Most animal training is a mechanical skill. We can take some basic scientific knowledge about learning, about operant and classical conditioning, as well as about the relevant instinctive behaviors and motor patterns of the species we are working with, and we can accomplish most of our training goals with good timing, criteria-setting, and rate of reinforcement. So, training is science… except when it’s not.
Most dogs are easy to teach to “down.” (Barring dogs with physical conditions, such as pain, that makes the movement difficult, of course.) Typically, someone starting out training dogs trains a few dogs to lie down quite easily. They lure the dog down with a cookie, give him the cookie when his elbows and butt are all the way down, and then fade the lure so that he follows a hand down. Then the hand movement is condensed into a signal and perhaps a verbal cue is added. Most dogs will learn down pretty easily with this sequence.
Then, there you are, teaching a puppy class at PETsMART, and three of the puppies in the class are small breed dogs, or have the short legs of a dwarfed breed. You try to lure a down, and nothing happens. The puppies do a lovely bow, but their butts never drop. Or they let you wave the food around but their noses never go all the way to the floor.
The more dogs you lure into a down, the more you realize that the exact hand motion of the lure makes a difference. For some dogs, all you have to do is sort of wave toward the ground and they plop down. The bigger the dog, the harder they fall, more or less, and bigger, heavier dogs typically slouch onto the ground very readily. I’m sure that basic biophysics is at work here — it’s too much work for these guys to keep their front ends up while their heads are down following the treat, and they save a lot of energy by slumping to the ground. Voila. But little dogs, or very flexible ones, don’t experience nearly the energy savings so you have to work a lot harder to get them to see what a wonderful idea it is to put their chests on the ground.
With some dogs, it helps to push your lure a little toward the spot between their feet, under their bodies a bit. For others, it helps to pull the lure a little outward as you lower it to the ground, closer to the trainer. Those are the first two variations I try with a dog who isn’t getting it right away. With some dogs, you can handle hesitation by waiting them out; with others, they lose interest quickly and wander off, so waiting is a bust. With some dogs, especially little ones, luring them under your bent leg gets them to drop their bodies, which you can mark and reward. This is a great idea, but in practice a lot of these guys are nervous about putting their bodies under someone’s leg and it’s easier to capture the down than to desensitize them to the weird body contortions. With the really hesitant ones, I go straight to capturing. I just wait for the dog to lie down, mark it verbally and reward. This can actually work in remarkably few repetitions if you are paying attention.
Having trained hundreds of dogs to lie down, I can usually get a dog lying down pretty easily — a lot more easily than their owners or than a beginning trainer. But if I really break down what I am doing, it takes a really long time to describe. See, I just wrote five longish paragraphs about this! And the major differences are one-inch variations in the position of the lure. That’s starting to be art, not science.
This whole art thing really hit home when someone on a list asked how to train a flyball box turn. This is one of my pet subjects. The poster asked if you use a jump in front of the box, and if so, how far it should be from the box and at what angle. Sounds simple, right? Actually, I use a jump in front of the box with most dogs, but the distance and angle are very tricky little metrics that are never the same for any two dogs. Actually trying to write down things like, “if the dog is confidently hitting the box with the front feet, but is not pulling the back feet over the jump, you could angle the jump closer to the box on the leading edge, and farther on the trailing edge, or you could try inserting a vertical barrier perpendicular to the box face that the dog must circle behind, or you can try luring in a different way” and trying to explain how to choose which tactic at which moment, is pointless. Knowing just whether and when to do this takes tiny, fine judgments that no beginner could make.
I’m sure someone could break this down into an algorithm if we could measure the relevant factors — the dog’s size, build, stride length; his learning style; exactly where he is placing his feet right now, and so on. But we’re moving into the realm where the human brain is processing information so fast and subtly that the process is mostly invisible, and trying to explain the reasoning process would take hundreds of pages of logic trees and diagrams. It is a lot easier to propagate the knowledge by teaching people how to teach the turn, and letting other brains assimilate the art.
So when I go into someone’s home and wow them by getting their untrainable dog to down, stand still, or sit to greet, it’s really not that I have some magical authority and the dogs recognize me as the Big Alpha Trainer Who Must Be Obeyed. It’s just that I’ve gotten a lot of dogs to do these things over many years and I’m adjusting my body language on the fly. I know a bunch of tiny variations to try and most of the time my adjustments aren’t even conscious. Now that it comes up, the idea that dogs respond to trainers because of “authority” is an interesting one for another day!