We hear this all the time at Dogwood! Dogs with low confidence often choose not to approach our Adventure Play frames at first. Then, the more they visit, the more confident they become and one day their humans message me gushing with happiness because their dog ‘just suddenly jumped’ onto a frame! They choose to do it freely and it feels good – so they do it again and again!
This kind of choice, freedom and experimentation is a sign of curiosity and confidence. Some dogs may climb, investigate and explore on their own, and others benefit from positive reinforcement training to help them realise that they enjoy these activities.
We find that once dogs learn what their bodies are capable of in the training setting, they become confident and curious they will start to see positivity and potential in their environment and want to have a go all by themselves.
Here are two simple approaches to Environment training for you to try.
This technique uses food as the lure and reward. The result happens quickly because positive reinforcement is almost immediate.
With luring we use the food in our hand to guide the dog into position. The food acts as a magnet in front of our dog’s nose.
The drawbacks to using food in this way is that it’s possible make a dog move out of their comfort zone too quickly. Using Bear as an example, if you were to use a treat to guide your dog onto a box before they’ve had time to feel comfortable with it, they could become stressed and may even become afraid of the box. Therefore always start with an easy version of the challenge and aim to do away with the food lure as quickly as possible.
Even the presence of food may be too distracting for some dogs to concentrate. If this is the case, try the Wiggly Fingers method.
What is marking?
A marker is a word or sound that communicates to your dog that they did something right. It means ‘I like what you just did and I’m going to give you a reward for it!’. In positive reinforcement dog training, the marker is followed with a reward, usually a treat or toy.
The marker word motivates the dog to repeat the behaviour that earned the marker. Common examples of a marker are ‘yes’, ‘good’ or clicking a clicker.
Timing is key. If you are training ‘Bear’ for example, you will say the marker as soon as the two front paws touches the box. Then you can reward. Use the marker as soon as the desired behaviour occurs.
Where to reward
Rewarding from your hand into your dog’s mouth can create a habit where your dog looks at you rather than where they’re going. Fine for a static exercise like Bear, but not for forwards-moving activities such as Traverse. Instead, you can reward on the floor. This encourages dogs to look forwards, rather than focusing on the treat in your hand. It also helps build confidence to move away from you.
Some of our dogs (hi, Fifi!) would follow a food lure off the edge of a cliff. They may look like they’re competently performing the activity but they only have eyes for the food itself.
- For a confident dog like Fifi, the issue is that she would follow the food lure without thinking about where her feet were or what her body was doing. She could slip or fall off the obstacle. While this would be unlikely to knock her confidence, she could get injured.
- Less confident dogs like pre-Scentventure Lao may follow the food onto a high obstacle and once they are in position, they get rewarded with the food. However, once the food has been eaten, they realise where they are and may panic. This can affect their confidence and willingness to try new things again in the future. It may lead to a lack of trust – and trust is what we need lots of in successful partnerships.
- If your dog is only focused on the food, it could feel like you start again each and every time. We call this ‘overshadowing’, where the brain finds one stimulus more important (e.g. cheese) so it overrides everything else. Like us, dogs have a limited number of slots in their working memory (approximately 5-7) and if the slots are full of cheese they won’t notice what else is going on and so they won’t form new memories.
Wiggly Fingers is an alternative method to using food. Here we teach our dogs to follow a visually-unique hand signal.
Some dogs won’t need ‘teaching’ at all. If they have done Environment activities before and see an obstacle and your fingers wiggling towards it, they may just follow anyway. If not, here’s a method to get your started.
- Start on flat ground – don’t introduce obstacles yet.
- With your dog in front of you, wiggle your fingers to get your dog’s attention. Gently praise them for showing interest, or give a food reward.
- Once your dog is focused on your fingers every time you start to wiggle them, move your hand away so your dog starts to follow. Some dogs won’t start moving until you move your whole body away, not just your hand.
- Add more movement gradually
- Once your dog understands that Wiggly Fingers mean they follow your hand, use it to guide them up onto an obstacle, e.g. a box for Bear.
You can also add a ‘stop’ cue to this method. A stop cue asks your dog to stop where they are. It can be useful in case they have climbed up onto anything dangerous and you would like them to stay still until you can go and help. What this looks like is a holding up a flat palm towards your dog.
You can then ask your dog to stay/wait (verbal or just keep your hand raised) to add distance and duration. Always ensure that your dog doesn’t come to you for the reward, but you go back to them.
These are two possible methods for Environment training. If you have been training longer, you could try the shaping technique. This is where we mark (usually with a clicker) any movement in the right direction.