October Ask a Trainer: Why Musicians Make Good Trainers, or the Importance of Fundamentals

frgo8eza3ufwdxwk4rza.1.1By Kiki Yablon, KPA CTP, CPDT-KA

I have some new clients, both professional musicians, and our two productive sessions so far have me thinking about why musicians are some of my favorite people to work with.

It’s not just that I have an affinity for musicians—I’m married to one, and I’ve played in a couple bands myself. It’s that musicians, almost without exception, seem to enjoy and excel at dog training.

Like playing music, dog training is in large part a physical skill. It requires practiced movements and good timing. Any kind of training you care to do comes down to providing consequences in such a way as to make them contingent upon the dog’s behavior.

But I also think musicians do well at training because they understand the importance of good fundamentals.

You’ll notice above that I didn’t refer to myself directly as a musician. That’s because, after 15 years, playing two different instruments in bands that recorded and toured, I still can’t call out a note by name or play a proper scale. Figuring out my own way to play what I wanted to hear, with the occasional assist from a knowledgeable friend, was good enough for punk rock. Yet last year a client who was taking ukulele lessons invited me to a hootenanny at her house, and I didn’t have the foundation skills to pick up a piece of sheet music and join the fun.

Likewise, humans have been cohabitating with dogs for centuries, and when it goes well, good enough is good enough (at least for the humans—I can’t speak for the dogs). We figure out ways to get dogs to do what we really need them to do, picking up bits and pieces from TV or the Internet or friends with dogs or strangers at the park, and we put up with whatever we’re not sufficiently motivated to figure out.

But under pressure, the lack of fundamentals will out.

The good news is that the foundation most dogs need to live successfully with humans consists of a few simple building-block behaviors (I’ve recommended some here) bolstered by a long, consistent history of reinforcement, or “behavioral mass,” a concept behavior science has borrowed from physics. The more mass a behavior accrues, the more momentum it has when it encounters resistance. The more that sitting when you say “sit” has been reinforced, the more likely your dog is to sit when you say “sit”—even if more effort is required, even if there are more appealing options, even if you haven’t reinforced the last few sits, and even if there are potentially aversive consequences.

If you want fancier behaviors, the dog still needs fluent component skills. One example of a foundation behavior that opens up a lot of possibilities is targeting, where the dog touches some part of its body to something. Once a dog learns to touch its nose to a person’s hand, for instance, it can learn to move to or follow the hand into a multitude of other behaviors, including come, sit, down, up, off, over, under, around, spin, retrieve, and many more. (For some beautiful examples of the uses of a targeting, watch this video of Ken Ramirez working with a one of the dogs at the Shedd Aquarium.)

If the basic target behavior doesn’t have enough mass, though, it will fall apart when you try to build on it. So if you’re teaching your dog to touch his nose to your hand, start close in and reinforce well. Practice regularly, practice in different places, make small changes to how you present the target. But don’t be in a hurry to ask the dog to do a lot more work to follow your hand. Once you have the understanding of and enthusiasm for the simple target, it will be relatively easy to build distance, duration, and performance amid distractions.

Or to put it in music terms: play the scales.