Answer these 3 Questions to Teach Your Dog Any Behavior

SteveBlog

I use the 3 Questions approach whenever I need to teach a dog any behavior. I highly recommend learning and making it a habit to ask these 3 questions whenever you want to teach your dog anything.

At the bottom of the page, you can download training logs and worksheets to help you practice this approach at home. You can also view and download a convenient flow chart to guide you along the way.

I’ve created a sample plan for teaching a hypothetical dog a Down signal. The 3 Questions I need to answer are:
  1. What is our Goal?
  2. What is our Starting Point/Baseline?
  3. What are the steps I need to take to get from our Starting Point to our Goal?


Question 1. What is our Goal?

What does the end result look like? Be specific. At what point will you feel like your dog has learned the behavior to your satisfaction? What exactly is the “Down signal” and what outcome are we trying to achieve?

Our Goal:
The dog will lie down in response to the verbal cue “Down” and a hand signal (presenting of palm faced down without bending over).

Important to remember: We are not teaching the dog how to lie down. She already lies down when sleeping or relaxing. We are teaching her to perform a behavior that she already knows in response to our signals. 

Question 2. What is our Starting Point/Baseline? 

Reassess the Starting Point before every session. The Starting Point is the difficulty level at which the dog is able to perform a behavior correctly 80-90% of the time in that specific environment. Starting Points will probably vary from environment to environment. For example, you might find that a dog is 80-90% reliable at home at a certain level of difficulty, but only 20-30% reliable at the park at that same level of difficulty. The dog tells us his/her starting point, not vice versa. When teaching a new behavior, the starting point might be some behavior she has learned before. For example, “Sit” might be the starting point to “Down”. The Starting Point can also be thought of as the Baseline, and the terms can be used interchangeably. 
Our Starting Point: Dog is reliable 80% of the time to the verbal cue and hand signal for Sit, but has never worked on Down.

Question 3. What are the steps that will take us from the Starting Point/Baseline to the Goal? 

This is the hardest question. The table below describes a sample step by step sequence. The actual steps will vary from dog to dog. Each time your dog is able to correctly perform one of the steps between the Starting Point and Goal three times in a row during your current session, you must increase the difficulty level slightly. This is called “The Rule of 3” and following this rule will help you and your dog not get stuck at any level. The key is to not remain stagnant but also make the next step easy enough for the dog to have a good chance of responding correctly. 
The level at which your dog responded correctly three times in a row also becomes your new Starting Point for that session. If the dog does not respond correctly to the new Starting Point, do one or two repetitions at the previous Starting Point, before trying the new Starting Point again. 

Sample Starting Point to Goal Sequence 
Step 1 (Starting Point) Dog has no reliable ‘down’ cue but will sit reliably to some kind of cue. Start with dog in a ‘Sit’ position.
Step 2 (Food lure 1) Food in right hand. Right hand lure head all the way to ground. Reward with food from right hand.
Step 3 (Food lure 2) Food in both hands. Left hand behind back. Right hand lure head all the way to ground. Reward with food from left hand (should be behind back).
Step 4 (Empty hand/Closed fist lure) Food in left hand and behind back. Right hand closed fist lure head all the way to ground. Reward with food from left hand.
Step 5: (Flat hand lure) Food in left hand and behind back. Right hand open flat with palm facing down. Lure head all the way to the ground. Reward with food from left hand.
Step 6: (Flat hand lure 6 inches) Food in left hand and behind back. Right hand open flat with palm facing down. Lure head toward the ground stopping hand 6 inches above ground. Reward with food from left hand.
Step 7: (Flat hand lure 12 inches) Repeat Step 6 but stop hand 12 inches above ground.
Step 8: (Flat hand lure 24 inches) Repeat Step 6 but stop hand 24 inches above ground.
Step 9: (Flat hand signal standing straight) Food in left hand and behind back. Right hand open flat with palm facing down. Stop hand before your back begins to bend (your posture should remain standing straight). Reward with food from left hand.
Step 10: (Goal: Verbal/Hand signal) Say the word “Down” in your normal tone of voice, then 1 second later present right hand open flat hand with palm facing down. Move right hand no more than 3 inches downward. Reward with food from left hand.

This is just an example of what a plan might look like. I purposely tried to stay somewhat vague about actual technique.  The purpose of this post is not to give you a ‘how to of down’. There are plenty of other places you can learn that. Rather, the purpose is to introduce you to a tool that can help you break down any behavior into incremental steps for teaching your dog anything.

Click the image below to view full-size Teaching Behaviors flow chart