Training your dog to a fluent performance

N.H. Sunday News - Dog Tracks Column - 1/29/12
By: Gail T. Fisher


One of the things owners want from their dogs’ training is that when you give your dog a cue to perform a behavior (commonly called a “command”), your dog responds quickly, accurately, fluidly and without hesitation. For example, you tell your dog to lie down, and he does. Or you call your dog away from playing with another dog, and she comes directly to you. Sounds good! This is what our students tell us that they want—a dog that responds promptly, correctly, and swiftly.

Many dog owners think that it is simply a matter of practicing more with their dog. They train a behavior and then drill it over and over, with the belief that through repetition and practice, the dog will improve. Sadly, this often leads to frustration because the adage “practice makes perfect” is not accurate. Practicing a flawed golf swing won’t lower your handicap. Practicing the wrong notes of a musical composition won’t win a scholarship to Julliard. And having your dog repeat a slow or uncertain behavior will not make it faster and more accurate. The adage should be “Perfect practice makes perfect.”

There’s a term called “behavioral fluency” that refers to all those aspects of behavioral performance—prompt, accurate, fast responses. Think of fluency in terms of learning a foreign language. When you’re first learning, speech is hesitant, slow, halting, inaccurate, and error prone. As one becomes more practiced—more fluent—speech is faster, smoother, accurate and ultimately natural and without thought.

Behavioral fluency has the same characteristics as fluent speech—learned behaviors are performed accurately, fluidly, and without hesitation. Consider a non-dog analogy. Think about what is required for a concert pianist to learn to play fluently. Take “The Flight of the Bumblebee,” a musical piece known for its frantic tempo. Picture the pianist’s fingers flying up and down the keyboard, precisely, rapidly, at a fevered pitch. How would a pianist learn and practice this particular piece? It would make sense to start slowly, accurately learning the notes, then with further practice, increasing the tempo. With virtually any skill, it makes sense to practice it accurately to eliminate errors, learning to perform at a slower pace, then building speed to your ultimate goal.

This same approach is how we learn a foreign language. Starting with a few words, with practice you can carry on a simple conversation. Still tentative, you’re not able to think in the language yet, or have an in-depth conversation. As you improve, you get better, but if something distracts you, you’re less able to converse. With sufficient practice, you become fluent—able to speak (perform) automatically, without conscious thought, no matter where you are or what is going on around you. And it works with dog training, too!

So how do you get to behavioral fluency with your dog? Behavioral scientist Ogden Lindsley’s work with “Precision Teaching” with school children demonstrates that building speed leads to a fluent performance. Further, in addition to building speed, Lindsley’s work demonstrates that fluent behaviors are more accurate, less subject to distraction, and more easily adapt to new situations, even without additional instruction. In dog behavior terms, this means your dog will come to you away from a distraction even if you’ve never practiced around that distraction. By achieving fluency, your dog’s responses will be immediate, effortless, quick, smooth, without hesitation, and with few errors, even around distractions.

This is something we all want, but few owners get there. I suspect it’s because they either don’t know how to train to fluency, or thinks it takes years. No so. It’s really not as difficult as you might think. More next week.
Copyright © Gail T. Fisher, 2012. All rights reserved. For permission to reprint this article or suggestions for future topics, please contact us.