Uncovering Patterns in your Training


A long time ago when I first started in dog training I was part of a Schutzhund club in North Carolina, and I was one of the main training decoys for the group. I worked with a woman who owned a nice Doberman for a number of months prior to leaving the club to pursue other training opportunities. About 6 months after I left, she called me and told me of a problem with her dog. Apparently, when on the back-tie, the young Dobe would no longer come up off the ground to get the grip when offered, but rather would wait for the decoy to present the sleeve low and push the grip into the dog’s mouth.  After working the dog privately I realized the decoy she was working with was not making the dog come to the grip, but rather jamming the sleeve into the dog’s mouth when he delivered the grip. The dog was just waiting for the decoy to provide the valet service of placing the sleeve in his mouth!

In my book, Controlled Aggression, I make the point that when working young dogs we need to develop the dog’s strike by making misses, and holding the sleeve high upon delivery so the dog gets used to driving into the grip, rather than having the grip be given to the dog. This was a rookie decoy mistake, but it highlights an issue: patterns you get into in training, even if inadvertently, will become conditioned responses in your dog over time.


A second example: You use and practice tactical removals in your patrol training almost universally, and then when certification rolls around your dog will only out if you are right on top of him, and he ignores the verbal out at a distance.  Clearly in a real apprehension you are going to go hands on your dog and remove him from the grip. Therefore, you do need to practice this skill. The problem is that by not varying the mode of release in training, you create a habit, or expectation, that letting go is associated with the handler being hands on and close to the dog. The dog comes to ignore you when you are away from him and he is biting, because you do not practice influencing his behavior in this context often enough for it to matter to your dog. The dog becomes dependent upon you being near him as part of the cue to release. When that cue is missing the dog fights on. This pattern of training created an unintended consequence.


A third example: You send your dog for a long apprehension. The dog bites firm, full and hard as he is supposed to. From a distance you tell him to release, and he does not. You run towards him, and when you are about 10 feet away coming in like a thundering herd of buffalo, the dog releases into a guard and holds the suspect. As a result of his compliance you do not correct him. Your trainer tells you the dog just doesn’t respect you. In reality, you have never actually enforced the release from a distance, and have come up on him to enforce it, so the dog makes an association that the out process is one command at a distance that is ignored and he must only release when you get close enough to deliver the consequence. You have created a pattern that the dog has learned well.


A fourth example: You are teaching the dog to do a focused heel using a toy, such as a ball or jute roll. The jute roll is held under your left arm to attract the dog’s attention up, and you reward the dog for his attention at variable times during the heeling pattern. You are getting ready for your first trial with the dog. You then enter the trial, and when you ask for attention at the start line, the dog looks up and sees no jute roll, and then gives you no attention. But you have trained diligently for months! You never saw him blow you off like this! The problem is in the cue you created. The dog expects to see the jute roll, and there was never any consequence for looking away when the jute roll was not present and in view, and in fact you never asked for attention when the jute was not present. The dog doesn’t see the situation in the trial as equivalent to the situation you set up in training, and therefore doesn’t understand the need for attention, because the presence of the jute is not there to confirm the behavior.  In this case, in training you must work from a lure (jute attracting attention) to a reward by making the attention mandatory, and placing the reward out of sight. The rule must be: "attention is required even when the jute is out of sight, but when you give attention, you will be rewarded."  The jute comes from a hidden place to deliver the reward for the behavior(I put it in the small of my back inside my belt for easy access). This will mimic the trial situation far more closely than the jute being under the arm. Rewards must proceed in a sequence of:


LureàRewardàVariable Reward.

Each of these examples is a real situation that happened to a real dog handler. The upshot here is to make sure you are not creating unintended responses in your dog because of the way you are doing your training by falling into patterns that are conditioning a response that is ultimately at odds with what you desire to create.