With the basics down, it's off to finer points with the training of Tait

September 30, 2008 

Tait and I spent August apart; him at various locations and me in Brazil, volunteering to assist a team of biologists and zoologists in their studies of giant river and neotropical otters, and amphibians and reptiles native to the Pantanal.

At 8 months of age, Tait had the skills and confidence to be away from home, and took his absence from me in stride; I, on the other hand, was a bit more emotional.

While I was picking through tarantulas and scorpions to collect frogs, snakes and lizards from pit traps, Tait enjoyed days of play at my office, with friendly people and dogs. While I was collecting giant river otter scat, Tait played water games at the home of a friend with children.

He also got some structured experiences, spending a few days in an apartment and minding his manners with a friend's greyhound and numerous cats, as well as spending full days out on the road working with a pet-sitting friend.

As I've mentioned before, having a group of "dog friends" can be valuable when raising a puppy, and numerous friends have had a hand in Tait's success.

Now, at nearly 10 months, Tait's formal education is about to begin. House training and basic manners have been in good shape for a while, but I have bigger plans for Tait that involve more than being a great family pet. Next up on my list for him include creating a good work ethic, giving him opportunities to earn rewards, and giving him nothing for free.

Belgian Tervuren are extremely active, and Tait is no exception. If he doesn't have daily activity, his life won't be full, and so I am beginning with some basic training in obedience, agility and conformation. To make communicating my wishes as clear as possible, I have introduced clicker training, which uses positive reinforcement in combination with an event marker -- the click. Using a clicker allows me to perfectly mark Tait's correct responses, and he looks forward to earning every click, as it always means something good for him: a game of tug, a treat, access to an item or location he likes, etc. I am proud to say that Tait has never experienced punishment, and all of his training in his mind is one big, glorious game, so he enjoys each new idea that I introduce.

I am now teaching Tait what I call his "body mechanics." Any sport I choose to do with him will require precise body movements and positions, so he is learning how to back up, step forward, swing in, move out, line up on my right side, line up on my left side, go through my legs and stand straight in front of me, all on cue. Also important is attention. Tait is learning to watch me on cue, and is always reinforced for voluntary eye contact. He is becoming skilled at jumping over low obstacles, and precisely retrieving objects. Coming soon is scent discrimination, where Tait will learn to go to a grouping of identical items and pick up the one that carries my scent.

While this may seem like a big time commitment, we have only one training session a day, and it lasts around 20 minutes. The rest of the time, Tait is learning in real life. He is cued to sit, come, wait, watch and settle throughout the day. These cues are all opportunities for rewards; if Tait does what I cue him to do, then he gets to walk out the door, jump into the car, begin to eat his breakfast, chase the ball, or settle down with a rawhide, etc. But everything he wants in his world is earned, by correct responses to my cues. What happens if he doesn't respond? No punishment, no scolding and no "making" him do it; instead, I use something much more powerful -- the absence of reward.

Lisa Moore's pet-behavior column appears once a month on the Weekly Pet Page. Write to her in care of LifeStyles, The Modesto Bee, P.O. Box 5256, Modesto 95352.

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