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Being the TomTom: Navigating Your Dog to Precision

Being the TomTom:  Navigating Your Dog to Precision

After a holiday furlough and a gentle nudging from a few friends, I decided to sit down and pick back up on the proofing series.

We’ve finished the 3 D’s and are now ready to proof for precision.  This is definitely taking performance to a higher level.  With that consideration, shaping for precision is a skill that takes practice and time to develop.  For many families and dog owners, training for precision may not be a priority; for competitive canine handlers, it is a given.

Key concepts:  Shaping, observational skills, training plans, criteria setting, differential reinforcement.

What is precision?

Precision is the final, polished look of a behavior, your vision of the behavior in its most perfect form.  

How do you get there?  OPT for precision:  Observe, Plan, Train.

Obviously, if you want to have precise behaviors, you have to start with two things:  a precise description of the behavior in its current form and your vision of the perfect, final product.  The better you hone your observational skills, the more successful you will be when training for precision.  

It is often easier to work backwards, starting with the description of the goal behavior.  This allows you to consider the goal behavior and draw the parallels between the goal and the current incarnation of the behavior while forming your shaping plan.  Remember, there may be a number of factors to take into consideration, including but not limited to:  position of each paw, position of head, position of ears, tail carriage, centering or shifting of body weight, and orientation relative to you.  

If you are having a difficult time imagining the ideal behavior, it is helpful to try to observe dogs that have already been trained to fluency and for precision performing the behavior to get an idea of what you should strive for.  The more detailed you are able to make your description, the easier your road to precision will be.  

Now that you have observed and clearly defined the goal behavior, you’re going to have to compare the criteria you’ve established to what you’ve already got (the behavior in its current form).  You will need to correlate each criterion from the goal behavior with the dog’s current level of performance.  Think of each of these criteria as “microbehaviors.”  If you have defined goal criteria for orientation relative to you, you will need to write down where the dog is currently relative to you when offering the behavior.  

This is where you become the TomTom.  Precision is reliant on defined criteria:  where are we?  Where do we need to go?

Your description of the behavior in its current state is your “starting address.”  We can’t find out where we are going if we do not know where we are starting from.  Similarly, your goal behavior is obviously your end point…where you want to end up?

Much like a GPS navigating system, you must navigate your dog between where you are and where you’re going.  On the way to your eventual destination, you will need to make many stops, one stop for each of the microbehaviors you’ve defined.  

In any training program, it is important to keep in mind that we only work on one criterion at a time to allow for clear communication.  Remember, a GPS can only direct you to one location at a time; and after your stop, the route needs to be recalculated.

Recently, I traveled to North Carolina for a cousin’s wedding.  My GPS would not have been a relevant or useful navigation tool if it said, “Drive South for approximately 640 miles.”  In order to get to my destination, the GPS had to guide me through every turn, curve, and stop light.

You must be the navigator system for your dog.  Like any traveler, your dog will require turn-by-turn directions to successfully complete her journey.  These directions are your shaping plan.  

Shaping plans are not measured in miles to the next turn, but in inches, degrees, intensity, and approximations.  

I recently had a client with a show prospect Newfoundland puppy.  While the dog otherwise had a nice stack, she held her tail over her back, at approximately a 60 degree angle relative to her topline.  To show, her tail would need to be carried lower, slightly behind where her back legs would be when positioned in stack.

Although I’m swapping the quadrants and reversing the angles of a circle a bit, let’s consider her topline to be 0 degrees (tail flush along the dog’s back), a tail carried straight up in the air to be at 90 degrees, a tail held straight back behind the dog at 180 degrees, and a tail that went down directly between the legs and toward the ground at 270 degrees.  I needed to get from about 60 degrees to approximately 255 degrees.  

For another framework (perhaps one more easily imagined), we can view the dog’s tail carriage like a clock’s hour hand.  If the dog’s tail flush along the topline would be 9 o’clock, a tail straight up would be at 12 o’clock, straight back tail at 3 o’clock, and a tail between legs and straight down would be 6 o’clock.  In this context, I’m going from about 11 o’clock to about 4:30.  

I could have developed a very detailed shaping plan to get from point A to point B, but I admit I cheated a bit here, since there was only one criterion which needed to be modified.  This is where differential reinforcement comes in…I simply started clicking for lower tail carriage.  Within twenty minutes of hearing her first click, her tail was lowered, and as a bonus, she was so smart she’d learned to leave/ignore treats on the floor in the process!

If I had needed to build the stack from the bottom up, I would consider the position of the head, ears, feet, tail, shifting of weight, etc.  Each of these factors would need to be considered individually, analyzed and planned for. The more criteria you are considering, the more detailed your shaping plan may need to be.  

If that were the case, my tail carriage shaping plan may look like:

Current behavior:  tail at 11:00
Goal behavior:  tail at 4:30

Shaping increments:

Tail at eleven
Tail at eleven thirty
Tail at twelve
Tail at twelve thirty
Tail at four thirty

Raise criteria when your dog is achieving approximately 80% reliability at the current level.  If the dog is achieving less than 50% reliability at the current level, I’ve likely increased my criteria too quickly.  In this situation, I would return to the last step in my shaping plan at which my dog was achieving good reliability, do a few more repetitions, and then increase to the next criteria level, working to 80% reliability before raising criteria again.

Once I had shaped the tail carriage to where I needed it to be, I could start working on the placement of the left back paw, then the right back paw, then each front paw, etc.

When you are training for precision it calls into question the mantra that “training is a science.”  Here, it can seem to be an art, a science, a geometric or time piece imagining.  Shaping for precision is a science, but it requires the art of patience, the skill of observation, a detail oriented vision and perception of behavior, record keeping skills, planning, etc.

Remember, your GPS calculates the shortest route and the fastest route differently.  While a generalized shaping plan with big leaps from one level of achievement to the next may seem to be the training “short cut” to the goal destination, in fact it may be fraught with construction, traffic jams, and speed traps.  

It is better to have the fastest route planned; the one which may seem to have more twists, turns, and intersections but in fact considers all the variables which may influence your progress on the route to your journey’s end.  

If you have the detailed route planned, and happen upon a short cut, no harm done.  Clicker savvy dogs are known for finding short cuts, and the best course of action requires that you stay one step ahead of the dog (or traffic) so that you can easily recalculate your route should incidentals arise.     

We’ve reached our goal destination, a description of the process one must adhere to when shaping for precision.  

Stay tuned for the next entry in the proofing series, Shortening the Intermission between Cue and Behavior:   Proofing for Latency.