Schooner, the service dog in training, had his monthly check-in at Service Dogs of Virginia Tuesday and we ran into some interesting dog training problems. A couple of comments from blog readers appreciated my honesty in writing about the problems. Yes, even professional dog trainers have trouble.
I'm already working on Schooner's issues and here's our plan for improvement.
- Lack of focus. Schooner was easily distracted and lost focus very quickly at the training center and at the mall.
- Not able to perform simple requests. I asked Schooner to do the simplest of tasks without success.
- Sociability. Sociability isn't really a problem, but when it gets in the way of training, it's something that needs attention. Service dogs can't wander around and say hello to anyone at anytime.
- Pulling on leash. In the mall, Schooner dragged me around quite a bit. Because he's going to be a balance dog, his loose leash walking needs to be perfect!
- Short, fun training sessions. We're going to go way back to the beginning with Schooner and train in short bursts. I'll counteract his lack of focus with these short, rapid-fire, really exciting and fun sessions. As quickly as they start, the training sessions will be over. With Labradors, it was almost a punishment to end a training session. With Danes, it seems that the sooner a session ends, the faster the learning and the happier the dog.
- Find highly motivating rewards. Schooner is a bit picky, spitting out chicken -- what I usually consider to be a fairly high value treat. In today's training session, I worked quickly and his reinforcer was a canned dog food. The canned is smellier, has a wet consistency, and is -- according to Schooner -- pretty high value! Over the next few weeks, I'll be trying lots of different foods (sardines, salmon, different cheese, some mushy foods (cottage cheese, yogurt, peanut butter, etc.) and even some play. We hope to ramp up Schooner's enthusiasm with these rewards.
- Out and about. Letting Schooner "watch the world go by," will hopefully help with his lack of focus. Sometimes, it just takes "getting bored" with a scenario before a dog can work well. We'll be planning some outings to the local athletic fields on the weekend. I'll take a book for me, a blanket for him, and we'll just hang out. We'll head to the downtown areas of some local towns for varied activities and sights. I think these repeated positive experiences will help Schooner begin to settle down and be ready to work.
- Step by step. The ideas above will all help slow Schooner down so he can pay attention to my pace and match it -- instead of me trying to slow him down. We'll also work literally step by step. I'll take a step, then click and treat when he takes a step. We'll repeat that until he understands that one matching step to mine will earn him a click and treat. We'll then add another step to the sequence -- so it'll be two steps, then click and treat -- and so on.
- Deep, not broad. I'd been trying to introduce a lot of things to Schooner -- from the basics (and there are a lot of basics!), to more advanced training tasks like pivots -- and I think it was too much. He wasn't able to master any of them, and when asked to perform even the simplest ones, he was unable. So instead of teaching many things, we're going to focus on just a few. But those few will be taught to fluency, meaning: he'll be able to do them anywhere anytime.
While this post is about Schooner, the service dog in training, it could just as easily be about your dog -- many of my clients experience the same thing I did with Schooner. And this is exactly how I'd help them out, too.
What have you tried? How has it worked? What treats or rewards were you surprised that your dog liked?