempt, he immediately leaps to his feet and dashes off of the patio. He turns back to me, eager for his treat.

"What was that?" Andy asks. He's been watching us, amused.

I laugh. My timing the first time was completely off. FLD Mike thought he had figured out just what I wanted him to do. When I exclaimed, Yes, yes! That's it! he was past the standing up part and well on his way to dashing off of the patio. He thinks I want him to leap up and run!

Poor FLD Mike. Not quite. No treat. We try it again. This time I am ready and use my knee to block his departure from the patio. Good boy! And give him a treat.

I work the "stand" command with FLD Mike a few more times. Now that I'm blocking him, he's getting confused and losing interest, in spite of the treats. I return to what he knows; he does a few more "sits" and "downs" before I release him. Good boy, Mike! OK!

Later that same day, I work with him inside, on leash. This allows me to control his still-wanting-to-leap-up-run-and-turn-back (even in the house!) whenever I command him to "stand," and I can reward him AT THE PRECISE MOMENT he stands up. I am amazed at how in-grained his misunderstanding of the command has become, just because I misplaced high praise the very first time. After 10 or 15 minutes he is still confused, so our session ends on a positive with some things Mike already knows.

The next day FLD Mike gets another focused training session. We warm up before I introduce the new command. Now. From a "down" I say, Mike. Stand.

This time, FLD Mike responds more like himself: less enthusiastic, more deliberately. He glances at me, he looks away; he eases up to a "sit" (that's it, I quietly encourage because he is making moves to figure it out) and looks back at me as if to ask, "Is this right?" I wait. One one-thousand, two one-thousand, three one-thousand. FLD Mike gently rises to a stand. YES! I proclaim. He was just about to take a step forward, but my TIMING IS RIGHT ON and he stops nicely in a "stand." Mike hits the treat jackpot--he's finally getting it!

We try it again. And again. FLD Mike is still tentative, but it is clear that we're successful. Good boy, Mike! I know that in subsequent sessions Mike will respond with increasing confidence. It feels great to end on a positive note, with a new command that I can integrate anytime and anywhere--on walks, in stores, in class, or even when visiting cc'd Rosie.

This training experience with FLD Mike is a wonderful example of how crucial TIMING is when teaching your dog something new. As you can see, my INCORRECT timing caused Mike to learn the "stand" command wrong. But, with persistence, CORRECT timing brought him around!

I followed my own training advice:
  • Keep training sessions short--10-15 minutes.
  • Rest at least one hour between focused sessions.
  • Warm-up with things the dog knows.
  • Always end on a positive!
  • Be patient.
    • Show the puppy what you want him or her to do.
    • Encourage as he or she starts to figure it out.
    • Give lots of praise and treats when he or she finally does the command on his or her own the first time.
    • Reinforce with repetition.
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