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Baby Steps: One Secret to Training

Author: Greg Raub | Date: April 20, 2012

For the last few weeks, I’ve been assisting another trainer with private lessons for a dog who’s reactive to strangers.  That is, the dog takes the idea of being a watch dog to the extreme and reacts (read “barks”) at any guest in the home.  We were using a relatively new behavior modification technique called TACT (for Touch Associated Clicker Training).  I won’t go into details here, but what I would like to share is what this experience taught me about remembering that nearly all dog training is about taking baby steps.

My job in the TACT process was simply to be another human being for the dog to adjust to.  We started with me sitting silently, two rooms away from the dog, while the other trainer and owner worked to reinforce the dog every time she glanced at me and did not react.  We did this for pretty much a full hour.

The next time I went, we started just as we had left off.  But about half-way through the session I was able to begin moving around in the chair. By the third session I was able to stand up – without having the dog react.  On the fourth visit I was able to move about three feet closer to the dog.  See what I mean about baby steps?  It was a slow and deliberate process, but eventually I was not only in the same room, I was petting the dog and playing “touch.”

As I went through this one-on-one training process, I thought a lot about how nearly all dog training is a series of baby steps.

If you want to say “Stay” to your dog and have it lie still while you walk around the room (fixing dinner, serving dinner, eating, greeting guests), you just cannot start with “Stay.”  You have to start with getting the dog’s attention (which is why we spend a lot of time in classes on attention exercises).  Then you have to get your dog to sit.  Then to lie down.  And finally to stay.  First for a second.  Then for two.  Then for three.  Baby steps.  And sometimes, even teaching one of these steps might require multiple baby steps.  Not every dog will go down when you first try to lure it into position.  You might need to reward it for just looking down.  And then for lowering its head.  Then for starting to stretch out.

Baby steps.

They sometimes can seem really frustrating.  Maybe even boring.  They take patience.  But in the end, they do pay off.  And chances are you won’t even remember the long process, you’ll just be happy with the end results.


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