Training multiple skills

Yesterday at a training gathering we attended someone asked me, “Do you train more than one thing at a time?” And then the follow up, “How?” As it’s a question I would get from nearly every student I’ve come to believe it’s a fairly common question and concern people have. So here’s my answer.

Yes. Absolutely I train more than one thing at a time. But it depends on where in the training process of that particular skill we are if I will do it stand alone in a session or do a series of skills in a session. But I almost always have multiple irons in my fire. Training one thing through to completion at a time is not something I’ve ever had the patience for. Variety is the spice of life as the saying goes.

Zora standing with her front feet on an upturned black rubber feed bucket
Zora standing on her mark bucket with me outside the ring at an agility trial

For example right now in active training mode with Zora we are working on: fronts, left and right finishes, finding heel position from various angles, left pivots, right pivots, stand at heel position, scent articles, dumbbell holds, sends to a target, marking, and probably some others I’m right now not thinking of as I’m not currently reading my training plans.

Some sessions we might focus solely on one of those things. Some we might work on 2 or 3 or 4 in quick succession. All depends on the moment and the goals at that time. The skills are all at various stages in the training process. Some in very early stages, some in proofing stimulus control stages, and others somewhere in the middle.

So how do I help my dog to quickly understand what we are working at that moment? I use a lot of environmental cues especially when the skills are in infancy stages. I find environmental cues help the dog to narrow down quickly the behaviors they offer into similar range. For example if I pull out the rear foot mat, I want to use that to establish for the dog that they should offer behaviors that have to do with their rear feet interacting somehow with that particular mat. The mat helps narrow the range. If I pull out the pivot disk I want the dog to have established they are going to be right if they offer behaviors having to do with front feet on the disk. That just narrowed down the range of behaviors for the dog to offer. If I pull out a piece of blue painters tape I want the dog to know if they offer behaviors that involve their chin touching the tape they are going to be right. Again narrowed the range. If I move to a certain part of the room close to a wall, that narrows the range. And so on.

With props and environmental cues narrowing the range of behaviors the dog offers I can now further shape and communicate to the dog exactly which behavior we are working now with less noise behaviors thrown about. At this stage of my training life it’s pretty rare for me to stand in the middle of a space with nothing around and wait for the dog to randomly try stuff. That lack of direction and guessing game would stress me out, does stress me out when I’m trained that way, so I don’t do it to dogs either. I do wait for the dog to try stuff, but I try to give them some clue to start with through environmental cues and props.

Example: dog learns rear foot mat only behaviors involving rear feet and the mat will be reinforced. So dog quickly learns in presence of that prop to not try circling it. Or sitting on my feet. Or touching the wall. Or jumping up and down. But she might offer sitting on the mat with her rear feet and butt touching it. Or standing with her rear feet on it. Or moving her rear feet on and off it. Narrower range. And from there I can more easily and quickly shape the specific behavior I’m working towards.

Now I would likely not try to teach multiple different behaviors involving the same prop at the same time unless other environmental cues were in play to further clarify for the dog. Or unless the behaviors were at very different stages with all but one at the verbal cue stage.

Example: platform target used to teach basis of both front and heel positions. It’s the same platform but if I’m standing beside it the dog physically cannot be on it and be in front position at the same time. As my position in relation to the platform makes that impossible. So dog figures out we are working on heel position. To further help the dog differentiate just where I want her to be when we are doing fronts, at early stages I add a bit of painters tape on my pants where I want her head to be in front position.

Now if I’m using luring and body language prompts early on instead of shaping techniques, those give the dogs cues to what to try as well.

Example: I was working with a new student and her super cool standard poodle last week. Awesome, smart fun dog. The dog had some basics of a sit cue in place. So we did some luring of the sit with a treat in hand, then progress to treat out of hand, so still sitting in the hand cue. Then we introduced a totally new behavior to the dog, nose touch to her owners closed presented fist. Dog quickly figured out hand in fist if she touched her nose to it treat happened. Hand palm flat raised up if she sat treat happened. By the end of that lesson owner was able to cue sit and touch with the hand signals with fairly high level of reliability in response from her dog (meaning dog was reasonably consistent with touching the hand when the touch signal was given or sitting when the sit signal was given in that environment at that time and not trying to touch when the sit signal was given and so on).

Now the examples I gave above were all in relation to training some obedience type behavior but when working on a real life skill as I like to call them such as loose leash walking, or polite greetings with guests, or ignoring the dog barking next door I still use the same principles. I use environmental cues and props as much as I can to help communicate and signal to the dog early on the types of behaviors likely to get positive feedback.

Example: loose leash walking I likely will incorporate hand targeting, moving to and from a platform or station type target, positioning of my arms, shoulders and head, and other cues to help the dog quickly narrow the range of behaviors they try. In early stages I will likely also use walls and size of space to help increase the dog’s chance of being where I’d like them to be. Also limit distractions and the like.

As a common theme having a plan, using the environment to my advantage and working to communicate with as much clarity as I can are the keys I rely on in training. What’s your experience been when training multiple skills?

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