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sweet Nettie in the cowslips

10 ways to improve your mechanical skills in dog training

Did you know that in large part, dog training is a mechanical skill? With my 10 ways to improve your mechanical skills your dog training will be more efficient, and more effective. There are many factors involved in the physical execution of how you train your dog. And by this I’m talking about how quickly you can give your dog a treat. Or how you move. And even what you say. 

The vast majority of my training is about reliability and dog centred choices. For example, I want my dog to tell me every time she finds the target scent. But I’m not prescriptive in how she tells me. She can dig, or fetch, or stare, or wiggle. I really don’t mind. I want her to do whatever feels best and most natural for her. There’s no risk of harm when she finds the scented article, it’s not dangerous or toxic. And as long as she shows me exactly where it is, not just a vague area, I’m delighted. 

Precision

But there are some times when we may want a precise, pre-determined response. One example is the passive indication when teams are searching for firearms and explosives (FX) The dogs must not make contact with these dangerous items, both for their safety and the safety of everyone in the vicinity. Hence these dogs are taught to give a static, non-contact behaviour that they can use when they find the target odours. 

Another example is when people compete in obedience competitions and want a very stylised form of heel work. Personally, I find this unnatural exaggerated way of walking beside the handler uncomfortable to watch. Perhaps not as uncomfortable as the dog finds it. But, I can appreciate the skill and accuracy that goes into teaching it. Every part of the dog is considered, from where her shoulder is in relation to the handler, where she places her paws and how she holds her head. A mechanical skill to be sure, both for the dog and for the trainer.    

Ettie as teacher

I’m currently in the process of teaching Ettie some really precise skills. I’ve based the goals of my lessons on a behaviour that Ettie frequently offers and is comfortable for her. But it does require me to be precise in my teaching. I’ve got a training plan written out rather than in my head. And I’m logging each session in the plan and on video. And it was during our first sessions that I realised how rusty some of my mechanical skills are. 

Luckily for me, Ettie is extremely good at giving me great feedback. The instant I mistime a reward or move my hand in the wrong way she responds to those mistakes. Which means that unless I correct them (i.e. what I’m doing) immediately, she will not offer the behaviour I desire. Instead, she offers the behaviour I have cued or reinforced, or in the worst errors, both. This helps me recognise my errors quickly and ensures I get back on track before I mess up the whole exercise. 

This got me thinking about how we can all improve our mechanical skills. So here are 10 ways to become a great training mechanic.    

1. Treat type 

When you are rewarding your dog with edible delights you need to choose your treats carefully. Fast, properly timed food delivery requires non-crumbly, non-sticky treats. So don’t use crumbly cheese or mushy meat. Tiny cubes of mild cheddar cheese straight out of the fridge can work well, but as they warm up they will start to stick together. This can be an issue especially when you are tossing the treats to your dog. Instead of one clean catch or a quick grab from the floor, you could inadvertently deliver a spray of cubes which take time for the dog to gather up and adds a delay to your training session. 

Sticky, mushy treats can stick to your fingers. As you dislodge the gummed treat from your fingers, the dog either receives a reward which has zero to do with the behaviour you were hoping to reinforce. Or she receives nothing at all. Chicken can be bad for this. The pieces get stuck to each other in greasy or gelatinous chunks. Or it comes away in stringy strips that are so small the dog barely notices them.  

Preparation

Prepare your treats before your session starts. Cut up your home made liver/tuna/lamb cake, your sausages, your cheese, your meaty strips, etc. Make them small enough that your dog knows she’s had the treat, but not so big that she’s going to chew on them for a while. This applies to crunchy treats too. Don’t give biscuits or big treats that your dog needs to crunch for a long time. My dogs love the cubes of dried fish. But I rarely use them during training sessions as they take far too long to eat.

A word of caution here too. If you are teaching something that requires a lot of movement from the dog, or if your dog often chokes or coughs when given crunchy treats, don’t use them in training. Running around while crunching up biscuits often leads to them getting stuck in your dog’s throat. Not fun. Instead, use soft treats instead. 

Variety

And finally, mix your treats up. Adding small biscuits to a tub of sausage pieces and/or cheese cubes will soften up the biscuits and add variety to your offerings. As long as your dog knows that whatever treat comes her way will be something she likes, she will happily work for them. And if every so often one is extra tasty that will spur her on even more.   

2. Treat bags

You might wonder what your choice of treat bag has to do with your mechanical skills. Like any mechanic, the job is made so much easier with the right tools. Fundamental to your efficient treat delivery is being able to access the treats quickly. Therefore the opening of the bag is important. If you can’t easily get your hand into the bag to reach the treats, your reinforcement falls apart. Consider the size of the opening – can you actually get your hand in there? Also consider the bag’s closure. Do you pull a drawstring to close it up? If so, you can’t do that between every reward. Opening and closing the drawstring isn’t practical mid training session. Same with a zip. 

Quick draw

My preference is for what used to be called a quick draw pouch. This style can have a hinged metal mouth that you flip it open with your fingers when you dip in to get your treats. And then push it closed with the same hand on exit or later in the session. My favourite used to be the Terry Ryan treat pouch.  

You get a similar quick draw effect with a simple magnetic closure which easily opens when you push your hand into the bag and automatically closes when your hand comes out. My favourite, and current, treat bag is the Doggone Good Rapid Rewards Training Pouch It’s a great size, especially if you’re a trainer working with multiple dogs – it holds a lot of treats. But it’s easy for me to get my hand into. And I can wear it around my waist on an adjustable webbing belt. Or I can clip it to my own belt, pocket or waistband.

My well used treat bag

How and where you wear it

Bags that you can close quickly and easily prevent the issue of treats falling out when you bend or move. And having optional clips or belts allows me to use the bag whatever I’m wearing. Find the perfect height for where you need your bag to sit. I always think this is like a guitarist deciding how long his guitar straps need to be. I prefer a low slung treat bag, but you might prefer one that sits on your waist. And think about which side to wear the bag. As a trainer, it’s important to be able to use it whatever side it’s on. This allows you to demonstrate and coach clients according to which side is most comfortable for them. Plus some exercises benefit from having the bag at the same side as the dog, e.g. heel work, while others are just as easy whatever side it’s on.   

3. Loading treats

In many cases, you will want to reward your dog in quick succession, giving one treat after the other. This is much easier to do if you can hold multiple treats in your hand. The reason for doing this rather than putting your hand into your treat bag each time you want to reward is that it can really speed up delivery. And if you’re not using a treat bag, it stops you having to dip into the treat container every time, especially if your dog is distracted by the inviting container of treats or you don’t have a secure place to set it down. One way of doing this is to hold the treats in one hand, taking one treat at a time with the other hand. For example, you hold a bundle of treats in your left hand, taking one at a time with your right. 

4. Rolling treats

For similar reasons as Tip 3, you might want to speed up your treat delivery. I’ve found that when teaching particular positions on cue, e.g. sit, down and stand, stopping to reload or even the delay in moving a treat from one hand to another can really slow down progress. Imagine you’re luring your dog into a down and just as her chest is about to hit the floor you run out of treats and have to move your hand up to your treat bag. Most dogs will follow your hand up and you have to start all over again. But if you practise delivering individual treats from a handful held in your palm, this is less likely to happen. 

Start by holding just a few treats in your palm. You then open you fingers slightly to allow your thumb to roll on top of one of the treats. That treat is then rolled by your thumb over your palm and into the crook of your forefinger ready to be used as a lure or a reward. As soon as you give the treat, repeat the technique of rolling the treat with your thumb onto your finger. I’ll add a video of this to my Instagram stories.

I use this a lot as it gives me fast delivery of single treats. The treat is not on show to the dog as it’s nestled in the crook of my finger. This means that the dog learns to trust me when I ask for a behaviour whether or not a treat is visible. She can’t see it but that doesn’t mean it’s not there. This helps make smooth transitions from luring to cueing. Plus it gives me the additional option to jackpot by opening my hand fully to toss out all the treats at once.  

5. Pockets

What if your reward is a toy rather than a treat? In most cases, pockets are essential. But not just any pockets. It can be really hard to extricate your toy from your pocket at just the right time. It gets caught up in the material. Or it gets jammed in there because you were worried it would fall out. You can buy training vests that have a long pocket running the width of vest in the back of the garment and/or large pockets at the front. These let you easily snatch the toy out of the pocket just when it’s needed. I first came across these during a gundog training session, an activity where they have been used for many years. But you can also get them in, dare I say it, a more fashionable version, by Hurtta and other suppliers.

A cheaper way to achieve a similar result is to get a hoodie with a large front pocket. It won’t hold as many toys as the vests and it will get soggy, but it’s an excellent easy access alternative. 

And if you use a ball to reward your dog, you can pick up plastic ball holders that clip onto your belt. They are often used by detector dog handlers who need to provide quick, accurate rewards when their dogs hit the scent. A quick left hand grab from the back of their belt and boom! The ball gets tossed to the dog without fuss or delay. These are cheap (from about £4) and usually hold any tennis sized ball.

6. How to hold the lead

This something that often gets handlers in a kerfuffle. Lead, treats, maybe a clicker. It can all get too much. So, treats in easily accessible treat bag. Clicker in bag, pocket or around the wrist. And then the lead. Unless you’ve got a particular lungy or strong dog, there’s no need to hold it in both hands. Hold the lead in the hand that you’re not using to give the treats.

For example, if you are practising not pulling on lead and your dog is walking on your right side, hold the lead in your left hand across the front of your legs. Then you can use your right hand, which is on the same side as the dog, to quickly deliver treats. The lead is only ever there as a safety measure. In this example, you are controlling the dog with your voice, movement and treats, not with the lead.

Lead handling skills

Make sure you have the lead gathered short enough that neither you nor your dog is going to trip or get tangled with it. But long enough to give your dog room to move. The hitch hiker’s grip is good and strong and allows you to shorten or lengthen the lead with one hand. The loop of the lead handle goes over your thumb, with the remainder of the handle held firmly in your palm. 

hitch hiker hold
Hitch hiker hold

To shorten the lead, turn your hand 180 degrees to the side and grab the section of lead closest to your hand. Repeat this turning your hand 180 degrees to the left then the right, grabbing a section of lead after each turn. To lengthen the lead, reverse the process, i.e. open your hand a little to release a section then close it, turn it and release the next section. I’ll pop a video of this on my Instagram stories.

Like everything else I’ve described, this needs practise. These are skills and skills don’t arrive the instant you discover them. It may feel awkward at first but that’s because you’re not used to holding the lead like this or moving your hand in certain ways. But trust me, with practise you’ll find this a super useful and very secure way to use your lead. And effective lead management is so fundamental to good training and handling skills that I can spot a good or experienced trainer a mile off just down to how she’s handling the lead. 

7. Be body aware 

Make sure your movements mean something. And mean what you want them to mean. You know I love to film everything. Figuring out what your body is doing and what subtle, to us, cues you are giving out to your dog is made easier when you can review footage of your training session.

I’d guess that the most common unconscious body movement is when handlers lean forward as they ask their dog to lie down. The handler is moving in the direction they want the dog to move. And is likely preparing to get into a good position to reward the dog. But the bend forward wasn’t part of their intended cue. They might have supposed that a hand signal or word, or both, were the cues to ask the dog to lie down. But the dog might have learned that the forward bend was the cue and without it would ignore the other two as they were irrelevant. 

Now, this only matters if you want your cues to be clean and clear. In the real world, many of us give sloppy or vague cues to our dogs. Being the masters of reading body language our dog might figure out what we mean, have made a lucky guess or have learned a physical cue that we haven’t even noticed. And that’s fine. But if you want to eliminate all doubt, keep communication clear and ambiguity to a minimum, you need to be aware of what your body is doing. 

Classic unintentional movement

The classic error is moving your hand towards the treat bag before you’ve even asked your dog to do anything. This let’s her know that a reward is on offer. She may start spontaneously offering behaviours. Or she may repeat the last thing you practised together, or her favourite trick. But what happens when your hand doesn’t move to the treat bag? Or if you’re not using a treat bag this time around? This might mean that there are no rewards on offer and so she takes no notice of you. This is when I most often hear the cry of ‘she only does it for food’. And that’s when you need to go back to fix the training issue. An issue you’ve probably unintentionally caused. Just remember, the reward comes after the behaviour.

Think also about how you move your body in relation to your dog. If you’ve ever seen GoPro footage from the dog’s perspective of something as simple as walking beside you, you’d understand why many dogs want to keep as far away from our feet as they can. Fear of being trodden on or tripped over is very real. And when you see the size of our feet and how close we are to our dogs you’ll see why they want to keep their distance. 

Also bending over or staring can be stressful, threatening or adding unintended pressure. Touching the dog while she’s learning can be aversive. Ettie loves to lie beside and on me whenever she can. But offering to stroke her during a training session will cause her to move away. So really think about how you move and why. Film yourself and learn from the footage.  

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8. Think before you speak

As with body movement, we’re often not really aware of what we are saying. Incessant chatter where the dog struggles to pick out any actual cues usually results in the dog switching off to whatever the handler is saying. On the other hand, being completely silent or monosyllabic can be oppressive and unhelpful.

Make sure you know what the words you use mean. Do they mean the same to you as they mean to your dog? Try to be consistent. Don’t say ‘down’ one day and ‘lie’ the next if both mean lie down. Pick your verbal cue and stick with it. And ask everyone who lives with the dog to use the same words. That way the whole family will find the dog more reliable in her response. 

What’s in a name?

And try not to use your dog’s name as a cue. Unless, like me, you use the dog’s name to indicate that you are talking specifically to her. I’ve three dogs. And usually I address one at a time. So, I might ask Ettie ‘to go for a wee’, while asking Ella to ‘stay’ and Cherry to ‘sit’. I’ll say each dog’s name before the cue so that she knows I’m talking to her. It just makes life easier. But repeating your dog’s name and expecting her to know what you want her to do, makes life harder. If you must repeat something (and we can talk about that in another blog) repeat the cue.  

Watch your tone. There’s no need, as I’ve seen and heard many people do, to bellow ‘Down!’ in a low gruff voice. Just say it in the same happy tone as you’d say ‘sit’ or ‘stand’ or come’. If your cue sounds like a telling off, your dog’s response may not be the one you expected.  

9. Practise without your dog 

A fun way to practice your hand-eye co-ordination, timing and observation is to use a tennis ball and a friend. Ask your friend to bounce the ball on the ground and then catch it. You choose which behaviour you particularly want to respond to. It could be when the ball hits the ground or when your friend catches it. Once you’ve decided, when you see the behaviour you say ‘Good’ (or click your clicker.) Repeat until your timing of the ball hitting the ground and you saying ‘Good’ happen simultaneously.

If you do this with a group of friends, you’ll be able to hear the difference in each person’s timing. As the game continues, you should all start to speak in unison. You can change the game any way you want. So have two people toss the ball back and forth. Or give it a double bounce. Whatever you do, just be clear about which behaviour you are taking note of and responding to. This should help when you go back to train your dog.

10. Aim game

And my final tip is to practise tossing the toy or treat to the dog. You don’t want her to expend energy in running to chase the reward (unless that is the reward!) or to lose the rhythm of the training session while she sniffs around to find the reward. So pick a target and practise tossing the treats in there. You could use a container, like a bucket or bin. Or you could use a mat or towel on the floor. To achieve level expert in this game, practise with both hands, not just your dominant one. 

You can even combine this with the tennis ball game. Shout ‘good’ when you see the ball bounce and then toss a treat so that it lands on your target. 

So there you have it. My 10 ways to improve your mechanical skills. And while I don’t believe in perfection, I do believe in practising. So go have fun with it, and get a step further towards being the great teacher your dog wants you to be.  

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