The whole post in three words: Don’t do it. Start at the beginning.
I’ve mentioned before that I use Sue Ailsby’s Training Levels as a guide for training my dogs. The Levels comprise an organized method for teaching your dog. The behaviors are designed to build on each other and generalize as part of the process. They are carefully laid out, and the books suggest specific ways to teach each behavior without being doctrinaire about it. The method is great for new trainers, because the trainer builds skills through the process as well.
I am not the best example of a Levels trainer because I frequently dash off-course and train something else, but with each new dog I do use the Levels for my foundation, and they are always going on in the background. Right now all three of my dogs are working some Level 3 behaviors and we are still cleaning up some in Level 2.
I’ve been on the Training Levels Yahoo group since 2008. Just before discovering the Levels, I had been putting together my own prioritized list of behaviors to teach (with competitive agility as a big focus but also plenty of polite pet behaviors). I had been patching together some Susan Garrett and Leslie McDevitt and things from other sources. So when I discovered the Levels, I was in a quandary. I am a dedicated do-it-yourselfer and am constitutionally hesitant to take “someone else’s” structure and follow it. And I wanted something focused specifically on agility. But I also had enough sense to vaguely realize that Sue Ailsby might know a tiny bit more about how to put together a dog training curriculum than I did. (That’s sarcasm. Sue’s credentials are awesome.)
Adopting the Levels
So, after some generous guidance from Lynn Shrove, with whom I struck up an email relationship and who was very generous with her time, I decided to use the Levels for my training structure.
In an email conversation I described to Lynn how I was going through the lists of behaviors in the Levels to see where I should start with my dog, since she already knew a lot of them.
Anyone who is a dedicated Levels trainer is smirking right now.
Here’s how the conversation went.
Eileen: I’ve made a check-off sheet and am going through and testing Summer through the early behaviors in the Levels so I know what Level she is already at and where to start.
Lynn: (politely) You should think about starting at the beginning.
Eileen: But Summer knows that stuff already! She has titles in obedience and agility! She can do a two-minute sit/stay with distractions. She’s good at heeling. She got her Novice obedience title in three straight trials.
Lynn: (politely) Still, I really suggest you start at the beginning. The Levels are about learning how to teach your dog and they all fit together.
Eileen: But I’ve already been training her for two years! I don’t need to backtrack.
Lynn: (patiently) What would it hurt, though, to retrain according to Sue’s methods? You will probably pick up some stuff that you didn’t know was missing.
Eileen: (grudgingly and several days later) OK, I am starting from the beginning.
Lynn: Great! Let me know if you want to share training videos.
Eileen: (a few weeks later) Oh now I know why you told me to start at the beginning. Thank you!
Perhaps I wasn’t that gracious at the end, and perhaps it was more like months, but I’m pretty sure I did tell Lynn that she was right. Because she was.
Why to Start at the Beginning
Most humans hate to backtrack, or do anything that even feels like backtracking. Also, we are usually proud to have taught our dogs anything. Finally, we are impatient. We want to get to the new, fun stuff. So it’s perfectly natural that we should see a list of behaviors, think, “Oh great, my dog already knows some of those,” and decide to start somewhere in the middle, determining what she already knows by a quick test.
Here are some of the reasons why that is a really bad idea with the Training Levels.
- The Levels emphasize generalization. In many obedience schools, and just by natural inclination, we teach our dogs to do a behavior in one environment and do it the same each time. If my dog can sit in the kitchen when I am holding her food bowl in my hand (facing north), I may figure she “knows sit.” Or if she can sit in a line of dogs for one minute in an obedience ring (admittedly a challenge), I figure she can “do a sit stay.” Notice that in the conversation above I defended my dog’s knowledge of behaviors by citing her titles. This is very common when coming from that training background, but in truth, being able to perform a series of behaviors in an obedience ring has little or nothing to do with being able to do them in “real life.” Different skills entirely. My dog didn’t really “know” a sit-stay. All one has to do to test this claim is to put the dog or oneself in an odd or different position or with new distractions and ask for the same thing. I did this later. I have a series of movies about this in the blog post: Dogs Notice Everything. Check it out. When you start the Levels from the beginning, generalizing becomes second nature, and that’s a good thing.
- If you are new to clicker or marker training, you need to practice on the easier stuff more than your dog does! And Sue gives explicit instructions about this.
- Behaviors taught with aversives, even mild ones like pushing the dog’s butt down into a sit, are **not the same** as those same behaviors taught with positive reinforcement. They carry with them a burden of pressure and even fear. The Levels are taught with joy. And yes, behaviors taught that way can become reliable (the Levels are great at that too). If you have used aversives, or trained the behaviors “for praise,” or “without treats,” you especially need to start over. You may even need to change your cue words, since they probably have baggage from the “old way.” I changed the phrase I used for “leave it” because I originally taught it by saying “leave it” and pulling (honestly, jerking) my dog away from a treat on the floor, without any clue ahead of time what I wanted her to do. And here’s a whole post about a cue I changed much later in my dog’s life when I finally came to see the baggage it carried: “Replacing a Poisoned Cue.”
- Sue knows more than you do. In short, the problem is that you don’t know what it is that you don’t know. I can’t tell you what that is. But I can practically guarantee that unless you are a professional trainer yourself, there is something in those early instructions that will be a revelation to you. Probably a lot of “somethings.”
Real Life Example of Levels Generalization
Here is a movie I made back in 2010 of my then new dog Zani sitting on cue in the 15 different situations that Sue suggested in the “old” Training Levels, Level 1. There are plenty of warts in this training including consistently late clicks, but the cool thing is that even so, Zani could and did learn to sit on cue!
And remember, that was just Level 1 out of 7 in the old Levels.
Now take a look at the list for Level 1 Sit from the New Levels. The list is a little shorter now, but actually more challenging.
- Dog sits with the leash off.
- Dog sits in a different part of training room, facing a different way, with the leash off.
- Dog sits with a hand signal only.
- Dog sits with a hand signal in a different room.
- Dog sits with the leash on.
- Dog sits with the leash on with you sitting down, if you originally taught it standing up, or vice versa. If you’ve done it both ways already, you can kneel or hang off the edge of your bed.
- The dog sits by an open door (an inside door).
- The dog sits: during a TV commercial, when you open the oven door, when the doorbell rings, when you’re on the phone, when you’re putting on your coat, when you’re brushing your teeth, while you’re peeling carrots, while you’re putting on her leash and collar.
That’s part of what you miss if you skip Level 1 because your dog “knows sit.”
Oh, and one more thing about “testing.” If you go around testing your dog’s sit in lots of different situations in one morning, that doesn’t give you an accurate picture. Dogs will tend to repeat the last thing they got reinforced for when they are unsure. If you go to 40 different places in your house in sequence and ask for sits, well, you’ll probably get sits. That’s why when testing behaviors, Sue specifies to do it “out of the blue.” Meaning outside the context of a training session and without having recently worked on or asked for the behavior.
So there’s another reason. If you start in the middle, you may not even know how to properly test the behaviors. Take it from this inveterate skipper-arounder. Start at the beginning.
- You can purchase the Levels books (electronic or print), or access the “Old Levels” for free here.
- You can join the Levels Yahoo group here. Trainers following either set of Levels may join and discuss their training.
- You can join the Levels Facebook group here.
- You can view a bunch of YouTube videos (these are not vetted for quality, but there are some very good ones!) here.
- A Secret for Training Two Dogs
- Peek-a-Boo: A Hint for Training Eye Contact
- Level 1 Breakfast
- Training Levels: Making it my Own
- But How Do I Tell My Dog She’s Wrong?
- Lumping It: A Public Service Announcement
- Zen Generalization: Hole in the Fence