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Learning is stressful. To learn, you need to be outside your comfort zone. It goes for us, and it goes for our dogs. If the motivation and expectations are always the same, learning will be minimal at best.

So how does that affect us when we are training our dogs? I don’t want to push my dog to the point that he gives up and doesn’t want to try. I also don’t want a dog that can’t progress in the skills that he already has. If I set the exercises up so that they are always identical and never challenge the dog, and the dog always gets paid the same, the dog will never progress. If I push the dog to a point that it can’t function then no learning will happen either.

Last year, some of the way I train was challenged when I attended a seminar taught by one of the brilliant trainers at the Scandinavian Working Dog Institute . I discovered Progression Planning (of which I love but still struggle to get it right) which has helped me push Camo in his learning, but not so much that he cannot accept it.

So what does a training session look like for Camo when I push him outside his comfort zone?

The goal of my last session was to have Camo do a search independently (no leash) and indicate on live bed bugs where he would have search past his reward (a ball). Camo LOVES balls…If he doesn’t have a ball in his mouth, there is usually one nearby. The only thing he likes better at this point is his flirt pole. Working past, without interacting with his reward is a huge big deal. It definitely would put him outside his comfort zone to work with his ball accessible.

Here is a modified version of our progression for today.

  • Camo searches and indicates (normal search no ball in sight) on bed bug vial. Camo is rewarded with ball toss (this was successful, no problem)
  • Camo is revved up with ball (yes he knew it was available and fun), and ball is placed in sight of Camo. I then sent Camo to search. Guess what, he headed straight towards the fun ball (who wouldn’t?). I was faster than Camo and the ball was removed from the ground (he didn’t do what he was asked, so he didn’t get to play). I also gave him a moment to reset in his crate for about 10 seconds.
  • I then revved Camo up with the ball again and set it down in front of him. As I knew the last rep was a little too far outside his comfort zone, I then asked Camo for a simple sit for control. I then sent him to search. He went past his ball, searched, and indicated on the bed bugs. The ball was immediately (I did not require a long indication as I was working on a separate skill), tossed for a reward with a huge game of fetch. Our training session ended there.

Was Camo outside his comfort zone in this exercise? I great big affirmative. Did he learn and accomplish the training goal that I had set for the session? That is an affirmative too. I was not afraid the remove the reward opportunity and not afraid of a moment to reset my dog. Learning is stressful. Learning in uncomfortable. If I had of done this exercise in a busy building with lots of chaos and smells, and added the criteria of having to search past his reward and expect a long indication, I would have set my dog up to fail. That would have been way too much stress and no learning would have happened. If I would have continued with simple searches with no change of expectation, no learning would have happened either.

So today’s lesson – a little discomfort and stress is not a bad thing. I challenge you to push both your limits and your dog’s limits. Let me know how it goes.