The dog was huge. An adolescent Great Dane (about 150 pounds) walked calmly into the bustling restaurant by my side. He was the largest service-dog-in-training I’d ever worked with, and even I wondered if I could keep him out of the way of the wait staff and patrons. After we were led to our table, I laid the dog’s mat next to my chair, cued “mat,” and spent the next hour or so enjoying a lovely meal while the dog relaxed quietly on his mat and remained out of the way.
That’s fluency at work. The dog’s successful “mat” experience was due to his ability to perform the behavior with distractions, for a substantial length of time, and with a great deal of precision (if he wasn’t squarely on that mat, he would have been a tripping hazard).
What is fluency?
So what exactly IS fluency? Why should you care about it? And how can you improve your dog’s fluency? First, look at fluency from a perspective that’s already familiar: language. You are fluent in your native language. For me, that’s English. I can read, write, speak, understand jokes, come up with synonyms and antonyms, understand syntax, and more in English. I KNOW English. I don’t have to think about it—it’s a part of me.
I study German. I am nowhere near fluent in German. I have a small vocabulary; my comprehension is much better if I’m reading the language. I have to stop and think about a translation if I’m speaking with a native. I don’t understand any jokes, and if I’m nervous or scared, I forget everything. My German needs a lot of work. It’s passable if I am just trying to ask where the bathroom is located, but I’m not even close to being fluent. Just because I know some German doesn’t mean I’m fluent in the language.
The same goes for dogs and behavior. Just because dogs know how to sit doesn’t mean they can do it anywhere, anytime, under any circumstances. That is just like me with my German; I can’t hold a conversation about the latest political landscape simply because I know a few German words.
Training the highest level of fluency is how you get the behavior you want the dog to do, when you want him to do it. When people say “My dog knows it, he just won’t do it,” they mean that the dog is not fluent in the behavior in all circumstances. Fluency is the difference between a dog being able to sit in a quiet room and a dog being able to sit while visitors enter your house. It can also be the difference between a dog that sits almost before you finish saying “sit” and a dog that sniffs around, looks at you, then sits. Really, it’s about how well you have taught the behavior.
Fluency: the sum of all parts
There are six pieces of fluency related to your dog’s ability to “do” a behavior.
- Precision – Does the behavior look perfect (you define what perfect looks like)?
- Latency – Does the dog start doing the behavior as soon as you ask?
- Speed – Once the dog starts the behavior, does it happen quickly enough for your needs?
- Distraction – Can the dog do the behavior no matter what’s going on around him?
- Duration – Does the behavior last as long as you need it to?
- Distance – Can the dog do the behavior away from you?
Using the “mat” behavior (dog goes to his mat and lies quietly) as an example, the components of fluency are easy to see.
- Precision – The dog needs to be placed on the mat squarely (not just partly on, but centered on the mat)
- Latency – The dog should start the behavior within one second of being asked
- Speed – The behavior should be completed within 3-ish seconds
- Distraction – The dog can do this behavior anywhere (ballpark, airplane, dentist office, restaurant, etc.)
- Duration – To expect a duration of 60 minutes is reasonable for the “mat” behavior (the length of a typical dinner out, doctor visit, etc.)
- Distance – For this behavior, distance is not a big issue, as you will be with the dog. You do need the dog to be able to stay while you walk away, however.
Your criteria for each aspect of fluency might be different than what is listed above. The criteria are totally customizable to meet your need. For example, if you’re working on the “mat” behavior and you define precision as “dog lies centered on mat,” then shape the behavior until it meets your criteria.
Train the cue first
Before you start to work on fluency, make sure the behavior is “on cue.” That means you have both taught the dog to do what you want and developed a signal to let the dog know when to perform the behavior. For my example, the cue is the word “mat” (of course, the mat needs to be there for the dog). For more information about cues and cueing, check out this article.
Train and enhance fluency
Where do you start with fluency when the behavior is on cue? Work on one aspect of fluency at a time. Why train one aspect of fluency at a time? It is really hard on the learner when requirements are stacked. Using the German language example, if my German teacher wants to improve my pronunciation (the precision with which I speak the word), the focus is on just that. For that time, no one cares that my rate of speech (speed) is quite low. The teacher and I won’t worry about how long I need to think about how to answer a question (latency); we’re working on pronunciation (precision) only. Imagine how hard it would be for me to stack those requirements on top of each another. What if after I get pronunciation down, my teacher adds on rate of speech (speed) while still holding me to the original high level of pronunciation? What if s/he then stacks another requirement—latency: the length of time it takes me to pause before answering a question? How soon do you think I will be quitting my German lessons?!
The smart and efficient way to teach is to work on only one component at a time. Work on each aspect of fluency until your dog has achieved success at each level. Master each component individually, then come back and start pairing them together. Follow the same path with your dog as you would for yourself.
I find it easier to work on fluency in the order I’ve listed above. Start with precision, because you want the behavior to look right from the start. After that, you can work on other pieces of fluency, such as speed (does the behavior happen quickly enough). If you’re working on precision, it does not matter how long it takes the dog to do the behavior, if he can do it with distractions, or if any other part of fluency is demonstrated. What matters is if the behavior looks like it should. If it does, click and treat the dog whether or not other aspects of fluency were met.
After you’ve reached your goal for precision, set that aspect of fluency aside (just temporarily, don’t worry) and work only on latency. The precision you worked so hard to get will likely deteriorate a bit while you’re working on latency—that’s ok. Let precision fall apart. You’ll get it back, I promise.
Must-know: the average
In order to improve any behavior, any aspect of fluency, you need to know where you and your dog are currently. The way to do this is to find the average level of behavior, and then click only the behaviors that are at least at the average.
What you need: 10 treats, paper, pencil.
To find the average, put 10 treats on the table. Ask your dog to offer the behavior you want to improve. Click and treat every attempt. After every attempt, write down a number. For instance, if you’re working on latency (how long it takes the dog to start doing the behavior), silently count the number of second it takes for your dog to start to sit after you ask him—that’s your first number for the latency average. After 10 trials, add up those numbers and divide by 10. That number is the average amount of time it takes your dog to start the behavior.
With the average for whichever component of fluency you are working on, you have everything you need to improve your dog’s behavior. Using the “mat” example again, if the average amount of time it took your dog to start moving toward the mat was three seconds, click and treat your dog whenever he starts to go to his mat in three seconds or less. If it takes him more than three seconds, abort that attempt. Shuffle your feet and move so your dog is “reset” for the next attempt. Very quickly, your dog will understand that only the faster responses get clicked. Soon you should have fewer below-average responses. Calculate the new average and then click and treat only those faster responses. Continue to improve the average until you’ve met your latency goal.
Working with the last three aspects of fluency—distraction, duration, and distance—it’s easier to start from a point where you know the dog can be successful. Raise criteria systematically from that point. For the “mat” behavior, if you were working on distractions start in a quiet room, and simply wave your hand while you ask your dog to move to the mat. Remember, when you are working on distraction, don’t worry about any of the other aspects of fluency. So with the focus on distraction, it doesn’t matter if it takes your dog five seconds to start toward the mat. As long as he gets there, he earns a click and a treat. Once distractions are at an appropriate level, only then work back up to the previously achieved level of latency.
If your dog isn’t successful at a particular point, you may have overestimated your dog’s abilities. If your dog can’t get it right within three attempts, reduce the level of difficulty so the dog has a good chance of getting a click and treat.
Remember to work on only one aspect of fluency at a time. It’s easy to think “he’s mastered the distractions, now I’ll add distance.” That’s a sure way to set your dog up to fail. Instead of adding on distance, drop out distractions and work only on distance. As always, keep training sessions short (5-10 minutes, shorter if your dog becomes less interested sooner).
Working carefully through the six components of fluency will improve your dog’s confidence and ability in a behavior. The result will be that reliable, crisp, and impressive behavior—and a dog that responds quickly, enthusiastically, and correctly whenever you ask.