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Forward and back chaining for advanced dog tricks

Updated: Apr 5, 2022

Forward chaining and back chaining are both exceptionally useful tools when teaching your dog advanced behaviours, complex behaviours and trick performances. This post is the second part of the Advanced Trick Dog Training tools (for part 1 please see here).

Chaining is an approach in dog training that combines two or more tricks or behaviours to create a chain of linked tricks

Chain is actually a perfect term for it. As you picture the chain, you can imagine each of the behaviours as individual links that we can join together to create the chain.

In dog training, just like when making a chain, you can start at the beginning of the future chain and add your links. You can also start at the end of the chain and build it from there, or even start in the middle and make the chain by adding the links to the front and to the back.

Chaining is very natural for dogs and they learn chains of behaviours very quickly and when taught correctly, will perform them smoothly and enthusiastically.

From the dog's point of view learning using forward chaining and back chaining is quite different, despite the final result seems to be the same series of tricks.

There are specific advantages and disadvantages of each of the approaches that you need to be aware, so let's dive into the specific details and talk about each of the approaches.

Let's imagine that we need to teach our dog the following sequence of linked tricks:

1. Clockwise circle around a box

2. Put two front paws up on the top of the box

3. Perform 360 degrees turn with paws up on the top of the box (elephant trick)

4. Face the handler

5. "Say prayers"

6. Sit on the floor facing the box

7. Push the lid off the box

8. Jump into the box

Before we start any chaining it's absolutely essential to make sure that the dog is able to perform all of the tricks that we are planning to include into the chain 99% of time, very confidently and independently.

The most common mistake is to try to link behaviours into a chain before the dog is fully proficient with each individual behaviours. So, first we teach and polish each of the behaviours that will make our links and only then start joining them together.

Forward chaining

Forward chaining is when you start with the first behaviour of the chain and then add subsequent behaviours one after another.

If we are using forward chaining to teach the dog our sequence of tricks with the box, then we'll first teach the dog to go to the box and perform the clockwise circle. We reward and praise the dog initially each of the time it performs the behaviour and then gradually making the rewards more intermittent.

Once the dog is really confident with circling the box and is able to perform it 99% of times perfectly and without your help, that it's time to add the second link to our chain, which in our case is putting two paws up on the top of the box. At this point, we reward the dog either for each of the behaviours, or after the second one. When the dog is very confident performing both behaviours perfectly one after another, then you can add the third link to the chain. Randomly reward the dog at any point in the chain.

Advantages of forward chaining

  1. Logistically much easier as you don't need to have the whole chain planned to the very end;

  2. The easiest, fastest and the most logical way for people to learn;

  3. Dog will maintain stronger focus on the handler, comparing to the back chaining;

  4. Works best for the dogs that are just learning chaining or are struggling with the whole sequence, inconsistent or rushing it.

  5. The order of behaviours in forward chain can be easily changed without affecting the viability of the chain.

  6. Best approach for behaviour correction, such as whining or jumping before going out, jumping up, rushing through the open door etc.

  7. Can be used with dogs who are less obedient and might be tempted to skip straight to the reward in the scenario of back chaining.

  8. Excellent for the beginning of a performance routine for dogs who are new to competition ring as it allows them to start with very familiar moves and will give the needed confidence boost at the start of the performance.

Disadvantages of forward chaining

  1. Moving from well-rehearsed behaviour to a new one as you are building the chain may make some dogs loose their confidence and enthusiasm, particularly if the handler rushes when training the chain. Always wait for the dog to be very confident with the sequence of the first two behaviours before adding another one, or the confidence level will progressively go down.

  2. When moving to intermittent reward schedule, the dog might feel a bit discouraged if not rewarded as perviously after the first behaviour.

  3. The behaviours at the beginning of the chain have the best familiarity and strongest reinforcement as you start with the frequent rewards for those behaviours initially.

  4. Dog often "runs out of steam" at the end of the chain.

Back chaining

Back chaining is when you start with the last behaviour of the chain and add previous behaviours in the chain one after another.

If we are going to teach the dog the sequence of the box tricks that we've discussed above, with back chaining we will start with the last behaviour: dog jumping into the box. Reward the dog for jumping enthusiastically and independently into the box. When the dog is able to perform this proficiently and enthusiastically, then you are adding the previous step- dog pushing the lid off the box, followed by jumping into the box and then reward. Dog gets the rewards only as it jumps into the box. When dog performs those two behaviours smoothly and reliably, it's time to gradually add the preceding behaviours to the chain: sitting in-front of the box, saying prayers etc. Dog is always rewarded after the last behaviour in the chain, which is in this case jumping into the box.

Advantages of back chaining

  1. Dog has much more forward focus and enthusiasm and it knows when it will get the reward.

  2. Works well for dogs who are lacking enthusiasm or drive.

  3. Dog is moving from less familiar behaviours to more familiar as they practiced them more times previously, giving dogs more overall confidence.

  4. Excellent when working with more difficult behaviours that need to be repeated many times- in such case make sure they are at the very beginning of the chain.

  5. Very useful to rehearse the position of the handler and the dog before the start of the current move.

  6. Excellent for short fixed chains, such as "fetch the drink from the fridge"

  7. Excellent for end of the performance sequence of tricks as it increases dog's enthusiasm and forward drive.

Disadvantages of back chaining

  1. Dogs might be tempted to rush through as they know that they are unlikely to get the rewards for the earlier behaviours, only at the end.

  2. If working without assistant the dog needs to understand that it can not just go and help itself to the reward, location of which it knows. So, works well with dogs with higher level of obedience.

  3. Dogs might try to skip steps in the chain.

  4. The order of behaviours is locked and it's more difficult to change.

  5. If any behaviours in back chain fail (which is likely at the beginning of a long chain), the whole chain breaks down as you can't reward the dog for failed chain.

  6. In complex chain dog knows that it needs to perform many behaviours without direct rewards, making the chain potentially fragile.

  7. Dogs might have less focus on the handler, but stronger focus on the task, so it suitable more for some types of behaviours or sports and less of the other.

There is another hybrid alternative to forward and back chaining - chaining from middle out where you add behaviours to the front and the back of the chain, gradually making it longer with the mixture of variable rewards and rewards at the end. This works best if you have a particularly challenging trick, so you start with it and build your chain from that point forwards and backwards.

For long performances you can also use combination of forward and back chaining for different elements of the performance- some elements are trained as forward chain, others as a back chain and then you put them all together.

We are currently putting together a practical training course on Training chained behaviours that will go into much more details on each of the approaches and will include a mixture of theory and practical course work. Keep and eye on DTA website and Facebook pages for the announcements.

In the next blog post we will be talking about using marks as a training tool for advanced tricks.

Stay tuned and keep training!

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