It was a chilly spring day, and Griffin and I had just started our afternoon training session together. I picked him up out of the backseat of my car because he still doesn’t think he can jump down, and off we went on that Wednesday adventure. I’d chosen the National Cathedral because its grounds are dog friendly and have a zillion distractions, plus it’s very pretty this time of year, despite the colder temps we were experiencing.
My job with Griffin is to spend a couple hours a week socializing and training him. He is about four and a half months of squishy Labrador puppy, and I’ve known him since he was just shy of eight weeks old. He’s a happy, friendly, exuberant and outgoing pup.
We trotted across the street to a patch of daffodils. Photo opp! I thought. The picture opportunities were half the reason we went to the Cathedral that day – the gardens are remarkable this time of year. I asked Griffin for a down, which he did enthusiastically because it’s one of his strongest behaviors (default downs, people: they’re a lifesaver with an excitable dog!). I then asked him for a wait and knelt down, rapid fire rewarding him for staying still while I got down on his level – a human action that I knew is just so hard to resist as a puppy! I held my phone up like I was taking a picture, but clicked my clicker and treated him again for staying still, as I’d now increased the amount of time he’s staying down and I’d put an object in front of his face. I still hadn’t taken the photo. I finally snapped, oh, probably a dozen photos in that exact spot and still managed to click and treat Griff before he started the protest barking he does when he’s bored. First victory of the day.
We walked up the sprawling lawn of the Cathedral. Griffin was walking calmly next to me. Click, treat at nearly every step of loose-leash walking. Good boy. Wow, he’s being really good today. Click and treat for eye contact, because he was offering a bunch of that, too. More pictures on the lawn. This time I walked away from him to capture the breathtaking Cathedral in the background of the photo. Take two steps back, click and treat. Take three steps back, click and treat. Take three steps back and kneel down, click and treat treat treat, good boy. I finally got a dozen or so more photos there, too.
Griffin was happy to lounge on the lawn for a bit as we both soaked up the sun. Thank goodness we started building that default down at eight weeks old, because now he’s happy as a clam to stay in a relaxed down position. For a dog who is so inclined to be bouncy and exuberant, I welcome the opportunity to just chiiiiill.
I decided we were ready to tackle the gauntlet of distractions by the front of the Cathedral. School groups, business folks on their lunch breaks, tourists, other dogs – you name it, the distraction was there.
We came across a friendly security guard who started coo-ing and smiling at Griffin. I turn into a really rude dog handler during these situations because I keep my eyes glued to Griffin watching for opportunities to reward his desirable behavior, not worried about social interactions with people. I watched as Griff acknowledged the smiling woman and then LOOKED BACK AT ME. I could have exploded I was so happy. Click, treat, GoodboyGoodboyGoodboy!
You see, what I have spent nearly every week teaching Griffin is that he can see exciting people or dogs on a walk and not move towards them. I love friendly dogs – love them! But what I don’t love is a dog who pulls me all over the place deciding on his own where we are going or who we are approaching. Since he was just about two months old I have been marking and rewarding Griffin nearly every time he acknowledges an exciting trigger and *stays by my side!* That afternoon, it seemed to click for him (pun intended!).
The rest of our time at the Cathedral continued to be just as wonderful. I sat on a bench and Griffin settled by my side. Click, treat for deciding to go into a down on his own. Click, treat for watching all the people walking by and staying in his down. Click, treat for hopping up and walking with me as we moved on. Click, treat for sitting still for one million more photographs.
When you work with a dog this closely, you get pretty attached. My heart was bursting with pride as Griffin had success after success that afternoon. I thought about why we were possibly having such a good day, and some words from Dr. Susan Friedman kept coming to mind:
“If your learner isn’t doing what you expect, the problem is in the program.”
What I took away when I first heard this quote by Dr. Friedman is that we can’t blame our learners for messing up. If my learner is being unsuccessful, I need to be clearer with my criteria, and clearer with my reinforcement. I attended a lecture of hers at ClickerExpo, a behavior and training conference, about errorless learning, which is where I heard that quote. She discussed how it is better to move away from the idea that your learner has to be wrong to be right (meaning they have to learn by making mistakes), and instead have a mindset that is focused on making your learner successful. It is the teacher’s responsibility to, in her words, “redesign the environment so that we get the learner to reinforcement more quickly, without frustration.”
This was spot on with my work with Griffin. I had been raising my criteria too quickly, therefore causing him to mess up more and more frequently. We were both frustrated. It was time to go back to my process. How could I get the behavior I wanted, and then make it clear to him he was being successful?
That trip to the Cathedral was a turning point. I shifted my focus back to Griffin – helping him make the right choices, giving him the feedback he needed, preventing him from getting frustrated – and successful he was!
Dogs are always learning, and Griffin is no exception, so I know we have a long road ahead of us to help him be the well-behaved pup his parents are hoping he will be, but he’s certainly helping me become one heck of a better trainer to get him there!