Working At Threshold

Posted: February 13, 2012 in Mental Health, pets
Tags: , , , , , , , ,

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In dog training, one thing I work on religiously is threshold training.

Essentially it works like this: I place them in a stressful situation during training, and we work at “threshold.” A threshold is the point where they are uncomfortable, but not totally stressed and overwhelmed. The point in this training is to get the dogs comfortable with an uncomfortable situation before it overwhelms them. Then the trainer click/treats even the smallest steps toward progress until they are ready to move on.

Let me give an example.

Ask yourself: can your dog be in a down-stay, off lead, while someone drops a piece of steak on the ground and a squirrel simultaneously decides to race within catching distance of your dog? No?

Well, here is how to teach that.

1. Train a sit in the house.
2. Train a down in the house.
3. Train a sit-stay in the house.
4. Train a down-stay in the house.
5. Train a down-stay and “leave-it” in the house.
6. Work on duration of “stay” in the house until dog can stay for up to 5 minutes.
7. Move to a secured yard, on lead.
8. Work on sit-stay outside.
9. Create instances where dog has to ignore food and/or other animals.
10. Work on duration, on lead, in yard with distractions.
11. Remove lead.
12. Work on duration, off-lead, in yard.
13. Work on duration, off-lead, in yard with distractions.
14. Replace lead, take dog to a new “spot” like a park.
15. Repeat steps 8-13, changing location until dog can behave in a predictable way, every time.

Obviously, this process takes time. Months to years for some dogs, days for others. But this is how champions are made. All those dogs you watch that balance on tight ropes and bring a ball to their master while howling the happy birthday tune and wagging their tail like its fun worked at threshold to learn every step of that training process.

This highly scientific method of training is very, very successful.

Why? Because it takes place step by step, bit by bit. It satiates the dogs internal fear of a situation by slowly praising them for every, single positive outcome.

If trainers step out of that realm of workable threshold something crazy happens. The dog refuses to work. He gets upset, begins barking, shows visible signs of being overwhelmed, and paces. There will be no “sit” out of Fido even though he can do it EVERY time in your kitchen. Why? Because he is overwhelmed. He has not been taught what to do when that steak falls or a squirrel races by. To not try desperately to grasp those things is quite likely against his instincts.

Why then do we not use these same methods on students, or those we supervise? Would it not be a more reliable form of teaching and training?

Too often I hear that we will punish people for their faults, every little thing they do wrong. Place them in a tough spot. Change or be changed! That’s the law around here! That is how humanity works, after all, right?

Imagine if instead of using fear and punishment to teach, we used positive reinforcement. What if instead of fear mongering we won respect and taught in a fun, steady way, working at threshold and on a one-on-one basis. How would people respond?

I bet our world would change in 1,000 ways.

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