The doorbell rang and the young male Dobie in his crate began a furious barking. “It’s OK, Buddy, it’s OK. Good dog, good dog.” his owner cooed in an attempt to reassure Buddy dog, as the barking continued. “Don’t praise him for being bad!” I tactlessly hollered from the other room, continuing with a bellowed, “Quiet!” for good measure. Startled, the pup stopped barking for a moment, and finally, I managed to do the right thing and praise him when he quieted.
What had we both done wrong? As we shape behavior with a dog, especially in the first year of its life with us, whether as a young pup or a 6 year old rescue, there are key instants when you have the opportunity to imprint or “mark” your dog’s correct response to a situation or command. Those moments should be considered rare and valuable treasures and we should wait and watch for them like a gourmand searching for truffles in the French woods. I call it the teachable moment, and our response to that moment makes all the difference in the world to whether a dog learns and reinforces calm, balanced behavior or obnoxious habits that will come back to haunt us.
Bill, the pup’s owner, one of the world’s nicest guys, wasn’t trying to imprint bad behavior on the pup. He knew the pup was upset and merely wanted to reassure him. But by continuing his litany of “good dog, good dog” each time Buddy barked, he was marking the moment of the bark, not the moment in time when the barking stopped. By bellowing “Quiet”, in a loud voice, I was marking for the pup, “Oh my God, this is a really BAD scenario.” This was exactly the opposite of what I wanted to convey, which should have been, “Ho hum, no big deal.” By now, between the two of us, the poor pup is wondering what in the name of sweet Hannah is going on here.
This was just a brief 2-3 minute episode in this pup’s life. BUT THAT TWO MINUTES WAS MORE IMPORTANT THAN THE HOURS BEFORE AND AFTER. Why? Because that was the teachable moment when the stimulus happened, and the opportunity arose to imprint what we wanted with the dog. Dogs learn in split instants. It is up to us to combine these instants with the right cue and the right praise.
So, what did we want in this scenario? Deciding what we want from a dog is not always simple, but it is the most important question of all. Dogs live and thrive on consistency. Advanced behaviors are based on a trust of consistent underpinnings and carefully controlled modifications of those basics. Sometimes the behavior we want requires a combination of future vision and hindsight rolled into one instant decision making moment. Remember that affectionate paws-up when your lab pup was a baby? Not so much fun with 85 pounds of solid 2 year old muscle behind it. Think about what you want to live with, not just for today, but for a lifetime of todays; not just with you, but with.family, friends, or anyone else in contact with your dog.
You may have more specialized needs from your dog. Do you want to show this dog in a particular sport that requires knowledge of certain commands or movements? If so, you might want to teach a very attentive sit. If you want this dog for a household companion, you may not care if Dutchess is sitting at attention, as long as she is sitting quietly by your side. Would you like your dog to be able to help you out with small tasks or be a full fledged service dog with a long list of adaptive behaviors. Just exactly what is the thing you want from this dog? Have a picture in your mind of what the behavior would look like if it were perfect, WHATEVER PERFECT IS FOR YOU, then mark the split second your dog does it right with one word praise.
If we find and mark the moment, that split second moment when your dog does the “thing”, whether with voice, treat, click, or whistle, we begin to engage our dog as a fully involved training partner in the training process. When we acknowledge effort, or steps towards the direction of the thing, we build confidence. We build dialogue. The precision of our timing is our dogs’ passageway to understanding. Perfect timing builds perfect understanding. Understanding builds empowerment. Empowerment builds, dare I say it, joy.
Language and Learning
Words: Dogs understand communication from humans as a series of one word phrases, what linguists call holophrases, the same stage of language that human infants pass through. Dogs process more complicated behaviors as a combination of single word concepts chained together. Like all language learners, dogs progress from a phrase that consists of one word, to 2-3 linked words, to simple sentences. The more you can mark the exact moment in time when your dog is capturing the meaning of one word combined with one behavior, the more clearly your dog will understand what you expect of him. Whatever “sit” means for you, you need to be consistent to mark the exact moment when you get your sit. The necessity of your dog’s understanding that one word moment will become critical as you begin to build more complex behaviors. The kicker in all of this is that the language concepts we want the dog to learn may be in direct conflict with their own internal non-verbal social language. We’re not just teaching language in the absence of any on their part. We’re teaching English as a second language over the top of a rich, and multifaceted natural language of their own.
Phrases: Simple novice obedience exercises are a good example of the 2-3 word phrase stage of learning people/dog language, and the interplay of learning language (commands) with a dog’s already existing nonverbal social language. Thus, the formal recall and finish in novice is essentially three words, all of which are a big deal in a dog’s mind or should be. “Come” – the dog is being asked to give up space, sniffs, air, location and come flying back to their handler, thereby acknowledging leadership, pack bonding, rank, quality of the pack, and mood and attitude of both handler and dog on that particular day. Wow. Who knew? “Sit” – here we don’t want just any sit, but a framed, shaped sit, positioned directly in front of the handler with frontal eye contact, which in dog social language is actually really impolite after we just asked the dog to come barreling in, acknowledging our superior rank. No wonder you see so many dogs do slowing, curving, eyes averted, head dropped or other calming signals when we ask them to come straight in and frontal to us. Dog’s thinking, “Ok, they want me, but I get punished for doing this politely, geesh, what do these silly humans want?” Finally, “Finish”, a bizarre and inexplicable movement to a dog. Move away from one position, spin through a combination of rude and polite behavior to a leader, coordinating left brain/right brain signals and both hips and shoulders, and assume a position at the side. You can just see some dogs going, “Whatever...if this is what you really want, then what the hey...”
“Come, sit, finish”...three words...no big deal. BIG DEAL. Marking the moment of correct behavior is critical to build your dog’s confidence in their ability to negotiate the odd world of human.
Sometimes when training, I am reminded of the day my Mexican family went into stitches when I asked to pass the single lady on the table (soltera) instead of the salt shaker, “Salero, Maryna, salero”, the cousins said as they banged the salt shaker on the table. Language and conveying meaning across a language barrier is a tricky thing. God is in the details.
Sentences: At higher levels of training, language jumps a notch from phrases to sentences, especially for behaviors taking place over a longer period of time. You need to be as aware and precise of what you are communicating as you expect your dog to be in deciphering your commands. For example, you might mark the desired behavior as follows: cue, pause, correction if the behavior veers off the mark, release. The behavior is bracketed between the moments of the first cue and the final relase. A sit stay or a down stay have that kind of language pattern: word, pause, (correct if needed), word (release) -- your first people/dog full sentence. Again, each portion of the “sentence” needs to be individually marked during the training process to maximize understanding. More elaborate combinations of one word commands and pauses are probably best done under the tutelage of an expert trainer who can help you put all the pieces of the puzzle together for your dog’s understanding. For most everyday living situations, one word phrases will suit your dog to a T.
How do we mark a teachable moment? Typically, I’ll use 'yes' or 'good', one simple word you can say in a split second to praise a behavior. If the dog has volunteered a behavior, I may mark the name of the behavior as well, e.g. “Good sit.” or “Good down.” but NOTHING MORE. If you add in the dog’s name or other endearments with the praise, your words take too much time, during which the dog’s brain has likely moved on. If more than a tiny moment passes, your pup may or may not associate your original praise with the behavior you intended to praise. Too many words and the sounds just become white noise for your dog, the proverbial “Blah, blah, blah” of cartoons. Keep it simple, mark a precise moment in time. We’re like Ann Sullivan spelling water into Helen Keller’s hand. We want “Water” understood, nothing else.
Depending on the dog’s stage of training adding additional stimulating aspects to the moment such as a treat, or a release to a thrown ball or toy may or may not help mark the moment or distract the moment. Experienced trainers gauge your dog to assess what is helping or hurting this dog’s ability to focus on that moment and that concept. I find that with about half the dogs I work with I need to eliminate adrenalin from the equation and keep the moment simple, clear and straightforward. There is another group of dogs who have either no motivation to cooperate or through constant drilling of concepts that make no intrinsic sense to them have lost joy and motivation, and need some adrenalin to mark the moment more dramatically. Most dogs fall somewhere in between where simple praise combined with more excitable moments delivered in a random fashion keeps the dogs up and working.
Back to The Moment!
So now let’s take a look at our goals of having of our pup’s staying quiet in his crate and what those language parts might look like. First, our goals, our standard of what “the thing” is. A common household desire might be for the dog to bark (alert) once or twice, then after being acknowledged by us, quiet back down. So in that case, what we might want has a number of different parts to it, lasting over a prolonged period of time, each of which needs to be marked and praised separately during the course of training. This is the rough sequence of what this training then becomes, or our training sentence: stimuli, bark alert, command-quiet when we say Quiet, long pause--stay Quiet as movement or hubbub occurs (people entering or leaving the door), release, praise. We can begin to see how breaking things apart into their moments makes teaching easier for human and dog and provides many more opportunities for engaging the dog’s attention and focus.
Some Teachable Moments
Here are some early “yes” moments for you and your dog.
- THE FUNDAMENTAL CORE TRAINING MOMENT: You are training your dog to come. You call and your dog turns his head and shoulders towards you and away from the parading pigeon. “Yes” Your dog comes towards you, then veers off track, you say “come” and the head and shoulders spin towards you again, and the dog starts in your direction. “Yes.” This core moment which provides the opportunity to reward your dog’s choice to join up with the pack as opposed to pursuing his own independent interests is key, key, key to all other training and your quality of life with your dog, and so often goes utterly unnoticed and unpraised. Later on we can praise only when your dog is all the way in by you, but in the beginning we need to praise and mark the exact instant when the dog gives up space, which is when the head and shoulders spin back to you.
- You are teaching your dog to sit. You say “sit” and your dog starts to lower herself and then stops. You wait and help her with your hand to the sit until her bottom touches the ground. “Yes.” Your dog wanders into the kitchen and sits down at your feet while you are cooking. “Good sit.” You are out on a walk and your dog sits down to scratch himself. “Good sit.”
- You are teaching your dog to down. The front-end goes down but the hind end stays up in the air. You gently press the hind end down. The dog touches down and you quietly say “yes”. Your dog gets excited and pops back up again. You don’t say anything but “down”, and when your dog touches down, “Yes”. You are curled up watching TV and your dog comes and plunks herself down at your feet in a down. “Good down.”
Regardless of your style of training or equipment used, whether you are a new dog owner or experienced trainer, seize the moment, mark the moment, whether you asked for it or your dog volunteered a behavior. Be ready, like a runner in the blocks, to praise the correct moment. The more moments you can find to praise, the faster your dog will learn.
consulting editor Diane Gallagher
The Walk By Drill, courtesy of Diane Gallagher, DOGTRAIN, Inc., Wilmington, N. C. as originally developed by Chris Bach) Here’s a simple exercise to sharpen your timing on marking those Yes moments. The goal is to teach your dog that it is more beneficial to pay attention to you than it is to pull to a pile of treats. We will do this by marking with a Yes, the minute the dog stops thinking about the pile of treats. You have to watch your dog to see this mental shift (change of mind). The closer you get to marking that moment, the quicker your dog will understand what you want. This is also true of every single thing you want your dog to learn, and your ability to mark correctly (conditioned reinforcer) is crucial to the process of creating effective communication.
Put a tub of liver treats on the center of the floor (or ground). Scatter a few pieces around outside of the tub.
Your goal is to walk by the tub with your dog’s attention focused on you. You will also have some treats. You will say “walk” (or heel or let’s go, as appropriate for your command) and proceed on by the treats. Nothing else is said until your dog swings his attention away from the pile o’ treats. When your dog gives up his focus, say “Yes”; count one-one-thousand and reward with a treat. When you reward, have the dog come to you and look up as you give the treat. This helps to keep the dog aware of your importance.
Most dogs quickly learn to disregard the treat pile in favor of the treats in your hand. Many start moving past the pile without taking their eyes of their handler (attention) with a few repetitions of a correctly placed yes.
All distractions should be dealt with the same way. The handler should walk right on past the distraction without allowing the dog to investigate, then mark and reward the dog for good behavior. If you stop and argue with your dog at a distraction, he has you paying attention to him, paying attention to the distraction. Lead your dog with confidence, he will follow with respect.