Not long ago I had the pleasure of watching a rising star in the dog training world, Chirag Patel. There were a number of things I loved about his presentation, but I kept thinking about one in particular: The importance of knowing when your dog needs a brief break during a training session.
This is not something that we humans are hard-wired to do. After all, we–the trainers–are fine, being the ones who know the goal of the exercise. We’re cruising along giving positive reinforcement boom boom, boom, one right after the other. It’s all positive, right?
Well, no it’s not. No matter how many pieces of chicken can go down a dog’s eager throat, it can be exhausting to learn something new, especially when one doesn’t know the goal. It is easy to forget how stressful learning anything new can be. That is true even for us when we know what we are striving for. Dog do not. They are also trying to learn something new in a foreign language, which must be a bit like listening to a podcast on how to solve quadratic equations through the scratchy sound of static.
This is why my favorite game in dog training classes is having Person A teach Person B an action using nothing but a clicker, when Person B has no idea what behavior s/he is supposed to perform. (Thank you Karen Pryor!) Person B inevitably reports that the process is tiring and frustrating and stressful.
And yes, yes, I know, really I do–that learning can be great fun, and many dogs love training sessions and are eager to play. Mine certainly are. But still, that doesn’t mean that dogs shouldn’t be allowed to learn at their own pace.
Example: I’ve been working Maggie on a Fitbone to strengthen her back legs. She followed me to our first session eagerly, eyes on the treat pouch, ostensibly thrilled to get special time with me along with dried liver bits. Training went smoothly, all simple and according to plan: Paw touched Fitbone, mark/treat. Weight shifted onto paw on Fitbone, mark/treat.
We continue for a few more trials, both feet on the Fitbone now, when she turned her head and became fascinated, absolutely riveted, on a previously ignored and invisible spot on the floor. Sniff, sniff, sniff, as if a veritable encyclopedia of olfactory information had arisen from the ground out of nowhere. It would have been easy to smooch to get her attention back, (my first inclination). However, remembering the importance of letting the student call the shots, I stayed quiet and let her sniff.
As I waited, I remember all the trainers…