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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  • I am really enjoying learning about Logan. It sounds like you are a great trainer that will help him to be a wonderful service dog.

  • Nichole

    It sounds like Logan is getting all the right training!

  • Tenacious Little Terrier

    I can think of some skills that need going back to kindergarten. Especially his SA. I’d like to use more of Mr. N’s food for training but he insists on eating raw and it’s not very portable! Thanks for joining the hop.

  • Luna Christina

    This is a great, informative article! I especially love the concept of “going back to kindergarten” and I can’t wait to see more from Logan! 🙂

  • I love this article, and I’m so excited to follow Logan’s progress!
    Thanks for the phrase “go back to kindergarten” (as an aside–why on earth haven’t I read Don’t Shoot the Dog?). It’s perfect. I frequently feel like we’re constantly going back to kindergarten–but I’m trying to clean up my act so that we get fewer holes as we train. I’m also really happy that you shared this because I’ve been geeking out about criteria lately, and this helps me polish up my thoughts a bit. 🙂

    • I’m glad you found the post useful! You would probably enjoy Don’t Shoot the Dog, if you have never read it. Lots of great stuff in it, and I find that it’s a great introductory text to recommend to friends or clients who are new to positive reinforcement training.

  • Logan may be distractable but what a wonderfully happy face he has when you do have his attention! I love the different challenges that each animal presents. It was so great to meet you and BlogPaws and thanks also for joining the hop!

  • Kari Neumeyer

    Good job, Logan!

  • I’m looking forward to watching Logan’s progress. I really need to go back to kindergarten myself when it comes to trying to teach my dog the ‘lay on your blanket, grab it & roll over with it’ trick we’ve been working on. I just realized that we’re getting stuck in the middle and yet I keep trying it the same way over & over again. I swear, it’s usually us humans than need more training 🙂

    • LOL about humans needing training. Logan is learning a lot, but I am also learning a lot from him!

  • Sarcastic Dog

    I really appreciate the idea of breaking down the steps. It really is, as you said, like “going back to kindergarten” where each skill builds on the one before it and sometimes you need to go back and revisit/practice some of the earlier steps before moving on to the next level skill. With a little patience and a shift in expectations we allow our dogs the space to not always be perfect and that can go a long way towards helping them succeed.

  • Mary Kay

    I always wonder about the physical effort of eye contact while leash walking because the dog has to use muscles to lift his head much more than normal, plus keep track of where he’s going. I would have a hard time looking up all the time while I was walking! I have little dogs and my newest one couldn’t do this at first when on the right side. His muscles seemed too stiff. My friend who is Fitpaws certified is developing some exercises to help. Do you know of anyone who has addressed this issue?

    • Hi Mary Kay,

      Good points! I’ve wondered about this too, especially in relation to some of the extremely high head positions that you sometimes see in dog sports.

      With walking Logan, I don’t think we want him constantly looking at the handler — he does need to also be looking where he is going! But, I do want him checking in frequently. When we started, he would check in pretty much zero during leash walking, and if he smelled something interesting, his nose would go wandering off in the grass.

      He’s an interesting dog because if you have his attention, he is very reliable on most of his service dog cues. He just needs lots more practice in environments with distractions.

      Going back to the leash walking, the organization we are working with does train the dogs to walk on both the left and the right, and that helps some so that the dog’s muscles don’t get lopsided. I don’t think it is a stiffness issue, because sitting or standing in the house he is great at maintaining eye contact for long durations, it’s just when we wander out into the real world…. !

  • It will be interesting to read along with Logan’s progress! I look forward to that. Have you had dogs who you find just don’t have enthusiasm for the job they’re assigned?

    • Interesting question! I am still very new to service dog work, so I can’t answer your question from direct experience. But, the program does have dogs every year that they determine would be happier as pet dogs.

      I have a friend who volunteers with Guide Dogs for the Blind. Interestingly, she was telling me that sometimes dogs don’t make it as guide dogs (which is very demanding and specialized work), but can be career changed as hearing dogs or as medical alert dogs.

      So, I do think that dogs, like humans, have preferences and likes and dislikes. And, I think it is important to make sure that the dog really enjoys the service work.

      • Colby

        The fourth guide dog we raised, Apache didn’t make it as a guide dog, but career changed and became a PTSD Service Dog.

  • I love the kindergarten concept. I find myself expecting things of Cooper because I was working with him in the progression that made the most sense to me. But it doesn’t mean that same progression makes the most sense to him. We should go back to kindergarten together and get a fresh start on some of his “hole” behaviors. Such a helpful post! Thank you!

    • I am glad you found the article helpful! I hope that going back to kindergarten helps you with Cooper’s training. 🙂

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