Plateaus and learning "Come"
“Plateaus may appear during the course of learning, but it appears that learning is still going on; performance can plateau but learning continues. It usually occurs when one aspect of a skill is developed to a more advance or complicated phase of that skill. (paraphrased*)”
Dog trainers often see plateaus during the course of an eight-week training session, it's especially obvious with the novice or beginner dogs. One of the early manuals I used in obedience classes warned some dogs reached a plateau at five weeks. Plateaus can happen for a number of reasons and understanding why helps get through them.
I’ve increased some of the challenges for Patrick and he’s hit a plateau. Since I know he is still learning despite his performance, I have options. I can take a step back and let him succeed at something he already knows, or I can let him work through the new challenge and break it down into smaller components so that he can succeed.
For example, coming when called. Patrick’s previous behavior was to approach to a certain point and then sit, but come no further. I accepted that for awhile, but now I’d like to get him to actually come right up to me. A static command to “Come” doesn’t work with him, so I have to try some different things. We play a game on leash where we head in one direction and then I turn and run backwards with a treat while saying “Come.” Patrick follows me and I click (using my clicker) and treat when he is close enough to take the food from my hand. I make it happy and fun and he thinks it’s a game.
Outside we use a long line with a slightly different version. Before he default sits, I run backwards and use the food as a lure to get his focus on coming directly to me. As soon as he comes, I praise him and tell him to “Go Play.” We run around a little bit and repeat the same scenario. “Go Play” is a reward in itself, even if Patrick doesn’t actually “play,” the only anticipation is more fun.
It’s a matter of conditioning and positive reinforcement—I will never, ever call Patrick to me for anything he perceives as a negative. Coming to me should always be positive, and not associated with something Patrick doesn’t want to do. (for example, go inside if outside is more fun, get corrected for not coming, go in a crate and then leave him) It takes some creativity to mix it up sometimes so that there are no negative associations. If I have to bring him in and I know he is having fun outdoors, I simply go get him--I don’t put the directive “come” with it. Patrick may have some plateaus this week, but I know he is still learning.
*Plateaus quote from The Art and Zen of Learning Golf by Michael Hebron