As ABM practitioners it does make our job a whole lot easier if our canine patients are relaxed and comfortable with being handled, and able to perform simple commands such as sit, stand, and lie down. Whilst we can work around most postural issues or non-compliance, patients will usually get the best results if we are able to handle them calmly. We also will often recommend tasks for the patient (carried out by the owner) such as stretching or strengthening exercises to aid the healing process. Hence it is advantageous if the owner is willing to engage with and train the dog.
Communicating with a dog is actually very rewarding. For the purposes of the discussion today, we will only discuss positive, reward based techniques. The two most common positive methods are luring and shaping. Luring involved enticing the animal into a position with a visible reward (Disadvantage = the lure is part of the cue for the dog to perform the task). I think most people know how to lure a sit, or a down. Shaping involves teaching a dog to voluntarily offer a task for a reward… the dog thinks the task and is trying to engage you to deliver a reward by offering the behaviour. Shaping is the most fun of all. Once the dog understands it can offer you behaviour to gain a reward, a whole new world of communication opens to them. Luring is usually a quicker and easier method in the short term, but it is my opinion the dog does not understand the task nearly as well.
There is WAY too much information on this topic available to impart “how to” pearls of wisdom here, and many others have described shaping and luring far more eloquently than I am. You can easily google a plethora of information on this. Instead I’m going to put it in a nutshell with what I think are the most salient points to successful training.
- Rewards have to be something the dog likes or enjoys. Something small and non-crumbly is best.
- Great trainers have great timing. They deliver the reward (or a bridge to the reward – such as a verbal marker or using a clicker) at exactly the right moment to tell the dog their behaviour was correct
- Great trainers will break a complex behaviour into pieces and reward small steps building towards a final goal
- Great trainers are generous with their rewards while the behaviour is being learnt. The duration of behaviour comes later.
- Great trainers do short, highly successful sessions, and try to train at least once a day. So if you recommend stretches or other exercises to help the patient these should ideally be done daily.
- When shaping, you must attach a physical cue or verbal command to the behaviour to get rid of the random offers (and drop the marker if you were using one)
- Golden rule- basically always reward the behaviour that you like
From a clinical point of view, we often need our patients to hold a position while we examine or treat. One of the keys to teaching a stationary behaviour to a dog is putting an end point on the behaviour by using a “release cue”. When I teach a dog any type of “stay” behaviour (sit, drop, stand), they get repeated rewards for holding the position at first, and I immediately pair the behaviour with a release cue, which gives the dog permission to end the stay. As the dog gets more proficient at holding a position, the frequency of reward gradually decreases. The release cue places a boundary on any position for treating a dog, so you get less fidgeting around, and a more relaxed dog that isn’t trying to constantly guess when they can move again. Be warned – after a few sessions of ABM treatment you will often find the dogs will ignore the release cue while lying down because they are too relaxed to move. I have far more trouble getting my patients up than down!
Once a dog knows what shaping is and will offer you behaviours, the beauty is that these two training techniques- luring or shaping- are not necessarily mutually exclusive. I often will initially use a lure to give my dogs a “ballpark concept” of what I want from them, then immediately remove the lure and shape from there. It’s a cheat (from a purist point of view) but often speeds up the process.
Encourage your clients to bring some of their dogs favourite rewards with them to your sessions, and guide them to know when to deliver rewards when the dog is quiet and settled (it’s worth mentioning- if you are supplying the treats it is always prudent to question if the dog is allowed to eat what you have in your treat jar). The dog may be an easy patient to treat with few or no rewards needed, or there may be a lot of training required. There may be some take-home exercises to teach and demonstrate also. Either way, hopefully, it is a positive experience for all.
Dr Roslyn Atyeo
BVSc (Hons) BVMS PhD CVA Grad Dip ABM