Just An Ordinary Dog!

Jambo is a Trick Dog Champion. In fact he was the first Staffordshire Bull Terrier to be awarded the Title. Jambo is an adorable, loving pet dog. Jambo is not an exceptional dog. He isn’t particularly athletic. He isn’t unusually intelligent. He is a dog who has been set up for success because of the way he has been taught. Jambo is not trained for hours every day. In fact, Jambo’s “training” sessions are always very short. If you asked Jambo, I am sure he would say that he doesn’t do any “training”. So what is the key to Jambo’s success?

Jambo has been taught using modern, rewards based, science based, force-free training. He has lots of fun learning new tricks (playing enjoyable games), learning new skills (playing enjoyable games) and practising old skills (playing enjoyable games). Everything he is taught is broken down into easy to understand lessons and is reinforced with things he loves. He is “paid” for having fun! When actions bring enjoyable consequences, those actions get stronger and are more likely to be repeated in future.

Food is at the top of Jambo’s list of reinforcers and obviously used in all of his training but Jambo’s “top gun” reinforcer is actually a ball. Unfortunately for me it happens to be rather large: a ten-inch boomer ball!   I actually have photos that show the boomer ball “hidden”, out of sight, down the back of my top! If only we humans could choose the reinforcer – I’d definitely be choosing a tug toy or a tennis ball, something that I could pop into my pocket. Unfortunately, the choice isn’t mine. Jambo does not show much interest in tennis balls. He’ll fetch one a few times.   Unless, of course, I am using the boomer ball as a reinforcer!  If fetching a tennis ball meant access to his highest value reinforcer then he would fetch that tennis ball all day if he could!

Jambo playing with his boomer ball.
Jambo playing with his boomer ball.

Thank goodness for food! We all need to eat and Jambo is no exception! Many people, however, seem to have a problem with the concept of using food in training. I really don’t understand their objections. Food is such a great resource, why wouldn’t we make use of it? It is definitely a lot easier for me to fill my pockets with tiny pieces of hotdog than to walk around with a ten-inch boomer ball stuffed down my top! The majority of Jambo’s “tricks” are taught using food. I can cut it up into tiny pieces; it’s easy to deliver; it’s quick; it’s safe; it enables me to do lots of repetitions… In short, it’s the perfect resource!

After leaving university I took my first teaching post in a school in Cartagena, Spain. I was given many textbooks that I was told I needed to work through with my students. I found the classes quite tedious. The textbooks were, for lack of a better word, boring. They were dull and uninspiring.   There were a lot of books. There were a lot of mundane exercises to complete and a limited amount of time to complete them in. If a student didn’t understand a certain concept they could often get left behind as the timetable meant there was little time to digress, to explain in more detail or to go back a step.  If I, the teacher, was finding it difficult, how must my students have been feeling?

When, a couple of years later, I started working as a private tutor, I realised that I didn’t want to teach in this way. I wanted to teach in a way that I would like to be taught. I wanted the lessons to be fun. I wanted the learner to understand each step and marvel in their success rather than feel miserable in their failure. I didn’t want my students to feel frustrated because they found the lessons too difficult. I did, however, continue to make use of those old textbooks.  If you look closely you may spot them in one of my videos – they make great props: a single textbook is a small platform but stack a few together and I can create more height, which is very useful for teaching hind leg lifts!

Whenever I have something new I would like Jambo, or any other dog (or human) to learn, I always think about one thing: How can I break this behavior down into easily understandable pieces?   Why is this so important? Because if I break the behavior down, I am setting my learner up for success instead of failure! Each new piece of information or new behavior that is successfully learnt, not only builds on the previous knowledge set, it also increases the confidence of the learner. How much better do we feel when we successfully complete a task than when we struggle on and on and yet are still unable to grasp how to do it or to understand the knowledge being shared with us?

I previously stated: “When actions bring enjoyable consequences, those actions get stronger and are more likely to be repeated in future”.  This statement applies to all learners.  So what is the key to Jambo’s success?   A loving relationship, lots of fun, clear communication and motivation through appropriate reinforcement – Jambo is motivated to learn and that very learning creates a cycle of more learning!

Watch a 25 second speedy video of Jambo in action!

Rewards based training leads to enthusiastic, fun-filled, accelerated learning!

You can find Jambo on Facebook at www.facebook.com/StaffyChampion.