Consistency In Dog Training
“Consistency is key” is something you’ve probably heard said at least once in your life; whether it be in dog training or people training it’s a very fundamental understanding when it comes to how new skills are learnt and maintained.
When training dogs, there are two key things to keep in mind:
- What are you trying to tell your dog and do they understand you? (CLARITY)
- Is what you are communicating to the dog always carrying the same meaning, regardless of day/time/mood/weather etc.? (CONSISTENCY)
It is essential when teaching and developing any new skill that you as the handler have a clear idea of exactly what criteria you are after and what sort of effort will earn reward. This creates clarity.
Ideally, your dog should view training as a game. No one enjoys playing a game for long if they can’t figure out how to win; our dogs included. If the rules of this game are always changing because you don’t have a clear idea in your own mind of what your desired behaviour looks like, you are going to quickly demotivate your dog.
Many handlers refer to their dogs as being “stubborn” at times, when in fact they are simply confused or unprepared for what exactly it is that you expect from them.
Dogs are very visual, very context specific learners, so we must take into account the whole picture when we are training. If we aren’t aware of ourselves as handlers, we can inadvertently hinder our own end goals.
An example of this can be demonstrated in the way I created a flaw in my own dog’s recall because of the consistent way in which I presented one particular aspect of the picture to her during our practice.
When I first began teaching the recall, my ideal end picture was to have her return and sit in front of me as close as possible. This was not difficult to teach; however at some point in our training I began to notice that her sit was no longer as straight and neat as usual, but it was almost imperceptible and she was coming right back to me when called, so I ignored it.
However, as time went on the crooked sit was getting worse and worse to the point that she was no longer really finishing remotely close to in front of me anymore, and instead would sit out to one side.
What I Did Next…
I went back a few steps in our training, using a bit more movement and enticement to straighten her out and remind her what I was looking for, but with time she would invariably work her way back out to her crooked sit. It wasn’t until I started filming my sessions that I came to see where we were going wrong.
I am right handed, and so naturally I had been presenting my dog’s rewards with my right hand.
It was a totally unconscious move on my part, but my consistency in always rewarding from the same hand every time had created a predictable pattern for her and she had adjusted her behaviour accordingly; angling her sit in a way that put her facing the anticipated reward.
It was something seemingly so small, yet with big enough consequences from the dog’s perspective that it had a visible impact on her behaviour.
While that is an example of how the consistent presentation of one visual cue inadvertently impacted the development of a learnt behaviour, we can use this same principle to intentionally help our dogs reach desired outcomes. The difference being we need to remain aware of ourselves and ensure the use of our body language is purposeful to avoid introducing unintended signals to our dogs as I did in my recall.
But what about when there is a lack of consistency altogether?
When you can’t present your dog with a clear and consistent picture in training at best you are significantly hindering their ability to grasp that one behaviour and causing a lot of frustration, and at worst you could be having an influence on their motivation to engage in new learning opportunities presented to them in the future.
The recall continues to be a perfect example of this.
Many pet dog owners are very inconsistent in teaching the recall. Well before the dog really understands what the word “come” means, they are off leash and running around the dog park. When the owner calls “come” unsurprisingly the dog blows them off. This is then followed by a series of calls each one more aggressive than the last until the owner has caught the dog, at which point they usually get a scolding or are leashed up and taken home.
Having to repeatedly call “come” is the first indication that the dog does not have a sufficient understanding of the exercise for it to be being utilised off leash under distracting circumstances.
Ask yourself, what is your end goal for the recall? Do you want to say “come” and have the dog rush back to you, or do you want to say “come, come, come, come” and have the dog respond on the third or fourth call?
By consistently exposing your dog to scenarios you have not equipped them to deal with you are setting yourselves up for failure, and no number of repeated cues will change that.
Another point to consider is, if the dog does not understand what is expected of it upon hearing a particular cue, how can it possibly understand why it is getting in trouble once you catch up to it?
Because both clarity and consistency are lacking in this instance, it would not be unreasonable for the dog to make the connection that there is high predictability that you are angry when calling the word “come” and so in future this makes them more reluctant to respond to the recall, creating what is referred to as a tainted or poisoned cue.
Some dogs are less resilient than others in how much stress they can handle during new learning and you might be surprised at how little it can take to effectively poison a cue and create an avoidance mindset in your dog that persists every time you try to initiate that particular behaviour.
It is going to be much easier to take the time creating a system of clear and consistent handler feedback, than it will be to go back and fix mistakes that are well on the way to being habits.
When it comes to consistency in your training, remember:
- Pay attention to your own body language (filming sessions and/or training in groups can help with this)
- Maintain clear patterns during early phases of learning
- Use verbal cues sparingly – if you find yourself repeating your cue several times it is an indication there are some problems in clarity
- If there are multiple handlers, make sure everyone is on the same page to avoid mixed signals
- Practice makes progress, not perfection.