Breather Behaviors

No breather behavior here! Pony loves to tug for her reward.

We all have seen it, even though we might not have realized it at the time. A dog that doesn’t out a toy when asked, one that takes a victory lap instead of returning to his handler after catching a frisbee or perhaps one that habitually sniffs the ground between drill repetitions. These are all forms of displacement behaviors, our dog’s solution to a problem we’ve unknowingly created during training sessions.  If we’re not careful, these behaviors become ingrained and can become extremely difficult to eliminate. However, if we’re observant and use these behaviors as information, we can adapt our training to better suit our dog’s needs and become a better partner.

I began calling these behaviors that pop up in training sessions “breather behaviors”, because to me they are a separate category within the displacement behavior subject.  The majority of the time, these problem behaviors develop when we push our dogs past their optimal working ability.  It’s our dog’s attempt to take a break, either mentally or physically, to prepare for the next repetition. Think about a typical training session: the handler asks the dog for a behavior to which the dog complies and is rewarded. What happens immediately after the reward? We ask for another behavior and repeat the cycle. Now what happens towards the end of that session when our dog is mentally and perhaps, physically, tired? The process stays the same. We don’t give our dog an opportunity to catch a breath or to destress mentally after a particularly difficult behavior, so they take it upon themselves to take a quick break. They might take an extra couple seconds before letting go of that toy or an extra couple of strides before returning to their handler.

Big deal right? Who cares if my dog takes a few extra seconds to reset for the next rep.  The problem lies when we as handlers fail to acknowledge these behaviors and let them develop into habits.  Dogs do what works for them, if chomping a frisbee or clamping down on a toy works to get them the break they need, they will continue doing so.  Pretty soon it’ll become a habit that will be present in the entire session, not just at the end.  It’s much easier to prevent a problem than eliminate it once it’s developed.

Prevention is the best medicine in this case. Watch for potential breather behaviors and use them as information to change the structure of your training sessions.  If you notice that your dog is slow to return to you after a reward, start to think how you can incorporate a break for them.  Maybe allow them to disconnect for a minute or two by sniffing or grabbing a drink of water.  Perhaps just pull them into your lap and tell them how wonderful they are while they regain their breath. Maybe all you have to do with your dog is switch behaviors for a couple repetitions to allow them to de-stress.  Adapt your session to allow your dog to work at their optimal level for the entirety, not just a portion.

Here are a few more examples of breather behaviors from my own dogs and observations.  Anybody who has seen my dogs work in our shows at Purina Farms have noticed that they run through the agility tunnels during their frisbee routines.  Yes, they do love their tunnels, however, going those extra strides allows them to take a few additional seconds before returning to me for more work.  One of my dogs is trained to lay on a mat at the end of the dock for the diving portion, best part is that I don’t have to walk down the dock with her, I can just send her to it. However, every time she prepares to dive, she goes the long way around the sign behind the dock, taking an extra second or two to gather herself between jumps. One particularly troublesome behavior that develops in shows are dogs that don’t want to leave the pool after a jump. They let go of the toy, push it under water and or just swim around. It’s an excellent way for them to delay the next repetition. These are just a few examples of breather behaviors that have developed into habits because of my inability to change the session to suit the dogs better.

What breather behaviors do you notice with your own dogs?  Is there potential for those to develop into problems later on? How can you adapt your sessions to provide your dog with the breaks they need?


Edgar shows off a great frogged down stay.

Working with operant dogs often leads to dogs that are quick to offer a behavior but lack stillness and commitment within each exercise.  This is a skill that needs to be taught and developed over time and can be difficult for some dogs.  Famous, my 18 month old malinois, shows great commitment to even new behaviors and it’s easy to add duration with her.  My younger malinois, Moment, on the other hand, does not. While she’s great at offering behaviors, she offers them quickly and then moves on.  It was difficult to add duration to her chin rest, hold and stays.  Luckily, there are many exercises and tools designed to help such dogs.

The first behaviors that I teach to a new dog to introduce the idea of duration are chin rest and mat/perch work.  The chin rest can be used to introduce holding an object (dumbbell) in the future, just as the mat work can be used to lay the ground work for future stays. One other great exercise to teach with the idea of duration in mind is Susan Garrett’s “It’s Your Choice”.  This game can be used to help add duration and commitment to a behavior as Reverse Luring,  described by Laura Waudby in this blog post .

I think the idea of stillness and focus is an important one, especially for dogs like Moment.  She learned the concept of a chin rest with duration relatively quickly, however I felt like she was lacking stillness and focus in the behavior.  Her eyes would dart around to distractions, all while maintaining my criteria of her chin in my hand.  So I started setting narrowing the criteria to micro-behaviors within the behavior.  Soon, I would only click  eye contact while keeping her muzzle in my hand, of which duration had to be added to slowly.  After that, I used Reverse Luring to add to her commitment of the behavior.  Soon, I’ll add other distractions such as tossing a toy behind her while she maintains criteria to further proof and build this behavior. Luckily, all this hard work has already paid off because I used her chin rest to teach stillness and focus in other behaviors such as heel and basic positions and dumbbell hold.

To begin teaching a chin rest, it’s easiest to start with a dog who already offers a hand touch.  Place your opened hand in an easy to reach spot by your dog’s muzzle.  As they reach forward to sniff your hand, click and reward where your hand was.  Once your dog catches on that a nose touch on your hand causes the click, start to vary your hand placement.  To change to a chin rest, place your hand palm side up in an easy to reach spot.  Click and reward any muzzle touches, eventually shaping a chin brush instead of a nose touch.  There are a couple tricks to adding duration at this point, for some dogs all you’ll need to do is click for longer and longer chin rests. It’s important when using this method to do an average increase in duration rather than a linear one, meaning sometimes click after a short duration and sometimes for a longer, so that the criteria isn’t getting continuously more difficult. For some dogs, adding duration to the chin rest isn’t that simple.  For those dogs, I like to emphasize commitment to the behavior which will eventually lead to more duration.  Moving your hand away from your dog’s muzzle just as they are offering the behavior will increase their commitment.  Sometimes dropping it, sometimes just backing up, whatever gets the dog moving and working hard to achieve the behavior.  This will lead to the dog holding their chin on your hand while you are moving, keeping it interesting and keeping their focus for longer than when it’s stationary.  Easy to finish just by fading out your movement.

Mat or perch work is a great way to start stays.  Dogs tend to respond better to physical boundaries such as an object’s edge. It’s easy to add distractions and duration when the criteria is more understandable by our dogs.  To begin mat/perch work, place your object on the ground where your dog can see it.  Click and reward any interaction with the object, including placing paws on it or just nose touches eventually shaping to all four feet on the object in the desired position (down, sit, stand). Reward placement is important with this behavior as the dog will want to be where the reward happens.  If you continuously reward off the object, they will want to be off of it, and the opposite holds true for rewarding while they are on the object.  Generally, I vary the number of rewards given on the object versus off dependent on what aspect of the behavior I’m working on.  If I’m working on duration, I will reward on the object heavily.  If I’m working on sending my dog to the object, I will reward more often off the object to allow my dog to reset and practice the send.  However, they are always getting multiple rewards while on the object to maintain their desire to be on it.  Just like with adding duration to the chin rest, you can do so by increasing the average duration between rewards.  You can also increase their commitment to the behavior by introducing distractions such as toys, treats and other dogs around their perch.