ClickerSolutions Training Articles

Achieving Working Reliability Amidst Distractions

>>Distractions are HUGE and not in the same sense as what say a service dog faces. This isn't a person walking by talking to a dog or a cookie on the floor or hustle and bustle of a city street. If a dog is being worked as a service dog and can't handle walking by a stranger without getting really wound up then this dog isn't suited for service work. Well a retriever gets wound up and then some EVERY time he/she sees a bird, hears a gunshot, sees other dogs retrieving, etc so the tempation is that much greater.<<

I have to jump in here, as a service dog user/trainer. I do have a different take on this, and admit that my knowledge of field training is negligible. However, consider that the dogs we use for service work are essentially dogs which have been genetically bred to do other work. We see many German Shepherds, Border Collies, Austrailian Shepherds, Labrador Retrievers, Collies, etc. that have very strong instinctual behaviors working successfully as service dogs.

And it's equally as difficult for these dogs to resist the challenge of losing focus on the job at hand when a feral cat runs by hissing, or a squirrel jumps down from a tree or a stray dog comes nosing the service dog's genitals, or a flock of geese land in a group next to the dog.

The service dog, no matter how much their genetic triggers tell them to respond in a different way, learn to ignore those distractions and to continue on doing a task and focusing on direction from the handler. They may be just as genetically programmed to respond as they have been bred to respond for centuries, but they have learned to respond in a different way, in that particular situation. At home, they may herd other animals, be a frizbee whiz, or a manic ball chaser.

It's much more than people trying to distract the dog, or little tidbits of food on the floor. The distractions offered to the service dog are constant, and ever-changing. Imagine the Border Collie working with their disabled handler along side a fence where dogs are herding sheep, or in a ball park when balls are flying past fast and fearless. The triggers are always present, tapping into the genetic makeup of the particular dog.

And yet, these dogs can and DO learn to shift their focus, work independently. It can be no other way in service work. If the Border Collie loses focus on the handler, and gives it instead to what the dog's genetic triggers tell him to do, then the handler can be injured or put in harm's way.

Does this mean that because we have to train against the genetic grain, that the only way we can assure reliablity is by using aversives? Certainly not. But there are still a great many people who train service dogs who truly believe this is the only way to get reliablility in dogs who have been genetically wired for other purposes.

I do not accept that the retriever's genetic wiring is any more intense than that of other working dogs, bred for a purpose, and therefore cannot bypass temptations to do what the genetics program him to do. I accept that there are individual dogs of any breed who would be unsuitable to maintain focus on both the handler and the job at hand, and that these dogs would neither make it in the field as a top working dog, nor would they make it in the human-rich field as a top working assistance dog.

I also think that as trainers, we often ask for far too much proficiency at a distance when we have not trained well enough close up. If we have little control and focus at a close distance, we cannot expect the dog to be able to do this even further away from the handler yet---it's asking too much, too soon. But, if we work in these kinds of distractions---genetic triggered ones---at a closer range first, allow them time to become generalized and add distractions, obstacles while we are still working fairly close up, then we still need to gradually and incrmentally increase distance, not move from working 10 feet from the handler to 50 feet in one fell swoop.

Genetic triggers are going to be present, we're going to have to find ways to work with them, instead of against them. And yes, we can choose to use aversives. But we also can choose to find clicker solutions, utilizing the information we have from trainers with lifetimes of experience in shaping behavior. I look to the Baileys for ways to increase accuracy and focus, and also in how to work with training that goes against the genetic grain.

This to me is the true beauty of clicker training: that if we hone our human skills of observation and accurate reinforcement, we can make that choice in whether to utilize aversives or not. Science has given us very workable ways to achieve what was once thought to be impossible to achieve without the use of aversives.

What was accepted as "fact" only a few short years ago in the animal training world is now being questioned, changed, and ways to achieve the same level of skill and reliablity in seemingly impossible environemts that trigger the animals genetic propensities, are being found and reproduced.

Change is not easy. It's especially difficult for those of us who have had decades of successful force training behind us, and have relied on this to give us the kind of reliablity in whatever field we are training within. Ten years ago I could not have dreamed it was even remotely possible, and would have been the first in line to defend my way of training, and my reasons for using aversives when I felt it was necessary. My dogs were happy, fine workers.

The only real difference now is that every step of the way is pleasant for the animal, and pleasant for me. And, also in the thrill I get from seeing my dogs bypass genetic triggers to offer me focus---built not from fear of correction, but from incremental desensitization and re-direction to the job at hand.

When I watch a service dog in the park scouring the ground for missing keys, ignoring ball games going on next to him, ignoring squirrels running up trees, off-leash dogs bounding by and trying to interact with the service dog, the groups of wild geese walking along the pond's edge---and the dog still working quite a distance from the handler, it's a thing of beauty.

It may not be "natural" for a ball-crazed Border Collie to bypass that ball flying by his head and hitting the dirt 20 feet from him, but it IS possible, and it is possible without the use of aversives to get that kind of response and focus.

I think that's where many of us are coming from on this list---we may well know how to use aversives efficiently and effectively, but we choose to hone our own skills to find ways to get the same type of reliability without using the aversives. And learning to think and plan ahead takes time and skill---it doesn't happen overnight.

Debi Davis
copyright 2001 Debi Davis


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