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.