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by Gail McCarthy

The following summary was written in response to an inquiry on the SARDobes List where a fellow handler's dog was ignoring her and not completing the trained indication.  The handler was asking for feedback about how to build focus in her dog......................


Subject:  Training Questions
 Reply from:
mccarthy at macrt org

Just to clarify, you have a "stay-put and bark live find" dog correct? When you say that your dog "blew you off," what did he not do? Did he not search in response to the Go Find command? Did he find but not alert? Did he just race off and sight-see?

Focus is clearly what we all are looking for as a training objective -- without this we have dogs that just bumble into scent and may or may not alert....but a search dog should do more than that -- they should SEEK OUT scent, at least in 20 minute intervals, and reliably alert.

Without knowing what he was doing (ie bark barrel, versus blind inaccessible rubble area versus runway into know hole, etc), I can't give hard training suggestions but I do have some general things that I'm sure you, as a sophisticated handler know already:

1) Dogs do not wake up one morning and decide to not work properly.

2) Dogs are not abstract thinkers and they are not calculating.

3) They are, however, self-centered and will willingly repeat behaviors that FEEL GOOD to it and which satisfy some need.

4) So, if your dog was once performing well, and now is not, something has changed to make doing the target behavior not worth his while.

5) Some classic things that make a dog stop progressing or performing as well as before:

  • *Something physical -- injury/sick -- has happened.

  • *Dog needs opportunity to run around and run off some steam before being asked to focus in and work (many horses are like this and Banner needed to about 15 minutes to get his "yaya's out" before I could start him in a search area).

  • *Handler has gotten bored and dog picks up on lack of interest.

  • *Where once the handler rewarded a given behavior with 3 Big Mac's, handler now rewards same behavior with unappetizing kibble. We all fall into this trap but what happens is this "poor reinforcement" makes the dog less and less interested in doing the target behavior with the risk that other behaviors (like "racing around and sightseeing") can creep in and become more self-rewarding (ie, that self-centered cost/benefit analysis again).

  • *Even if handler is rewarding with luscious Big Macs, Big Macs can start to become hohum too if that is the ONLY thing the handler is rewarding with. Remember VSVR (variable systems of VARYING REWARDS) -- if the dog always gets steak then steaks starts to lose value.

  • *Again, not being abstract thinkers, dogs do NOT get turned on by the thought of working problems that are constantly getting harder. I have seen MORE DOGS QUIT when worked by handlers that say "their dogs need to be challenged to make them work harder." Nonsense -- no matter how wonderful the reward, if the dog starts to realize that this search stuff just gets harder and harder and if the dog starts to connect his handler getting irritated when he can't make the find within seconds, a dog will quit. That is why we all need to ping pong problems in difficulty -- and keep a ratio of about 5-6 easy motivational reps for every problem that drains the battery.

  • *Another really important reason that dogs "stop learning" or "hit plateaus" or "seem to go backwards" is a training mistake called "LUMPING." Where initially with beginning dogs, we "split" the training into small component parts and heavily reinforce those parts, we don't do that when we, as handlers, decide the dog is "ready" to move on. At this point, even if we do it as part of a plan, we tend to add in too many variables at once.....ie, LUMPING. According to behaviorialists, lumping is a major cause for so-called "learning plateaus," behavioral regression (by asking for too much too soon), and other such to-be-avoided conditions. To avoid this, and to get the proper behavior to happen, split the behavior down into smaller parts with a HEAVY reinforcement schedule so that the dog can once again feel successful and satisfied. Well, I could go on -- but suffice to say that, as with Phoenix's refind, we all need to back up with beginning dogs when things fall apart and return back to whatever point the dog WAS working successfully. And, JSYK, as part of that directed operant conditioning thing I was talking about before, I define not only what the target behavior is but I also clearly communicate what behavior I don't want. And then I heavily reinforce when the dog performs the target behavior.




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