Training positions easily and effectively!
Training positions in dog obedience training can be done with different techniques, learning how to use these techniques properly and learning the 3 key rules to follow will help make them successful.
Dog obedience training or any other type of dog training, regardless of the methods used (clicker training, marker training, mixed training methods, etc.) is based on a few simple principles. One of these principles is that our dog “understands” a verbal command and performs some type of action or exercise that is attached to this specific cue.
It may sound like an easy concept but in reality, training positions can be a nightmare for some dog owners. There are many things that may go wrong, so in order to avoid these things as much as possible, we need to stick to a few basic rules, there are 3 in particular that will make life easier for you and your dog when training positions:
- First you train the behavior, then you name it
- Commands need to be clear and consistent
- Use the commands for their certain behavior only, do not use the same commands for different actions
Commands always need to follow the same pattern, for example if you are planning to use “sit”, than this would be the command for that certain behavior that you are wanting your dog to perform. Avoid using “sit down”, or “come on, sit” etc. Keep it black and white to your dog and you will avoid many problems down the road.
For example, using “sit down” to ask your dog to sit instead of just “sit” itself will become confusing after you teach the command “down” to lie down. Your dog may likely start in a sit and then go immediately into a down position, not because he has a mind of his own, but because he is doing what you have asked, “sit down”. Or if you have taught your dog “down” as the cue to lie down, then when you see him up on the couch, you tell him “down”, the dog isn’t misbehaving or being stubborn because he plants himself into the couch and lies down comfortably. He is just doing what you have asked of him, after all, you know that your intention was for him to get down off the couch, but to him, he heard the command “down” and responded with the action that he learned for that when you were training positions.
The second, (and one of the biggest) mistake that I’ve see daily when people are training positions is the timing of exactly when to add in a verbal cue for a certain behavior. Most dog owners simply decide that today their dog will learn the command “sit” and they start manipulating their dog until he performs the action, constantly repeating the word “sit” along the way.
Dogs don’t speak any human verbal language, nor do they understand any. If they perform a behavior a few times in a row, it doesn’t mean that they have learned it and that now they should be okay with that command. If you are using any verbal commands before your dog knows what you want from him, you are actually teaching your dog that the word that you are repeating is meaningless. That is why many dogs don’t react when you call their name and they react even less when you are doing a recall. The golden rule when training positions is to first teach your dog the behavior using one of the methods mentioned below and then once your dog is performing it correctly, add in the verbal cue.
Even though it seems simple, can you think of how many times you have maybe used the commands in such a way that it was impossible for your dog to perform them? Or perhaps you used a given command for a completely different exercise? As given in the example above using the “down” command for a dog who is up on the couch, or perhaps jumping on someone.
As humans, we associate the definition of the word with the verbal cues that we give our dogs (down means, lie down, get down, go down, etc…) but our dogs don’t have the same dictionary in their knowledge bank, therefore the only meaning that they associate to each command is the action that we have taught them for it while we were training positions in the first place.
There are essentially four ways of training positions:
- Free shaping
- Physically manipulating your dog into a position
Luring in dog training
As the name implies, the principle of luring in dog training is to physically help guide your dog into performing a certain action or behaviour. You can use either a target stick, or your hands, as most trainers do. This is a powerful way of training positions and dogs catch onto it quickly. As a matter of fact, dogs are the only species other than primates who will look at the direction to which you have pointed your hand, instead of just looking at your hand itself.
Training with a target stick
Although the origin of this tool comes from training other animal species, using a target stick has proven to be a great and in some cases, irreplaceable tool in dog training. This simple stick that has a yellow or blue painted end (dogs are apparently easier able to recognize these colors versus others) can help you when training positions, or to shape many behaviors with your dog like jumps, finishing positions, focal (focus) point heeling, etc.
Teaching your dog what the target stick is, is easy especially if you are using clicker/marker training principles. Like with any other dog training exercise, timing is everything. The first step would be for your dog to touch the top of the stick with his nose while in a stationary position. To accomplish this, place the stick relatively close and in reach of your dog’s nose and try using one of the following techniques: if you are using free shaping methods you will mark and reward any of the steps leading to the actual behavior from your dog’s eye contact with the stick up to and including, him actually touching it with his nose.
Or you can “lure” your dog by presenting the target stick in a way that he will go towards it; some people will encourage their dog by verbal praising and slight movement of the stick to trigger the dog’s curiosity or in some cases his prey-drive. Remember that by holding the stick in your hand your dog may misunderstand your intention and conclude that you are inviting him to play. If your dog gets too excited, then stop, calm him down and try again, as well remember to use the clicker/marker in order to mark and reward the point when your dog’s nose is in contact with the target stick, not his mouth.
Timing is very important here as you don’t want your dog to capture the wrong response like mouthing or actually moving away from the target stick after touching it. Once this step goes fluently, then you will add a verbal cue like “touch” or whatever word you want to use.
You will say the verbal command (“touch” for example) right before your dog touches the target stick. After a few repetitions this will be a verbal cue to touch the target stick which later down the road doesn’t have to be in your hand, you can place the target stick somewhere else (training jumps, go outs, etc.). Just like training any other exercise, as soon as you gain fluency in the work you will move your dog to a variable and random reinforcement schedule.
The next step is to add movement, simply have your dog follow the target stick for a step or two before he manages to touch it and earn a reward. In most cases this transition is easy, but in some cases your dog may have already associated the target stick with a sitting position, etc. In these cases, present the stick quicker and position it below your dog’s nose and closer to his chest, by holding his head down and in the direction of his chest, it makes it more difficult for him to sit, now you can mark and treat as soon as he makes eye contact with the target stick, (before he sits) and then move on from that point.
Once your dog is fluent doing these exercises, you can introduce turns, guide your dog to touching other items, as well as introducing the target stick as a stationary target away from you for training positions of more advanced exercises like Jumps and go-outs.
One of the best ways to use hand luring when training positions in dog obedience training, is to hold your treat in the palm of your hand, pinching it with your thumb, to form a small cup for your dog’s snout to fit into. Then you can lure your dog into the desired positions, sit, down, heel, front, finishes, etc.
By luring, your dog will catch on very fast to what you want from him. Once you have the position (for example, sit) performed fluently, you will then add the verbal cue, immediately before the luring starts. So it will go like this “sit” then luring into the sit position, then click or release marker and reward. Once you see that your dog starts performing with the verbal cue alone, you will phase out the luring.
When training positions or anything at all, always make sure that you separate the verbal cue from any physical gestures. If you are using both verbal words and physical gestures simultaneously, the physical part will always “override” your verbal cue, and your dog will always keep relying on your physical gestures to perform the action.
These principles of training positions through luring are using the dog’s natural way of learning through association and anticipation. If you start pairing the word “sit” followed by the luring gesture in order for him to perform the action and access a reward, your dog will figure out relatively fast that there is always the same pattern between the specific verbal signal and physical gesture therefore he will start reacting to the verbal signal before you even start using the physical gesture. At his point you start phasing out your physical cues if you want.
A disadvantage of hand luring when training positions is that obviously you can’t use it for distance targeting so you would have to train your dog to the Touchpad technique in order to cover the exercises where you need your dog to work away from you or to increase your dog’s awareness of the backside of his body (especially useful for larger breeds).
A good thing about using hand luring for training positions is that dogs get familiar and more aware of your body language so transitioning to hand signals is easier, as well, you are probably more prone to using your hands and your body to help you with the positioning and exercises, so this way your dog simply takes your influence as part of the training.
Even though many people purposely separate luring and a target stick claiming that that they are two totally different training techniques, initially it is the same principle involved behind both concepts. In both of them we are using external ways to “lure” the dog into certain positions or to perform certain actions.
There are two main techniques when we talk about free shaping. The so called “pure” free shaping technique and the combined technique; the former is a little tricky especially if you don’t have enough experience in dog training and if you haven’t done the preparation phase where your dog actually learns how to learn.
The “must” for this type of training is that you have full knowledge of clicker/marker training, and that you have “explained” the rules of clicker training to your dog and that your dog understands them. Free shaping in its purest form actually has a limited use in competitive dog obedience training. It literally consists of waiting for the dog to “offer” certain behaviors in order for us to reward them, therefore reinforcing that the dog’s behavior will occur more in the future.
It is somewhat similar to the “capturing” dog training technique (described below) because you don’t interfere with the dog’s behavior, you let them do everything themselves. But with free shaping, you tend to help your dog by manipulating scenarios and environments to help make it easier for your dog to “figure out” the process.
For example, if you were training dumbbell retrieve you would go to a place with no distractions and then introduce the dumbbell in your hand and your dog would touch it, then you move your hands away in order for your dog to keep the item in his mouth, then he needs to pick up the item from the floor, etc.
Or for example, you put a chair in the middle of the room and reward any of the steps that your dog offers on his way to the chair, from the first look towards that chair until he reaches your final goal of him sitting on the chair.
Free shaping is all about rewarding the small increments of behavior on the way towards your ultimate goal, or learning through successive approximation
The positive side about free shaping is that dogs create a strong behavior pattern toward the particular action. The negative side is that we are limited to what a dog can offer on his own. It may take a long time before he actually reaches the “final goal”, and the more complicated the dog behavior is that you are trying to shape or even exercises that require creating dog behavior chains, the more time you will need. Not to mention that you can always end up “stuck” for a longer time than necessary on one of the mid-steps and your dog may “conclude” that that step is the final goal of the exercise.
If you train your dog purely based on free shaping and you run into problems, it will then be more difficult to try helping him by luring, using a target stick or if necessary helping your dog with your physical touch. Since the dog was never previously trained with help of any kind, trying to help him at some point will in most cases create more confusion than help.
Many dog trainers are combining the luring (target stick) and free shaping approaches for training positions and other aspects of dog training. They “help” their dogs by guiding them towards the final goal and let them “figure out” the final step. The reason for this is to help create that stronger exercise behavior pattern by allowing their dog to figure out the last step on their own.
Capturing in dog training has multiple uses, in most cases this is the least used and the most promising method to dealing with multiple dog behaviors or actions that we want to increase. Capturing is a great dog training technique to extend, or train our dog’s everyday behaviors that you really like. You can use the capturing technique for training positions like sit, down, etc., however I personally prefer the other methods mentioned above, for these commands, as they will produce faster results.
You can use capturing to train your dog to stay calm, potty training “on command”, etc. All you need is to have your dog successful with clicker/marker training, and you will need to have a clicker (if you are using one) and a few treats with you in order to successfully mark and capture the moment and dog behavior that you like. Just like with luring or free shaping once you have a certain number of successful repetitions (like potty training, for example) you can add a verbal cue for that particular dog behavior.
For example, if you “mark” the moment that your dog is doing his business, then you add in the verbal cue of “go potty”, you will capture that behavior and chances are that your dog will eventually understand that when you say “go potty”, you are asking him to relieve himself.
Although the use of capturing is insignificant in competitive obedience dog training or other types of dog sports, the use of capturing in everyday life can play a major role in dog behavior shaping.
Physical manipulation in dog training
Even though this is not the correct term used in dog training, I use it because it best describes the techniques applied when training positions with this type of training. This is the so called “old type” of dog training that is based on escape/avoidance techniques, which means that the trainer/handler uses some type of action that creates pressure (unpleasant feeling), which the dog can “shut off” by performing a certain action. Or each command is followed by a quick leash “snap” which the dog will avoid if he performs the action “on time”.
For example, if you were to train your dog to sit using escape/avoidance dog training techniques, you would either apply pressure by pulling the leash up, and release the pressure once the dog sits, or you would simultaneously push the leash up with one hand while applying pressure on the dog’s lower back with your left hand, then releasing all the pressure when your dog performs the action.
When training positions this way, dogs are not trained first to learn the behavior and then a verbal cue is added. They use the verbal cue right from the beginning, therefore this type of dog training technique is also known as a “command based dog training”. By pairing the verbal cue and unpleasant pressure that is released once the action is performed, the dog learns that applying the action right after the verbal cue will avoid the unpleasant part of the exercise.
As you can see the approach to dog training in this way is different than the previous techniques. The previous dog training techniques are based on a reward after the successful performance of the exercise, with this type of dog training the “reward” to the dog is to remove the pressure after a successful performance.
My intention here is not to judge or to open a debate on the pros and cons about any of the techniques mentioned above, but to introduce the basic four approaches for training positions in dog obedience training.
Today one of the biggest debates in the dog training world is between so-called positive reinforcement oriented dog trainers and so-called compulsion based dog trainers. There are thousands of different techniques out there but all of them fall somewhere under the umbrella of these four dog training methods. My philosophy has always been that whatever you and your dog are most comfortable with is the technique that will likely be the most effective for you in training positions or any other dog training that you do together.
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