Criteria. The one word in dog training with the most power to confuse a handler and dog. What is criteria in dog training? The simplest answer is it is the standard or expectation we set for the behavior we are training. For example, when we are training a puppy to “sit”, we expect the puppy to have his front feet on the ground and his butt on the ground. So, with that criteria, if the puppy raises one foot off the ground, or his butt is not touching the ground, we would say he is not in a “sit”.
Setting criteria is an important part of dog training. Maintaining that criteria is also important. But why is that so hard?
Sticking to criteria in training is difficult for a number of reasons:
1) We didn’t decide on our criteria in the first place.
2) We’re not focused on the criteria during our training session (this could be because we are focused on a different aspect of the training session or many other reasons).
3) The dog doesn’t understand the criteria or we are asking for too much.
4) We’re in a rush…maybe we’re worried about taking too much time on our turn in class?
5) We fall prey to the idea that we’ll let it go “just this once”.
So, how can you improve your ability to stick to criteria?
1) Know what your criteria is, even before you train the behavior. If you need to, write it down, or draw a diagram. Having a clear expectation for the behavior before you even start training will not only help your dog learn the behavior better, but he will learn it faster. How is this possible? Having clear criteria helps you reward only the responses that will help you achieve that end result. You are less likely to reward ambiguous or marginal performances if you know what you want out of a training session.
2) No matter what you have set up for your training session, make sure you focus on the individual pieces of behavior that will make up the whole. For example, in agility, if I am running a set of 10 obstacles that include the dog walk, a couple turns, and a start-line stay, each of those pieces has its’ own criteria that I and my dog must maintain in order to make progress. If my dog breaks his start-line stay, there is no reason for me to continue on and worry about the next piece of the sequence, because he did not stick to the criteria of his start-line stay. On that same train of thought, if he holds his start-line stay, I need to intermittently go back and reward the behavior instead of continuing on in the sequence to communicate to my dog that I appreciate his adherence to that criteria.
3) If your dog is unable to perform the behavior reliably, or in various environments, he may not actually understand your criteria for the behavior. When I train my dogs, I start in minimally distracting environments like a bathroom, then I will move to a larger area, like a bedroom. I continue to progress with the behavior to larger and more distracting environments while asking my dog to uphold the criteria set in the previous training environment. If I train in stages of progression, and maintain my criteria in each stage, I will have a dog who better understands the behavior.
4) Every time you alter your criteria due to feeling pressured or rushed you increase confusion in your dog and set yourself up for future failure. So, you’re late for class, do you let your obedience-trained dog drag you at the end of his leash? You’re running in your first agility run with contacts, and your dog self-releases off his 2-on-2-off aframe position…do you go on? This is one of the most common forms of failure in terms of maintaining criteria. We are so motivated by something else (getting to class on time or qualifying in that agility run), that we forget the possible confusion and later set-backs we might face by altering our criteria in that moment. It is possible, that my obedience-trained dog will now think it is okay to pull when we arrive at class. It is possible that my agility dog with a 2-on-2-off will now creep waiting for me to release him in that “new spot” or not stop at all since he didn’t really stop the last time I released him anyway. Ever hear the term “ring wise”? This step is how dogs end up “ring wise”. Handlers lose criteria in the high-pressure ring environment and ultimately train their dogs to have a new behavior (or no definitive behavior) in the ring.
5) Don’t give yourself an out for sticking to criteria by saying it “was only this once”. If that is true, and it only occurs once, sure, you will ultimately have a few set-backs in your training, but you will be able to fix it. However, oftentimes that is an excuse we give in a moment of trainer-error (hey, it happens, we are only human), but these moments can be very confusing for our dogs. Errors can be forgiven and fixed, but don’t knowingly let go of criteria and continue on in your training session unless you want to set your dog and yourself up for frustration in the future.
In the end, sticking to criteria is a mindset and a challenge. You have to want the behavior to be solid more than you want the glory of that moment. Dog training is not instant gratification. But the pure, joy and pride that comes with seeing your dog perform a behavior in various environments, reliably, with enthusiasm is one of the most gratifying moments you will have in dog training. Maintaining criteria should not deflate your dog. Afterall, you are not punishing an incorrect performance. Instead, you are rewarding only the best in your dog, and that clear communication will result in amazing performance. Again and again.