We humans have a tendency to conform to patterns. This tendency is quite strong, and often quite subconscious! And this tendency can be detrimental to our dog training. Dogs are also very good at seeing patterns. Being able to predict the future based on the past is a survival skill that our pet dogs use to their benefit.
A pattern that many of us fall into during training is that we generally make the task at hand harder and harder and harder as we go through a session. This can be mentally draining for the dog and may also cause your rate of reinforcement to drop as your dog begins to make more and more mistakes. ‘Ping-Ponging’ from easy to difficult and everywhere in between will ensure that you’re dog is getting enough repetitions correct that they continue to work with you. This is often seen in 2×2 training where a trainer may systematically work through their weave pole entries going from easy to difficult.
Left and Right
Most humans and animals have a side they feel more comfortable working on, or a turning direction that is easier one way than the other. We must ensure that we are working all of our maneuvers off of both sides. This will build up our dog’s weak side, and work on the handler’s weak side as well (you probably have one!).
I have a side of my yard that I consider the ‘bottom’ and the opposite side is the ‘top’. When I set up any course map, I usually line up the course map with what I consider my own bottom and top side, so I usually start off all sequencing in the same orientation. This is going to give my dog many repetitions going one direction, and relatively fewer going another direction. I would be better off randomizing my starting orientation so that my dog is comfortable going any direction in my yard.
Variability in reinforcement value will keep things interesting for your dog. You can mix up treats in your bag so that you have a mix of kibble and whatever drives your dog nuts. You can sometimes throw a tug toy and sometimes throw a ball. You can purposely go for the higher value treat for stellar performances and the lower value for average performances, or you can just reach in your bag and reward with the first treat you happen to grab. Variety is the spice of life! This is as true for your dog as it is for you!
A Guide to Being Unpredictable
Plan, Plan, Plan
The first method for combating your subconscious patterns is to map out your training session ahead of time. Make sure you know how many repetitions you are going to do, and in what order. Know what you will do if your dog makes a mistake. And make sure that you are building in a bit of randomness. This takes a conscious effort. You can just as easily fall into patterns in your planning as you can when you are working out on the training field.
I believe I heard this term at an Agility Right from the Start seminar. If you don’t feel like planning, or want to ensure you aren’t falling into subconscious patterns, you can write down the different repetitions you’d like to work on during your session, put them all in a fishbowl (really any bowl will do!), and pull out a slip of paper for each repetition. This works great for testing and proofing. If you want to test your dog on all possibly weave pole entries off of both sides, put them in a bowl and let fate control your session! For those who like gadgets instead of pen and paper, try numbering your repetitions in a document and then using a random number iPhone app to pick each repetition.