Be a better dog trainer - understand criteria

A good strategy for dog training is to be aware of your rewards and how you use them. I recommend something called the calorie bowl to avoid over treating. But, using treats wisely is important for both keeping your dog slim and fit and creating the best environment for a motivated dog that loves to learn.

How can you do this?

Understanding criteria can often differentiate a frustrated, novice trainer and a trainer that can train a dog to to anything within his or her physical capacity. Why is criteria so important? It is a very precise way of creating definable goals within each training session.

In 2002 I studied with Jean Donaldson at her world reknowned Academy for Dog Trainers and this concept was a big part of the philosophy of the whole program. The Academy is part of the SFSPCA and so we were able to work with shelter dogs for all of our assignments. There were so many assignments that it was critical that each student learned how to train each dog as quickly as possible.

However, Jean was not just interested in the final product when she tested the students for completing the various training assignments, but everyone had to take detailed notes during each training session. She wanted to make sure that her graduates understood how the dogs learned, and how to overcome plateaus, hiccups, regressions, and any other way to describe a dog not doing something that you want him to do!

Criteria - Pay Attention to It

Criteria are the different elements of a behavior that, when combined, create the final behavior that you are looking for. Let's look at a training example and I will show you how to segment your criteria into separate training goals. Pay attention to the criteria that you are working on in a given training session and give a very special reward when your dog reaches a new level of success.

When teaching a dog to Come When Called, there are many possible criteria that a trainer can focus on.

  1. The time between cue and initial response -- a lower time means the dog reacted faster (this is also called latency)
  2. Speed that the dog travels once he starts moving
  3. The level of distraction that the dog left behind when he started the behavior
  4. Distance away from the distraction (how close is the dog to the distraction)
  5. Distance away from person (how far away is the dog from the person)
  6. If there were any distractions that occurred after calling the dog before he arrived at the desired destination
  7. The final resting location that the dog placed himself when stopped (left of the trainer, in front, right, behind, 6 inches away, one foot away, etc.)
  8. The position that the dog is in when stopped (sitting, standing, lying down)

It is important to understand that you can't expect your dog to reach a high level of performance that encompasses multiple criteria until you have trained for each one. For instance, if your dog runs to you at full speed, with a short latency when he is 20 yards away from you when you are alone with him in the park, you can't expect him to perform at the same speed if he is distracted by a squirrel.

However, you can focus on that criteria (performance around distractions) if you want to improve your dog's ability to come to you at the same rate of speed when there aren't any distractions.

To avoid frustration and continue making progress in your training, you should lower your expectations for criteria in other areas and focus on the criteria that you are having trouble with.
To continue the previous example, we have a dog that shows a high level of performance in when focusing on the following criteria:

  1. 20 feet away (distance your dog is from you when you call him)
  2. Short latency (speed of reaction after giving cue, "Come")
  3. Speed of behavior (runs at a high rate of speed to you after start of behavior)
  4. The criteria that is causing his performance to drop:
  5. Rate of distractability around squirrels (high)

To counteract this training challenge, lower the criteria in the other areas to increase the performance in trouble area. So, a new training exercise might look like this:

  1. You are 5 feet away from your dog
  2. Your dog is on leash (to gently help redirect him if when he sees a squirrel)
  3. Provide much more enthusiasm after saying, "Come"

Hold the leash and AS SOON as your dog sees a squirrel, say, "Come" and gently pull the leash towards you AND REWARD. Only say the cue ONCE and use a great deal of enthusiasm and gently walk away from the squirrel while holding the leash, if necessary. Continue this exercise focusing on the rate of distractabilty around squirrels as the training criteria.

If you call your dog EVERY TIME that he sees a squirrel, eventually you should start to see a conditioned response of a faster behavior. Latency, or rate of response, is one of the criteria that you lowered until you increased the criteria of high distractability around squirrels. Now that you have raised one criteria, you can start going through your list and working on the others.

Reward more frequently (small tasty treats) when your dog performs a behavior on the list of challenging criteria and his performance will increase more in that area. For instance, the first time your dog looks at you when you say, "Come" instead of charging after the squirrel, get really excited and give a few tasty treats. Your goal is to lower his distractability around squirrels, so when he focuses on you more, he should be rewarded for it.

A snappy, well-trained dog exhibits behaviors that are conditioned responses. This is not the same as innate reflexes such as a beating heart, yawning or blinking. Innate responses are "built-in", while conditioned responsive occur after many repetitions. To use this information in your training, focus on creating a conditioned response around squirrels which will counteract your dog's normal desire to chase the squirrel.

Then, once you have achieved a high level of performance with that new criteria, you can increase your expectations in the other criteria. In this case, you can move farther away, drop the leash (if your dog doesn't need that as a helper) and continue building up all of the criteria until your dog achieves a high-level of performance in all the criteria that you have identified.
If you focus on criteria, you will naturally become a better trainer.

Raise and lower criteria until your dog is performing at a uniform level and have fun in the process!

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