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Part 2: Chris Bach's Problem Solving Checklist

By Chris Bach and The Third Way – The Next Generation in Reinforcement Training

Part 1 of Chris' PROBLEM SOLVING CHECKLIST was discussed last month. This month Chris describes Part 2 of this list.

Saying that a dog “never settles down in the house” disempowers the owner. It makes the situation sound like a lost cause. However, through careful observation the owner will learn that the dog does settle down. The owner will also learn what stimulus or situation causes the dog to finally relax. Recreating these circumstances can be used to teach the dog how to settle down and relax on cue.

When the dog is aroused and active, knowing the triggering signals gives the owner the ability to eliminate them. The doorbell could be disengaged. Or the dog could be managed in anticipation of an event happening such as crating the dog before the pizza is delivered.

For those who train for the purpose of competition, a good example of a disempowering statement is saying that a dog has “a retrieving problem”. This statement is so discouraging because retrieving is a complex behavior chain and is such an important component of competition. Minimizing the problem to only a “slow pick up” or a “mouthing” problem gives the trainer more of an incentive to try and find a solution.

Frustration causes changes in a person’s emotional state and is reflected in changes in body language. The dog is affected by these changes. He is threatened by the increase in social pressure he is experiencing. No matter what action he takes, the uncomfortable situation does not rectify. The dog becomes confused, depressed and more threatened. Frustration always creates problems. It never solves them. When feeling frustrated a person should distance himself from his dog and the situation to minimize problems.

PROBLEMS WITH COMPETITION EXERCISES OFTEN ARE CAUSED BY INCONSISTENCIES AT HOME. For example, many trainers have a different set of rules for “stay” when training for competition and when used at home. One of the most detrimental contrasts is the inconsistent use of the “off” switch. During competition, the dog is always released from the “stay”. At home, the dog is often cued to stay and then left alone. Eventually the dog gets up on his own. Whatever triggered his abandoning the “stay” becomes a new release cue to the dog. For example, the dog hears something strange and gets up to investigate. Novel noises now become an additional release cue. Situations like this can seriously erode a cue system and cause problems during competition or when accurate compliance to cues is a necessity.

WHEN TEACHING, PROOFING AND PROBLEM SOLVING, ONE SHOULD LESSEN THE CRITERIA FOR INCIDENTAL REQUIREMENTS SUCH AS “ACCURATE BODY PLACEMENT”, “SPEED” AND/OR “STYLE”. When teaching and proofing a new skill, let the dog develop his own “style” and work at his own speed. Learning is stressful because the dog is in a situation that is unpredictable. Stress will interfere with a dog’s mobility and make him less fluid. As the dog learns the new skill and the situation becomes more predictable, the dog will loosen up and be able to perform with more style and speed.

However, if the trainer is mentally comparing the dog’s way of performing with how someone else’s dog does it and their dog is not as good, they will act concerned or disappointed. Their body posture will reflect displeasure with the dog even though the performance was punctual and accurate. In turn, the dog will inadvertently be punished by how the person is acting. This is confusing and stressful for a dog and can interfere with his ability to learn. Ultimately it will jeopardize his ability to ever be able to perform with verve and quickness.

The problem is further compounded when a trainer is attempting to solve a problem with a response that the dog already has learned. For example, when solving an obedience competition such as cleaning up a dumbbell pick-up, the trainer should allow the dog to slow down while improving the pick-up skill. If the trainer demands the same speed and style while the dog struggles to change his pick-up style, the trainer could create even more serious retrieving problems.

When solving a problem that combines speed and “cue accuracy” such as those experienced in Schutzhund or Agility, forgo the speed while the dog learns the cue system. SPEED COMES WITH CONFIDENCE! Confidence comes when dog and handler know exactly what is expected. These are accomplished when a trainer takes the time to slow things down and teach an accurate, consistent cue system.

During the teaching and problem solving process, competition trainers would also be wise to forego things like accurate fronts and finishes unless they ARE the problem. A good alternative would be to use a prop to assure accuracy while dog and trainer concentrate on other aspects of an exercise.

SOME PROBLEMS ARE SIMPLY NOT WORTH THE TRAINING TIME AND EFFORT TO SOLVE. Living with a dog is a very personal and individual matter. The privilege of deciding what is or is not permissible belongs to that individual. Sometimes taking the time and making the effort to solve a problem is just not worth the stress to the dog and inconvenience to the owner. There are other options. People should know about them and have the ability to decide for themselves what is best for them and their dog.

A wise trainer knows that training time and effort is best-spent teaching and perfecting a skill rather than a style! And working on an accurate body position before the dog understands the skill interferes with the dog ever becoming confident with the skill.

(c) THE THIRD WAY ~ Chris Bach ~ 2002. All rights reserved.