I hear this so often, ‘Det er godt med forstyrrelser’. Translated this means, that it’s good to train with disturbances.
Are you kidding me? Unfortunately they’re not.

You can compare a dog learning something new to a child learning to ride a bike. To start with, the child has to look down at its feet as it pedals, because the movement is not yet automatic. If you insist on the child focusing on something else, then quite probably the legs will stop doing their stuff.
A dog learning something new is very much the same – if you remove its focus from the job in hand, something is likely to go wrong. By asking a dog to work on an exercise that isn’t in the bag, whilst something else is happening around it, is neither fair nor particularly productive.

If you want stability in an exercise, then the dog really needs to have only one way of performing it. If it has a variation of ways of performing exercises, then you risk being presented for one of the less perfect versions at competitions. To get around this, there needs to be sharp criteria and only one version, that is acceptable. When you train an exercise which isn’t fully learnt yet, you are asking for trouble by insisting working on it in a difficult environment.

Ideally dogs need to be trained initially in a sterile environment. By that I mean, where there are no distractions whatsoever. As the dog progresses and understands what it has to do, the environment can become gradually more challenging. So it’s really only the well trained dog that gets to work in total chaos.

This does not mean, that you can’t do anything, whilst with others. There will usually be parts of exercises, that the dog has an understanding of and these might be ready for the less sterile environment. As a rule, I’d rather do too little than too much and if I have the slightest doubt as to the dogs ability, I don’t try. I need to protect the single version of the exercise at all costs, because this is the key to stability.

Just perfect! Got it all to myself

Having one version is a bit like walking along the same footpath – if you continually tramp the same place, you’ll leave deep tracks. If you walk in a variety of places, you’ll leave many tracks, but none of them will be deep. When a dog has only tried to do things one way, it’s almost impossible for it to do it any differently, but this only happens if the handler holds on to and protects the single version at all times.

An example: I’ve been working on Busy’s scent discrimination, since she was a puppy. I always start with the objects fastened down, so that the dog can’t fail. These are on a board and on a long roll of carpet. At some point I have to set the dog free on the loose objects and when I do this, they are in a heap with the correct object close by, but not touching the others. Gradually I pull the heap apart and after that increase the distance between objects. It’s a very slow process with lots of repetitions of each stage, before moving on and increasing the distance. Every time the dog gets it right, I stop. We’ve only been taking one scent discrimination per session for quite some time now. At home, indoors in the sterile environment, we have the objects about 10cm apart. This last week I decided to venture out and try the exercise in the hall. Because it was a different and therefore more difficult environment, I had to decrease the degree of difficulty somewhere else. This could be the number of objects, the distance out to them or how they are laid out. I chose distance and went back to the heap, with the right object beside the others. This worked and as it worked, we also only did this once. Busy is now 22 months old. She is not the brightest dog in the world and therefore the extra slow process. No matter what, I’m protecting the single version of the exercise and everything else (like where others are with dogs of this age or younger) comes in second.

So what are the criteria for the right version of a scent discrimination? Of course choosing the right object, but working very intensely and not nipping at the others are very important dimensions. If my dog doesn’t have its mind on the job, then I am going to have to start at the beginning again. It’s imperative, that the exercise has such high value, that the dog doesn’t lose focus whilst performing it. Nipping is a lesser problem, that can be cured by reward differentiation. Nipping would be a reason for doing the exercise again.

Building on this exercise has now two dimensions. In the hall, we are working with the heap for at least a week or two, whilst at home, we’re expanding on the distance between objects. Both set-ups are preserving the ideal version of the exercise. I’m not pushing my luck by giving her the chance to do things either wrongly or badly. In the end this will lead to a reliable exercise.

Good job, she’s so cute