Do You Know the Basic Steps?

Things should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler.-Albert Einstein

Tired of tired obedience or a dog having a nervous breakdown on the track? In this article I would like to go back and question the very fundamentals of how many dog trainers approach their task and see just where the problem is. First, let's look at some common seminar questions or experiences and see if what seems to be a rational approach really shows a good understanding of animal behavior.

"Tell me Gary, when do you start obedience?", or "Do you have a trick for fixing a slow sit?", or

When I ask someone to show me what they are doing in training, they simply start doing the obedience exercises. , or "Gary, do you train with the positive motivation or negative motivation method?" When I answer, "yes" and see total confusion, it's clear there is a problem. ,or

I see someone with a multi-titled dog, age five years old, going out and slavishly doing the exercises with pattern training three times a week (with some people, eight days a week).

While each of these experiences demonstrates a real failing to understand training, the real problem is not knowing that good animal training results from three distinct steps. Some trainers are very good at one or two; it is rare to find someone who excels at all three. Assuming a dog doesn't have a severe temperament problem, most training problems result from a breakdown in one of these areas. Further, it is equally rare that I see a successful competition dog that has not been brought through these three steps with patience and an understanding of what the immediate and long term goals are.

Creating a Foundation

It is often difficult to specifically define what a foundation should be for any particular dog. On the one hand, there are characteristics in any dog, even a pet, that we should develop such as bonding and a willingness to please. On the other hand, where training is to center around a specific task such as search and rescue, tracking, obedience competition or police work, each niche has a slightly different emphasis. Yet, in each case, no matter what the future plans for the dog, work needs to be done to build a platform from which all future exercises and attitude will spring. Foundation, then, is only my way of describing an initial training process that creates tools and an attitude that makes later training easier for the handler and clearer to the dog. As an answer to the above question about a slow sit, the trainer needs to know that the reason his dog sits slowly is probably because he never taught it to work with energy and high drive before he ever taught the sit. Lets look at a few examples of what can be done during this first step.

  1. If the dog is under three months of age, imprinting the puppy. There is an entire program for imprinting in my book, Tracking: From the Beginning. Basically, all we are doing is building on the puppy's predisposition to learn at a time when learning is most intense. Further, as Michael Fox has pointed out, the more challenging and rich the learning experience for a puppy, the more willing it is to learn complex work later in life. The reason imprinting is distinguished from other foundation work is the biological nature of the result. More research is coming out showing that when an animal is exposed to certain experiences during it's early development, the effect seems to be more than simple learning. Instead, neural pathways are formed in the brain that make many of these experiences seem genetically based. This is to say that once formed, the learned responses become similar to, if not the same as, genetically driven behavior.
  2. If the dog is past sixteen weeks, imprinting is less effective, but there are other things that can be done to build our foundation. The process of bonding and building trust between handler and dog is critical. On a simple level, this means keeping the dog away from other "trainers" such as family members. The dog must be made to understand that all good things come only from one person, the trainer. Therefore feeding and daily play center around the trainer, no one else. Work on retrieval aggressively, to the point that a few minutes are spent each day with the dog retrieving something in a controlled area. This will build not only prey drive, but also the bonding process by the dog bringing back the prey to the trainer.

We can also teach the dog how to accept a correction by making it play in drive with a training collar and lead on. When the dog is very strong for a ball, the trainer might throw the ball and make the dog drag him to the ball, pulling on the lead and collar. Another game, is to tease the dog with the ball or food, while giving him totally arbitrary "pops" on the lead. This not only teaches it to tolerate collar corrections later on, but to associate the corrections with something positive, the ball. When I give my current dog a correction, his tail actually wags faster. He understands the correction and accepts it.

Maximize the dog's energy. This means short play sessions and keeping the dog in an enclosed area during the rest of the time (a run, backyard or room in your house). No this doesn't mean we are going to cruelly isolate the dog during the rest of its life, only that during a period of several months, it's environment will be manipulated so it looks at life with anticipation and a sharp focus. After that, within reason, it can become a fairly standard family dog, provided the trainer is still running things in the dog's life. Continuing with our earlier example, the reason we don't teach the sit at this point (even in the kitchen, asking for food) is because the dog hasn't learned to do things with full energy. We can do recalls and even start the send away because these are running exercises. Lastly, teach the dog to love food by scheduled feedings and teasing it with food, much like you would with a ball. Throw food into the grass and make the dog use its nose to find it. At the end of this step, we will have some valuable tools, bonding, retrieval and a love for food, that will all aid us in teaching during the next phase.

Conditioning and Reinforcement

I want to spend more time talking about these two important areas in future articles, but within the context of the three steps we are discussing, this phase is what most people think of as "training". Unfortunately, the process is not so clearly understood as to how it should proceed. This step is actually the heart of all animal training and is broken down into two distinct phases, conditioning and reinforcement.

Conditioning is nothing more than the learning process, teaching the dog to associate the stimulus (usually the command) with some act. Here we will use the dog's willingness to work coupled with the tools developed in the first phase, the ball and food, to accomplish a very rough picture of the work we want from the dog. If these tools and the training method are properly applied, the trainer will avoid the single biggest enemy of training during this phase, stress.

No sculptor of the human figure starts with the ear lobes or nostrils. Instead, the shape of the human body is first formed and the details filled in later. Therefore, if we would teach the sit, we would manipulate the dog with the ball so it would sit fast. It might not sit very correctly otherwise or even sit every time it is commanded, but that's okay. Remember, our goal is to teach the dog to associate the command, "sit" with the act of a quick sit. In the next phase, we will teach correctness. During this conditioning phase, corrections are rarely used because the dog doesn't understand what it is supposed to do, so any corrections can only create stress. Does that mean we are being wonderful human beings in the training process, using only positive training? Of course not! It does mean that if we breach the trust of the relationship between dog and trainer at this point, the dog will associate training with stress. It then becomes a matter of finding a dog that accepts abuse and goes on. But, that is the subject of an entirely different article. Not only will most of our work be positive, but the training tools, a ball or food, will be used to bribe the dog. This is to say that we will use the tool during the actual act of teaching, to manipulate the dog into doing what we want. If I am training a dog in high prey drive and teasing him with the ball, I need only to raise the ball high over his head and command "sit". Because the dog is in drive and looking straight up, its butt will quickly drop to the ground. I then throw the ball. It won't take the dog long to learn that it should sit quickly on command to get me to throw the ball. I also may have to use the command many times before I get the right result, but that is part of the learning process. Remember all those repetitive writing and arithmetic exercises in school?

The second part of this second phase is reinforcement. Assuming we have a dog that sits quickly and seems to understand the sit command, we now want to create reliability. This means that at the end of this phase, the dog will sit quickly and every time on one sit command. Up to this point, the dog has learned the sit command, but has not learned that it must sit on command. We will now put a training collar and lead on the dog and tell it to sit. If it doesn't sit properly, we will give it an immediate correction and say, "no".

Reinforcement, also called motivation, is where many people start their training, totally ignoring building a foundation or the conditioning process. They will take their new dog on the field, tell it to sit and give an instantaneous jerk on the training collar. The dog, not understanding either the command or the requirements of the trainer, perceives all this as abuse and stress, aggression or submission results.

If we are careful about getting to reinforcement properly in our training schedule, when corrections are given, the dog will understand the command and also know how to accept a correction. The result is a clearer understanding by the dog leading to an increase in confidence and a decrease in stressful reactions. Again, we are not avoiding stress in training because we are wonderful people; I am more selfish than that. Instead, I know that stress will cause the dog to think about things other than what I want it to and it may lose the wonderful attitude I worked so hard to create, so the chances of future problems increase if the dog comes on the training or trial field full of worry.

Reinforcement works hand in hand with conditioning, so we must treat this phase as one step. You don't just start reinforcement one day, but gradually move from the teaching to the motivation phase over several training sessions. Yet, they are two totally different concepts. As only one example, we use both negative and positive reactions in reinforcement, where mostly positive is used in conditioning. Further, the tool, either food or a ball, is used in conjunction with the teaching process (i.e., bribery) whereas corrections and rewards only follow the act in reinforcement. In reinforcement, if the dog sits properly without bribery, we throw the ball as a reward after it sits. If it sits improperly, we give a correction after the improper sit. There are some important rules for reinforcement and we will get into those in later articles, but if the trainer doesn't understand the difference between conditioning and reinforcement at this point, there is a basic lack of knowledge of animal and human training, for that matter.


So now we have trained a wonderful dog to high scores and it has appeared in numerous trials. It is also approaching age four years. What should we do now? There are a couple of things that can be predicted with some confidence. As the dog grows older, its drives will diminish, so we have to figure out a way to keep those drives we earlier developed so carefully from deteriorating too quickly. The second concern is that if we only go out and repeat the same training we have already spent so much time developing, the dog's interest will further decline. We must figure out a way to keep the dog excited about work.

Again, this is an area that few trainers even think about, until their scores start slipping, at first slowly and then dramatically. A German trainer I once worked with said that dogs only have so many "V" performances in them and if we don't keep this idea in mind, the number can be reduced even more.

Generally, the one overriding rule at this level is to conserve energy, maintain good physcial condition and keep training interesting for the dog. Some more specific ideas for week to week training in between those shorter periods of trial preparation are the following

Make your work quick and short. Get the dog in drive, don't worry too much about precision and heel in short, fast unpredictable patterns. Rather that just slaving through the trial pattern, dream up patterns that keep the dog alert. All during the work, try to make the dog make a mistake so you can correct it. This whole subject is what I call "power heeling" and will be covered in future installments. The idea is too make the dog concentrate on something because it doesn't know what's coming next. With an advanced dog, the only way it should make a major mistake is if it isn't paying attention, the whole point of the exercise.

Look at the problems you had in the last trial and work only on those small problem pieces, avoiding doing procedures. If the sit was poor, go back to the foundation work done when the dog was only a novice (please see above-there was a reason for doing all that foundation work). Don't work on the walking sit, work on making the sit as fast as when the dog was young.

Have confidence that all the good training you put into the dog is still there. It may have gotten buried, but if its there you can bring it back out again. This is why we take so long putting all the basics into the dog.

Take the compulsion out of training except for major errors.

Train less. In the beginning, we worked some part of training every day. Now instead of two or three protection sessions a week, cut back to one or none some weeks. Go several weeks with no tracking or on short tracks with more bait than usual. Don't do any jumping, either over the jump or wall until just a few weeks before a trial.

Measure the importance of an upcoming trial and train accordingly. If it's a local trial and you have a dog with multiple titles, why train like it's a championship. Instead, set some definable goals, like fixing a slow sit or article problem in tracking and work on fixing only those problems. If it's a qualification trial, get qualified and let some one else get high in trial.

Keep your dog in top physical condition with road work and some anaerobic training using the ball or Frisbee.

When you get back into trial preparation mode again, build it up slowly over several weeks. Don't take the dog from catatonia to full tilt in one week; this only asks for injury and there is also one other problem. Just like a football player who has to learn to "take hits" again when training camp starts, a dog that is not in full training comes back more sensitive to the handler and corrections in the beginning. Therefore, corrections should be downscaled in the beginning and more tolerance given to minor mistakes.

How well does all of this work? One example is a friend of mine, Phil Hoelcher, who just won the 1997 DVG Nationals with a dog he trained from the ground up. The dog is now over age eight and going to Germany. I am sure this dog will be competitive with the very best the Germans have to offer.

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