No Forward Progress
Recently, I have been seeing several people posting on social media about behaviors and service dog tasks that they have been working on for a week or months and seeing very little progress. These owner-trainers are talking about just building the basic behavior, not generalizing, proofing or even fine tuning a behavior!
If you are having this same problem while using positive reinforcement, doing several short training sessions a day, and training in a low distraction environment with a suitable level of reinforcers, then something in your training process is not right.
Some Common Things to Look At:
- the dog's behavior history
Has the dog previously been punished for doing the behavior or a similar one? This will certainly slow the progress as the dog will be fearful or hesitant to do similar behaviors.
- the dog's developmental stage
Is the behavior you are working on affected by his physical or emotional development stage? If your puppy is teething, he may be hesitant to grab a hard object firmly because it hurts to do so.
- the dog's response to doing the behavior
Does the behavior involve something that is aversive to the dog? For example, is the dog very space conscious and you are asking for him to invade your space to do a behavior?
- the dog's understanding of how to build behaviors
Does the dog's previous learning give him enough understanding that supports the specific behavior you are working on? Making sure he has the pieces of the puzzle to figure out what you want builds his success.
The Big Question and the Solution
Are you breaking the behavior down into small enough pieces? If not, go back and teach him missed foundation skill of the behavior.
Long Term Behaviors
There are a few behaviors do take a long time to develop, such as loose leash walking (due to distractions inherent in the behavior), or settle (due to adding duration to the behavior), but your dog should be experiencing success at each step of the way and not getting stuck for long periods at a certain spot. If forward progress seems too slow, it is up to you to figure out what needs to be done to help your dog move forward in incremental steps.
One of the reasons I use positive reinforcement with my own and client dogs is because of the quick success all of us experience. Teaching (and the flip side, learning) is about experimenting. When your dog gets stuck, try changing some small things about the behavior or the physical environment. If that doesn't work, step back and look at the challenge and take a medium picture look.
If those changes don't work, then try taking a whole different approach. There are many ways to teach the same behavior! For example, in teaching a hand-delivered retrieve, there are at least 7 different positive ways to teach a dog to take something in his mouth and 7 other ways to teach him to hold an object. That's 14 things you can experiment with for two key steps of the retrieve! Each of those can be broken down into many smaller steps.
What You Can Do
A. If you are getting stuck, first make sure you understand the basic concepts of training. If you are missing something, then so will your dog. Many dogs are great about compensating for our lack of knowledge in many areas and make us look like great trainers, but there will be some things your dog just cannot figure out on his own.
B. Next, ask questions from others. They can help you brainstorm what the problem might be and solutions. Find a good Facebook group that you feel comfortable in and are confident that you will get some thoughtful answers. Ask your question being clear on: 1. what the behavior is, 2. what you think the problem is and 3. what you have tried so far. Sometimes the process of writing it down for others will give you a new perspective.
C. Find a reputable experienced local dog training professional who is great at breaking behaviors into their smallest parts.
D. Take a class online for your specific challenge.
Help is available! You and your dog don't need to feel like failures. For most behaviors, positive reinforcement should be all about quick success for you and your dog! If it's not, something needs to be changed. Check out my Foundation Skills classes and Service Dog Retrieve online class!