“Do as I say, not as I do” is not an expression that I never intend to use. If I am going to give training advice to others, I better believe in it; and if I believe in it, then I should be doing the same myself.
Obviously situations differ, and what is applicable in one time or place may not be in another. This is most challenging when people come to my farm for horse training and see me doing something with one of my horses that they then want to try with theirs. However, when the background (horse or human), understanding, or situation does not support that, they can find themselves unsuccessful, or in over their heads.
But recently I have been hearing myself giving dog people advice which I realize I don’t necessarily follow. Sometimes it is because the situation has changed, other times it’s because my own training has slipped. Sometimes another idiom applies: “the cobbler’s children have no shoes”. Only in my case it’s “the trainer’s dog gets no training”. Eloise is a companion dog and she is a good one. Her basic skills as such were developed years ago and it’s the maintenance of those which I need to follow through on.
One skill I help dog families with is waiting at doors. The way I introduce it, the hand on the doorknob becomes the cue for the dog to wait in stillness (sit, stand or lie down is personal preference). The dog remains there until given another cue indicating she may go through the door. I really like this as a cue because it prevents door bolting which is a safety issue as well as convenience. I train it for all doors, inside and out, as well as car doors. It prevents dogs from dashing outdoors when I go out to greet visitors, prevents dogs from being under the feet of horses, and prevents dogs from jumping out of a car at a busy rest area. It also prevents muddy dogs from jumping into the car when I am just trying to get something out of it!
What I have noticed recently is that my hand on the doorknob is no longer the cue for my dogs. I have to add a hesitation and looking at the dog. If I do that, the dogs sit and wait. If I don’t add those, they immediately go through the door. At first I thought I should clean that up, but I realized that there is a reason that happened, and it’s ok with me to add that small step of a hesitating glance. Winter is coming. It will be cold and snowy and windy here before we know it. In those conditions, I do not want to hold a door open any longer than absolutely necessary! Therefore, when I open the door, we all dash in or out, trying to keep as much cold as as possible on the correct side of the door. When mud season comes, as it will, then I can hesitate and look before opening a door, to keep those muddy feet where they won’t leave a mess for me to sit in.
Another behavior I have been studying is my recall. Eloise comes immediately and quickly to her name or a whistle 99% of the time. How do I maintain that and what happens the other 1% of the time? I maintain it by understanding her reinforcers, how difficult recalls in various situations are and balancing them accordingly. When we are around the farm, there is enough history of reinforcement that I really think I could say she comes 100% of the time. The reinforcement she currently gets in that situation is social: I tell her how brilliant she is, I let her jump into my arms, I give her wiry little back some scratches, I sit down on the grass and let her lick my face, or we go in the house together which often means mealtimes. I see no weakening of that behavior so that means the behavior is being well maintained.
If however, I hear a car (or truck) pulling into the driveway, she gets a big dog biscuit from the box I keep in the barn kennel/feed room. I was thrilled this week to hear a car pull in, and look up to see her running into the kennel without a word from me. Bingo. She knows the routine and that enormous biscuit for a little dog keeps her entertained for a while. Obviously it is sufficiently rewarding not only for her to come when I whistle under those circumstances, but for her to predict it, and just run to the feed room on her own when a car arrives. New arrivals have become the cue. What more could I ask for?
The times she gets reliably high value rewards are when we go for walks on our road. She is off leash and loves to hunt in the grass along the roadsides. When I hear a car coming, I either call or whistle, she comes to my feet and sits looking at me until I release her. I have to be careful in this situation that the car passing does not become the release cue. This can happen because the car leaving becomes a predictor of the release cue. But if there is another car after that first one, which occasionally happens, I do not want dogs bolting back into the road! Therefore I have to vary the times between the passing car and the release so she learns to wait for my cue. I think the fact that she almost always gets a high value food treat before the release helps this as well. So yes, I am careful to carry cheese, or hot dog pieces, or leftover treats from client sessions when I go on road walks. Because it is a safety issue for her to come to my feet immediately, I want to be sure it is heavily reinforced. Recently I have been wondering if I am too predictable. I think I need to mix it up to keep it interesting. It’s important to use reinforcement variety. So even though I use a variety of foods, I want to use other reinforcers as well. This time of year a fun way to do that is to pick up a wild apple along the roadside as we walk. Instead of handing her a food treat, I use my verbal release cue and then throw the apple down the road. She loves to chase it as it bounces this way and that and rolls unpredictably over the stones. Beetle used to love to chase snowballs but Eloise doesn’t find that fun so I’ll have to come up with another game for wintertime for her.
So what makes up the 1% of times I do not have a reliable recall?
I’d say it’s a tossup as to whether she really can’t physically hear me when her head is down a hole (most likely in the photo) or whether her terrier nature does not allow my recall to interfere with what needs to be done (such as when her head comes out of the hold for further frantic digging). In either case, unless I carry live mice in my pocket, nothing I can give her will compensate for leaving the hunt. In those times, Do As I Do means don’t even try a recall, go get your dog. I am always close enough to her on our road
walks that I can see when the digging begins. I can choose to stand by and let her have her fun or end it sooner rather than later. If I need to end it, it’s pretty easy to go get a 12 pound dog. The tricky part is preventing her from scrambling out of my arms in a frenzy. In this photo, we’ve gone a good couple hundred feet (during which I was holding on to the equivalent of a greased pig) and she is still in my arms staring desperately back toward her hole.
The final area I have been musing on is enrichment.
You can see that she gets walks, hunting and more hunting. Here, her fuzzy little bottom is propped on the edge of a crate full of barn supplies.
Apparently mice had been investigating the supplies and left a scent trail which kept her busy scrambling around under the stairs the entire time I was doing chores. She also gets bully sticks to chew on when I leave her home, or Kongs to enjoy. What she doesn’t get much of is new training. She adores training sessions, and loves to learn new things so I really need to make sure to leave some room in my day to do those things with her.
I tell my clients that’s a good thing to do. I need to do as I say.