Welcome back and kudos to all of you who have worked through Challenge #3 of this series!  Today’s challenge involves a huge context change – moving your dog’s training outdoors!  But before we begin, let’s be certain we’re all on the same page.

Challenge #2 introduced the concepts of clumping and splitting and Challenge #3 provided trouble-shooting solutions to keep both ends of the leash (you and your dog) progressing in your training efforts.  Assuming your dog is consistently responding to SIT challenges indoors, you’re ready to move forward.  If not, please keep working all steps through Challenge #3 before continuing.  Be sure to post any questions for me below the blog post.

Image by G.C. from Pixabay

Challenge #4 of this series will involve moving your dog’s training outdoors and building success in a more novel environment.  To our advantage, we’ve already built a foundation and established a rich reinforcement history in a less potent setting.  Therefore, we can expect a much smoother transition as we move into our outside “classroom” and introduce a world of novel, and often unexpected, distractions.

To create the best possible success for learners, we will begin Challenge #4 by splitting our last accomplishments back to the simplest indoor SIT exercise (Challenge #1) and adding more difficult steps as we move forward. Since an outdoor setting is in a state of constant flux, we will need to learn how to adjust on the fly.

Challenge #4: Adding a Substantial Context Change to Challenge #1

Goals

  • Build a consistent response to SIT cue in a (somewhat) familiar outdoor environment.
  • Introduce additional troubleshooting solutions.
  • Learn how to adjust criteria as necessary to promote success in a more challenging environment.
  • For your dog to learn that you’re still in training mode in an outdoor setting.

Setup

  • You and your dog will be working together just outside the front or back door of your home, whichever is least familiar to your dog.
  • Break soft, smelly treats into tiny pieces. Place treats directly into a treat pouch, fanny pack, nail bag or pocket, so that they are easily and quickly accessible to you, yet out of your dog’s sight.  Avoid working from a plastic bag or directly from a crinkling bag of treats.  You will need to have both hands free for other things.

Rules

  • You may use verbal and/or hand signals to cue SIT, but no physical contact.
  • Only cue SIT one time (no repeating) and wait patiently for your dog to comply.  If using a hand signal, hold signal in place until SIT happens.

 Steps

  • If SIT happens on first cue, immediately say “YES”, then reach for a treat and reward your dog. Move to another location within 5-10 feet and ask for a SIT.  Reward for success, move another 5-10 feet and ask for SIT.
  • For illustration purposes there are only 3 position changes in this Challenge. Moving to a new location is always contingent upon success.
  • If your dog did not SIT (on the first cue) at any one of the three positions above, see Troubleshooting below.

Troubleshooting: Moving Your Dog’s Training Outdoors

◊ Repeat Last Successful Repetition

1st Position:  Return back inside, cue SIT on other side of door and reward.  If successful, return outside and try again.  If still unsuccessful, make a note of your surroundings and move to a more familiar (perhaps less active) outdoor area.

2nd Position:  Return to First Position and try again. Moving to the next position is contingent upon success.

3rd Position:  Return to Second Position and try again. Moving to the next position is contingent upon success.

◊ Distance is Your Friend

When it comes to distractions, increasing distance will always help you out of a jam and your dog will be more apt to respond.  For instance, perhaps one of your position changes puts your dog next to his favorite clump of weeds.  If your dog is too distracted to comply, move a few feet away and queue SIT again.  Once you’ve determined a more favorable distance, you’ll able to achieve and reinforce success.  You can work on closing the gap later.

◊ Is Reward (Still) Valuable to Learner?

Perhaps that clump of grass is more valuable to your dog at that moment than a treat. It doesn’t matter if we think the reward is potent if your dog doesn’t. Try changing the reward to meet the intensity of the situation.  For instance, queue SIT and reward your dog with an opportunity to sniff that clump of grass, rather than a treat.

 ◊ Is Your Dog Able to Learn in this Environment?

Challenge #4 instructed you to start in the least familiar portion of your yard.   But perhaps your front yard is simply too over-stimulating for your dog.  Try moving your training to the back yard for a couple sessions.  When success is established, your dog should be ready to move back to (or slowly toward) the front yard.

◊ Splitting Options

    • ADD one new step at a time.
    • SPLIT new steps into smaller pieces and teach one piece at a time.
    • SPLIT group of steps into single steps and teach one step at a time.

Add-On to Challenge #4: Moving Your Dog’s Training Outdoors

Once you’ve worked through the earlier steps in this Challenge, you can begin to raise the bar. Listed below are some of the context changes we’ve already added to our indoor Challenges.  You may add these steps in any order, either singly or in groups.  However, please limit your practice to the confines of your property until our next challenge.

  • SIT cue is given to dog while handler is seated (or squatting).
  • SIT cue is given to dog while handler is (pretending to be) on a phone call.
  • Handler turns back on dog and cues SIT (verbally).
  • Enlist other family members to participate (one at a time).
  • Add a new, but simple change (handler’s choice).

What’s Next?

Perhaps you haven’t encountered any setbacks so far. If so, that’s awesome!  If you’ve had to troubleshoot, that’s also amazing!  Either way, the key to consistency in training is to design opportunities that support the learners (you and your dog) at whatever level your skills are currently at.

My observation over the years has been that we (humans) tend to skip the simple, less sexy, process of generalization. For example, we teach our dog to SIT inside a couple times, perhaps in the yard once or twice and then we’re off!  We hastily move into the “real world” (an amusement park for dogs) and don’t get compliance when we actually need it.  Our SIT queue seemingly falls on deaf ears, and we don’t have a plan for follow-thru.  So instead of SIT, our dogs learn that we will repeat SIT several times or perhaps not follow through at all.  This is how our training efforts are thwarted.  We expect compliance based solely on our say so, without realizing our training is incomplete.  We inadvertently doom ourselves and our dogs to inconsistency and frustration as we move past simple contexts.  We blame the dog or think “training doesn’t work”.

So don’t be afraid to slowly rebuild your outdoor SIT responsiveness and to refer to the trouble-shooting solutions when you need them. My goal for you is to acquire a working knowledge of these solutions so you can adjust to the environment as needed.  As you progress toward your ultimate training goals, these solutions will always be the “meat and potatoes” to success and consistency.

Keep an eye out for the next Challenge in Part 5 of this series when we move our SIT queue farther from our home base. Until then, enjoy your successes and please post questions or feedback through this blog post.