I recently saw a student trying to jump a small ravine by leaving the dog on one side, jumping themselves and then calling the dog over. It didn’t go right and every time the student jumped, the dog jumped. This was repeated about 6 times before I intervened. This isn’t a debate about whether I should have stepped in sooner. This was an experienced handler and I was curious to see if they would break the situation down to problem solve and gain success. At the point it became obvious they wouldn’t I intervened.
I started by asking for the handlers understanding of the situation and expectations in case I had misread the situation. The intention was as I had assumed, to leave the dog on one side, jump and then call the dog over.
Whilst the handler is experienced this is their first contact with me and like any alien encounter there is a degree of fear, suspicion and intrigue and I tried hard to evoke the latter whilst simultaneously subdue the two former. This is vital in my experience in helping handlers crossover from old school handing methods to a new way of thinking. It is hard changing your thoughts and processes when you have been doing things for a long time and what you don’t need is some patronising know it all chipping in from the side lines. Taking that risk though, I waded in.
First we talked about the commands being used and whether the dog understands them. I was assured that the dog ‘knows’ the “wait” command that was being used. We discussed the idea that if dogs don’t perform a command they either don’t understand them or have a more rewarding alternative. From here we established that the dog was quite willing to jump and obviously enjoyed jumping because she was happily jumping from one side to the other as we spoke. The act of jumping needed neither teaching nor rewarding as it was rewarding in and of its self for this dog.
Therefore the issue was connected with the “wait” command. The more rewarding alternative to waiting appeared to be jumping. So does the dog understand the “wait” command? We talked about how that command had been taught and was used. The handler believed it to mean simply ‘don’t do anything yet’. That is quite an abstract concept for a dog to understand and would take a degree of generalisation if the dog stood any chance of getting it. I use a similar command to discourage the dog from taking action but it is limited to certain contexts. My dogs are free to get in or out of the vehicle when the door is open unless I say “wait”. They were initially clicked and rewarded for waiting and then allowed to continue with getting in or out the vehicle. Once understood getting in or out is the reward. I also use it at doorways or gates if I simply don’t want the dog to follow me. The wait is then ended by the (universal) end command. The dog understands this in the few specific contexts that I use it but would probably struggle to understand the concept if I suddenly used it whilst heeling for instance.
In the case of this handler the command was used in a similar way but there had been no real effort to reward the act of waiting and it wasn’t particularly reliable. The dog would often have to be physically blocked from moving forward. This in its self suggests the dog doesn’t understand the command.
The handler also believed that the dog learned the command in static positions where a down or sit command would be followed by a “wait”. I explained that we had taught the dog the concept of down means down until it is given the end command or another command and that this is the concept that the dog understands. The “wait” is obsolete and is a hangover from previous training where there was no end command and no clear way for the dog to know when the exercise was over. In that context the repeated use of wait probably served to help the dog understand not to move and it may have gained a wider understanding of its intended use. With the way we now train the dog isn’t learning any particular meaning to the use of the word wait and if anything it may actually be more likely to be a tertiary reinforcer as it may often be followed by the end command (a secondary reinforcer) even though handlers are not taught and actively discouraged from using “wait” as a command on control positions.
In our scenario of jumping the ravine the dog clearly didn’t understand the use of the wait command AND had a more rewarding alternative therefore repeated attempts were doomed to failure. My solution was to simply use a control position followed by the end command as the dog understands the control positions and the handler jumping the ravine is simply a distraction which should be well within the dogs abilities to ignore. Once safely over the end command would release the dog and the reward would be the chance to jump and join the handler.
If the handler really wanted the dog to understand a “wait” command then it could be done but there was definitely some work to be done before it could be used in that scenario. Whilst this may sound really obvious to some trainers, to others this way of thinking is new. Old school training used to rely on threats and intimidation and an assumption that if you were assertive enough then the dog would just do it. Whilst I’m not saying this handler was using threats or intimidation the concept of breaking behaviours down into small achievable parts and rewarding those before asking for more complex versions is still alien to many handlers. I am constantly encouraging handlers to reward sooner and more frequently. I find younger handlers much more willing to accept this idea and wonder if in some way it is because the old dominance theories of dog ownership and training are starting to finally die out in favour of a better understanding of the relationship between man (kind) and dog. I can but hope.