A few weeks ago, a friend of mine made a great analogy about dog training. I’ve felt compelled to share it with my clients ever since.
“From the dog’s point of view,” he said. “It’s like a person being taught how to work on a car, except they’ve never worked on a car previously and also have no idea that they are being taught how to work on a car. The person teaching them can’t explain to them how to do it; they can only reward them when they get something right and indicate to them when they’ve done something wrong. Imagine them trying to change an alternator?”
I couldn’t help but chuckle at this comparison. It was such an accurate description of how dogs learn- through a series of reinforcements and consequences.
Luckily for our dogs, we can make things easier by breaking down training into stages and adding variables gradually, significantly increasing the likely hood of success. In dog training, we call this The Three D’s.
The Three D’s
How long can your dog hold the behavior?
How far away can you move from your dog or how close can your dog be from an external stimulus before they break the behavior?
What can happen around your dog while they are performing the behavior?
An Example of Training the Three D’s
One of the most straight forward examples of how we use the Three D’s would be to teach a dog to stay on a mat, commonly referred to as, “Go to your Place.” It is a foundational exercise many dog trainers (and pet owners) implement to help their dogs with impulse control.
To train a dog this behavior I would teach them lay down on a mat and reward them for staying on it. Then I would start to increase the time that they stay on the mat before rewarding them.
After gradually increasing that time to about 10 seconds, I raise the criteria for my dog. I am going to ask for the stay and back away one step. When I step back I am going to decrease the duration to 5 seconds, step back to the mat and reward them for staying with distance added.
Notice that when I added the distance, I decreased the duration.
I will practice this a few times until I can back up one step for 10 seconds. Then I will add the second step, decreasing the duration again, and then building it back up. I repeat these exercises until the behavior is proofed.
Now, I’ll begin to add distractions. This is the big one. Once the dog is on the mat, I might move a few steps towards the door and come back. Next, I move over to the door, touch the door nob, jiggle it, and return rewarding the dog for staying put. Let’s add in that noise. I ask a friend to come by and knock on the door or ring the bell. I stay with my dog (decreasing duration and distance), while the friend knocks on the door. I reward my dog for staying put. I have them do it again, this time, I take a few seconds before rewarding, and then I add distance with further repetitions. Eventually, the dog will stay on the mat while I turn away, open the door and greet my guest before I release them.
It seems like a long process to accomplish one simple task, however each time your dog learns a new behavior, it becomes easier to learn the next. Just like a person working on a car, once they’ve replaced an alternator, it becomes easier to start replacing other parts. Eventually, they might even be confident enough to replace a timing belt.
The brain begins to remember the mechanics of learning. Every time you practice new behaviors with your dog, they learn them faster and faster. Our dogs want to learn, but it’s critical to remember that they have a harder time doing so. Using the Three D’s in dog training will help you achieve your goals better, faster and with less frustration! Have fun!