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How to Teach Perfect, Fast Dog Behaviors

The quick answer? Pay only for better than average behavior. The three aspects of fluency are precision, latency, and speed. The following training plans are designed to increase the fluency for three Rally Obedience exercises: slow pace heel, fast pace heel, and right turn while heeling.

With any of your dog’s behaviors, the first thing for you and your dog to train is precision. You want to make sure the behavior looks just how you want it to, before you start messing with speed. When dogs go faster, they get sloppy, just like humans. If you start with a sloppy behavior and then make it worse because of speed, the dog barely looks trained at all.

Precision is the accuracy of the behavior – does it LOOK good? For precision, you want to pick one aspect of the “perfect” behavior at a time, and shape your dog toward it. For a slow pace, the ideal behavior is that the dog is still in heel position and that the pace is right. For heel position, the dog’s body should be parallel to the human’s (facing the same direction), very close to the handler, and neither ahead nor behind the handler. Work through each aspect, one at a time and reinforce the best responses. As you shift to a different aspect, temporarily lower your criteria for the other aspect of the behavior, but work back up to “perfection” in both aspects before moving on to another.

Once the dog has the general concept of the behavior, then with each click, you should aim to reinforce behavior that is better than average. If the responses are measurable, take a numerical average and reinforce responses that are better than average. Every so often, re-average and click for responses that are better than the new average. For example, if the dog tends to lag 8 inches behind, on average, then you would click when the dog got closer than 8 inches to heel position. Or if, in that amount of distraction, the dog averages 30 degrees away from heel position, you’d click if the dog was anywhere from perfect to 29 degrees away from perfect. There’s always natural variation – take advantage of that and click/treat for better than average responses.

Make sure you do the heeling exercises at all paces/speeds. The same criteria apply to when you heel slowly with your dog as for fast heeling. For turns while heeling, the only difference is that the dog is more likely to swing out, so you would need to pay special attention to that aspect of heeling. The average deviation from heel will be different when turning versus walking straight.

Once your dog’s behavior looks perfect, you’ll move on to working on latency for the cue. Latency is the amount of time it takes for the dog to *begin* responding to the cue. The heel cue should be trained to have low latency, but for the exercises above, the cue to the dog is that you slow down, speed up, or turn your body. In your head or aloud, count the number of seconds it takes for your dog to begin slowing down, speeding up, or turning. Do this several times and take an average. Click for responses that begin sooner than the average response time. For speeding up, you may want to encourage your dog with toys, a bouncier walk, or excited talk. For the slow heel, you may need to exaggerate the fact that you’re slowing down, so your dog notices. You can give a verbal cue for fast and slow heeling – for slow, use a long, drawn-out cue, like “eaaaaasy.” For faster heeling, use a quick, rapid, repetitive cue like, “quick,quick!” or “let’s go!”

After your dog’s latency is what you want, work on making sure the behavior has low latency and good precision. Go back to clicking and treating more precise responses that still fall within your target latency.

For most behaviors, you would begin working on speed, but because of the nature of these behaviors, you don’t need to. Speed is how quickly the dog performs the behavior. When we say speed, we’re really talking more about the time it takes, rather than the rate, since there is no “distance” for most behaviors. We’re looking at how long it takes the dog to switch from a stand to a sit, once they get started. Speed *is* precision for these behaviors! Speed is improved much like the other parts of fluency – click for a response that is better than average.

In short, you get what you pay for. Pick each aspect of fluency (precision, latency, and speed), divide each of those into their individual components, and click/treat for responses that are better than average. For responses that are “worse” than average, simply release the dog and cue them to start over.