When I think about the key factors involved with being a good trainer, the obvious features are proper timing, consistent rules/expectations, proper mechanics, and patience. These are things I talk about on a regular basis with regards to many facets of dog training. Although extremely important, one of the things that doesn’t often make the list of important training traits is creativity.
Yes, you heard that right. The ability to think outside the box, to approach a problem from a million different angles, and problem solve issues is incredibly important to being a good dog trainer.
I really get bothered by people who mock positive reinforcement by saying we are one-trick ponies or that we are hindered by our toolbox because it is lacking in some methods. Although there are certain things I won’t use, that does not mean that my methods are lacking. The only thing that limits me is my creativity when problem solving using all the tools I do have in my toolbox.
Every dog is different and may come to learning various behaviors in different manners. Some dogs like the low-pressure of shaping others may prefer the added guidance with luring (most vary depending on the task at hand). Maybe I’ll shape a down using successive approximations of the behavior, maybe I’ll set up a situation where the dogs are likely to lay down and wait for it to happen, and maybe I’ll use one of the many luring methods to get a dog to lay down. I’ve trained hundreds of dogs to lay down using a few different luring methods, capturing the behavior, or shaping with great success.
Until one dog challenges those methods. My methods grow each and every time I’m forced to come up with a new idea to get the dog to down
Some of you may recall my trials and tribulations of training Ralph the bulldog to lay down. Yes, trainers can sometimes struggle with training a particular behavior with a particular dog–we are humans and dogs have minds of their own (with fears, concerns, insecurities, and histories of reinforcement that we may or may not know).
I really had to think outside the box with him and be creative with my approach. I tried all of my normal methods individually and it just wasn’t happening (*Being a walking client more than a training client, I didn’t have the time to fully try capturing–the one time I set it up, I gave it 15 minutes in a bathroom with a dog bed on the floor and he wouldn’t down). If I had stuck with just “nose to toes,” “bridge,” or “hand target” style luring, or shaping, he probably would have taken forever to get that down (if at all based on what I saw in the first month of working on it). Although these methods have worked for every other dog I’ve ever worked with, here I was presented with a dog who just wouldn’t lay down.
I had to regroup and try to come up with a solution for this pup because what I brought to the table just wasn’t working. I sat down and started to think how I could get him to lay down or when, if ever, I saw him down. Other than when I came in for the beginning of my visit and Ralph was sleeping in his crate, I never saw him lay down at all. I ultimately came up with this crazy combination of methods that I would normally not suggest JUST so I could get him to offer that behavior occasionally.
Although he wouldn’t “down” when laying on the couch, he would, however, sort of lay half with his front legs on my lap while sitting on the couch. I started putting some value on this position by treating him heavily as he got into the laying position. I then moved to the ground so he was laying on me on the ground. I started leaning in a way that prevented him from laying completely on my lap and more on the floor until he would just have a toe or two on me. On top of this building value for the position, I was doing a mix of luring and shaping to get him to offer the newly valuable position. It took lots of time but now Ralph LOVES to lay down and he happily pounces to the floor when cued. I had to teach him using new methods and combining methods in a way that I’d never done so I could get him to lay down–once he got the idea, it was smooth as silk teaching him the cue/behavior chain.
He really pushed my creativity, partially because he has some concerns in the world about trying new things and partially because of his shape/size limitations/abilities as a bulldog (that boy could absolutely contort himself and STILL not laydown). We got there eventually and the result is a dog who loves to lay down.
Although there are techniques I will not use, I certainly don’t feel limited by what I can do because I can be incredibly creative with the tools I do use. If I was not wiling to try new things or think outside the box, yes, I’d certainly be limited because all dogs are different and learn things a bit differently–one size doesn’t fit all. But, the possibilities are limitless when someone can think creatively and be a problem solver even when using a toolbox that may not include every tool known to man–“Uh-oh! I can’t find my paint-can opener, whatever shall I do?!?! Oh, I can use a flat-head screwdriver!”