Trouble Shooting a Behavior

Whilst training my dogs I started to think about common struggles that we all may have when training or proofing a behavior.

Whilst training my dogs I started to think about common struggles that we all may have when training or proofing a behavior. 

I decided to look at coming into heel/close/by your side but these reasons can be applied to absolutely anything you’re training with your dog whether it be middle, recall, sit, down stand, fetch etc. 

So what are the common struggles you may come across?

Well here’s my non exhaustive quick list.
1. Only comes in from one side/position
2. Does not want to come into position
3. Leaves without being released
4. Offers behavior without being asked (uncued)
5. Dog cannot stay still in position (moving feet or offering positions: sit/down/stand)
6. Dog disengages and chooses to do something else
7. Dog comes into position when asked for a different behavior

1. Only comes in from one side/position

Most of your training and rewards have been given on one side. This applies equally to things like leash walking. If you always reward on the left side that’s where the value is and where your dog will want to be. If you’re ok with that then no worries. However, if you want them to be able to come in from various locations, increase the rewards when coming in from a new direction. Remember continuous reinforcement is crucial when learning a new behavior and that includes coming into your left leg rather than your right! It’s also a great way to build FLEXIBILITY.
If you are calling your dog back to heel some may turn at the side they approach from and others will go around behind you and finish on the opposite side of your body.  Again they may have a large reinforcement history for being rewarded for turning on the side they approach  from or circling your body.  If they haven’t had as much reward/reinforcement for going around your body and there is no physical reason they can't turn tightly, then they will try to be as efficient as they can getting into heel position to earn the reward and that could well mean turning on the side they approach from. If you keep rewarding the choice they are making and they find that reward reinforcing, they will keep doing it. Size can also play in certain behaviors and for some larger dogs or those with injuries coming into heel position by going around your body gives a gentler curve and may more comfortable physically. 

Dogs just like people can have a side preference and may feel more comfortable turning left than right so they may consequently have a preferred choice when coming to heel if we we do not offer further guidance and cues. Just think about trying to write a letter with your left hand if you’re right handed: we think writing is a simple process but apart for some ambidextrous folks its a real challenge if you have to use your other 'non writing' hand.

2. Does not want to come into position

We've all seen dogs that seem slow or reluctant to come into a particular position or follow a cue we've given.  When this happens there can be a few reasons for it. 

Your dog is not comfortable with close body contact and would benefit from some confidence and optimism games including two feet on, come and go, middle, scatter feeding in proximity to people and the human jungle gym/going commando.

We should also consider how we deliver rewards: can we use a thrown or  dropped reward so we are not leaning over the dog (particularly if they are small and we need to bend down towards them). Can we toss the reward away so they get the release of pressure  and a tasty food/toy as the reward for coming in close. Think about Premack Principles (eat your greens to get dessert) and how you can incorporate that into the game.

When it comes to delivering rewards do you always reward in the same way?   Do you always throw food to one side? If so, then your dog may start hanging out closer to where the reward is delivered.  You can see this quite often when playing fetch.  If you tend to always throw the ball in on direction then your dog hangs out farther and farther away from you bwcause they want to ger to that toy asap.  If this is the case think about using two rewards and throw them in opposite directions.  What does that look like: well the first toy is thrown to your left and as your dog picks it up and runs back to you throw the next toy to the right of yoy so that he is coming right back to you to get the other toy!! if you want more info chaeck out my Double The Fun Video on YouTube.

Our dogs can build a negative association with a position. Did you inadvertently step on them in this position? Was there a loud noise that startled them? Does it feel uncomfortable for them?  If a negative association does exist, take a break, reassess your needs and think about taking a few steps back and rewarding for approximations to your final goal.

3 . Leaves without being released

Building value for a release cue is an important part of any training. Your dog needs to know when the exercise is complete and they are free to move. Adding a release word early in training is ideal. They will start listening for that just as much as the cue for the position. Initially build the duration slowly and don’t always make it longer.  If we don't have a release cue we are essenitally allowing our dogs to decide when they want to do something else and in some situations that could cause a risk to their safety. 

4. Offers behavior without being asked (uncued)

Firstly congratulations on making this position highly reinforcing and valuable to your dog. By coming in uncued they are showing you how much value there is in this position. They may also be pretty optimistic and hope that doing this results in a reward. Now if you don’t mind them just offering the behavior that’s great, however if you don’t want them doing it, only reward when they come in on cue whether visual or verbal.
Remember that for a game like Middle standing with your legs apart when training maybe a visual cue for your dog to come into that position.  Of course some positions like Middle can be used as a safety zone for your dog when out on a walk. Your dog may pop into Middle if it needs a confidence boost so in these instances I always remember they are trying to communicate a need and I should stop consider why they are doing it. 
You may have taught your dog how to strech to help with their mobility and flexibility: it may become a postion that they find comfortable and if so remember when they do this uncued that rewarding with some verbal praise is a great idea.
Then there's place and boundary games: you may have built alot of value for a specific location in your house: you may even have taught them to go their when they hear the door bell (cue) so they may choose to go and hang out here uncued and thats great.  In fact for dogs that have played generaliziation games they may start to go there when they hear any novel noise and I'm sure you'll agree there are lots of benifits to that.  
So when it comes to offering behvaiors uncued, ask yourself what are the pros and cons for every bahavior and decide what works for you and you dog for each one!!

5. Dog cannot stay still in position (moving feet or offering positions: sit/down/stand)

Stillness is difficult for so many dogs so the first thing I would ask is can they stand still in other training situations? If the answer is no then I'd be looking to build more calmness and lower arousal levels in training. I’d also look to build some core fitness as holding any position can be tiring and not all dogs have the level of fitness needed to do this.

If it’s only in certain games/exercises that they struggle then I would again look to the arousal levels and exactly what I have been rewarding. If I've been rewarding a lot of quick transitions, then the likelihood is my dog is going to keep wanting to give quick transitions to get the rewards. Look to slow this down and add value to stillness and you should start seeing results.

Arousal levels can impact your dogs performance and being fidgety may indicate that you are outside of the peak perfomance area on the Yerkes Dodson curve for that can behavior.  Simply put, performance increases with arousal but at a ceetain point arousal levels can become too high and perfomance begins to drop.  This curve will be different for each behavior so when training your dog always think does their arousal level match/work with the behavior you are trying to train. Personally for some exercises I like to increase arousal levels when I'm teaching something new and then once i have the basis of the behavior I can lower the arousal level and work on precision.  

Of course a dog that cannot settle in a position can also be indicating that they are not comforatble in a given location.  Are there too many distractions, or are the distractions too close?  If this is the case, reassess your training area and look to move to an area that is more conducive to your current level of training before workig towards those areas of higher distraction.  Remember we want to set them up for success.

6. Dog disengages and chooses to do something else

Honestly this one could be a whole topic just on its own. Remember this is simply your dog communicating with you. The initial things to look at are: pressure, the environment, distractions and value for the game. We can often add pressure to some of our games/exercises without realizing it and if this becomes too much for our dog, then they are likely to disengage as a means of trying to reduce the pressure in that situation.

The environment and distractions can go hand in hand. Sometimes there may be just too many distractions for your dog and they aren’t ready to work at that level. Take a step back and set them up for success in an easier location or area with less distractions. Just remember that being able to do something in your front garden one day with people walking by doesn’t mean they’ll be able to do it later that day or the next day in the same location if the neighbors children are playing football. The location remains the same but the distraction changes. Likewise beig able to sit in your living room does not mean you dog could sit in a busy toen center or if taken to a dog freiendly restaurant.

Then we come to the value of the game. We may think that this is a super enjoyable game for dogs but their disengagement may tell us that we have to reassess this and that the reinforcment they get from the game can be situational. A dog may really love playing fetch with you but if it’s a super hot day the chances are they will want to disengage from you quicker and head into the shade or back inside. Or in human terms, you may love ice cream but eating one on a freezing cold day just isn’t as appealing as it is on a warm summer afternoon.

7. Dog does heel/side when asked for a different behavior

Do you always start your training session with the same moves? If so your dog is simply predicting what they think you’re going to ask and not really listening. Predictability in training can also cause excitement and an increase in their arousal levels (getting back to Yerkes Dodson again) making it harder for them to think and causing a decrease in perfomance. Ditching the routine in training and playing games to help them think in arousal will really help.  This could even mean going to your training venue and then doing something completely different. 

You may also consider want to consider how well your dog knows the cues whether verbal or visual for the other behaviors.

  • Are they as strong as heel/side?
  • Are they reinforced as much as heel/side?
  • When they do heel instead of the behavior queued do they still get a reward/reinforcement?
  • Are you being consistent with your cues in training?
  • Do your verbal cues sound distinct from  one and another?
  • Do your visual cues look very similar for different behaviors?
  • How well have you proofed the other cues?

If the other behaviors aren’t as strong and reinforced as much as heel and you reward them for choosing Heel rather than what you ask for they will keep doing it.
Now I know this can be challenging because for some dogs because they find us smiling, laughing or saying nice try when they do an unrequested behavior  reinforcing in itself for them.  In this situation it’s always important to know what is reinforcing for the dog in front of you and try to ensure you are not inadvertently reinforcing the un-cued behavior more than the cued ones.

At some point I just had to talk about rewards and reinforcement, so it might as well be now!!!  Have you changed the rewards you are using or stopped using them all together?  If so this might be the reason you dog doesn't want to come into position: it just isn't worth their while.   Remember behavior goes where reinforcement flows: and it is how your dog perceives the 'reward' you are giving them not you that counts!!! If its not reinforcing for them then you are likely to see a reduction on the behavior. Why not check out my blog on how to transition from one reward to another.

And finally: Pain and what it Meas
We touched on this briefly at the start of the article and I just want to reiterate again that pain can significantly affect a dogs choices in day to day life.  A dog with arthritis is less likely to complete various exercises becasue they don't feel comfortable and can actually cause pain when they do them.  Soft tissue injuries can reduce the liklihood of dogs doing certain things.  Of course arousal levels can cause some dogs to work through high levels of pain so if they seem happy to chase that squirrel or tennis ball but slow to do a down or a sit then it might be time to head to the vets for a check up.  As with everything in dog related: if your dog suddenly stops doing something or their behvaior changes: a vet visit is always advisable to rule out any medical conditions. I hope you found this useful!  Although I used heel/side as an example it's relelvant for so many behaviors.  I'd love to hear your thoughts and what part was most relelvant for you and your dog.