The phrase ‘take baby steps’ describes finishing a task or working through a problem in small increments. Rather than trying to tackle a large issue in one big gulp, you work at in in small, manageable bites.
In animal training ‘successive approximations’ are the ‘baby steps’ that make up training a complex, multi-step behavior. I describe this concept in detail in my book Dog Care and Training for the GENIUS. But there is a related training concept that complements successive approximations: systematic desensitization.
This is used in humans to treat things like anxiety and phobias. In dogs, it can help with these as well as other training situations.
And you can combine the two to teach your dog some really cool stuff. We’ve all seen those cute memes and cards that have dogs posing with props; sunglasses, clothes, bottles or well, anything really. To catch that perfect pic though is a combination of photographic and training skill.
What? You didn’t think they just slapped those glasses on the dog and took the pic, did you?
Ok, sure, some dogs are extremely tolerant from the start and can be dressed up without any fuss. Most dogs though, need some familiarity with whatever it is that is being put on or near their body. Training your dog to take those super cute pics requires that you systematically desensitize the dog to the object being on or near the dog, and approximate the dog into the desired position. I also talk about this in my post about dogs and Halloween.
While decorating for the holidays I wanted to take some fun pictures of Xander and came up with the idea of draping lights around him and getting him to pose. But I knew he wasn’t going to just sit there and let those crazy blinky wires wrap around him unless he got to know them first.
So the first thing I asked him to do was just come up and be close to the light string.
The Blinky Stringy Thing just lays there and does nothing, and Xander has no problem being right next to it. While this might not be a very big deal to some dogs, for others anything new in their environment is a Great Big Scary.
He’s looking at me with that big, goofy smile because he knows I’ve got yummy treats. I’ve asked him to Sit and Stay next to the new Blinky Stringy Thing, which means he has to remain in that position while I walk away. While Xander is just fine with this, for some dogs, being far away from Mama or Daddy while next to something potentially dangerous (at least in their eyes) is very stressful. Teach them to be less fearful by rewarding calm behavior as you slowly approximate them closer to a scary object while you move farther away. Baby steps!
Progressing to the next level involves Blinky Stringy Thing touching Xander.
First, I have it just barely touching his legs and side.
Then I drape it over his legs.
And finally, lay it over his back.
At each step of the way I gave Xander treats and verbal encouragement. In between each step I released Xander so he could get up, move around and relax. This is important! Allowing Xander to relax away from Blinky String, even for a few moments can be just as rewarding as a treat. I used those moments to give Xander a good scratch and some ear rubs.
Each little step was treated as a fun, quick interaction. For Xander it wasn’t scary, it was playtime with Mama.
Xander was fine when the BST was only loosely placed on him, but when I wrapped it a little tighter, look what happens to his attitude.
But just a few more sessions of wrapping and unwrapping, and I had this.
Until finally, I had him looking like this.
All this took me maybe an hour. I did use a clicker, although in this particular instance a clicker is not a critical tool. It went quickly with Xander because he’s used to working with novel items in his environment. This was the first time I asked him to let me wrap something around him, but he handled it like a pro. He’s such a good dog!
Can you think of ways to adapt this technique to help your dog? Does your dog need to learn how to manage stressful situations? Or do you want to teach your dog how to be the next Doggie Supermodel? Tell me about it down below!