I think this is as close as I’ll ever come to a “how-to” blog. Here is my usual disclaimer: I am not a professional trainer and I have trained only my own dogs.
But there is a secret to training a dog to lie quietly on a mat, chair, or platform, unrestrained, while another dog is trained. I didn’t invent it. Sue Ailsby told it to me. I’m going to tell you the secret and discuss it conceptually. Once you get the concept, it all falls into place. (And here’s a message from the future: I taught my difficult teenage dog in 2022 to wait while another dog was trained, as well.)
I will also put what I’m saying into practice and demo with my own dogs.
First, here’s what my dogs knew how to do before we started. I think these are the basic necessities.
- The dog already knows how to stay on a mat or other station for 2–3 minutes while being reinforced.
- She can stay with some moderate distractions. Here are some examples. You can walk 20 feet away and back again. You can trot by her or jump up and down. You can drop a treat a few feet away. You can toss one away from her (like you were tossing it to another dog). You can walk right by her with a toy in your hand. The dog must already have experience with distractions, because another dog in the room who will eventually get a lot of your attention is a huge distraction.
- You either have cues that are specific to each dog, or you can work something out as a way to get Dog A to stay while Dog B comes with you, and a way to release Dog A without releasing Dog B. Frankly though, they can learn part of this as you go along. I include some suggestions.
- She knows the other dog and neither is aggressive or overly obnoxious towards the other.
Here is what Sue Ailsby said that made it all fall into place for me. Sue said that when you start, you need to concentrate on the dog who is learning to wait on the mat. Sounds obvious, right? But lots of people who go about this task the first time, including myself, do it exactly backwards. We start taking the active dog through her paces, and throw a treat to the dog on the mat every once in a while. This often does not work.
The other thing Sue said was to treat the dogs separately. Some people say to give the mat dog a treat every time the active dog earns one at first. Then thin the reinforcement down so that you give the mat dog a treat only sometimes when the other dog earns one. (Emily Larlham does this in her excellent video on the subject.)
Sue recommends instead that each dog gets treats tied to what they are doing, so that the dog on the mat learns very clearly that she is getting reinforced for doing her job and it is not tied to what the other dog is doing. Sue’s method is a little harder for the human, but I think is very clear for the dogs. Each gets treated separately. (In reality, they frequently get treated in tandem, but I make a conscious effort to break the pattern as well.)
Dogs who live in households with other dogs learn very quickly that they don’t always get a treat when their sister does, and I think this is a good thing. So I like Sue’s method myself.
Showing the Dog She Is the Center of the Training
Here is how to apply what Sue said. We want to do everything we can to show the mat dog that she is the center of the training.
So first, ask yourself, when starting a training session with my dog, how does she know? Here is my own list.
- I get out treats. A camera perhaps. (My dogs get very happy when they see me carry around the camera tripod.)
- I often look in my Training Levels checkoff list binder.
- I may gather some gear and props. A leash. A target object.
- I take the dog I’m going to train by herself to a particular place. I have about 5 places in my house where I commonly train. If there are other dogs there, I crate them.
- I look at that dog, talk to that dog, and generally orient my body towards that dog
- I reinforce that dog. It if is a new or difficult behavior, I reinforce heavily.
- I release the dog frequently or at least periodically (mini releases with the click; longer ones when we take a little break or set up for a new behavior)
All these things are what tell the dog that she is being trained. So to apply Sue’s recommendation, I am going to get the “mat dog” to do all of these things, then bring in the active dog as a distraction.
How I Proceeded
- I got out the treats as described above
- I took Zani alone into my front room alone and cued to get her on mat.
- I did a little mat training with some of the distractions I listed above.
- Then I let Summer, the distraction dog, into the room but stayed focused on Zani and kept the treats coming.
- When I started to do a few more things with Summer, I spoke quietly to her, trying to be as clear as possible that I was speaking to her alone.
- I often turned my back on Zani to cue a behavior for Summer, then turned back to Zani and treated her.
- With my back turned, sometimes I gave hand signals to Summer that Zani couldn’t see.
- I started with Summer doing very easy, calm behaviors with minimal movement. I worked up to more movement, but kept a variety.
- During our second session I did short duration behaviors with Summer, releasing her with “OK,” which is also Zani’s release word. I continued to be careful to speak directly but quietly to Summer. I treated Zani for staying every time I released Summer.
- I did my best to be considerate of Summer, the active dog, who was probably getting less attention than normal when we train.
I started this project without having a completely clean system of releases for individual dogs. Ideally, I suppose I would have had that in place. There are several ways to go about this. Patricia McConnell, PhD, the eminent animal behaviorist, reported that her border collies could never learn individual releases from stays of the type, “Luke, OK,” because each dog would release on the “OK.” She instead taught them to release individually on a singsong call of their name (here’s her video demonstration). However, some people do direct separate cues to their dogs using their names. Emily Larlham who recommends this video as a prerequisite to her training multiple dogs video, demonstrates her dogs responding to individually directed cues, and she releases them separately in the latter video.
I have had moderate success with directing individual cues to my dogs without formally training that, just incorporating some habits into our day to day living. Like Dr. McConnell, I use a special version of their names to invite one to come with me and for the others to wait. But I actually think that teaching a dog to wait on a mat in the area while another is trained is a way of teaching the kind of differentiated individual response we are talking about. For me, there is some tolerance for error in that situation, as long as I don’t apply any penalty for a dog releasing when I intended the cue for another. It is neither as crucial nor as difficult as when you have a group of dogs all waiting to be cued to do the same exciting thing, such as go out the door.
The first video shows parts of Zani’s very first two sessions of staying on the mat while another dog is worked. I chose Summer according to my guideline #4 above. Clara could possibly be obnoxious to Zani if Clara is the working dog. We’ll work up to that.
The second video shows Clara doing what is for her a very advanced version. (I taught her the basics when she was about a year old.) She is staying on her mat while I work up to a pretty rowdy game of tug with Zani. She gets up one time when I accidentally say “OK” while tugging with Zani (I say it twice! Knock head on wall!). But she corrects herself immediately. Her head is clearer than mine!
You probably noticed I didn’t switch the dogs back and forth. I plan to do that after each of my three dogs in training can successfully stay on their mat while I work either of the other two.
The cool thing, though, is that once you can switch dogs back and forth fluently, Mr. Premack can come to visit (the Premack principle states that behaviors can reinforce other behaviors) and we won’t have to keep that high rate of reinforcement for the dog on the mat. Her major reinforcement for staying quietly on the mat will be the chance to be the working dog. I already take turns with my dogs in almost all training sessions; the major difference will be that they are now closed into crates or the next room. Soon they’ll be right there where the action is. It sounds like win/win to me.
I’ll let you know how it works out.
Update: I later successfully taught individual release cues. You can read about that in the following posts
Thanks for reading!
Copyright 2013 Eileen Anderson