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Going the extra mile: Proofing for distance

Now that I've introduced what exactly proofing behaviors is, it's time to break it down into the particulars...elements of fluency.

Many dog trainers speak about the "3 D's". What are the 3 D's, you might ask? Distance, Distraction, and Duration.

It is not imperative that you begin proofing for distance before distractions or duration. It is also not as if you have to proof for distance exclusively until you reach your goal distance, and then go back to working on distractions, then duration.

I only work on one aspect of fluency during any given training session, but may work on another aspect later on that day in another training session.

Let's consider distance further, and how we can work towards proofing our behaviors for this aspect of fluency.

One of my favorite methods, which works for establishing both distance and duration is called "300 pecks".

What is "300 pecks"? It is a method that originally stemmed from behavioral experiments with pigeons in the laboratory, and the term for the method was eventually coined by Alexandra Kurland, a well known clicker trainer who specializes in horses.

"300 pecks" means that we raise criteria in small increments and immediately go back to basics (baseline level of the behavior) if the dog is not able to succeed at the current level of performance.

How can you use "300 pecks" to build distance?

Let's say we're working on sit, and we'd like our dog to sit at a distance, and we'd like to work up to a response at a distance of 100 yards, eventually (this number is arbitrary, you may proof for distance as far away from you as your dog is able to perceive the cue).

While this is our eventual goal, if we have just started training the behavior, it is not likely that we will be setting our dog up for success by expecting that level of performance at this stage in the training.

Most dogs that have just been trained the sit behavior respond directly in front of their trainer. To build duration on the sit behavior using "300 pecks" you would proceed as follows:

1) Cue the sit immediately in front of you. If your dog responds to the cue, click then treat (hereafter referred to as CT).

2) Take one step back, cue the sit. If your dog sits one step away, CT.

3) Take two steps back, cue the sit. If your dog sits two steps away, CT.

4) Take three steps back, cue the sit. If your dog responds with the behavior, CT.

Let's say that your dog didn't respond at three steps but responded at two. If you cue the sit three steps away and your dog tries to approach you to sit in front of you, offers another behavior, or otherwise does not respond to the cue appropriately, do not reinforce.

Automatically go back to the first step - cueing directly in front of you. Then work back up to three steps, four steps, five steps, a hundred steps, etc. If at any time the dog fails, you go back to the first step and work through the incremental raising of criteria all over again.

I know that it sounds slow and tedious, but it's really not. You'll be surprised at how quickly you are able to progress in your training using the "300 pecks" method.

In some circumstances, even that first step back is too big for the dog. If you take a step back/away from your dog and she automatically moves to being directly in front of you, this is one of those occasions.

For these dogs, you have two options:

a) use a tether/gate/other physical barrier: secure the dog in place and proceed with the 300 pecks method.  If your dog is skilled at targeting, you can also use a stationary target and send your dog out to target to create distance.  HINT:  If you would like to use a target, make sure you proof that behavior for distance first!

b) proof for the distraction of handler movement for a bit and then come back to distance work. (More about proofing for distractions - including handler movement - to come in later installments of the series).

If you are working on a moving behavior like a recall, you may need the help of a volunteer who will hold the end of the lead/tether and release it when you give the cue.

Another behavior that many people want to proof for distance is loose leash walking (LLW), or LLW's show-off cousin, the heel. You can use 300 pecks to train this also...one step, reinforce. Two steps, reinforce. Three steps, reinforce. Four steps, reinforce. Five steps - leash goes taught. Return to baseline (one step) and resume the procedure.

It is important to remember that we only raise one criteria at a time, and while we raise any one criteria, we temporarily lower our other criteria. We do not want to introduce distractions when we are first training for distance. So you're going to work on distance first in an environment with very minimal distractions. (LLW is a bit of an anomaly in this respect, as the nature of this behavior is that duration and distance are built simultaneously.)

If you choose to work in another session on distractions, make sure that you aren't asking for much distance while you train for distractions. Once both aspects of fluency are achieved, you can introduce them together (begin building distance in a distracting environment). It is very important that you set a clear standard of achievable goals for the dog within any training session and that your dog is set up for success.

To put this into perspective, let's say that you are learning the art of belly dancing, and you are also learning how to perform complex algebraic equations in your head. Each of these are new tasks to you, and require a fair bit of concentration as you develop this foreign skill. Would it be easier to learn about belly dancing one class and algebra in another class period, or would you like to learn belly dancing and complex mental calculations simultaneously?

Once you are skilled at both belly dancing and mental mathematical feats of genius, you may be able to belly dance while thinking of a simple equation but not a very complex equation. If you want to be able to do both fluently simultaneously, you will need to work on them each separately, and then work on combining them in a way that will allow you to achieve good results in both.

Hopefully, this admittedly silly example will help illustrate the importance of proofing for one aspect of fluency at a time, until there comes a time when they are all individually fluent. Then, and only then, should we begin introducing multiple criteria at a time.

All that said, do your dog a favor. Teach them how you would want to learn, and allow them separate training opportunities/sessions for each new criteria/aspect of fluency.

Until our next installment, happy proofing to you and "woof! woof! *play bow*" to your dog(s)! (They'll know what that means, trust me.)