I’d like to address a common occurrence in dog training, for owners and even for many trainers- inconsistency, particularly the reinforcement of sloppy obedience.
Before I begin, allow me to clarify that when I gripe about precision, I’m not griping about shaping. Naturally, in shaping, we are building up a set of behaviors that are often not even named yet. Creating desire and familiarity with these behaviors is, to me, an independent process (at least initially) from what I speak of here.
Let’s understand first why precision is important at all for reasons other than points in a ring or on a field. Our dogs are truly brilliant animals capable of well beyond what even the most loving and astute of owners already realize, and can understand exceedingly precise behaviors and positions well and promptly. By keeping our standards for obedience high from the very beginning, we send a clear picture to the dog of what we will and will not reinforce. The rules should not change out from under the dog constantly.
Many of us have heard this from clients:
“I don’t really care if he sits straight at heel, he’s sitting, right?”
“I know she isn’t straight, but at least she came to me!”
There’s no lack of trainers, especially our young trainers, our future, who are still building their confidence with clients, who will accommodate that thinking, but let’s think about the picture we present to the dog. If we do not set parameters to our expectations, for ourselves even before the dogs, how do we ensure we are being fair? Here’s an example from a handler who is attempting to teach correct position with food reward.
Rover sits about 20 degrees crooked from his handler after being told to heel. Last time he sat about 40 degrees crooked, so the handler rewards this sit. On the next sit, Rover is about 90 degrees crooked and stretching his head over the handler’s leg to look at something. The handler regains his eye contact and rewards him. The next sit, Rover now swivels a full 180 degrees and has completely left the heel position. Now the handler addresses the issue and takes measures to return Rover to their side. Rover returns halfway, and is at a 90 degree angle. The handler does not reward this, but tries again until Rover is completely straight, then rewards him. The next repetition Rover is back to being about 20 degrees crooked, which the handler still rewards.
Does Rover know where the correct position really is? If he does, he doesn’t know he must be there 100% of the time to earn reward. Not knowing exactly what must be done to earn reward will create confusion and eventually lack of interest for an activity Rover simply cannot understand due to inconsistent reward. In spite of the handler trying to make it a fun and positive experience, we have still left Rover with an unclear picture, and potentially devaluing the reward. If Rover is a sensitive dog, he may become frustrated or stressed when he wasn’t rewarded at the second 90 degree crooked sit, when he was on the first one.
The moment we name a command, it should be with a crystal clear, precise picture of where the dog is meant to be each and every time the handler utters it. There should be no doubt in the dog’s mind- this is it! I’ve got it! I’ve earned my reward! For those of us who use correction, please understand the power and implications of your tools, to use them with inconsistency will create problems greater than those you seek to rectify.
How does precision work affect the average owner? Many of my clients are pet owners, and every one has heard me say, “You may not need flawless obedience, but you will want the dog it creates.” Focused, respectful, engaged, calm, willing. Precision obedience creates a concise, highly rewardable, safe position for a dog to maintain. This is particularly useful when working with various social problems, such as barking at dogs, spooking at cars, etc. Sloppy obedience can create a far foggier picture for the dog, one they will float in and out of at will.
As an instructor, it’s valuable to you to be able to convey to your students the “why” of exact positioning. “Because it’s correct” or “that’s just how you do it” will often yield blank stares and little follow-through at home. Teach people not only what, but why, and they will practice with real purpose.
Now, I am certainly not saying that a dog must live its life in heel, nor am I saying dogs cannot master more broad concepts such as loose-lead walking without heel, or a casual recall. What I am saying, if you’re going to train in obedience, train it with pickiness, train it clearly, train it fairly.
©2016 Kellie Winkie #1117