The dog was huge.
An adolescent Great Dane (about 150 pounds) walked calmly by my side into the bustling restaurant. He was the largest service dog in-training I’d ever worked with and even I wondered if I could keep him out of the way of the wait staff and patrons. After we were led to our table, I laid his mat next to my chair, cued “Mat” and spent the next hour or so enjoying a lovely meal while the dog relaxed quietly on his mat and remained out of the way.
That’s fluency at work. The dog’s successful “mat” experience was due in part to his ability to do the behavior with distractions, for a substantial length of time, and with a great deal of precision (if he wasn’t squarely on that mat, he would’ve been a tripping hazard.
So what exactly IS fluency? Why should you care about it? And how can you improve your dog’s fluency? Before we go there, let’s look at fluency from another perspective that’s already familiar: language. You are fluent in your native language. For me, that’s English. I can read it, write it, speak it, understand jokes, come up with synonyms, antonyms, understand syntax, etc. I KNOW English. I don’t have to think about it – it’s a part of me.
I study German. I am nowhere near fluent in German. I have a small vocabulary, my comprehension is much better if I’m reading it. I have to stop and think about the translation if I’m speaking with a native. I don’t understand any jokes. If I’m nervous or scared, I forget everything. My German needs a lot of work. It’s passable if I am just trying to ask where the bathroom is located, but I’m not even close to being fluent. Just because I know some German doesn’t mean I’m fluent in the language.
The same goes with dogs and behavior. Just because they know how to sit doesn’t mean they can do it anywhere, anytime, under any circumstances. Just like me with my German: I can’t hold a conversation about the latest political landscape simply because I know a few German words.
Why does fluency matter?
Fluency is how you get the behavior you want the dog to do, when you want him to do it. It’s the difference between the dog being able to sit in a quiet room and a dog being able to sit while visitors enter your house. Or the difference between a dog that sits almost before you finish saying “sit” and a dog who sniffs around, looks at you, then sits. Really, it’s about how well you taught the behavior.
What is fluency in dog training?
There are six pieces of fluency relating to your dog’s ability to “do” a behavior.
- Precision – does the behavior look perfect (you get to define what perfect looks like)
- Latency – does the dog start doing the behavior as soon as you ask
- Speed – once the dog starts the behavior, does it happen quickly enough for your needs?
- Distraction – can the dog do the behavior no matter what’s going on around him?
- Duration – does the behavior last as long as you need it to?
- Distance – can the dog do the behavior away from you?
Let’s look at these more closely. We’ll use the behavior of “mat” (dog goes to his mat and lies quietly) that started this article.
Precision: my dog needs to be squarely placed on the mat (not just partly on, but centered on the mat)
Latency: start the behavior within one second of being asked
Speed: complete the behavior within 3-ish seconds
Distraction: can do this anywhere (ballpark, airplane, dentist office, restaurant, etc.
Duration: 60 minutes is reasonable (typical dinner out, doctor visit, etc.)
Distance: not a big issue for me as I’ll be with the dog; I do need the dog to be able to stay while I walk away, however.
Your criteria for each aspect of fluency might be different – these are totally customizable to whatever you need.
Before you start to work on fluency, you need to make sure the behavior is “on cue.” That means you have (1) taught the dog to do what you want and (2) have developed a signal to let the dog know when to do it. For my example, the cue is the word “mat” (and of course, the mat needs to be there for the dog to lie on). For more information on cues and cueing, check out this article.
So let’s assume the behavior is on cue already. Where do you start? Start with precision because you want the behavior to look right first, then you can worry with other things like does it happen quickly enough.
Work on one aspect of fluency at a time.
If you’re working on precision, you don’t care how long it takes the dog to do the behavior, if he can do it with distractions, or any other aspect of fluency. What matters is this: does the behavior look like it should. If it does, click and treat the dog regardless of if the other aspects of fluency were met.
If you’re working on the “mat” behavior for example, and you define precision as: “dog lies centered on mat,” then you shape the behavior [See Dog Training 301 article here for more about shaping and how it’s done] until it meets your criteria.
After you’ve reached your goal for precision, set that aspect of fluency aside (just temporarily, don’t worry) and work on only latency. The precision you worked so hard to get will likely deteriorate a bit while you’re working on latency – that’s ok. Let it fall apart. You’ll get it back, I promise.
Why one aspect at a time?
It’s really hard on the learner when requirements are stacked. Let’s go back to the German language example. If my German teacher wants to improve my pronunciation (precision of how I speak the word), we’ll focus on just that, and we won’t care that my rate of speech (speed) is quite low. We also won’t worry about how long I need to think about how to answer a question (latency) – we’re working only on pronunciation (precision). Imagine how hard it would be for me to stack those requirements on one another: that after I get pronunciation down, my teacher adds on rate of speech (speed) while still holding me to the original high level of pronunciation. And then, he stacks another requirement (length of time it takes me to pause before answering a question – latency) on. How soon do you think I’ll quit taking German?!
The smart and efficient way to teach is to work on only aspect at a time. Master each individually, then come back and start pairing them together.
You’ll do the same thing with your dog: work on each aspect of fluency until your dog has achieved success at each level, then begin pairing them together.
Next month’s article will go into detail about exactly how to improve each aspect of fluency. Until then, make a list of the behaviors you’d like to improve, [print this template, if you wish] and get ready to perfect your dog’s behavior!