In last month’s article, we introduced fluency. It’s what most people really need to teach their dog. It’s what people mean when they say “My dog knows it, he just won’t do it.” If you work on fluency of each behavior that needs improvement, your dog will easily be able – and willing – to do what you’ve asked. This month, we’re digging in deep. Here’s exactly how to improve fluency.
First, here’s a quick review of fluency. 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?
You’ll remember from our last article that you’re going to pick just one piece of fluency to work on at a time. I find it easier to work on fluency in the order I’ve listed them above. Last month’s homework was to make a list of the behaviors and each aspect of fluency you wanted to work on. Pull that out and let’s get ready to get clean, pretty, and reliable behavior!
Gotta know the average
In order to improve, you need to know where you are right now. The way we do this is find the average level of behavior, and then click only the behaviors that are at least at the average or better than the average.
Finding the average
What you need: 10 treats, paper, pencil. To find the average, put 10 treats on the table. Ask your dog to do the behavior you want to improve and click and treat every attempt. After every attempt, write down the number. For instance, if you’re working on latency (how long it takes the dog to start doing the behavior), you’ll silently count the number of seconds it takes for your dog to start to sit after you ask him. Write that number down. After 10 trials, add up those numbers and divide by 10. That number is the average amount of time it takes your dog to start the behavior.
Now that you know the average, you have everything you need to help improve your dog’s behavior. Back to our sit example above: if the average amount of time it took your dog to start moving to sit was three seconds, then you will click and treat your dog whenever he start to sit in three seconds or less. If it takes him more than three seconds to sit, abort that attempt. You can shuffle your feet and move so your dog is “reset.” Your dog will begin to understand that only the faster responses get clicked and fairly quickly you should have fewer below average responses. Calculate your new average and then begin clicking and treating only those faster responses. Continue to improve the average until you’ve met your goal.
When working with the last three aspects of fluency – distraction, duration, and distance – it’s easier to start from a point where you know the dog can be successful and systematically raise criteria from that point. Using our trusty sit example from earlier, if you were working on distractions for the sit, start in a quiet room, and simply wave your hand while you ask your dog to sit. When working on distraction, for instance, you won’t worry about any of the other aspects of fluency. So it doesn’t matter if it takes your dog 5 seconds to start to sit, as long as your dog is able to sit, she earns a click and a treat. Once you’ve gotten your distractions to an appropriate level, you can then work back up to the previously achieved level of latency
If your dog isn’t successful at any point, you may have taken too big of a leap in estimating your dog’s abilities. If your dog can’t get it right within three attempts, reduce the level of difficulty so the dog has a good chance of getting a click and treat.
Remember to work only on one aspect of fluency at a time. It’s easy to think “she’s mastered the distractions, now I’ll add distance.” That’s a sure way to set your dog up to fail. Instead of adding distance, drop out distractions and work only on distance.
Work on one aspect of fluency at a time, keep your training sessions short (5-10 minutes, shorter if your dog zones out more quickly), and most of all, have fun! Improving your dog’s fluency on each behavior will give you that reliable, crisp, impressive dog who responds quickly, enthusiastically, and correctly whenever you ask.