How Long?! Resolving to Overcome a Training Challenge

What’s your training achilles’ heel?

Mine is actually three heels, as it were–training duration, reducing reinforcers, and training stillness. Three heels which, as you might have already guessed, are all linked together in one big weird misshapen leg-protrusion of weakness and arrow vulnerability.

Okay, my nerdy, allusive metaphor is pretty belabored and isn’t working very well, but I think you get my point–I’m not very good at teaching Nala to do one thing without moving for quite a long while without much pay. It’s not her fault, either–it’s all mine, and it’s become more of a problem as we’ve worked together.

The downside of shaping (when you aren’t actually great at it)

When I got Nala, I couldn’t even consider shaping. The short version is that she would basically just freeze, not moving and totally worried, if she wasn’t given clear instructions for what to do. For a long time, I relied primarily on targeting for teaching Nala new behaviors.

Still, for a trainer like me–who finds teaching stays very, very dull–there was a benefit. I didn’t really need to work hard to teach Nala to stay on her mat, or to hold a downstay in public. If I could get a treat to her pretty frequently, she would stay in her position. And when I started to reduce reinforcers, she would just get bored and chill out.


But I wasn’t satisfied–I wanted to try free shaping.

But to do it, I had to break her down-stay. And, since I’m a ruthless amateur rather than a skilled trainer, I created a bit of a monster.

Now I have a dog who thinks that a still handler is a cue to keep trying things. It’s time to start fixing that.

Awash in a sea of duration behaviors

Flooding is not a recommended means of helping an animal overcome her fear.

But apparently I’m on a masochistic journey to use that terrible technique to cure myself of my aversion to teaching Nala to do something, and to remain at least sort of still, for more than a millisecond.

Here are some of the things that Nala and I are working on right now:

  • Retrieve: Nala is great at biting stuff. I’m trying to teach her to calmly hold them in her mouth without chewing.
  • Hugging a toy: Sit up. Be still. Gently and calmly hold a toy instead of swatting it and climbing me. It’s harder than it looks.
  • Calm chin rest for husbandry behaviors: Nala actually has some decent duration on her chin rest behavior, and she loves doing it; she always wags gently as she presses her chin into my hand and holds it. But now I’m using it to teach Nala to willingly and calmly volunteer for having her mouth handled. Our training sessions have hardly been great examples of how to do this, which is why I haven’t compiled them and triumphantly posted them here.
  • Stays: Nala has barely any stay to speak of, although she’s pretty good at staying put on an object. Still, I haven’t trained her to stay in spite of distractions at all. She also hates it when I step out of sight, and pulls desperately to find me.

But there’s a problem: in theory, I know three ways to train duration on a behavior. But in actuality, I only know how to execute one way.

How I Jumpstart Duration on Behaviors

It’s the easiest thing in the world.

How could you say no to this face?
Nala enjoys the dog bed near the kitchen because not only is it comfy, but she has been reinforced there a lot, particularly while I’m cooking.

You just rapid-fire treats into your dog’s mouth in position. Then you toss a treat away. Then, when your dog offers the behavior again, you do it again.

Ta-da! Now your dog thinks the position is cool, and she’ll probably be willing to do it for a few seconds without moving.

I know of two other ways to teach duration: asking for, and reinforcing, random intervals which gradually increase on average. And the 300 Peck method, which entails increasing by 1 second with each trial, and going back to 1 second at every failure (at least at first). I’ve also experimented ever-so-slightly with reverse luring, although we haven’t done enough Zen or It’s Yer Choice stuff for that to be very effective for us.

This will never do. 

I probably don’t need to tell you that I can’t just shovel food in my dog’s mouth whenever I don’t want her to move forever. Not only would I run out of food, it just won’t work for any of the problems I listed above. I can’t shovel food in Nala’s mouth when I walk away from her. I can’t cram food in her face when she has a mouthful of whatever I asked her to pick up and hold. I can’t hold a toy, gently hand it to Nala, and rapid-fire treats in her mouth without dropping them everywhere (at least, not until they invent Octo-Arms for Clicker Trainers). And I don’t have enough arms to hold Nala’s chin in one hand, grasp her lips and touch her teeth with the other, and feed her simultaneously–and I don’t think she has enough mouth, either.

Besides, a lot of the problem with my skill set is that while it’s been great for getting behaviors started, we’re starting to run low on all-new behaviors. We’re getting to the point where I need to proof, raise criteria and difficulty, and add new elements to foundation behaviors–and, well, I just don’t know a wide repertoire of ways to do that.

So, in the interest of learning about proofing and ways of training stays that don’t bore me to tears, I’m auditing a Stay class at Fenzi Dog Sports Academy this upcoming term. I’m hoping that it will help me add some tools to my sadly very empty training toolbox. I also feel confident, based on my experiences with the instructor, Hannah Branigan, in the past, that she’ll have lots of great suggestions for balancing all of this self-control stuff with things that keep the dog alive, awake, interested, and in the game, which is always a high priority around here.IMG_5200.JPG

What’s your least favorite thing to train? How have you tried to address your weaknesses?

8 thoughts on “How Long?! Resolving to Overcome a Training Challenge

  1. Stays are some of my least favorite things to teach. I find them so, so dull.

    There’s one way you didn’t mention about how to train them. I find it the easiest way to get a pretty long amount of duration pretty quickly: Add a release cue. Basically, the dog shouldn’t move until she hears the magic word. Adding distractions then becomes really easy too. I will say that Riko’s stays are ten times as good as Elli’s because I taught it differently. Elli did a ton of free shaping as a young’n so she, too, thinks stillness is a cue to do *something*. Hannah goes over two distinct release cues; I really liked her class lectures, though, it does require a lot of patience, still… I could barely stand watching student videos lol.


    1. Oh, yeah, a release cue! I totally knew that, but I’m so bad at teaching stays that I forgot to add it to the list. Ha! Thanks for catching that.

      I’m so glad to be taking this class with Hannah–she’s so brilliant and thorough and thoughtful that she can make stays–basically the dog training equivalent of watching paint dry–incredibly fascinating. I also love the way she’s balancing active/passive behaviors. I think it will really help me keep our morale up as we work through this challenge!


  2. I agree with Ximena about the release word! Barley likes to think for herself, so eventually she will get bored if I don’t occasionally reinforce it with verbal praise or a treat, but she stays much longer now that she’s waiting for that cue. I also think that maintaining the connection with the dog is important even if you’re cutting back on the food rewards. In our agility classes, we’ve had to work really hard on her start-line stays and she allows me to lead out farther when I remember to look back at her regularly as I’m walking away and tell her multiple times how good she is–and then we make sure that her release is consistent every single time: my feet are planted in the same way, my arm is doing the same thing, I make eye contact with her, praise her, and then release her. Our trainer has really emphasized the need for predictability with things like that and the fact that verbal praise can be just as effective as treats when you can’t actually get them a treat right away (so it’s always “yes” or “good girl” and then the treat and then the word becomes the reward). We apply those same ideas to other types of stays, like staying on her mat when I’m doing dishes or cooking dinner, and it’s worked really well for us. Can’t wait to hear what you learn in this class!


    1. Being consistent is definitely really important!

      I’m really excited to review this class for you guys–it’s already just extremely thrilling for a nerd like me! I’m a big Hannah Branigan fangirl, though.


  3. Nice! Stays sound like a great training challenge for the next Fenzi term! 🙂 My achilles heel with Phoebe is close heeling. I know all the theory. I could give a talk on the theory. But put it into practice? Somehow I keep screwing up. Need to take Precision Heeling and Heeling Games at Gold next time it rolls around! Turns out auditing alone didn’t do the trick for me. I need personal feedback or I end up trying to do too much in too little time and all at once, creating an enthusiastic, but very inprecise heeling monster 🙂


    1. Man, do you know what a comfort it is to me to see you say that you’ve struggled with teaching close heeling, too? I tend to vacillate between feeling really confident that we’re getting somewhere and thinking that we should just quit sports that require heeling and let Nala be a wild forest creature.


  4. Loved this. I can totally relate. My biggest training crutch is luring. I don’t realize how much I do it until I see video footage. I’m working very hard to break myself of it.

    Yep, we have to train ourselves as much as we train our dogs.

    BTW, I taught Honey to stay on her pillow while I cook by tossing her treats from across the room. But you have to be a good tosser and your dog has to be a good catcher or you won’t reinforce the stay. 🙂


    1. Thanks, Pamela!

      I used to lure a lot. But then I watched a training video and realized that Nala *hates* it. That helped me clean my act up pretty quickly! We use targeting and shaping now.

      Nala has a great stay on her mat while I cook! Anywhere else, with distractions happening…not so much. 😉


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