Training Troubleshooting Series, Part 3: Splittiness

Steve Holt Photography (steveholt.org)
Steve Holt Photography (steveholt.org)

Originally posted on Mutt About Town.

Over the past week, I have been working with a client on muzzle training her dog. In doing so, I am reminded of the importance of “splits” in dog training, and why sometimes following a training plan won’t automatically get you the results you want.

A typical muzzle training plan looks like this:

  1. Provide treats upon showing the dog the muzzle
  2. Click and treat whenever dog touches muzzle with nose
  3. Shape behavior by selecting longer nose bumps to mark and reward
  4. Click and treat when dog places muzzle in opening, luring if necessary
  5. Add duration for placing nose in muzzle opening
  6. Work on attaching straps
  7. Adjust straps so that the muzzle fits closer to the head
  8. Gradually tighten the fit of the muzzle

Essentially, we sequentially train the dog to like the muzzle, like placing her nose on the muzzle, like placing her nose in the muzzle, like keeping her nose in the muzzle, and not mind attaching or adjusting the straps.

When working with my client’s dog, we started out with the basic plan. She responded well with steps 1-4, but got stuck on step five, the duration. Despite being heavily rewarded for placing her nose in the muzzle, the minute the treats stopped, she moved her nose from the muzzle opening.

If we continued barreling through the plan without getting her comfortable with duration, any positive associations with the muzzle would have gradually eroded, and we would have hit an even bigger roadblock. Clearly, we needed to add something extra to the plan.

In dog training, this something extra is termed a “split.” As the name implies, a split is essentially a bridge between two steps, so that instead of requiring a dog to go from step one to step two, we give her a 1a (and perhaps a 1b and 1c) to make the jump less difficult. Remember learning to ride a bicycle without training wheels and needing an adult to stabilize and launch you so you didn’t immediately fall off? Eventually you were able to start the ride on two wheels on your own, but the stabilizing hand of an adult eased you into it, minimizing bruises and injuries. It’s the same concept in dog training.

You know you need to develop a split when you keep going between two steps without any progress. In other words, the dog masters step one, but continually fails to master step two. The important question to ask yourself when determining a split is: What behavior can I get my dog to perform that’s in between step A and step B?

In our example dog’s case, we needed to help her increase duration. At first, we thought decreasing the increments of time she had to keep her nose in the muzzle would do the trick. So, instead of requiring one second of time spent in the muzzle before a click and reward, we clicked and rewarding in half-second increments. While this could be an effective split for some dogs, it didn’t do the trick for her. Once she “booped” her nose in the muzzle, she immediately withdrew it.

Changing the increments to anything less than half a second would not guarantee accurate clicking and rewarding, so a different split was in order. Before working on increasing duration, we had to get her nose in the muzzle for a long enough period of time to accurately mark and reward. For the first successful split, we placed a small amount of peanut butter on the inside of the muzzle. She took several seconds to lick it off. (Instead of worrying about adjusting straps at this point, we simply hung the muzzle loosely around her neck and slipped it over her nose for each trial. It’s important only to work one parameter at a time to avoid confusion.) This not only bided us time to mark and reward, but got her used to putting her nose in the muzzle and keeping it there.

Although the peanut butter was successful in this regard, she still removed her nose immediately after the peanut butter disappeared. The second split we installed was a post-peanut butter bonus (in this case, chicken), which we delivered just before she was done licking the peanut butter. After several repetitions, she knew that once the peanut butter stopped, bonus chicken would appear, so she kept her nose in after finishing the peanut butter.

The third split was to wean her off the peanut butter, which we did by providing continuous bites of chicken while her nose was in the muzzle, simulating the peanut butter.

The fourth series of splits involved increasing the amount of time between chicken deliveries. Working with a 30-second duration period, we delivered chicken every second, every two seconds, every five seconds, every eight seconds, and so forth, working up to keeping her nose in the muzzle for 30 seconds while delivering chicken every 10 seconds. When we finally kept her nose in the muzzle for two minutes, delivering chicken every 10 seconds, we were ready to go to step five of the original training plan!.

As you can see, splitting can get quite intricate and creative. You won’t always have to use so many splits; sometimes just one or two little helper steps in a training plan are all that are necessary.

Dog training rarely goes as planned, so don’t feel discouraged if you have to “get splitty” during your training sessions. Rest assured that adding a few helper steps along the way will actually get your dog closer to her training goals faster, and you’ll find yourself hitting training roadblocks less often. After all, trainers use splits all the time, and we do this as our life’s work!

-Maureen Backman, MS
Maureen is the founder of The Muzzle Up! Project and owns Mutt About Town dog training in San Francisco.

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Training Troubleshooting Series, Part 3: Splittiness

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