A while ago, I read an article by Veronica Boutelle (1) that really resonated with me. As pet dog trainers, what keeps our clients coming back is not the amount of fun they have in class, it’s not the heeling skills they master in the training space, and it’s not the praise you give them for their pretty dogs. Rather it’s the real-life relevancy of what they learn. As Veronica puts it, the most important skill we can teach in a pet dog class is how to adequately judge situations.
This seems obvious, and yet it’s rarely common in basic manners classes. I have to admit, with the exception of one-on-one classes and specialized workshops (reliable real-world recall workshop, beyond the backyard class), I myself haven’t focused on relevancy in the real world, either. Rather, I focused on giving everyone a good time. And while having a good time is great, applicability in everyday life might be even more important.
So I taught the the last two classes of my beginners’ group with the idea of real-life applicability in mind. Real life is messy, and unexpected things happen all the time! Real life is nothing like the training room we work in.
We had already worked on how to get basic behaviors like sit and down, come and loose leash walking, and how and when to put them on cue. So in the last two classes, I created a number of stations inside my training room. People got to draw a piece of paper out of a hat that told them what station they got to work on. The stations were:
Walk a cone slalom on a loose leash. (You’re taking your dog for a walk, and there are obstacles in your path. You want your dog to learn to pay attention to you and keep the leash loose even as you curve.)
Karl is leading Charly through the cone slalom, helping Charly to keep the leash loose!
Put your dog on a sit/stay next to you and make coffee! (At home, you might want to cook without your dog begging or bothering you.)
Andreas learns how high his rate of reinforcement needs to be if he wants Lagotto Kira to stay sitting in the hoop while he makes coffee!
Get your dog to walk around a table, using only hand-touches. (Real-world application: your dog’s trigger is close by, and you want to lead them past it without them getting distracted or reacting to it – focus on you!)
Guide your dog around the table using only hand touches!
The students sit together around a table at a coffee house, and while a waiter (me) serves them drinks and asks for their wishes, they have to keep their dogs in a sit or down. The challenge is not to reduce reinforcers as much as possible, but to learn how often and in what situation each dog needs to be reinforced in order to hold his position.
The students are practicing visiting a coffee house – and keeping their dogs well-mannered!
To wrap up the class, we took a brief walk around the neighborhood where I gave tips on loose leash walking and reading the dogs’ body language as we met a person and walked past a dog behind a fence. Karl learned that his little dog’s lifting of one front paw showed his insecurity: it meant that he wasn’t sure how to deal with a situation; he felt overwhelmed. I showed Karl how to make Charly feel safer, and how to see when Charly was ready to receive a cue – and when he wasn’t. Andreas learned what to do when Kira wanted to visit with another dog, and how real-life rewards (walking forward, sniffing) could be used to reward loose-leash walking when she was relaxed. He also saw in what situations he still needed a stronger reinforcer than the real-world rewards, and when Kira should get tasty treats for keeping the leash loose. We took a brief break at a grassy area, and I showed them how to let their dogs sniff out the world and only give a cue when they offered voluntary focus – a good opportunity to explain the benefits of sniffing (relaxes the dog, resembles reading the newspaper), and how we want to create a training relationship where our dogs ask us for work rather than us having to beg them to comply. The best moment to give a cue is when the dog is ready to receive it!
Walking around the block – beginners out and about in the real world, and doing great!
From my doggy preschool sessions, these were the ones that received the best feedback so far. It wasn’t about building behaviors step by step in a systematic fashion, it was about how to deal with real life. Real life doesn’t wait until your dog is ready to throws passers-by and dogs behind fences at you. You want to take your dog places like shopping of coffee shops even before he has a solid down/stay on cue. You want to know how to deal in the real world if behaviors are in danger of falling apart.
That’s exactly what we did the last two times – and it was a lot of fun!
(1) Boutelle, Veronica: The Business of Curriculum. The Dog Trainer’s Resource 3: The APDT Chronicle of the Dog Collection. Dogwise 2014.