It’s not always easy to train your dog to perform a new behaviour. Sometimes it’s particularly difficult to convey to your dog exactly what it is that you want them to do. Especially when we are training something that involves a sequence of behaviours (known as a behaviour chain) or where there are very specific criteria for success. Therefore it’s helpful to have a few different training tricks to fall back on when teaching something not so straight forward. Plus a different approach can also make all the difference if your training just isn’t going to plan.
Below are 3 useful techniques that can be used to break down any training exercise into more achievable stages.
One of the most useful techniques for simplifying any training exercise is called shaping.
Shaping is simply creating a behaviour step by step through gradual progression. For example for a dog that is struggling with a ‘down’ position you can start by rewarding just the lowering of the head, then the curve over the back as your dog starts to bend followed by any lowering of body position. Through subsequent rewarding of lower and lower body positions your dog should eventually pop into the down position. Shaping can be used in any instance where the behaviour you’re teaching can be progressed or ‘shaped’ little bit by little bit in this way. However, to be successful at shaping, you must only reward each stage a couple of times then move on to only rewarding whenever there is a bit of progress.
Any behaviours offered that are not as good as before must be ignored whilst your dog figures out what to do. Only by rewarding little bits of progress and ignoring anything that is a step back can you successfully move towards the end goal.
Target training is another popular technique with a variety of applications.
Often used to train assistance dogs to perform a variety of household tasks the initial aim of this type of training is for your dog to ‘target’ either your hand or an objectby touching it with part of their body(such as their nose or paw). You can easily teach your dog to nose target your hand by presenting your hand just in front of your dog’s nose and rewarding the nose touch as they naturally move forward to investigate. The position of the hand can then be moved in accordance with what you are trying to teach and duration of the touch can also be developed over time. A hand touch taught like this can be useful during loose lead walking to keep your dog close to heel when passing hazards or distractions. By presenting your hand at the side of your leg you can keep your dog glued to your side.
Target training can also be useful to teach your dog to accept veterinary treatment. A dog that is taught to target their chin onto a chin rest can learn to tolerate ear or eye drops plus a dog that is happy to target your hand with their paw is much easier to train to accept nail trimming.
One way to teach a more complex behaviour is a technique called back chaining.
This is when a sequence or ‘chain’ of behaviours is taught in reverse order to make the training process easier. An example of this is teaching your dog to ‘go to bed’ on cue. This is generally easier to teach if you start by rewarding your dog for being in their bed in the first place. Once your dog understands that being in the bed is rewarding you can distract a short distance away from the bed before encouraging them to return. You can then increase the distance away from the bed over time until your dog is willing to run to their bed from further and further away.
Another example of back chaining is teaching your dog to put their toys away. This exercise involves several elements from picking up the toys, moving them to the box and then finally dropping each toy in the box. To back chain this behaviour, you would start by giving your dog a toy when they are standing over the box then asking for a ‘drop’. Every time the toy falls into the box reward your dog. Once you’ve repeated this several times you can then start tossing the toy a short distance away before encouraging your dog back to the box to do the drop. Teaching this exercise in the reverse order like this is often much easier than trying to get your dog to understand that you want them to pick up a toy first then take it to the box and then do the drop.
These are just three different techniques that can be added to your training skills. Whether breaking down behaviour into small steps with shaping, teaching a more complex behaviour through the use of back chaining or using target training to guide your dog there are always alternative techniques available in order to help you achieve your training goals. Sometimes, you just need to think about a problem in a different way and not get frustrated if your dog doesn’t seem to get it first time around. Not all dogs learn in the same way or at the same rate due to a huge variety of factors such as breed characteristics, life experiences and previous training. So if your training isn’t quite working the way you wanted it to then it’s time to consider changing the training plan.
Tamsin is a qualified animal behaviourist having obtained an MSc in Clinical Animal Behaviour from Lincoln University in 2013. In 2017 Tamsin started running Puppy School classes in Solihull, having received tutor training from renowned author, dog trainer and canine behaviourist Gwen Bailey. Prior to running Puppy School Solihull Tamsin spent over two years working at Dog’s Trust gaining valuable experience in caring for and training a wide variety of rescue dogs. In 2014 Tamsin and her husband adopted their own rescue dog, Milo, with whom Tamsin has worked successfully to reduce his reactivity towards other dogs. In addition to dog training, Tamsin enjoys writing articles and resources on the topic of dog behaviour for both professionals and dog owners.