I’ve worked with a lot of puppies and a lot of owners, all with completely different personalities and temperaments, all with different requirements and needs. There is no ‘one rule for all’ with puppies and indeed with owners, too. You can advise a certain method of tackling a particular aspect of training or behaviour, however without actually working with that puppy, spending time understanding how it works and what motivates that puppy, you will never really know the very best course of action. I have said before, no two puppies are the same, and indeed no two owners are. However, one aspect or problem in training does repeatedly show itself to me when working with puppies and owners, boredom! The puppy seems quite simply, bored. So what is going on? Surely, if we have treats, a puppy cannot be bored, can it??
Many times I have watched puppies working with their owners, the puppy is slowly going through the motions, or drifting off looking at something else, the owner is pulling the puppy back to insist it works with them, the puppy is getting more frustrated with being hauled back, the owner is getting more frustrated with the lack of interest from their puppy, and we end up with a rather exacerbated puppy AND owner. Quite frankly, the puppy looks BORED, and the owner doesn’t really know how to deal with this.
So what is really happening, what can we see from a puppy who appears ‘bored’?
- disinterested (in you or your treats/toy/etc)
- established behaviours seem difficult or slow to be offered (they were good at ‘sit’ yesterday, why aren’t they now?!)
- wandering off (oh that leaf/dog/smell looks much more interesting!)
- over-arousal/excitement or stress (are they getting very bitey? And taking treats with a very hard mouth?)
This is just a few ideas, there are more which you may well be able to add to the list. The puppy just quite simply lacks interest, seems easily frustrated, and no amount of ham or sausage or cheese will bring them back to you.
If this happens to you during your training sessions, there are a few things that could be going on here.
1. You are raising your criteria too quickly – you are making it much harder for the puppy to understand and follow what you are asking, either with the behaviour itself, or with your schedule of reinforcement being transferred to variable too quickly
2. Your treat delivery is predictable and dull – if you are on a continual reinforcement schedule (feeding for every correct behaviour), and your treat delivery is straight to the mouth, this doesn’t really elicit excitement or interest
3. You are being too repetitive – when trying to teach something, we have a habit of going over and over the same exercise again and again!
4. Your training sessions are too long – trying to drag out a training session for an hour with no breaks is tiring for your puppy!
5. You are over-reliant on treats – you only use treats to reinforce good behaviour, not life rewards
This is just a few ideas as to why your pup may be losing interest or seem slow in offering behaviours, or simply wanders off. So, how can we tackle some of these to increase the likelihood of our pups maintaining interest and retain engagement?
1. You are raising your criteria too quickly
When teaching any new behaviour it is essential to break it down into small and achievable tasks. Leaping straight into extended loose-lead walking or down stays without building it up in tiny increments will be extremely difficult and frustrating for your puppy. Take it slow! And make it achievable for your puppy. Can he only last 3 seconds in a stay? Excellent! Gradually extend that to say, 5 seconds, and keep building in tiny manageable increments. Additionally, if your pup is used to continual reinforcement (a treat for every correct behaviour) and you decide to transition to a variable ratio of reinforcement (a treat for a certain average of behaviours), don’t be too stingy! Transfer gradually, and set your puppy up to succeed.
2. Your treat delivery is predictable and dull
In my puppy classes we touch on treat delivery, and the importance of it. There are many different ways to delivery a treat and each way will elicit varying emotional responses from your puppy. A hand to the mouth is great, but it can be a bit dull. Try instead, tossing the treat to the side of your pup, this will help in building interest and the running back to you to do more work, will in itself, be something to reinforce.
3. You’re being repetitive
No one wants to do the same thing again and again. I always advise clients when teaching any new behaviour, a few repetitions at a time is enough. Any more, the pup WILL lose interest. With my own dog, who is 8 years old, she gets bored with more than approximately 5 repetitions of any exercise! Keep interest by mixing it up.
4. Your training sessions are too long
Trying to teach a new behaviour is fun, I get that, however trying to teach a new behaviour for 30 minutes is not advisable! Short sharp sessions are essential. I advise clients to train for no more than 5 minutes at a time, lots of times throughout the day. Keeping it quick and snappy will increase interest from your pup, and give your lots more to reinforce.
5. You are over-reliant on treats
Very very common! We are all guilty of keeping the treats in front of our pups nose for far too long I am sure! In truth, a lure should be phased out within about 5-6 repetitions of a behaviour, possibly slightly longer for highly complex behaviours, but not much longer! I see people still luring weeks down the line! This is far too long. If your pup performs perfectly with a treat on his nose, but is completely disinterested when that treat is no longer on his nose, you can hazard a guess you have lured for far too long, and really need to work on removing that lure. There are, of course, other reasons for disinterest ie. raising distraction levels too quickly etc, but in my experience, luring a puppy for too long is so often the reason a pup will not perform behaviours when asked.
Have a think, could you alter your training to accommodate your pup slightly better? Could you change your training style in any way to keep interest? To limit boredom?
For more information about my puppy classes or 1-2-1 home visits, just get in touch!