I've started training Abe. Now, you could say that I've been training him all along, and you wouldn't be wrong. For the sake of this post, however, I'm talking about more formal, ABC training. And the first question I need to ask is, "How do I know he's ready?"
Well, Abe tells me. He follows me around from room to room. If I bend down, he approaches. If I walk toward him slowly, he no longer pancakes but looks up at me to see what we're doing. He's seeking out new ways to interact with people, and I want to support that. So we're working on a few simple exercises like sit and hand target and chin rest. I want you to keep in mind, though, that what we are training is not as important as how we are training. I'm going to say it again because it's a really big deal:
What we are training is not as important as how we are training.
My goal here is not to get specific behaviors on cue. That's a bonus. My goal is to help Abe understand that people are fun and predictable and easy to work with. So the exercises we're working on are fun and easy and don't require a lot of thinking on Abe's part. I'm aiming for a high rate of reinforcement because the more I reinforce, the more fun this is for Abe. I'm shooting for six to ten rewards per minute because he's a slow chewer (for a dog that's less slow, I'd be aiming for ten to fifteen rewards per minute).
There will be time to teach less reinforcing behaviors like stays or zen later. We're not working on those now because there is zero room for failure. If Abe feels like he is failing, he's not going to have fun. He already sees failure were there isn't any, and it melts him to the ground. So I won't even use a no-reward marker at this point in the game. If he gets something wrong, I set him up so he gets it right the next time, and we're moving at a pace that means he hopefully won't even notice the error.
We're also keeping sessions extremely short - only a minute or two at a time. Remember sitting through an hour long math class and feeling zoned and exhausted afterward? I keep things short so that Abe doesn't feel overwhelmed with new information. After all, he's probably never had a formal training session before in his life. And I want to leaving him wanting. I want to keep him coming back for more.
Look, little platypus, how fun the roller coaster can be!