Boredom can be a very real problem in trying to get a good performance from a dog or in reducing the time needed to teach an exercise. There are many facets to this problem and many situations that can contribute to boredom. A dog can become bored with the routine – same time, same place, same sequence of exercises. He may no longer find the positive reinforcement that is used interesting or rewarding. He may simply be bored with training, as opposed to learning. He may have a bored handler. As trainers, we are in command of the training procedure, and it is our responsibility to create an atmosphere that does not lead to boredom or else accept the consequences of deterioration in performance.
In August I attended a NADOI Chapter 1 meeting in Winter Park, Florida, and heard an excellent presentation, “Better Understanding of Animals Through Conditioning Properties” given by Dave Butcher, Director of Animal Behavior at Sea World. While his involvement in training has been primarily with dolphin and killer whales, the principles he discussed were applicable to the training of dogs. His approach to training is to first create the proper attitude toward training after which the development of a particular behavior response is easy. All of his techniques are inducive, for as Dave says, there is no way to force a 2-ton killer whale to do something if he doesn’t want to do it. One of the factors in attitude conditioning is maintaining mental alertness in the animal, that is, not allowing the animal to become bored either with his training or his environment.
Making it interesting is relatively simple, but will require a little conscious effort. First to consider is the positive reinforcement used in training. If it is the same time and again, a piece of food or a “Goood”, it will soon lose its effectiveness. If the reinforcement was arbitrarily chosen, it may have lacked appeal to the dog from the start. An alternative is to observe our dog and notice what he enjoys, noting any degrees of preference. You may find that a scratch on the tummy does not equal a pat on the head or that a salted peanut is more of a treat than some semi-moist dog food. Then use as many of the “good things” as are practical as reinforcements and, at the same time, vary during a session the frequency with which any particular reinforcement is used. This will help keep the dog interested and motivated to see what will happen next.
Secondly, vary the exercises and the sequence in which they are practiced. Always try to follow an exercise that may be difficult for the dog with one in which he is reliable. This way we are not constantly putting the dog under stress and assuring he will succeed every other time. Try varying your training sites so your dog can have a change of scene as well as the opportunity to work and learn in them. At the very least try to change your orientation within your yard; the heeling pattern doesn’t always have to be from the drive to the shrub to the house and back to the drive!
In general try to keep your dog’s environment interesting. If he doesn’t need to use his mental faculties during the day, he may find it difficult to bring them out of retirement for the training session. If you are at home with your dog much of the time, your own comings and goings, as well as those of visitors, may be enough to keep the dog alert as he tries to keep up with what is going on. If your dog or dogs are kenneled, try having different toys for him, or if there are several compatible dogs, vary who is in the run next to or with whom. Recognizing and coping with these relatively minor changes will go a long way toward keeping your dog’s mind active.
Most importantly, keep your dog challenged with new tasks to learn. You don’t have to limit yourself to title requirements. Tricks, exercises like those “Summer Olympics” (Off-Lead, September 1977), scent hurdle or drill team work can add variety and are great for demonstrations. If your dog knows 25 to 30 exercises and you practice 4 to 6 a day, he is not going to be bored by the same old routine. Devising and implementing all this variety will help keep the trainer from being bored too. This latter point is especially important with trainers who have put several titles on several dogs; increasing the number of exercises you can teach will help keep your training skills sharp.
©1980 W.H. Morrison, III