Say What You Mean, Mean What You Say

Getting the Behavior You Want on Command

There are four things you have to do get your dog to perform a behavior on command reliably:

  1. Get the dog to perform the desired behavior.
  2. Name the behavior.
  3. Reinforce the dog for performing the behavior on command.
  4. Help the dog be correct if he doesn’t perform the behavior on command (not necessarily punishment; just help him be correct)

Notice how you want to get the dog to perform the behavior before you name it. This is important for a couple of reasons, not the least of which is to keep you from repeating commands before you’ve taught them, thereby diluting them or making them irrelevant to your dog.

Getting Your Dog to Perform the Behavior

You have several options to choose from to get your dog to perform the behavior — shaping, luring, and physical modeling. You’ll probably use a combination of all three, sometimes for the same behavior. Shaping requires the use of a conditioned reinforcer, but no matter which method you use to get the behavior, it helps to have a well-established conditioned reinforcer so you can let your dog know the moment she’s done the right thing.

Shaping essentially means waiting for your dog to offer at least part of a behavior, noting that he’s done something correctly with a CR, rewarding the incomplete behavior, and then gradually raising the criteria for reward until the dog is offering a complete behavior. If you have the patience to break behaviors into their smallest pieces and do lots of repetitions, you can teach your dog to do even complex combinations of behaviors using only shaping, but you may have to ignore a lot of other offered behaviors in the process.

Luring involves using a treat to literally lead your dog by the nose into the position or behavior you want. When the dog gets into the desired position, you use your CR/treat to let him know that’s what you wanted. Physical modeling means you move your dog’s body into the desired position. You may use modeling both to teach your dog behaviors, and to enforce behaviors after teaching them by another method. You can use your CR or reward to indicate desired modeled behaviors in the teaching phase.

Make sure you’re not marking and rewarding unwanted behaviors like pawing at you or the treats, jumping up, or barking at you, any or all of which may happen in the early stages of training. If your timing is bad and you consistently mark these extra behaviors as part of the behavior you’re trying to encourage, your dog may think they are part of the required behavior. In training terms, this is called a superstitious behavior.

In the lowest-effort method for owners, capturing simply means catching your dog in the act of doing something you like. As she does whatever the behavior du jour is, you name the behavior, and provide a CR/treat. Unless you’re just hanging out watching your dog all the time, waiting for her to offer behaviors you can name and reward, this method is best used as a supplement to other methods.

Shape a Simple Behavior

To shape the behavior “circle to the right,” start the session by charging your CR. Then, ignoring anything else your dog does, wait for her to just turn her head to the right, and offer a CR/treat for that several times. When you can see that she’s purposely turning her head to the right to get the CR, raise your criteria so she has to turn her head farther for the CR/treat. Reward that behavior several (3–5) times.

Don’t lie to your dog! Every time your dog hears his CR, a treat must follow it. Do vary the amount of time that passes before he gets the treat from one second to several. Eventually you’ll be able to note a behavior you like anywhere and take him to get a treat, rather than having to have treats on you all the time.

Raise your criteria again so she has to take a step to the right for the CR/treat, then several steps to the right, and so on, until you have her going in a complete circle. It may take several short training sessions to get it. Start every training session by charging your CR and starting at the beginning of your behavior sequence, the head turn. Raise your criteria as quickly as she shows you she remembers what has been rewarded. Keep quiet other than your CR (use tape over your mouth and use a clicker, if necessary!).

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