Who doesn’t want to find the secret to jump-starting their dog training! There is one simple, single letter in our alphabet that contains many exciting clues to successful training. Can you guess which one? Here’s a hint: it’s the first letter of our favorite furry friend. That’s right, D (like in dog)!
There are 3 Ds to understanding and achieving successful dog training. They are Distraction, Distance, and Duration. They come into play in every context and all training exercises. Many people wonder how super-effective dog trainers get such amazing results. The truth is they follow a set of rules that you can follow just as easily. And one of them is the golden rule of 3 Ds. The golden rule of three Ds is to only increase ONE of the three Ds at any one time. When you increase the difficulty of one, you should decrease the difficulty of the other two.
Every task we teach our dogs should start out easy (at the dog’s level of ability) and, as the dog masters that level of training, we should increase criteria by asking for a little bit more complexity.
Remember that dogs need a lot of help to understand that a cue such as come or sit, given in one situation has the same meaning in another. As soon as you change the factors influencing the task, factors we call the 3 Ds, you affect your dog’s chances of success.
Distractions are part of life, especially for dogs. Let’s face it a dog can be distracted by just about anything from the high-value food reward to the wind blowing leaves. Distractions are part of dog training no matter what, so we might as well begin to work with them and take them into account.
Sometimes distractions are environmental sounds or sights. Other times we are doing distracting things, placing hands in treat pouches or pockets, walking too far away during stay training, or perhaps the dog is too close (distance) to the door or visitor for a sit and wait. Being aware of distractions and doing your best to set the dog up for success by lowering them will help your training immensely. In fact, I would say the number one reason why dogs are unsuccessful in training is some form of distraction.
When you add distraction, it’s important to temporarily lower your criteria in order to help your dog. You can do this by going back to a higher level of reward/reinforcement (such as giving treats more often). Always start with the lowest amount of distraction and build on it as your dog does better with the training.
Distance can help or hinder your dog’s training. In the case of the reactive or over-aroused dog, you want as much distance as needed from the dog’s trigger when you begin to desensitize and counter condition the dog to that trigger that makes it reactive. Many clients make unsuccessful attempts at reducing their dog’s reactivity because they are too close to the distracting stimuli and usually for too long.
Conversely, you want a short distance from your dog when building duration for a stay or beginning to build a recall so you can keep up a high rate of reinforcement (giving the reward often) and maintain success and motivation for your dog. Don’t walk away too far away from your dog when training your dog to stay or asking your dog to come. Build up distance slowly. As you add more distance, you will increase your rate of reinforcement. That means you will decrease the time between treats so that he is being rewarded more frequently. As your dog gets good at a certain distance, you can slowly increase the time between treats. Your dog is successfully learning because he is only dealing with one criteria change at a time.
Distance can be related to either how close you are to your dog in a training exercise (as in the stay and recall examples), but it can also relate to how close your dog is to a distraction. If your dog is very squirrel-oriented, is it harder to get your dog’s attention when he is 100 feet from a squirrel or when he 5 feet away? That’s right; the closer your dog is to the distraction, the harder it is for him to think and learn. Don’t ask your dog to listen to you when he is that distracted. Increase the distance from the distraction until he is able to listen to you. (Notice I said, “able to listen to you”. Your dog is not blowing you off when he is over aroused and not responding; he truly is unable to process what you are saying.)
Keep your expectations in check. If your dog blew it, figure out why so that you can help him be more successful. It is up to you, as his trainer, to make it work for him.
Duration is also a very big factor for many dogs to either hold stays or deal with frustration and reactivity. You should always consider duration in training. Duration is a time interval. It can be how often you reward your dog, how long he holds the stay before he is rewarded or released, how long the door stays open before you release him to exit, and even how long he is staring at a distraction before you try to get his attention.
When working on stays of any kind, start with a duration that is easy so the dog understands the training, then build as necessary. Here’s an example of adjusting the frequency of the reward for a stay. After the first several treats (varies from dog to dog) begin to slow down the speed of reinforcement. Reward every 2 seconds and then 3 seconds and then 5 and 9 and so on. As you continue to decrease the time between treats, also begin to straighten out your position. This can be a sticky point, so gradually straighten up (stand up), then bend down to deliver the treat (for small dogs) and straighten up again. If your dog keeps popping up, you may have increased the time between treats too quickly for him to understand, or there may be other factors such as distractions in the environment.
Duration is also important to consider in terms of distraction. Let’s look at the squirrel example again. Which scenario is more challenging for your dog: Your dog glances at a squirrel for 2 seconds before you call him, or your dog has been staring at a squirrel for 10 seconds and getting more excited before you try calling him? Your timing is important to success. The sooner you try to get your dog’s attention the more successful you will likely be.
Do the math
These three D’s are the mathematics of dog training. Only increase one of these at a time to really maximize your dog’s training. In general, when you increase one, you decrease one or more of the others. If you have been noticing your dog breaking stays, not coming when called, reacting to some dogs and not others or perhaps door dashing during sit and wait at doors, you may want to reconsider one or all of these 3 D’s in your training protocol. The 3 Ds will help you to be a better trainer and will turn your dog into a superstar!