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Advanced trick dog training tools- behaviour chaining, part1

In trick dog training as in any other dog sport, we start by teaching dogs single simple behaviours such as "sit", "down", "paw" etc that dog performs to a single cue.

It's all nice and simple:

Single behaviour =one cue, one behaviour, followed by a reward

The behaviours themselves at this initial stage can be very straightforward such as "sit", "beg", or more challenging such as "say your prayers" or even "cover" (where dog covers its face with a paw). There is one command per behaviour and in most cases dogs are rewarded after a single trick.

Most people who teach their dogs tricks stop at that and never go beyond this step.

You can achieve a great deal at that level - teaching your dog some impressive tricks, showing them to your friends and family and even earning some advanced trick dog titles.

We want to help you to go further with your trick training and will share with you some of the best tools and ideas which you can use to take your trick training to the new level.

"Chaining" is a way of teaching your dog to link several simple behaviours to achieve either a more complex chained behaviour or a set sequence of behaviours.

Complex chained behaviour

A good example of such complex "chained behaviour" could be fetching you a drink from the fridge.

If we break it down, the "fetching drink from the fridge" consists of several distinct simple behaviours, or steps:

1. Dog going to the fridge

2. Opening the fridge

3. Finding the can or the bottle in the fridge

4. Picking it up

5. Closing the fridge

6. Bringing it to you

7. Release it to your hand

The key difference of it from a series of simple behaviours is that the dog performs all those steps independently to one cue and gets the reward at the end of the chain- eg when it delivers the bottle to your hand.

Complex chained behaviour= one cue, several sequential behaviours, reward at the end

There are lots of frequently taught examples of such complex behaviours such as "tidy your toys", "bring me slippers", "kennel up", the trick where you sneeze, dog brings you a tissue and then bins it, etc. Most trainers never fade out the individual cues and continue giving several commands to help the dog to perform the complex behaviour from its beginning to the end.

We want to help you to take it further and be able to teach your dog to perform the whole chain of behaviours to a single cue! Just how cool this is going to be!?

The second variant of linked behaviours is called a sequence.

Sequence of behaviours

Sequence of behaviours is when dog learns to perform several set behaviours smoothly and seamlessly one after another. An example of this could be a choreographed dance with your dog, professional trick display to an audience, stunt dog show etc. All professional dog performers plan and choreograph their performance in details, learn the sequence of tricks and moves together with their dog and only then perform them to the public.

You can think of the sequence as the individual lines that actors deliver in a play, or as a dance. In a play actors need to learn which lines to deliver when and in what sequence for a play to work or even make any sense. The same when you perform a dance or recite a poem- you learn each line or move and how they join together into one.

Unlike the "complex chained behaviours" the handler usually gives cues to the for each subsequent trick either verbally or visually. For tops performers, if any visual cues are given they are blended seamlessly in handler's own movements and ideally are not noticeable to the audience.

Dog usually receives intermittent rewards for performing the whole sequence in training, but most commonly performs with the reward only at the end of the sequence during live performance to the audience.

Sequence of behaviours= rehearsed set of behaviours performed to individual cues, intermittent infrequent rewards or reward at the end

The biggest difference between the sequence and individual tricks performed one after another is that both the dog and the handler are well familiar with the sequence, practiced it and know which trick is coming next in the sequence. In contrast to improvised series of tricks the learned sequence of behaviours is planned and well thought through and well rehearsed. The sequence will be performed noticeably smoother, cleaner, with purpose, good transitions and flow between the individual tricks- overall appearing crisp and professional.

For example, in dancing with dogs, the dance sequence consists from anything between a dozen to over a 100 behaviours.

Sequence of behaviours is in many ways, a step before complex chained behaviour. The transition to a single cue makes sense for some of the sequences where the sequence is relatively short and always fixed. Eg fetch the drink from the fridge. Single cue is not practical or advisable for longer sequences or for changing sequences where the behaviours are like lego blocks can be re-used in different combinations, such as in dog dancing.

Forward and backward chaining is a favourite tool of many dog training professionals. It's used widely in many dog sports: from agility, protection work to obedience, trick performances, studio work and dancing with dogs. It can also be used with great results in behaviour modification and general dog training.

In trick training, chaining is a holy grail of advanced trick training, teaching your dog sequences and complex chained behaviours.

In the next blog post we will be discussing forward and backwards chaining in details, the differences between them, pros and cons and the scenarios when it is best to use one vs the other.

Stay tuned and keep training!

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