The Value of Basic Training Skills

Here’s one of the great lessons Ken Ramirez had for us at the Clicker Expo in Chicago last weekend: The basics aren’t really all that basic after all. In his experience, one of the most common mistakes he sees in even experienced trainers is forgetting the importance of some of the basics. Here are some of the reminders he shared, and believe me, I am taking them all to heart.

Precision: Yes, we all know it, timing is everything, but no matter how obvious it is, it is often forgotten. This is relevant whether you are using a marker (like a clicker or ‘yes’) or not, often because we don’t do the following:

Clean Delivery: Ken reminded us that dropping the treat on the ground or fumbling the delivery can be very aversive to our dogs. Say we are on a roll, clicking and treating at a good pace, and then we drop the treat on the ground. The dog has to sniff around and find it, and that might not be so much fun for him. At worst he may feel frustrated, and at best he has completely forgotten what he got the treat for by the time he found it. Not a crisis, of course, but a little bit of frustration can have a lot of effect. Ken reminds us to practice delivery WITHOUT our dogs around (supporting my belief that dog training is a science, a sport and an art.)

Where Reinforce? Are you thoughtful where you reinforce your dog? Do you do it where the behavior occurs (say your dog lies down, so you move the treat down to her on the ground) or, in a location set up for the next repetition. There is no right answer, it depends completely on what you are doing, what’s important is to be thoughtful about your goal and consciously choose where to reinforce your dog rather than doing it randomly.

Stationing: If working with two or more dogs, also be thoughtful about who is stationed where. You can avoid a lot of trouble between dogs if you always set them up to work with one on left, other on right for example. Or take a trick from prof’l performance trainers, and teach each dog to go to a station to work. That avoids the potential of competition or veiled threats from one dog to the other.

Fairness: If working multiple dogs, you must recognize how each animal perceives the session. Is each getting her fair share? What if you have two dogs sitting looking at you, and you ask one to lie down. Who do you reinforce? Just the one who lay down? But the other also did what you ask (stayed in place), why not reinforce him too?

These are just a few of things I pondered on the way home, and that made me glad I was able to catch some of the talks at Clicker Expo in between my own. I’d love to hear your thoughts on this… what are the basics that you think you’d be wise to review?

Such great food for thought. If we could all just live on Ken’s shoulder for a week we’d all be better trainers, I’m sure of it. Check out his website, he really is a great resource. I’m even more excited than ever now about him coming to Madison this October.

MEANWHILE, back on the farm: Here’s the good news — we know what’s wrong with Willie’s shoulder. Besides an inflamed bicepital tendon, his has a bone chip floating around in his shoulder, probably from an earlier injury when part of the tendon was torn and pulled a piece of the bone away. Here’s the bad news — he will need surgery, but I’ve put it off until May because this time of year is the worst possible time imaginable for me to have a dog recovering from surgery, and Dr. Susan Schafer at UW  (who is just as wonderful as everyone told me she is), said the surgery wasn’t urgent in any way. The timing is especially relevant because we got some painfully bad news the morning we arrived home. Jim’s sister has been in a valiant battle with Stage 4 Ovarian cancer and it looked a few weeks ago like she might come out the victor.  But things changed fast while we were gone, and she’s not doing well at all. Jim will be up with her as much as he can in the weeks to come, as will I, although I’ll have to stay home more because of lambing, teaching, etc.

So May it is for Willie’s surgery. Dr. Schafer will take out the bone chip, sever the tendon, drill a hole in the bone and screw the tendon back into place. (She has gone back to this method, as have several other experts, after finding that truly athletic dogs don’t do as well with a simple severing, which is commonly done now.) This is the same exact surgery that Jim had about the same exact time last year. Good grief. That means all trialing is out for this year, we won’t really be able to work sheep until August or September. But it does mean he can be off leash a bit, no herding or hard play, but at least some freedom after five weeks of no fun at all.

Here’s Mr. Will, with his shaved shoulders, a mohawk down his chest and still slightly sedated goofy look. This morning I got to take his leash off! Ahhhhhhhhhhhh.


  1. Frances says

    That is interesting about managing two dogs at once – I did wonder about my method of one gets a treat for doing it, one gets a treat for NOT doing it – thanks for the reassurance.

    I am sorry for your troubles – my thoughts are with all of you.

  2. Chrissy says

    Poor Willie! Glad to hear you know what’s wrong with him though, even if it meant he had to get a goofy haircut 😉

  3. LynnSusan says

    Keeping good thoughts and prayers for Jim’s sister and your whole family, both biped and quadruped.

    Thanks for reminding me of the basics. I need the refresher more than Gracie. We always work on her call back—and “leave it”, which she seems to “forget” periodically. But she gets sloppy (and I let her -bad mom)with her “stay” and a couple other basic commands.
    Now that the weather is nicer (although NJ is expecting snow tomorrow!) we will definitely be out there working on the basics.
    Thanks for the link to Ken’s website!

  4. says

    I attended the clicker expo in Newport Beach. I really enjoyed Ken’s seminar of the different approaches to treating aggression cases. I also found review of the basics in many of the workshops very helpful because sometimes we get into a pattern that is hard to break because we have been doing it for so long. For example, people sometimes form inadvertent behavior chains by reinforcing a desired behavior immediately after an undesired behavior (jumping on the couch/person comes to mind). So it is important to analyze what behavior(s) we are reinforcing and have a game plan in place so that we do not form these type of chains. Also, just general clicker skills. For example, making sure that the click and delivery of the treat are not simultaneous. I wrote a blog of the rest of my impressions and take home points of the expo here:

  5. Joyce Gauthier says

    Loved your info about Ken Ramirez … have heard him speak a few times and always bring some “Ah Ha” moment home with me.

    So glad to hear about Willie, but sorry to hear about your sister-in-law.


  6. Sharon C. says

    Wow – a lot of info in a short entry!

    First, Ken Ramirez sounds like someone I’ll investigate – I love finding new ways to look at perennial challenges.

    Second – hooray for Will – it must be so good to have a definitive answer, and a plan of action.

    Third, my sympathy to you and Jim and your family – I hope that he (and you) can spend some quality time with his sister.

    Have a good spring, Mr. Will -the leash will have to go back on soon!

  7. s says

    I’m so sorry to hear of Jim’s sisters diagnosis – prayers and thoughts for strength for all involved and may she be as comfortable as possible and enjoy her days.

    interesting haircut on Will – poor boy!

  8. Sharon Normandin says

    Great reminders, thank you! I’ve found that no matter how well I think I know something, it helps to have an outside pair of eyes watching me to catch timing errors and inconsistencies, along with reminders like this to evaluate my own training.

  9. Jennifer says

    So sorry to hear about Jim’s sister.

    It was fantastic to hear you speak twice at ClickerExpo (and last year in Toronto, yay!), and with all the great info from the lectures I found that myself and my new friends stayed up quite late discussing everything. Ken Ramirez’s talk was particularly eye-opening on always considering fairness and avoiding frustration for the learner. One of the suggestions I heard from a fellow attendee was to practice clicking when a bouncy rubber ball touches the ground, and then work up to clicking and treating as a way to work on timing before bringing the dog into it. I’m excited to integrate more practice of the mechanical skill into what we teach new owners in class, so that they’re not overwhelmed and we can keep them from being frustrated too.

    Thanks for the videos you showed during your Canine Cognition talk… as one of those girls who also grew up in awe of Jane Goodall it was great to be in a room filled with people who always assumed that animals could think & feel, and am delighted that the scientific evidence for this keeps pouring in. What a theraputic cry I think we all had on the last day…. so for that a huge thank you too!

    Good news about Willie that a solution is coming, love the picture.

  10. Mary says

    This might have been my favorite session as well! Great new insight as well as those all important reminders about the basics.

    I always knew it was a bad idea, but now I have resolved to stop holding training sessions on the oriental rug in our living room. If a treat gets dropped, we always have to take a few frustrating moments to find it and it is always an unfortunate interruption to the training session.

    The big picture concept that I’m taking home (and it was driven home by the information in Ken’s Smart Reinforcement Session and LAB) is to plan my sessions carefully. It’s not just a matter of knowing what behavior we’re working on, but also planning for the type of rewards that we will be using, the marker that I’ll be using, the goals for the session (maybe it’s about the behavior, but maybe it’s about the environment or the reward or the cue!) and how this one session fits into the big picture.

    I do alot of what I’ll call casual training sessions. Someone follows me into the bathroom where I have a cup of treats for trimming nails, and so I ask for a few sits or downs. I’m now thinking that I need to eliminate some of these casual sessions because I tend to always use food for them and I’m not always strict about my training mechanics. I may reserve some silly tricks to work on during these casual sessions, but keep my performance behaviors for the well-planned sessions. I’m trying to develop a variety of valuable reinforcers and I think these casual, food-oriented sessions may be undermining my larger plan. I’d be curious what you think, Trisha!

  11. says

    Thanks for the great refresher! It’s easy to get caught up in the moment as we are watching the dog, instructing the people, etc. And good advice for our own dogs too! Love the photo of Willie! Ouch, that surgery sounds painful…

  12. Mary says

    Heard Ken Ramirez speak at a vet med conference in February and was blown away. Brushing a lion’s teeth? No problem. And we pet owners have problems brushing our dogs’ teeth…. Only got to see part of his talk and would love to see more…maybe in Madison?

    So sorry for illness in the family. Much luck with Willie’s shoulder – love the picture.

  13. Alexandra says

    I’m sorry to hear about Jim’s sister. I wish you and your family all the best.

  14. Melissa says

    I find it hard enough to juggle one animal, treats, and a clicker. I have a huge amount of trouble trying to train two animals at once! For a while I tried tossing the dog that wasn’t training a treat every time the dog that was training got one as long as the one that wasn’t was on his mat. Unfortunately, this slowed my training down to the point where both dogs were getting a bit impatient! I have a Manners Minder now and have been meaning to try with that. I will probably end up pressing the wrong buttons, though.

    I pay a lot of attention to reward delivery and placement. I think I need to pay more attention to not falling into predictable routines. I took a leaf out of Ken Ramirez’ book and have started training several secondary reinforcers to help me stay just a tiny bit unpredictable.

  15. says

    I really enjoy reading your blog, there is almost every time something that gets to my mind with an “Aha”. Even if I am an educated dog trainer, there are always a lot of things more to learn!

    This time it was two things that really caught my mind; the stationing which I also use at my classes and now you gave me another reason to stick to it. The next thing that caught my mind today was the fairness of treating both dogs. That was something that really hadn’t crossed my mind to reward the waiting dog as well. But of course it’s so obvious, she has performed something too!

    Best wishes to you and your family.

  16. Jolanta Benal says

    I’m actually a little surprised at the stricture not to toss the treat on the ground. I often toss the treat purposely and don’t see signs of frustration — if anything, the anticipation of hunting up the treat is part of the reinforcement & adds to my dog’s fun. (I got the idea from Panksepp.) I can certainly see that that wouldn’t be true for every dog.

    That having been said: Ken Ramirez ROCKS. I loved the presentation on concept training in Chicago.

  17. trisha says

    Jolanta: Glad you brought this up, Jolanta. I don’t believe Ken was saying never to throw treats on the ground, and I certainly wouldn’t either. I think his point was that IF you normally hand your dog treats and fumble them and drop one, then he will be frustrated. But, if you often have your dog get treats from the ground it’s another thing altogether. Make sense? (I probably should have been more clear in the my write up about frustration being the issue, not treats on the ground per se.)

  18. Kerbie C. says

    Melissa: Please let me know how your Manners Minder works for you! I have 3 dogs who all have greeting/barking issues. I have been using my clicker but when they all perform it’s hard to treat them all and keep my timing right(I’ve had some frustration while waiting for the treat). I think I read that there are 4 different sounds to train each dog so I’m thinking this may be a better option. If I’m able to train each dog seperately to a seperate sound without fumbling with treats and a clicker, this product would be such a help!!

  19. Rusty says

    You said:

    “and then we drop the treat on the ground. The dog has to sniff around and find it, and that might not be so much fun for him. ”

    Are ya kidding me?! What dog gets frustrated by sniffing the ground for a treat? I understand what you’re saying there but I had to chuckle when I read that.

    Timing: I read or heard somewhere (maybe from you? I don’t recall my source) that when giving a command to your dog to give it just once and wait, don’t keep repeating the command. I’ve done that with my dog with surprising results. I’ll tell him to sit as a way for him to calm down before we go for a car ride or any other time for that matter. I’ll give the command only once. Sometimes he sits right away and sometimes it takes like 30 seconds or so before he does sit. I know your version of timing is treating right away after a task is done but I thought of and wanted to share my little piece of timing.

    Glad to hear Willie will be back on his feet soon (literally). Sorry about Jim’s sis.

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