Gamers have a saying – “Git Gud.” It’s a slang term that literally means “Get Good” at a particular skill or game. It can be used as a good-natured taunt and encouragement to do better or as a criticism of someone trying to do something without the necessary skills to achieve the goal. In life, as in games, it can happen that we try to “run before we can walk”, that our “reach exceeds our grasp.” We try to do something that we don’t yet have the skills to accomplish. That’s where a mastery of a few basic skills can provide the necessary foundation for us to “get good” at something.
Training our dogs is no different. There are basic skills that need to be practiced and mastered if we want to “get good” at teaching our dogs. There are many approaches to dog training but they all share three basic elements. We need the dog to do some behaviour that we want them to learn to repeat. We need to recognize that the dog has done the thing we were looking for. And there needs to be some consequence or effect that the dog can recognize as a result of the behaviour they chose to do. Those are the basics of animal learning. In more traditional dog training approaches, if the dog does anything other than the required behaviour, the consequences are unpleasant. I prefer to look for the behaviour I want and then provide rewards that I know my dog likes.
Modern methods like the Mark & Reward approach that I use encourages the trainer to use pleasant consequences when the dog does the desired behaviour. But how does my dog get an idea of what I want them to do? Unlike more traditional training, I can’t rely on my dog’s desire to avoid unpleasant consequences to motivate them to find the right behaviour. So there are several creative approaches I can use to get my dog to do the behaviour I’m looking for. And the better I am at getting her to the right behaviour quickly, the faster she gets the rewards and the faster she learns. But that’s just one of the skills that I need to “get good” at if I want to be a great trainer.
Get the behaviour – Do
There are many ways to get my dog to perform any given behaviour. Animal trainer Bob Bailey has said that an animal can be trained to do anything it can physically do. Anything from a basic behaviour like sitting to more esoteric behaviours like flicking one ear or raising one hind leg can be trained if I am skilled enough to get my dog to do the behaviour I want. Trainer and author Melissa Alexander has a wonderful article called “How You Get Behavior Really Does Matter” in which she details several methods to get a dog to perform a behaviour along with the pros and cons of each. Well worth a read.
While Melissa Alexander presents a great description of six different methods of getting behaviour, I found that “Prompting” was the best tool for me to help my dog perform behaviours I wanted. It’s a very versatile tool that includes movement, my dogs instinctive reactions, luring with food, my dog targeting things with her nose or paw, and so on. I quickly learned that the most important skill I needed to master with Prompting was how to properly fade the prompt. Any physical “help” I give my dog when beginning to teach a behaviour needs to be reduced as she begins to understand what is earning the reward. It’s not as simple a process as I first thought.
One of the first things I learned in “fading” my prompts was the two-steps-forward-one-step-back approach. It’s a process where I offer some physical prompt to help my dog and then use smaller versions of that prompt as she begins to get the behaviour. But there is the possibility that I fade too much and my dog starts to be confused or doesn’t know what to do. At that point, I need to add back more of the prompt for a few tries. But maybe not as much as I was using before and maybe not for very long before I can fade it out again. It’s a balancing act in trying to help my dog understand that she can do the behaviour without my prompt and still provide enough help to keep her motivated to continue trying to learn.
Another important lesson for me was to choose my prompts carefully. In many cases, the prompt I use to begin teaching a behaviour will eventually fade to become a smaller version that I use to cue the behaviour once it is learned. Other behaviours might require props like cones, platforms, or a wall to encourage movement in the right direction. In every case I learned to consider how I will want to fade any prompt I add into my training situation.
The other methods of getting behaviour that Melissa Alexander describes have their own requirements to do well but no matter which method you choose, practicing and learning to do them well will help your dog learn faster. The more comfortable and fluent I became at prompting my dogs in training, the easier it was for them to learn and progress without the confusion and distraction of a clumsy handler!
Seeing the behaviour – Done
Getting my dog to do the behaviour I want isn’t much use if I don’t have some way to acknowledge that she has done the job. Mark & Reward training uses a marker signal like a sound (i.e, a clicker or a whistle) or a word like “Good!” or “Yes!” There are a couple of things that I discovered were important about the marker signal. The first was that it had to be reliable. Reliable in the sense that if the marker meant that my dog had done the behaviour right, she was entitled to a reward. That reward may be a food treat, a play session, or something else she values. But the reward must follow the marker every time if my dog is to trust it and rely on it. And that can take some getting used to when you are concentrating on prompting, watching for the behaviour you want, and managing your dog. But it gets easier with practice.
The second thing I learned about marking correct behaviours is that timing matters. A second too early or a second too late and I might be marking a different behaviour than the one I wanted. When it comes to training my dog, this is the kind of mental and physical coordination that is needed to hit a tennis ball or swing a bat. In the same way, it is not necessarily a skill that everyone will find easy or can do well immediately. It took me months of practice on simple and easy to see behaviours to improve my timing enough to teach my dog efficiently.
Being good at using my marker signal and timing the marker properly with the behaviour I want is only a part of the equation. Perhaps the most important skill I had to learn was to be clear about what I was looking for and to stay focused enough not to miss it when my dog offered me the correct behaviour. So while I am “prompting” and “fading” and watching my dog and attending to my timing and consistency, I also have to stay focused on the behaviour I’m working on and make sure I’m being fair to my dog.
The Results – Paying for the behaviour
The more traditional, force-based training I did with my dogs years ago provided lots of feedback to my dog during training. Unfortunately for my dogs, that feedback was almost always some variation of “No!” and rarely resulted in anything my dog actually wanted (except perhaps some relief from my nagging!). But paying my dog with rewards in Mark & Reward training isn’t as simple as tossing her a piece of hot dog when she gets something right. Even the process of delivering the reward was something that I needed to learn a few lessons about to help me be a better trainer.
One important lesson was that it is always the reward that does the work of training and not the marker. I can use rewards without a marker and teach my dog but trying to use a marker without the rewards will quickly become frustrating for both me and my dog. In fact, the reward is so important that it matters when I get that reward to my dog. The longer the delay between when my dog does the behaviour and when I deliver the reward, the greater the possibility that she will not understand which specific behaviour I’m rewarding. And that led me to the second important lesson I learned about rewards.
Being able to deliver rewards to my dog is a skill in itself. Do I hand her the treat? Do I toss the treat? Do I use a toy? Should we tug with the toy or should I toss it for her? Each method of delivering the reward has advantages and disadvantages but, more importantly, I need to work on my coordination to deliver rewards without fumbling and delay. Learning the best way to deliver rewards and to use different delivery methods was an important skill for me to develop. I learned where to carry my rewards, how to handle them during training, and how to get them out and put them away efficiently. Not surprisingly, my dog started learning faster as my skills improved.
Practice, practice, practice
There are lots of very clever training methods out there to teach very clever behaviours to our dogs. But all of those clever methods depend on some very basic training skills. If I had not taken the time to practice and improve my skills at getting behaviour, watching my dog, and delivering rewards, all of the best training protocols wouldn’t do me much good. It’s important to do the little things well. It can be difficult to try to stay mindful of all of the small details of training mechanics while trying to teach my dog. But those small details make all the difference in keeping my dog engaged and helping her understand me clearly.
One of the things that I do regularly to practice these basic skills is to do a few well known behaviours with my dog every day. At each meal time, I always ask for 3 or 4 well known behaviours not just to see if she does them properly but to work on my own basic skills for cuing, watching, marking, and delivering her rewards. Just as it is important to me that my dog is fluent in the behaviours that I teach her, it is important that I am fluent in the mechanics of good training.
It’s important to me to keep learning more about behaviour and training. Books, seminars, classes, and even online discussions constantly feed me with great ideas for teaching and working with my dog. I’ve done a lot with my dogs and there is still so much more that I want to try. But all of that training work depends on some very basic training skills. I’ve learned more than once in life that “trying to run before I know how to walk” can be painful.
So I think I owe it to myself and more importantly to my to my dogs to “git gud” at basic training skills. It doesn’t really matter how many fancy behavioural terms I know or how many different ways I know to teach a behaviour. If I haven’t developed my skills at doing all of the little things that good training requires, then all of that knowledge just makes for interesting conversation. What matters most to me is doing a good job with my dog. And that means a commitment to improving my skills. So I practice the little details and I try to “get good” every day with my dogs.