Increase Your Dog’s Reliability

Through positive dog training, learn how to increase the reliability that your dog will listen to commands.


The German Shepherd’s owner wailed, “But he does it at home!” in my training class last night as her dog sat in front of her, apparently ignoring her cue to lie down. Dog trainers across the country frequently hear this complaint from their human clients during the first few weeks of a new training class. “Of course he does,” we reassure them consolingly, and launch a discussion about how to achieve reliability – getting your dog to do what you ask of him anywhere, anytime, under any conditions.

Behavior professionals often define “reliable” as responding appropriately to the cue at least 80 percent of the time. That means your dog sits at least 8 out of 10 times when you ask him to. It’s unreasonable to expect 100 percent reliability from your dog. After all, we humans are the ones with the bigger brains, and we aren’t perfectly reliable 100 percent of the time – so why should our dogs be? It’s quite possible that your dog sits reliably at home, in the environment where you spend the most time training. Sitting on cue at the training center, at the farmer’s market, at your daughter’s soccer game, when the grass is wet, or in an infinite number of other possible environments, may be an entirely different matter.

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It takes commitment to your training program to achieve reliability under a wide variety of conditions. Let’s explore some of the elements that make for true reliability.

This is the concept that trips up so many beginning dog owners/trainers. You work hard at home all week training your dog to perfection, but when you return to class you’re dismayed and disappointed when you try to show off your dog’s accomplishments and he won’t perform. It’s enough to make you give up on training. DON’T!

Maybe you missed the part where your trainer told you that as soon as your dog can do a behavior in the privacy of your own home you need to take the show on the road and practice in lots of other places. If you only practice “sit” in the kitchen in front of the refrigerator, then your dog thinks “Sit!” means “Sit in the kitchen in front of the refrigerator.” When you ask him to sit at the training center and he doesn’t respond you’re thinking, “Stupid dog, he knows what ‘sit’ means,” and he’s thinking, “But I can’t sit here, there’s no refrigerator!”

As soon as your dog will sit for you in one room of your house, practice in all the other rooms. Take him out in the backyard and practice there. Then in the front yard, on your walks around the block and at the dog park. Practice at the vet hospital, at the groomer’s, at your favorite pet supply store, and when you take him to visit friends and family. Practice everywhere!

You also need to practice when you are in different positions. If you usually train standing up, try asking him to sit while you’re sitting on the sofa (television commercials are a perfect training opportunity). Try it when you’re lying on the floor. Turn away from him and ask him to sit. You could even try it while you’re practicing various yoga positions!

It may seem like a lot of work at first, but the good news is that generalization, well, generalizes! The more new behaviors you make the effort to generalize, the easier it becomes for each new behavior along your training journey. Once you’ve generalized “sit” it will be a little easier for “down,” “wait,” “leave it,” “come,” and all the other good manners behaviors you’re trying to teach your dog.

“Proofing” for distractions
Proofing is really just solid training. It simply means teaching your dog to respond to your cues when there are other interesting, exciting, fun, sometimes scary, things happening around him – things we call “distractions.” The secret to proofing is convincing your dog that you are consistently more interesting, more fun, more exciting, and more reinforcing than the distractions. When I used to teach in Santa Cruz, California, I told my students they had to be more interesting than a dead seal. Here in Maryland it’s dead squirrels rather than dead seals, but the concept is the same: If you are wonderful and the training game is wonderful, your dog has no reason to ignore you in favor of dead smelly things – he’s already having as much fun as he could possibly imagine.

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Patty Ruzzo, longtime renowned positive trainer who, sadly, passed away last summer, encouraged people to be “variable and unpredictable” as a way to be irresistibly interesting to their dogs. If your dog never knows what fun stuff you’re going to offer at any moment, he stays glued to you in eager anticipation. The tug toy or plush squeaky you could pull out of your pocket without notice is just as compelling as the squirrel who might run across his path.

To accomplish proofing, you’ll need to start in any new environment with a high rate of reinforcement (lots of rewards), and a wide variety of high value reinforcers (lots of different kinds of “good stuff”). Start your training routine with behaviors that are easy for your dog so he can succeed. When a distraction presents itself, reinforce promptly before he has a chance to lose his focus on you. When no distractions loom, randomly surprise your dog with an exciting reinforcer, as he’s come to anticipate. After a short heeling pattern, turn and run the other way (chase = reinforcer), or whip out a hidden rope toy for a quick game of tug. When you release him from a stay, scatter a handful of treats on the ground for a “find it” orgy, or toss a ball in the air for him to catch – have fun with your dog!

At first, keep training sessions short so you can end with success. Having fun can be very tiring; you want to end the session before your energy wanes or your dog’s enthusiasm wavers. As you both build stamina you can increase the length of your sessions and the duration of your dog’s focus.

When your dog has learned to stay very focused on you, you can add even more intense distractions. Owners who show their dogs in obedience and rally competitions want their dogs to be as close to 100 percent reliable as canines can accomplish. They often proof their dogs with distractions such as metal chairs falling over, cats running past, loose dogs, balloons popping, car keys jingling, hot dogs dropping, children running and yelling – anything that might happen at a show to disrupt their dogs’ performances.

Sights and sounds that your dog finds worrisome, disturbing, or downright scary are guaranteed to diminish his reliability. Lucy, our three-year-old Cardigan Corgi, is very sensitive to sounds. When she was a year old I took her through a clicker class at “A Click Above” in Leesburg, Virginia. The class was held in a large warehouse building. While her class was in session there was also an agility class happening at the other end of the training center, with loud crashes, bangs, and cheers and applause as dogs negotiated the equipment and their owners urged them on.

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Lucy’s reliability, quite high at home, deteriorated significantly the first two or three weeks of class until she became desensitized to the sounds. At first, I had to just let her take a break whenever sound erupted from the other end of the room – she would shut down from stress and stop performing completely. Then she began to accept sounds of a fairly low intensity – a muffled bang of the teeter at the opposite end of the building, a person encouraging her dog at low to moderate volume.

I helped the process along with counter-conditioning – not just waiting for Lucy to habituate to the commotion, but actively encouraging a positive association with the sounds by feeding her high-value treats whenever a loud noise occurred. By week five she consistently performed her behaviors with 80 percent or better reliability.

Fading lures and prompts
A cue is the initial signal you give your dog to ask for a behavior. A lure is a food treat that you use to show your dog how to perform the behavior (such as putting a treat at the tip of his nose and moving it toward the floor to get him to lie down). A prompt is a signal, such as a movement of your hand, that you use after your cue to help your dog perform the requested behavior. (A lure is one form of prompt; not all prompts are lures.) To be really reliable, your dog needs to respond to your cue at least 80 percent of the time without additional lures or prompts.

If you ask your dog to lie down using the verbal cue “down,” your training goal is to have him respond without you having to point to the floor, bend over, or move a treat toward the floor. If you are still doing those things to get him to “down” then he’s not yet reliable, and you have more training to do.

It’s best to fade lures and prompts early with each new behavior. The longer you use them, the more you and your dog become dependent on them. This means you’ll always have to have a treat in your hand. Most dog owners don’t want that. As soon as you can easily lure your dog into position, start fading the lure as follows:

• Give the cue “Down.”

• Pause 2 to 4 seconds to let him hear and think about the cue.

• Lure him down.

• Repeat.

• If your dog doesn’t catch on and start lying down for the verbal cue after 3 to 4 repetitions, vary the length of the pause after the cue. Sometimes lure quickly, sometimes wait several seconds.

• With subsequent repetitions, use the lure less and less, until you’re just barely suggesting a motion with your lure. You’re trying to jumpstart his brain – getting him to think for himself instead of waiting for you to help him out.

Some trainers fade the lure by replacing the treat with a “down” signal with an empty hand (a prompt), then treating from the other hand. You can do this – and then you still have to go through the same process to fade the prompt. Of course, if you shape behaviors instead of luring them, you can skip fading altogether – there’s nothing to fade! (See “Fun Training Techniques for You and Your Canine!,” March 2006.)


Decreasing the rate of reinforcement
When you first teach your dog a new behavior, you use a continuous schedule of reinforcement. Every time your dog sits at your request, he gets a click and treat. When he sits reliably (8 out of 10 times) you are ready to start using a variable, intermittent reinforcement schedule. You will still treat every time you click, but occasionally you’ll just say “good dog!” and skip the click and treat.

Be sure that you truly vary your reinforcement; dogs quickly discern a pattern – “Oh, she clicks only every fourth time!” – and won’t perform as well for the three times in between clicks. Emulate a slot machine; he never knows when to expect the next payoff, so he’ll keep playing, hoping the next “sit” will win the jackpot.

Remember that if you click, you must give your dog a treat. Recent research conducted by Dr. Jesus Rosales-Ruiz at the University of North Texas conclusively demonstrates that the quality of performance deteriorates rapidly if you click without treating. You can, however, gradually stretch your rate of reinforcement thinner and thinner. At first you skip a click only occasionally, but over time you can skip more.

An intermittent schedule of reinforcement makes a behavior very durable – meaning it’s hard to extinguish (make it go away). It teaches your dog that if he keeps working, eventually a payoff will come. This enables you to have your dog perform several behaviors in a row without having to stop and treat each time – an important skill if you really want to impress friends and family with your trick routine – or enter canine competitions.

Stimulus control
Discussed at length in the October issue, stimulus control is the icing on the reliability cake. Incorporating the concepts above will help you attain this worthy goal. When your dog is truly under stimulus control he will:

• Always perform the behavior when you ask him to (sit when you say sit).

• Never perform the behavior in a training session if you haven’t asked him (never sit if you haven’t asked him to sit).

• Never perform the behavior when you ask him to perform a different behavior (never sit when you ask him to down).

• Never perform a different behavior when you ask him for the behavior (never down when you ask him to sit).

If you’re not quite there yet, start working on generalization, proofing, desensitization, fading lures and prompts, and decreasing your rate of reinforcement. You and your dog have work to do!

Pat Miller, CPDT, is Whole Dog Journal’s Training Editor. Miller lives in Hagerstown, Maryland, site of her Peaceable Paws training center, with her husband Paul. Pat is also the author of The Power of Positive Dog Training and Positive Perspectives: Love Your Dog, Train Your Dog. Thanks to trainer Sarah Richardson, of Chico, California, for demonstrating the techniques in this article.


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Pat Miller, CBCC-KA, CPDT-KA, grew up in a family that was blessed with lots of animal companions: dogs, cats, horses, rabbits, goats, and more, and has maintained that model ever since. She spent the first 20 years of her professional life working at the Marin Humane Society in Marin County, California, for most of that time as a humane officer and director of operations. She continually studied the art and science of dog training and behavior during that time, and in 1996, left MHS to start her own training and behavior business, Peaceable Paws. Pat has earned a number of titles from various training organizations, including Certified Behavior Consultant Canine-Knowledge Assessed (CBCC-KA) and Certified Professional Dog Trainer - Knowledge Assessed (CPDT-KA). She also founded Peaceable Paws Academies for teaching and credentialing dog training and behavior professionals, who can earn "Pat Miller Certified Trainer" certifications. She and her husband Paul and an ever-changing number of dogs, horses, and other animal companions live on their 80-acre farm in Fairplay, Maryland.