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Baby Steps in Training

orange cat walking down stairs with Baby Steps in Training written next to it
Wee Beasties trainer with black and white dog

Written by Rachel

Rachel is a Professional Pet Trainer & Behavior Consultant certified through the Karen Pryor Academy for Animal Training and Behavior and Fear Free. She can help you train new behaviors and fix problem behaviors in a variety of species, including dogs, cats, parrots, and pocket pets like rabbits, ferrets, guinea pigs, etc.

Last week, we talked about setting goals and figuring out what we need to train our pets.

This week, we’ll talk about how to get those behaviors trained!

The key to training solid behaviors is breaking them down into manageable steps.

We’ll also want to check to see if any props would help us on our journey!

So let’s get started!

baby walking in yard with dog

Baby Steps for Smarter Pets

When we train our pets new behaviors in small steps, we actually make the final behavior stronger. Often, this is because we’re encouraging them to think about what they’re doing while they’re doing it—We’re actually building pathways in their brains for the behavior as we train it!

Let’s take a look at our sample behavior from last week!

Say I want to teach my dog to sit when I walk in the door (instead of jumping on me!).

We could definitely start by training a sit, but we don’t want our dog to sit directly in front of the  door, right?

Let’s use a prop to help them sit in the correct place! You can grab a towel, rug, yoga mat, etc. Anything that is big enough for your dog to stand on and that also feels different from your regular flooring near your door.

Sidebar: How did I know we’d need a prop here? Mostly from experience, but in general, anytime you think you want your pet to go to a specific place, you’ll likely want a target of some kind. Other props will be much easier to guess at—for example, if you want your pet to put two paws up on an object, you’ll need the object, and if you want them to go around a cone or a pole, you’ll need a cone or a pole!

So, now our behavior is “go to a spot and sit when I come in the door.”

Bend and Break

Most of the time, when you hear yourself using “and” when describing your goal, you can break your goal into a step or two. 

In this case, I would teach “go to a spot” and then “sit” in that order before adding the cue of you coming in the door.

Sometimes, it might be helpful to teach your goal behaviors in reverse order, but for short goals like this, the original order is fine. (We can talk more about reversing things later!)

In real life, it may be very difficult for your dog to sit at such an exciting event as you arriving home! You’ll need to practice this often and reward it heavily for it to work. However, if you’re happy with your dog just going and standing on a spot when you come home, which is slightly easier than sitting, reward that and enjoy! It’s not a failure if it still solves your problem. Work smarter, not harder!

And a One, and a Two!

The number of steps you need can also be affected by how you plan to train each behavior. In positive training, there are four ways to get a behavior: Capturing, Shaping, Targeting, and Luring.

Shaping

Shaping will always add more steps because, well, shaping is basically made of little steps!

Luring

Luring will always add at least two steps: 1) for luring the pet through the movement, and 2) for removing the lure from the movement. For example, you might teach a dog to spin in a circle by leading them around with a cookie on their nose as step 1, and then step 2 would be to lead them around without the cookie.

I would also go to step 3 here and make the leading motion smaller—you may have started by moving your arm all the way around in the path your dog’s nose would take, but step 3 would have you move your arm around in a smaller circle over their head, and you might repeat shrinking the circle until you can just twirl your finger!

Targeting

Targeting may add a second step similar to luring where step 2 would be to make the target smaller and smaller until it’s no longer needed. This step is optional for some behaviors, but very helpful for others.

Capturing, by nature of the process, “captures” a full behavior already, so the only step here is to add a cue to it after you’ve captured the behavior with several clicks and rewards.

Fancy, right?

Check out these posts to learn easy games that teach you how to do shaping and capturing and how to do luring and targeting.

Your Turn!

Now, the best way to learn how to break down your behaviors is practice!

Grab your copy of the training plan by signing up for the newsletter, and then see if you can make a plan for as many of the following behaviors as you want:

  • Wait at an open door without a leash until you give the cue to go through
  • Sit (or stand still, your choice) for a leash to be clipped to their collar
  • Come to you when called from any distance you’d like
  • Look at you when you say their name

runner at the starting line your turn to train your pet

You can email me, DM or PM me on Instagram or Facebook, or reply to any newsletter message with your answers or to get help making your training plans!

Keep in mind—there is definitely more than one way to answer all these questions. What is important is that it works for your lifestyle!

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