The return of Ginger!

Do you remember Ginger, the cute red-and-white Brittany spaniel? She used to appear on my blog every now and then, but I haven’t blogged about her in quite awhile. Ginger is my parent’s dog and lives in Dallas with them. She and my mom go on lots of walks and she has a great time chasing the squirrels and watching the birds in the backyard.

I did some clicker training with Ginger several years ago when I was living with my parents. Since then, I haven’t done much training with her, except for occasionally teaching some silly tricks.

Ginger and I have been doing some clicker training recently, which she, of course, thinks is pretty fun! So, I just though she needed a bit of a “reintroduction,” since I’m planning to blog about her this summer and post some training videos of our progress.

Now, Ginger is a really sweet dog, but definitely could benefit from some more training. Ginger knows quite a few behaviors in the kitchen, but can get pretty distracted when we are outside. She just loves watching the birds and squirrels and any other people or animals.

So, one thing we’ll be working on this summer is taking some of the basic behaviors that she knows in the house and practicing them in new places and more challenging environments. We’ll start small, of course, all the rooms of the house, the garage, the backyard, and gradually build up to “harder places,” such as the front yard, the pet store, patios of local restaurants, and completely new locations.

Training Levels to keep us on track

I’m planning to (mostly) follow Sue Ailsby’s Training Levels program with Ginger. The Training Levels program is a comprehensive dog training curriculum that Sue Ailsby has developed and refined over numerous years, with feedback from both her own dogs and her students. The exercises in the Levels teach the dog a solid foundation of skills, whether you are training for dog sports or just want a well-behaved pet.

I recently purchased a copy of the updated, revised version of the Training Levels. Since most weeks I’ll be working with Ginger only a couple of days a week, it will be very handy to have a set program to keep us focused and on track.

Even though Ginger already knows quite a few behaviors, we will go ahead and start at the beginning of Level 1 and work through all of the exercises. We’ll be able to quickly move through the behaviors that Ginger knows. However, by starting at the beginning, we’ll also be able to find any behaviors that might be a little rough around the edges or that it might be wise to go ahead and just reteach.

Ginger learns to be so Zen

One of the first exercises in the Training Levels book is “zen,” or “leave it.” To earn a pass on this behavior in Level 1, the dog must learn how to stay away from an open hand holding a piece of yummy food.

Ginger has worked on “leave it” before, but it has been more than three years. As well, when I originally taught “leave it,” we never worked on increasing the amount of duration or teaching the behavior in new locations.

So, we first worked on “leave it” in the kitchen until Ginger remembered the game and could keep her nose away from my fist holding a bit of yummy food. Then, we tried a new location and, a bit later on, we tried having the food in my left hand, rather than my right hand.

Interestingly, switching hands disrupted the behavior much more than switching locations. When I first switched the food to my left hand, Ginger said, “Ooh! Yummy food in your left hand now? Certainly I should eat it right now!” But, after just a few short sessions, she caught on and realized that the game was the same no matter if the food was in my right hand or my left hand.

Context matters!

Dogs (well, all animals) easily learn context. Ginger learned “leave it” in the kitchen with me sitting in a chair, holding a piece of food in my right hand. But, that didn’t mean that she automatically knew how to “leave it” in other rooms of the house, if I stood up or sat on the floor, or even if I changed the food to my other hand. This is why it’s so important after training a behavior to have the animal practice the behavior in new locations, new situations, with new people, and so on and so on.

Owners are often puzzled when a behavior “falls apart” or when the animal “forgets” something that he previously knew really well. In these situations, the first thing to ask is always “What changed?” Even if the change seemed really small to you, it could have been a big enough context change to completely disrupt the previously learned behavior.

To me, food holding a piece of food in my right hand is basically the same as holding a piece of food in my left hand. To Ginger, at first, these were completely different. However, (lucky for us trainers) as a dog (or other animal) learns a behavior in new contexts and situations, it becomes easier for her each time. The animal learns that the concept of “leave it” is the same, no matter which room you are in, where you are sitting, what you are doing, and so on.

One reason I like the Training Levels program is that it recognizes all of this and systematically has the trainer practice each behavior in new situations and new environments until the trainer has built a rock solid behavior and cue that can be used anywhere.

Stay tuned, as there will definitely be more Ginger dog training adventures coming up soon!

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