Can I have your attention?

Logan is a service dog in training.
Visit his page for more information and to read all of my blog posts about him.

“Let’s start at the very beginning. A very good place to start.” ~The Sound of Music

Logan the lab with the KONG wobblerI wrote at the end of last week about Logan, a service dog in training who is staying with us. (You can find all of my blog posts about Logan on this page.)

Logan has been with us for almost a week now, and he is settling in nicely. He is learning the routines at our house and seems to be more relaxed than when he first arrived. He is a very sweet dog who loves being around people. I’ve been incredibly impressed with how calm he is overall – considering that he is a one-year-old Labrador retriever!

We spend time working on training exercises several times throughout the day. Logan gets about three cups of food a day, but we don’t even have a dog bowl for him. He earns the majority of his food (plus some treats) while we are doing training. If there’s a bit left at the end of the day, he sometimes gets the remainder in an enrichment puzzle toy. In the picture, you can see him playing with the KONG wobbler, which he has decided is a lot of fun!

Can I have your attention?

Logan has already had quite a bit of training in his short life. Overall, he is very well behaved and quite good at responding in the house to the cues that he knows. However, he does have some holes in his training. That is, there are some behaviors that he has learned, but that he either does not like to do or that he could do better.

Logan wearing his service dog vestFor instance, Logan has a blue vest that he wears when he is out in public. The vest lets people know that he is a service dog. Logan seems comfortable wearing the vest once it is on, but he really doesn’t like having it put on him. Since he has to wear his vest anytime he is out working in public, one of our first priorities will be to teach him to enjoy having his vest put on him.

One of Logan’s other big issues has to do with focus and attention. He is actually pretty good at leash walking and will stay with you when walking. However, his focus wanders, and he doesn’t look at his trainer or check in very often. Because of this, he gets distracted by things in the environment and often doesn’t respond as quickly as he should to cues.

During the weekend, I did a bit of practice leash walking with him, just walking back and forth in our living room. While he stayed close by my side, he rarely, if ever, looked up at me. So, while he was walking with me, it didn’t really feel like we were walking together.

Time to go back to kindergarten

“Going back to kindergarten” is a term that I first learned from Karen Pryor in her book Don’t Shoot the Dog. Here’s what Karen means by this phrase: When something isn’t working quite right, don’t keep trying to work on it at the current step. Instead, it can be extremely helpful to go back to the very beginning and reteach the behavior.

Logan the lab loves his NylaboneWhy should you do this? Here’s an example that may help.

Say a behavior has four different parts that the dog needs to do in order for the behavior to be 100 percent correct. The dog is usually doing three of the parts correctly, but not always the same three. If you keep practicing the behavior in its current state, you end up rewarding both good pieces of the behavior and unwanted pieces of the behavior.

When a dog doesn’t completely understand a behavior, many trainers just keep trying to reward approximations, hoping the behavior will improve. Sometimes, you do get lucky and everything seems to sort itself out. However, what often happens is that you end up with a sloppy behavior and a dog who isn’t entirely sure what he is supposed to be doing. So, if something’s not working quite right, it can be useful to “go back to kindergarten.”

When a trainer “goes back to kindergarten,” she starts at the beginning and retrains each part of the behavior. If the dog already knows most of the behavior, this retraining often goes pretty fast. However, what it does do is allow the trainer to fill in the holes and explain to the dog the precise criteria that is required for each part of the behavior.

In other words, “going back to kindergarten” gives the trainer a chance to check and make sure that the dog understands all of the pre-requisite skills, component skills, and different steps that make up the behavior. If a certain piece is shaky or missing, the trainer can identify that piece and then spend time teaching it to the dog.

Where does the behavior start?

Every behavior has a beginning, a starting point. (For a very detailed examination of this idea, see the section of this article that discusses movement cycles.) For good leash walking, a service dog should start when the person starts, stay close by the person’s side, keep his attention on the person, turn when the person turns, and stop and sit when the person stops.

Good leash walking starts with the first step that the person takes. Or, more precisely, if we back up just a bit more, leash walking actually starts from the halt. If the trainer does not have the dog’s attention at the halt, before the dog even starts walking, then the behavior is off to a shaky start before it has even begun.

Logan the service dog in training works on eye contactOne exercise that we’ve been spending time practicing over the past few days is having Logan focus on me and make eye contact while he is sitting at my side in the proper heeling position. We’ve been practicing this with him on either side of me and both in the house and outside. And, he’s getting to be a star at it!

Yesterday, we added the next step. We start with eye contact at the halt. Then, we walk forward together three or four steps. Then, I stop walking, and Logan stops and sits by my side. He’s catching on quickly to this and usually is able to maintain eye contact while we are walking. Sometimes he does lose focus a bit, but overall I am seeing steady improvement.

Our current plan is to start gradually increasing the number of steps and then to begin practicing in more distracting environments. We are starting small, but this is allowing us to make sure that the behavior is exactly right. Logan seems like a smart pup and a quick learner, and I think we will make fast progress.

Follow along, and I will keep you updated on our progress!

This post is part of the July Positive Pet Training Blog Hop.

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