Take the Sit/Down/Stand challenge! – Whole Dog Journal

My trainer friend Sarah Richardson, owner of The Canine Connection in Chico, California, recently attended a conference in Hot Springs, Arkansas, with a world-renowned pioneer in animal training. She came back home full of inspiration and excitement, with ideas about how she wants to add things and change things in her group training classes.

Sarah hosts a discussion group on Facebook for her training
clients, and she posted this shortly after she got back:

“Bob Bailey is now in his 80s but was literally
one of the first in the world to be training as we now do with operant
conditioning, use of a marker, etc. Bob invited some of the key people he has
influenced to serve as his fellow presenters and they came from Canada,
Holland, Germany, Mexico, and the US to be with him.

“One of the presenters gave a talk about how
ballet improved her dog training. As an adult in her 40s, she took up ballet
and learned how hard it is to do the basic movements really well. In contrast,
world-class ballerinas practice the basic movements – just the basics – up to 8
hours a day! It got me thinking: How much do we practice the basics – just the
basics! – with our dogs so that they are competent with these core skills, and
so we are competent with teaching and communicating with our dogs?

“So, I am returning home from my trip with a
challenge for myself and my dogs. We are going to return to practicing our
canine calisthenics – sit, down, stand – like crazy, in short, frequent
training sessions this month. My goal is for my dogs to do these behaviors on a
verbal cue as well as on a hand signal and
in many different contexts (how they are positioned in relation to me, the
setting we are in, etc.).”

Time to Start Practicing

Further, Sarah encouraged those in the group to practice and
post video of their practice sessions with their dogs.

I thought I would take the challenge. Back to basics – easy
peasy, yes? Both of my dogs know hand and verbal cues for sit, down, and stand,
and can readily move from one position to the other. My senior dog Otto is
super sharp at these, and eagerly demonstrates his acuity. I looked forward to
taking some video of Otto confidently moving through these exercises to share
with the discussion group.

“We’re happy to lay down on the cool grass.”

I thought (correctly) that I would have to practice more
with my younger dog, Woody, before I could commit to putting our efforts on
video. Woody takes a more speculative approach to my cues. “Why are you
asking?” he seems to say when I give him a cue. He “knows” the cues for sit,
down, and stand. After taking a moment to determine whether I’m serious about
wanting a response from him, he will methodically change from any one of those
positions to any other position. But he tends to get stuck a few position
changes into any session of more than three requests. He needs some convincing
that the work is worth his while. He may go into a down, and then just stay
there after I ask for “sit” or “stand.” His expression seems to say, “I’m just
not sure there is a point to all this!”

Food treat rewards increase the motivation – and I don’t blame him one bit. I don’t like working for zero pay, either. And his speed definitely increases when the compensation value increases; he will work longer and faster for chicken or cheese than kibble. But he only gets enthusiastic and sharp-looking if the “pay” is his highest-value reward: a chance to go fetch his Planet Dog Squeak ball.

With the “stand” cue, we lost Odin; he had no interest in a cue he didn’t know yet.

“What’s In It For Me?”

Woody’s deliberations make me miss my Border Collie, Rupert
– the dog I owned when we launched Whole Dog Journal 22 years ago. Well-trained
Border Collies make any trainer look
good; they love to work and find it
incredibly self-rewarding to respond to rapid-fire cues. Many will work without
treats or any other tangible reward; the opportunity to work with their person
is often enough of a high-value reinforcement in itself! In contrast, Woody, a
pit-Lab-mix, has a healthy self-preservation instinct. He wants to know,
“What’s in it for me?” before committing himself to a lot of training nonsense.

Otto is somewhere in between. He’s keen to earn my praise
and attention, and he likes food treats. But he’s not going to do this all day. I have to keep our practice
sessions short and fun, or he starts dramatically sighing and moaning on his
“downs” – or looking off to the side when I first give him a cue, like, “Wait,
one sec… Did you just hear the mail truck? I think maybe I should go check to
see if your mail is here…”

Anyway, I’ve been practicing. I took video on Otto’s first
session, and it wasn’t bad. As I predicted, he is really pretty sharp and
willing – though the fact that I was holding a camera/phone between us was
definitely off-putting to him. And after a dozen or so position changes he was
like, “Um, Nance… What’s going on here?”

It took a couple days of practice before I even bothered to
try to take some footage of Woody’s efforts. The fact that I recently brought
home a nice new Squeak ball helped a lot.

I do tend to take these basic behaviors for granted from my own dogs, but practicing with the goal of taking video that I could share has been fun. It also gives me and my dogs something to “talk about” – an extra few interactions each day that are (I hope) mutually enjoyable. Try it yourself! We’ll put a post on the WDJ Facebook page where you can upload video of your own dogs doing these basic exercises.

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