I had a message from a fellow trainer the other day. I adore this woman, she is a talented dog trainer with an intuition that most don't have. Anyway, this trainer seemed to be having an issue with her training plan and she asked me how long it took for my dog to recognise human odour on an article with 2 choices present. 1 article with human odour and the other without. I replied equivalent to..... to be honest, I can't remember, but I don't think it were long at all, why?.........She said her dog was taking weeks to pick up the simple concept and she can tell her dog is merely guessing and will indicate on the non-human odour as often as the human scented article.
I then ran through the logical beginning steps of ensuring no foundation pieces were missing, she replied 'yes we'd done those steps for weeks'. Then I asked her, have you changed the article material? she replied to the effect of....oh I presumed that was an advanced concept? After explaining why its anything but an advanced concept it should be at the learning/foundation stages, AND...... after her admitting she never read the appropriate page on her tracking book properly (Kris Kristopolous' book on Precision Tracking, you dont have it- get it), she soon realised her simple mistake when teaching her dog to recognise human odour......... I'll explain further.
Dogs are constantly looking for patterns, uniformity, and constants. During 'free shaping' if our criteria is for the dog to move it's left leg, how do we communicate our criteria and wants to the dog? yes of course through a marker system.......but unfortunately it's not that simple, not for the DOG anyway.
What we must do is have a conscious awareness of utilizing both variables and constants in our training plan.
A dog when first learning to sit, is not merely just sitting in their mind. There are other behaviours that work in tandem with a sit behaviour that the dog performs.
When a handler gives the bridge/marker/click for a behaviour that's criteria has been met in the handler's mind, the dog is very unlikely going to understand and isolate a single behaviour when he is instead behaving a myriad of other behaviours AT THE SAME TIME. For example, they may be giving 'eye contact' at the time, they may be 'quiet' or they may have their 'head kinked' slightly at the instant the marker was given. The dog now has the monumental task of deciphering which of these isolated or combined behaviours the dog needs to repeat?
Here's the easiest way to help your dog out and ultimately assist you in the long run to become better trainers.
Think of the behaviour/s you WANT as = CONSTANTS.
Think of all other behaviours that ARENT necessary to your end picture as = VARIABLES
Let me help your understanding by relating the concepts back to our first story of scent discrimination. You see, the more variety of materials you use in the learning phases for scent discrimination all with human odour (our constant), the quicker the dog will understand the one constant it needs to focus on is simply human scent. That's because the continuous CHANGING of variables (material) whilst receiving the marker/bridge tells your dog so. How?.............well through a process of elimination. So-.......... don't just put human odour on carpet- put human odour on wood, leather, plastic, cardboard, etc,......be creative.
The rules of generalisation state we should use at LEAST 8 different materials, but good practice is to use 10 to be sure. Much later- we introduce the dog to increased criteria by adding ANOTHER constant to the picture.... 'ground disturbance'.
If you are after a dog that both sits and gives focus. Be fair to your dog and focus on the initial behaviour first, the sit, and then work toward adding 2 constants to your picture. Try not to do 2 at once, unless your dog is naturally OFFERING it.
TIP: How you work on CONSTANTS successfully is by equally working on VARIABLES.
As an example, If Im free shaping a paw on a target, and my dog (in learning phases) touches his foot on the pod successfully (bingo!) but downs at the same time (ah oh). I'm going to be very careful of clicking when he's downing the next couple of reps. Instead I purposely change my criteria to a paw touch with ANY OTHER behaviour other than a down. Eventually the end picture becomes a paw 'touch' on the pod with a 'stand'. If the dog offers the 2 goal constants straight away then celebrate- mark it, mark it, mark it.
Remember ....................Working toward your CONSTANT/S will certainly help, but the key is to also understand VARIABLES. The variables will show your dog where the constant is.
Written by: Tammy Peters
-Head trainer/Owner of Precise K9 Dog Training-
Picture: Sharna and her dog Fargo.