Honing Your Training Skills: Creativity
Every training team I work with teaches me something about communicating more clearly, working with different learning styles, and meeting people and their dogs where they are. I've also been struck by my clients' inventiveness with the training games we play--like using a bag of cat treats as a distraction while practicing the game engage / disengage. In this final post of my honing your training skills series, I offer a few suggestions for using creativity when you train your dog.
For many dogs and their people, living in a city like Portland, Oregon comes with some lovely perks: nearly every food cart, store, and UPS driver freely dispenses treats, most restaurants and bars with outdoor seating allow dogs to hang out with their humans, and there are parks everywhere. But for dogs who prefer distance from other dogs or dogs who worry about things like skateboards and bikes, Portland can be overwhelming and even short walks can produce a lot of anxiety. With a little improvising, however, a parked car or a high hedge can become a barrier between your dog and the scary thing, giving you both a chance to redirect your attention and take a breath. And when things are clear, that same environment can help your dog relax--find a downed tree branch, fire hydrant, trash can, or tree trunk and let your dog sniff to her heart's content.
You can also find creative solutions to help your dog if he struggles to learn a new behavior. Play sleuth and determine if there is something in the training environment stopping him. Some dogs do not like to sit on slippery surfaces because their feet can't get traction. You can solve that problem easily--find a more secure surface for training. Shaping, breaking a behavior into its smallest reinforceable steps, also requires some creativity. If your dog won't follow a lure into a down, you can work with smaller movements, from sitting to getting his belly on the floor. For example, maybe you say "yes" and give your dog a treat when he looks at the floor. After he's doing that behavior regularly, you wait for him to lower his head a bit more before you mark and reinforce the behavior and so on.
You don’t have to reinvent training protocols or rewrite learning theory to teach your dog. As long as you remember the basics of timing the marker and reinforcement, observing your dog, and being patient, you can find many ways to be creative in your training and build stronger skills.