The reason some people say that sighthounds are difficult to train is that many lack work ethic of working breeds like Malinois, German Shepherd and Border Collie. Have you ever heard people say this:
- She will complete the exercises, but very slowly.
- He just checks out in class and starts sniffing around.
- I need to switch up exercises all the time to keep him from getting bored.
- He gets slower and slower during exercise.
- She likes to play with toys, but will only work for food.
- I can’t use toys in training. When she manages to steal one from me she zooms around and plays keep away with it.
- Whippets hate repetition.
These can all be signs of weak work ethic (though some could have other causes, too). I agree, such a dog is difficult to train, but luckily work ethic can be improved.
Of course at this point you can only imagine what exactly “good work ethic” means to me. You probably have some ideas, but you’re not sure. Guess what, neither are our dogs. Our sighthounds have no idea what kind of engagement we want from them – we need to train it. For me this means:
- Dog knows when I want his full attention and for duration of that time he works with all his heart (the single most important ingredient. Get this and everything else will get much easier).
- He works reasonably fast the whole time, not just in the beginning.
- He joyfully disregards distractions like other dogs, females in heat, food on the ground, other people etc
- He thinks repetitions are good – they mean more possibility to earn rewards!
- He will work for reward of my choice (within reason). Meaning, if he otherwise likes to play with toys he will not refuse a toy just because I’m carrying food and vice versa – will take food as a reward even if I’m holding his favorite frisbee.
- When he wins a toy or I throw it for him he will come back to engage with me. He prefers working/playing with me to running around with his toy.
Ruby had none of the above as a teenager. He has all of them now, but they are like any other skill – for best results I need to keep them fresh in his mind. We play many games – too many to describe in a single blog post. So for today let’s focus on how you teach the most important ingredient – working with all his heart throughout the whole session.
Can you make your dog work with all his heart for a few seconds? Maybe that’s when you bring out a special toy or special treats? Maybe before you put the dinner bowl down? Before you let him run with his friends? Maybe in the evening, in the morning? When you come home from work? Experiment with different rewards and times of day.
How long do you think he will keep working with all his heart? Ten seconds? A minute? If it’s just ten seconds then this is how long your sessions should be, or even a little less. End the session before he starts to loose enthusiasm. But how? I can’t get anything done in 9 seconds!
If you have the very best reward for your dog, you’re animated and happy during training session and you’re working at a place with little to no distractions then likely this time is closer to 1 minute (or more). So check your rewards, attitude and training environment.
Here’s why I want you to end the session while the dog is still excited: imagine your dog is taking snapshots during training sessions and especially at the end of training sessions. If the dog has been trained past the point of loosing enthusiasm then his snapshots look like this: Excited! This is fun. OK, a little boring. (Next session) This is fun. OK, a little boring. (Next session) This is fun. OK, a little boring. VERY boring can we please stop?
My dogs snapshots look like this: Excited! (Next session) Excited! (Next session) Excited! (Next session) OMG I’m so excited! This is the best thing ever!!!
Since I always cut off the session while the dog is still excited these are the only memories he has. So of course he thinks training is super fun, how could he think otherwise? Because of this built up enthusiasm he will be able to work longer and longer with same speed and engagement. He will also be far less likely to notice distractions if he is so excited about training and about my rewards.
Of course in the real world things still happen. Not every session is the best session. Or we sign up for a class and our instructor wants us to train longer than we know would be best. When I took Java to puppy class we spent equal amounts of time working, playing and resting (I cued her to sniff around or scooped her in my arms). We probably worked and played 1-3 minutes at a time and I was stopping the sessions way before Java showed any signs of loosing enthusiasm. The instructor suggested that we should work longer so that Java would develop capacity for longer working sessions (well she DID have the capacity to work longer, I just didn’t want to use it).
I told her I saw no need to work longer. Dogs learn fastest when we work in short sessions and for that reason I plan to work in short sessions her entire life. Also agility run is only 30 seconds long – no fear that she would loose concentration because our sessions were too short! But the biggest reason was that I knew Java was taking snapshots of our training. I wanted her to have as many great, exciting, fun snapshots as possible. And I wasn’t about to change that just because we were in a puppy class. It was especially important to me that she has great memories of training around other puppies. That she remembers me being much more fun than any puppy instead of remembering that it was so much fun when she managed to run away from me to play with her classmate… all because I would be too boring to keep her attention on me.
Java will now work for as long as you want even though we never worked on extending the duration of training sessions. This is just a logical extension of enthusiasm she has for work. As they say, time flies when you’re having fun 🙂
Here’s an example of one of our more exciting training sessions. Java is working for her dinner kibble, but she’s VERY excited because I put it in a bowl and she knows I could be sending her to it at any time. Actually she’s a bit TOO excited because her movements are erratic, but we will work through this and eventually she will be able to heel nicely even around dinner bowl. Who said heeling was boring?