Baseball is a wonderful sport. Many of us played some form of it from the time we were children. Whether it was stickball or softball or just a pickup game that involved hitting a ball with a stick, most of us are familiar with the basics. You would think that hitting a ball would be relatively simple. But it turns out that the best hitters in professional baseball hit the ball less than 30% of the time.
In fairness, the pitchers in professional baseball are incredibly skilled at their craft as well. Hitters practice long and hard to achieve the few hits they get. It’s a matter of mechanics. Both pitching and hitting the ball are learned skills. Close attention to the mechanics of each particular skill can make you better at the craft over time. We shouldn’t be surprised that training a dog also requires some level of mechanical skills. If, like baseball players, we focused on developing those skills it would not only make us more effective trainers but could also eliminate many of the problem behaviours we see in our dogs.
Bob Bailey has been training animals for over 50 years. Bailey reduces the basic process of training down to 3 critical steps – Think, Plan, Do. Each of those phases requires their own set of skills and each of them can be improved with practice. The “Think” phase requires that I get an idea of what I want to teach my dog. “Plan” will give me an opportunity to go through my set of training tools and decide how I am going to go about communicating with my dog during the training process. And finally, “Do” will have it’s own set of skills where I have to be effective at putting all of that “thinking” and “planning” into action.
Bailey is clear that these three are separate and distinct activities and that you should never try doing more than one at the same time. It’s never a good idea to change the “plan” while you are actually doing the training. Nor is it a good idea to change what you wanted to train once you have started your planning. All three aspects of the process are important and should be done independently. That’s not to say that we don’t stop “doing” the training in order to re-evaluate and adjust the plan or stop our planning in order to change what behaviour we want to teach. We just need to keep these activities separate.
Think it, plan it
The “Think” process of training, for me, can happen any time or any place. It’s that moment when my mind wanders to “Hmmm, it would be fun if my dog could do [new behaviour] on command.” It could be something like backing up or putting both front feet on a small stool or lifting up their head to help with grooming. It’s just a creative exercise in coming up with training ideas.
“Planning” is a different matter. This is where I will be called upon to use my experience and training skills to figure out how to teach my dog what I want. Will it be a multi-part training process like teaching my dog to first go to a mat and then lie down on it and then wait until I signal them that they can leave or will it be a more simple task like teaching my dog to touch their nose to the floor? How I develop my plan will depend on my skills as a trainer and the complexity of what I came up with in the “Think” phase of the process.
Doing the do
The most creative thinking and the most detailed planning can all be for nothing if my training mechanics, the “Do” part, isn’t executed well. It doesn’t matter what training methods you use, there are basic skills that you need to execute well in order for your dog to learn. For me that process breaks down into three things – See it, Mark it, Respond to it. Each of these steps is its own skill and I’ve learned to get better at them over time.
“Seeing” is just what it sounds like; you have to be able to recognize the thing you are asking your dog to do when they do it. This can seem like a very simple task but anyone who has trained a dog can tell you it isn’t! Dogs are fast. And the finer the behaviour you trying to teach, the more vigilant you have to be to see it when they offer it to you. It’s a recognition skill.
“Marking” is a different skill in that I am communicating to the dog. I’m telling my dog, “That! That thing you just did is what I’m looking for.” As you might guess, the primary skill here is timing. Like a baseball player trying to hit the ball, I have to coordinate what I’m seeing with my marking so that I communicate properly. Too early and I might only get part of the behaviour, too late and I might get something different than I wanted. Both “Seeing” and “Timing” are skills that can be practised without your dog present and it can help your training if you spend a little time brushing up those skills.
Responding to my dog’s behaviour is multi-faceted skill and requires both planning and good execution. If I’m using rewards, where I deliver the reward, how I deliver the reward, and when I get that reward to my dog will all have an effect on how quickly she learns what I’m trying to teach.
Eliminate the extras
One aspect of the training process that took me a while to get good at was making it clear to my dog when we were “trying again”, moving on to the next try. Strangely, I found that what I was doing before and during my dog’s behaviour made all of the difference to her understanding the distinction between one trial and another. It was important for me to behave in one way while waiting for her to offer the behaviour and then behave another way after responding to her efforts.
I found that extra movements, talking, or gestures can be confusing to my dog. Even something as simple as “ok honey, be patient with me” can be a distraction. Having to re-adjust my position in the middle of training was disruptive. My training was most effective if I could be quiet and still, making no unnecessary sounds or movements until my dog offered her behaviour. Then, when I had marked the behaviour and was delivering the reward, I could offer a pet or enthusiastic “Good girl!” to help her understand that the job was done and we were moving on.
Mechanics and motivation
Perhaps the biggest surprise for me when I began to focus on the mechanics of my training, was the effect that it had on my dog’s interest and enthusiasm for working with me. The better I got at my training mechanics, the easier it was for my dog to follow along in the training process. It became easier for her to know when we were starting, when she was successful, when she needed to try again, and when we were done.
Good mechanics gave my dog the confidence and trust that comes with understanding. I was being clear and consistent about the process and that made it all very predictable and easy to understand for my dog. It was remarkable to me that the old proverb of “Less is More” could actually apply to dogs. Focusing on the simple basics and learning to do them well made me a better trainer than any fancy new training method or device ever could.
The mechanics of dog training are simple. Doing them well, however is not easy. Bob Bailey has been teaching animal trainers that important lesson for decades. We would do well to heed the advice of someone who has trained dolphins and bears and lizards. We just need to keep our eye on the ball and keep practising our swing and we are sure to hit home runs with our dogs!
Until next time, have fun with your dogs.
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“Relationships: Life with Dogs”
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