Heeling is the most important element of Rally Obedience and since this is our weakest skill I have decided to go back to basics and start out by working on our dogs’ rear end awareness which is the key to straight sits, backing up, pivots and maintaining heel position etc. To improve Wilder’s rear end awareness I brought a plastic step stool to our Thursday training. The step stool could be replaced by a book, a frisbee or any kind of low platform that is stable and that your dog is comfortable putting his feet on. I prefer a square object to a round object but when you start the training the shape is not so important, as long as the dog is comfortable with the object.
The goal of this exercise is to teach Wilder to place his front feet on top of the step stool and remain in that position while following me with his rear legs when I move around the step stool in a circle. When starting out with a new dog, the exercise is broken down into many separate skills and yesterday’s goal was simply to get him to touch the step stool with his paws. To make Wilder more clicker “aware” and encourage him to offer behaviours freely, I’m using the shaping technique. This means that I avoid showing him what to do and instead wait for him to do some creative thinking. Every small step in the right direction is rewarded with a click and a treat.
I started out by placing the step stool on the floor and waited to see what he would do. I had the clicker ready in my hand and plenty of yummy treats in my pocket. In the beginning, Wilder didn’t understand that the step stool had anything to do with the exercise, so instead he tried to sit and lie down a few times. I ignored his attempts while waiting for him to show interest in the step stool instead. Many trainers will click and reward the dog as soon as he looks at the object, however, since I think it’s easy to miss a quick glance, or reward the dog when he is in fact looking at something else (which could easily cause confusion), I prefer to skip this step and only reward direct contact.
When realising that sitting or lying down didn’t lead to any treats, Wilder walked up to the step stool and sniffed it. This was immediately rewarded with a click and a treat and I let him do this quite a few times (i.e. sniffing the step stool equals a click and reward) to build confidence with the object and the exercise. After every successful attempt I threw a treat away on the floor, to encourage him to go back and find the step stool from different directions. This exercise took about 10 minutes from start to finish.
When Wilder was offering the desired behaviour consistently, I increased the difficulty level by expecting him to put his feet on top of the step stool. This time, to make it a little easier, I mixed shaping with “luring”, and tapped the object with my fingers to show him what I wanted him to do. As soon as he touched the step stool with his paw I clicked and rewarded him with yummy treats. It took about 5 minutes from start to finish until he put his paw on the target for the first time.
Once Wilder knew what to do he was very quick to place one paw on the step stool, run away to get his treat and go back to paw the step stool. I decided to end the exercise there, as I felt that it would be too much to ask him to put both feet on the step stool during the first day of training. Instead, that will be the goal of our next training session.
As I mentioned earlier, the goal is to teach Wilder to pivot by keeping his front feet firmly on top and moving his rear legs around the step stool in a circle (left and right). When this is accomplished, I hope to be able to teach him how to find the correct heel position himself and remain in this position while I rotate my body around. I’m going to do this step-by-step and will keep you posted about our progress. This is the first time I try this technique so I will probably be making some mistakes along the way, but hopefully Wilder will be making pivots before the end of the year (considering that our training sessions are limited to once or twice a week).
Since quite a large amount of treats is consumed during a clicker training session I think it’s important to use treats that are good for your dog (or at least not bad for them). Our Malamutes love Orijen Treats which make very good high value rewards for a big dog when split in half. Orijen Treats are preservative free, low in calories and carbohydrate free and there are many different flavours available. For yesterday’s exercise we used Ranch-Raised Lamb. Yummy!