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What If My Dog's Not Interested In Trick-Training?

By listendogtraining, Nov 9 2016 02:55PM

We’ve all been there (honestly, I have too!): you’re all set to transform Fido into the next trick dog extraordinaire, clicker in hand, bait bag at the ready... you begin engaging your dog, and what happens? He stares at you blankly like you’ve left the building entirely.

‘What is this human prancing about for? What does she expect me to do? And why is she waving that bit of cheese about? If only she knew how ridiculous she looked...’

No matter how hard you try and lure the dog to even partially attempt the manoeuvre you have in mind, he is having absolutely none of it.

‘I’ll just sit and wait this little episode out. I feel like she wants to give me the cheese... if I’m patient enough normality will return, and I’ll eat it and leave!’

Some dogs are what we call ‘biddable’. Typically, dogs bred to work closely alongside humans, like Labrador Retrievers (hunting companions) or Border Collies (shepherding dogs) are incredibly biddable when it comes to obedience and trick-training, because they possess an extreme compatibility with mankind; they have been bred specifically for how well they take instruction and how enthusiastic they are to do our bidding!

Then there are those who are not so ‘biddable.’ I don’t want to shoe-box any dog by its breed, because each and every dog is an individual in its own right, but if we take breeds like hounds and terriers as an example, I can more easily demonstrate what I mean. These dogs have been bred to think more independently; to make decisions for themselves and work towards the best outcome regardless of human intervention or instruction. A terrier would be a very poor ratting dog if he waited for his human to instruct him to capture each rodent, and likewise a hound wouldn’t have a very high success rate if he had to hang around for a human to direct him. We rely on these breeds to do their work independently – to follow their own noses and pounce on prey when they deem it fit to – for optimum success in these fields.

So being a less biddable dog is by no means indicative of a dog being less intelligent – far from it, rather that a dog is less acquiescent; they are less inclined to do what you are asking of them, quite simply because they didn’t think of it themselves.

So How Do We Get These Dogs Excited About Trick Training?

A lot of tricks can taught to a biddable dog using ‘lure and reward.’ If your dog is not interested in the lure however, this method falls flat on its face pretty sharpish. So let’s switch tactics and explore a training method called ‘free shaping.’

Hunting for the behaviour that will make the clicker ‘click’ and the human drop the cheese can be the biggest reward available to an independent-minded canine; an exciting process can be far more important to these dogs than an actual goal. Think about how excited children get during an Easter egg hunt, even when the prize is only a small chocolate egg or two: nothing that spectacular, and nothing the kids haven’t had before. But in the context of a ‘hunt’ suddenly those little prizes become a whole lot more exciting – more so than if they were simply handed over to the children at the beginning of the day with no fuss whatsoever. Well it’s the same for dogs who are on the ‘hunt’ for that magical behaviour that makes the human drop the cheese!

If you teach your dog using free shaping, he will become animated, excited and ambitious; a dog who is used to free-shaping will throw out all manner of behaviours when a piece of cheese comes into play, hoping each time to hit on the correct one and release the treat, but enjoying the entire process of trying, and learning. Free shaping can turn even the most scatterbrained dog into a training maniac!

What Is Free Shaping?

Free shaping is the art of building a desired behaviour by rewarding approximations of that behaviour, and gradually holding out for closer and closer approximations, until you hit the jackpot.

Let’s take fetching an object to a human as an example: I want to train my dog to fetch me my slippers. To begin with, I’ll sit in the room with the dog, a clicker, some treats and my slippers... and I’ll do nothing. I’m looking for any behaviour at all that would be the tiniest approximation of him fetching my slippers – and I’m going to let him work this out for himself. The first rewardable move would probably be for him to look at the slippers, or point his head away from me, and in their general direction. As soon as he does (no matter how long it takes) I would immediately click and treat. (Clickers are a fantastic tool for free-shaping, as they enable you to mark the precise moment/behaviour that you wish to reward). After a while, the dog may do this again (probably by accident at this stage) and I would immediately click-treat again. After a while, the light-bulb moment occurs, as the dog realises looking at the slippers gets him a treat. So he offers this behaviour repeatedly. Now you hold out for a closer approximation: I want him to look at them and take a step towards them. Click-treat. Once this behaviour is offered repeatedly, I’m going to hold out for more once again. I want him to look at them, walk towards them and nudge them with his muzzle.

You see how it works? You do not lure your dog to perform a behaviour; he must work it out entirely for himself based on experimenting with what works and what doesn’t. All of a sudden, the thrill of the chase is more fun than eating the cheese! And the more you often you do this, the more you’ll find yourself with a dog who is thinking, experimenting, throwing out behaviours, and working things out in his brain. If you put in the time and effort to create excitement in your dog’s mind for the learning process itself, you’ll find yourself working with a highly focussed, highly engaged friend who is as enthusiastic about trick-training as you are!

Try This Free Shaping Exercise:

Step 1. Place a shoebox lid on the floor, and reward ANY interaction with it. Do not lure him, just reward ANYTHING he does with the lid – look at it, paw it, bite it. We are teaching the dog that exploration, and action earns him rewards... doing nothing earns him nothing! We are teaching him to think. (If it helps, you can throw the treat in the lid after the click to give him a clue that this is a ‘hot’ area! You can also put your hands behind your back if your dog is just obsessing over the treats.

Step 2. Choose a behaviour, and shape it (e.g ‘pick up the box lid’). Break that behaviour down into frames (e.g. 1. Dog looks away from me; 2. Dog looks at box; 3. Dog takes a step towards box; 4. Dog lowers muzzle towards box; 5. Dog opens mouth, etc.) and reward each behaviour. Reward each tiny frame at least 3 or 4 times, before you hold out for more – do not allow the dog to fail too much or he will become frustrated/discouraged.

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