“Testing Through” the Levels

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.

Zani Demos a Level 1 Sit
Zani Demos a Level 1 Sit

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.”
  4. 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!

 Link to “Zani: Level 1 Sit” for email subscribers.

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.

  1. Dog sits with the leash off.
  2. Dog sits in a different part of training room, facing a different way, with the leash off.
  3. Dog sits with a hand signal only.
  4. Dog sits with a hand signal in a different room.
  5. Dog sits with the leash on.
  6. 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.
  7. The dog sits by an open door (an inside door).
  8. 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.


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15 thoughts on ““Testing Through” the Levels

  1. At my school, Dogs in the Park, we teach a variation on Sue’s original levels program. We started with the levels program in 2005 and have modified and changed things to suit our needs and our group classes. We are now somewhat different from what Sue’s program is; for instance we have added in a whole section on husbandry that includes things like “know your vet’s name and clinic and what food you need” that helps us a lot. We also have things like collar grabs that are not part of what Sue had in mind, but are very necessary because that is one of our behaviours to determine when a dog is ready to go on our group off leash walk. We teach this as a modular program and students follow through at their own rate. All of our clsses start with a ten minute down stay so that the students and instructor can organize what each is going to work on that day and then we move forward working on the students’ agenda. It is REALLY powerful to give your students control over what they teach and in what order within a framework that allows for a solid foundation for the dog and handler.

    I appreciate no end the thought and care that Sue took when developing her levels program and when we get new students who start with us, we test from cold; what that means is that if your dog has all of the level one behaviours (restrained recall, sit, down, 5 second no cue leave it, collar grab, know your vet’s name etc., wag your tail, and 5 goals) it should not be difficult for you to show me in the classroom that your dog can do this and then we can move on. What we have found is that there are very, very few dogs who can do level one cold right out of the starting gate regardless of the behaviours you may have taught at home. many trainers new to our school are surprised at what they haven’t taught when they think they have taught their dog to do things, and indeed, if a dog cannot do one of the level one behaviours, then they just don’t have the big picture.

    Without what Sue organized and planned, thought about and put together, we would not have the outstanding program we do. As it is, we have perhaps the most flexible and solid program I have ever seen in a school and over 40 families enrolled right now working the levels. It is a pleasure to see!

    1. Thanks for the comment! I think the Levels form a basis for so many great things. By the way, collar grabs are New Level 1 Come Step 3. And there are three levels of husbandry now, starting with the most basic touching, going up through all types of grooming, and finally elimination on cue including in the parking lot of the vet’s office!

  2. I can’t believe that Sue has made such a helpful wealth of information completely free! But the new version is so cheap which is still really nice.

    It’s really the perfect training for ANY dog and through it, you build your relationship as well. I especially like it for rescues who are lacking in manners, and also service dogs who have to have very good manners for public access work. Through it, you can also teach some disability mitigation tasks. It also teaches people how to teach their dogs for other things you want to teach that aren’t addressed in Levels.

    1. Yes! The Levels used to be a little more centered on competitive obedience, but Sue has broadened them. Yet the skills you gain are fantastic for any sport or event. Thanks for the comment!

  3. I am so frustrated. Recently I read an article recently on how weakness in the foundations skills can affect later learning. (It was research done re Medical Students in Scotland, I believe.)
    I cannot find it on Google OR I my own files ;-( Help!
    But I think that it really is appropriate re this discussion 🙁

    I know that when I read it I had an Ah-Ha! moment because my own ‘arithmetic skills” are bad, and I remembered that we had changed States when I was of the age where this is done in school, and had missed that particular aspect. I have not been able to overcome this problem and sometimes feel that I should go out and buy some Infants Arithmetic books and work through them 🙁

    Or begin each morning chanting my addition and multiplication tables 🙁

  4. Oh my gosh Eileen I cannot believe you posted on the Levels. Guess what I have been doing with my dog in the last month???? I too thought my dog has a very large vocabulary and a JH AKC title and lots of obedience work. I checked out the Levels and I am a believer. It is now my bible on dog training. I will have to join the Yahoo group for sure. I need all the encouragement I can get. Thanks again!!!

    1. Gwen, that’s great! The Levels are very humbling, but also empowering from the very beginning. That’s so cool you are working on them. See you on the Yahoo group!

  5. I love love that video! Zani is wonderful 🙂 I never thought of teaching Murph to sit on a chair or under a table – will have to try!

    1. Thanks! The hardest one for my dogs (and this is why it’s not in Sue’s Level 1), is for dogs to sit while I am lying down or otherwise lower then they are. Give that one a try, too! And for anybody who runs out of challenging sits, there is always Ian Dunbar’s Sit Challenge: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MtY5U2K-rG0

  6. Ooooh good one. I will try that too. We had a go at ‘sit on a chair’ and I discovered he couldn’t even get on a chair! So now we are working on that 😉

  7. Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of Sue Ailsby’s Training Levels is that they are based on science that is decades old, yet so few dog trainers and people hear (or care) about them. Today, most seem to spend time redefining punishment and focus on petting instead of kicking your dog, showing you the wrong way to do the right thing. I think it was about 1997 that Dr. Karen Overall published her Protocol for Relaxation, aimed at rehabilitation, but which uses the same approach as those levels.

    And as rehab is only focused on having an unadoptable dog living comfortably and controlled in a household, and later working with a dog trainer to learn more behaviors, it would be so nice if those later dog trainers could then follow Sue Ailsby’s levels approach. But in over a decade now, not even a single trainer I’ve known has even read Overall’s Protocol, and not even after they have seen the results.

    As for starting at the beginning, that makes sense not only to avoid skipping important aspects, but also to form components of more complex behaviors that will be used later on.

    1. Thanks for the insightful comments, Gerry. I too wish more people would train the levels. They are neither old fashioned nor new fangled. Just good methodology, especially about generalization.

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