What is duration?
Duration is the amount of time a dog (or horse or person) will continue with a behaviour before quitting. This applies to heelwork, stays, holding an object, searching for a scent and any other behaviour that can take more than a second to complete.
How to teach it
Firstly, we need to be thoughtful about how we reward for longer duration. It’s generally good practice to increase the value of your reward as the difficulty of the behaviour increases. With that in mind, in the following graphs I’ve used stars to indicate the magnitude/value of the reward for each repetition. So, the more stars the higher the value of the pay-out given.
Next we have to build what we want carefully and slowly!! The trick with duration behaviours is to build them incrementally so the dog keeps winning and there is no loss of quality in the performance. You don’t want to build wiggling into stays, chomping into dumbbell holds or look-aways and drifting into heelwork.
‘Hold’ for five seconds:
Planning your sessions
First you need to work out what your current baseline is if you aren’t starting from scratch. Using a timer to record the result, ask for the behaviour, time how long your dog can do it for, whilst maintaining the same standard (remember, no wiggling, chomping or drifting!). As soon as the behaviour degrades stop your timer. If you are working on heelwork you can count steps or distance covered instead if that is easier for you.
Repeat this at least twice more. Add the results from each ‘test’ and then divide the total by the number of tests you did to find your average.
Now you have a baseline. This is the starting point that your dog can already achieve. It sets the ‘average’ duration (or distance) of each repetition. Let’s say you have an average of 5 seconds or 5 steps. Go back one unit (5 – 1 = 4) so you know your dog is likely to be successful. We also need to consider the reward we are going to use. Harder work = bigger pay, remember!
Next, plan how you are going to proceed
Let’s say you think 10 repetitions will be ‘do-able’. What are those 10 reps going to look like? Maybe this:
A graph of your session might look like this:
You might repeat something similar for the next session or two, assuming you were seeing success, your dog was still happy and engaged and there was no loss of quality.
Once you were happy that all was good, you’d want to push on a bit. Maybe set your average at 6 this time – a little bit harder but not excessively tough:
A graph of your second session might look like this:
Over a number of sessions, you would end up with something like this:
The key to building duration is avoid making the task harder in a constantly linear fashion. if every repetition is harder than the one before it your dog will quickly become disillusioned and bail on you. You’re aiming to have the dog ‘believe’ he’ll always be successful. You’re also wanting your dog to understand that the harder the work, the bigger the payout – so when you ask for more he has a positive response “just a bit more and I’ll get the BIG bucks!” rather than “this is hard work and it’s not going to be worth the effort; I think I quit now”. Dogs are incredibly good at ‘noticing’ our training patterns, so best be sure they notice the ones we want them too.
Dealing With Errors
The second super important point to remember is that your duration behaviour MUST NOT lose quality. If it does, you will build that ‘rubbish’ into your chain/duration:
For example, a duration ‘hold’ of 5 seconds (NOT!!):
Ideally, you would notice the problem and abort the rep straight away; no reinforcement for that one. The next attempt should be a bit easier so the dog can be successful. All good? Try the tricky one again. Failed again? Drop your duration waay down and build up confidence again from there. You probably made it too hard too fast. Don’t be afraid to quit for the day and start again afresh. Errors will often start to creep in as you both fatigue.
If you have made the mistake of continuing after an error and it is now part of the duration behaviour (as the film above shows), the only thing you can do is ‘edit’ your film strip – reinforce BEFORE the error occurs and build up again from there.
Session 1 average:
Session 2 average:
Session 3 average:
So, in a nutshell, that is how you build duration behaviours – slowly, carefully and cleanly!
If you’d like to know more about the nuts ‘n’ bolts of positive reinforcement training, check out my online course.
– Sarah and the Gang
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