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Strong Foundations

A solid foundation supports strong, reliable behavior.

"He'll come when called in the house, but not in the yard if he sees something more interesting."

This isn't an issue of a disobedient dog, but a sign that the competing environment has simply exceeded the limits of his learning level.

Come in the backyard is a different challenge than come in the woods!

Come-when-called starts with a whiplash head turn.  Without it, he can't turn away from that interesting thing in the yard.  Then ping-pong recalls and hide & go seek in the house to firm up the basic concept of hearing the word "come!" and joyfully running to collect amazing rewards. 


Every criteria you add builds on the foundation of Turn When You Call.  You start in the house and then move to your fenced yard.  Short distances, then longer, and eventually out of sight.  Come away from and travel passed easy distractions, then slightly harder ones.  Then in new, boring places.  Then new, moderately interesting places.  On-leash at short distances, then on a long-line, and eventually off-leash.  Coming off hot pursuit of a squirrel in the woods at 40 yards is a PhD in come when called.  It takes a dedicated trainer, LOTS of practice, and hundreds of repetitions to get there.

Any lapse is a sign that you need to go back a step and work on strengthening your previous skill level.

Every behavior starts with a basic skill set.  This is your foundation.
The behavior stays strong at increasing challenges IF the foundation is strongly built and can support the stress of each new pressure you put on it.

  • When you build a house, you start with the foundation.  You don't add the framing until the concrete has cured and is strong.

  • You make sure the framing is strong enough to bear the weight of the siding and the roof.

  • Bearing walls and support beams are carefully placed to make sure the structure is sound.

  • When the structural pieces are in place, the wall board and paint and decorative trim goes on.

  • If it's built well, it will withstand a windstorm - but unless you've done an incredible job of building it, it probably still won't withstand a hurricane!

We build behavior the same way.  We identify the foundation behavior and make it strong.  Like building muscles, we add gradually increasing levels of criteria and distractions.

Foundation behavior:

  • Down stay starts with a well-understood down position, then down for a minuscule amount of duration, then slightly longer. Only when the down is solid and confident, can we add small handler movements and easy distractions.  Then one step of distance, then three.  Then new locations and higher levels of distraction.  If your FOUNDATION -a clear understanding of the position with duration- isn't strong, it will crumble like a wet concrete foundation when you start adding the weight of distractions and distance and different locations.

  • Retrieve starts with teaching a solid hold and delivery to hand. Then we add distance to hand.  Then the throw.  (Without a strong delivery, you have "he'll go get it but he won't give it back.")

  • Loose leash walking starts with moving with you ONE step in a situation where you are the only interesting thing in the room.  Then two and three and four.  Turns. Changes of pace.  Small distractions.  Medium distractions.  Harder distractions.  New places.  New busier places.  REALLY busy places, at a distance from the action.  On the fringes of the action. And then, only when they are ready, you'll be ready to walk right through the middle of it.


The biggest mistake is expecting a dog to perform barely-learned skills under impossible conditions for their current training level:

  • Loose leash walking - through a busy neighborhood with a million sights, sounds and smells and kids on bikes and other dog walkers.

  • Come when called - off leash, at a distance, away from high level distractions.

  • Sit for petting - calmly while not jumping on exciting guests just as they come in the door after the doorbell has just rung - and they brought their kids.  And their dog.  And it's Christmas.  And you don't entertain very often.

Dogs fail where there is too-little practice of basic foundation skills and too-high training expectations in a hurricane of distractions.

Raising criteria:

We learn the basics of how to swim in calm, shallow water where we can touch bottom. 

We abandon water wings and paddle boards when we are proficient at dog paddling.

When we are more confident, we practice our form and strokes in a deeper pool.


Pretty soon we are confident enough to jump into the deep end of the pool.

But that doesn't mean we are ready to swim in the ocean - yet.

Even great swimmers will struggle in strong current and at long distances.

Practice makes perfect - and you have to keep that muscle exercised to keep it strong.


Training for a Triathlon is different than training for Iron Man challenge. 
Both require the ability to run, ride a bike, and swim ...
but with much greater endurance and proficiency and under more challenging conditions!

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