Updated: Feb 18, 2019
A pretty common issue I work on in my classes is getting confident duration on behaviors without needing to provide constant feedback.
So many of us get super excited to shape new behaviors! We're silent as we watch the dog brilliantly figure out what we want and then we use the clicker and the cookie to tell the dog when they were right. And it works! You get that cool hind leg lift, a beautiful chin rest, and pretty pivots!
Then at some point we need to take many of these behaviors and enter the obedience ring where silence has to mean the dog is doing well.
Trials are filled with long pauses as we wait for the judge to signal the start of an exercise and even those pauses within an exercise itself such as heeling, signals, and the time between a font and a finish! If your dog doesn't see silence as an indicator that he's doing well and should continue the behavior, then you either end up with a dog who starts getting worried when your immediate praise and cookies aren't forthcoming, or a dog who spastically offers different behaviors in a frantic attempt to get you to give him feedback!
When to Make the Transition
Is it ok to ever use silence in the shaping phase as the dog experiments and thinks through the problem? Of course it is! We need the dogs to learn those problem solving skills, to be willing to try offering something else! You can still talk to your dog during the shaping phase if it works for you and your dog, or you can be quiet and let them think.
At some point though you need to make the leap and transition from
silence= try again! You're close, but not quite right! to
silence= you're amazing! Continue doing the behavior!
The time that I personally make that transition is at one of 2 points:
When I start to put the behavior on cue. At this point the dog is learning to wait until you give your cue. I might set my dog up for success by stationing them on a platform of some type before cuing the new behavior, but if the dog offers it before cued I cheerfully call him back and reset. I need the dog to see the value in waiting! Essentially this is working on duration between behaviors.
Duration is added to the behavior itself. For example I have a chin rest to my hand of 1 second, but now I'm trying to get to 3 seconds. At this point I need the dog to realize that my lack of reward and feedback doesn't mean to try another behavior, but I need him to continue the original one. There are ways I can help the dog out with that (zen keeper is one technique), but the dog needs to realize that when I'm silent while his chin is down it means he's on the right track!
For many behaviors I'll even transition to silence = good earlier on. I may not have the full pretty version of the behavior, but I have a decent start. At that point I'll purposefully pay attention to how I handle errors so that I can preserve my silence = good philosophy.
How to Make the Transition
If we want silence to be something our dog's get excited about and realize they are on the right track, then that also means we can't use silence to mean try again! As a result, I chatter to my dogs when they are "wrong" and don't quite meet my criteria. Almost! Try Again! or any happy phrase that comes out of your mouth.
My goal is to be supportive of the dog and encourage them in their efforts. Depending on the behavior and my dog's skill level with it, my chatter may include helping them out with my body, doing a reset, or even tossing a cookie for them to chase in order to keep their attitude up.
Attitude is the number one priority.
Even when my dog doesn't quite make it, I want them to keep trying!
Let's look at pivoting in heel as an example. You're working on having the dog maintain position with you as you move around a disc, but your dog stops moving slightly early and ends up with their butt too far out. At that point I immediately talk to the dog- So close! Remember, I don't want the dog in the future thinking that my silence after a pivot means he should try to fix something and keep rotating back and forth!
What I do after I talk to the dog depends on the skill level. I could help the dog by bringing out my pocket hand to move the dog's head out and bring the butt in. I could take an additional step of pivoting so the dog now has to move further to fix himself. Or I could decide to actually use a cookie to lure the dog in and feed him in the right spot. I could even just throw a reset cookie and decide to make the next rep easier!
Here is an example of Nala working on her heel pivots. She is just starting to learn how to do a true pivot in place vs relying on a forward step of my body around a perch.
The mistakes she makes at 4sec I tell her you can do it! and move away from her while also helping her with my hand. I feed her a cookie for fixing it at this stage. Then I try again, but she still fails so I talk to her and reset her off with a cookie (admitedly not quite as cheerfully as I should have been!).
At 34sec I chat at her, oh that's too hard?! and help her with my hand. She makes some focus mistakes and chokes on a cookie after that so I reset her for some cookies in the grass.
My chatter at 55sec sounds too naggy! Nala is a sensitive girl and is losing attitude. You can see her start to stress. Thankfully, I recognized this and did some fun hand touches and thrown cookies in the grass before trying again. When we repeat she does a nice job!
And here is a video example of Zumi missing her stand signal. (My sigh as the beginning was to replicate a deep breath and work on some anticipation issues!) I immediately approach while telling her how close she was and have her do a fun jump to my hand. I reward her and then try again with much less distance and without the deep breath:
Building Value for Silence
What if your dog already sees silence as demotivating? We can work on that! One of my favorite games I learned from Denise Fenzi, called the Exploding Tree! Have your dog setup in heel (or really in any position!), pause.....then explode into a fun game! Gradually build up how long you pause to be several seconds!
The goal is to get the dog on the edge of their seat, building that anticipation of the upcoming release whenever there is a long formal pause.
You can do the same game on your signal exercise by giving the down signal, pausing......then surprise your dog by running away and having them chase you, or a tossed reward!
In heeling you might try going silent, even adding a tiny stalking posture for added fun, and then burst into a fun game of chase.
The key is making silence a predictor of an extra fun game!
Here Zumi has fun with learning my formal silence is a predictor of a game!
Duration for the Overly Enthusiastic Dog
For the dogs who think their job is to Do all the things! you will need to build duration slowly :)
Zen games are you friend!
Build in deep breaths and focusing on your dog learning to really wait for that release cue/additional cue.
Start delaying your reward marker so that you're no longer marking the instant the dog does the behavior, but you're marking the choice to freeze up and wait in position. Instead of cuing a down and then marking yes, cue your down, pause for at least a full second, and then mark/reward! Build in that expectation of silence and waiting before rewarding!
Here I'm working with Nala on doing positions in heel and waiting for the next cue. I use my zen hand a few times to help give her extra focus on me, occasionally reward her for not moving when I take a breath, and after I cue her position changes I make sure to pause before rewarding: