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Setting the Right Criteria

By K. Holden Svirsky 

Trainers must be sure to set appropriate
criteria when teaching shelter dogs to
reliably sit on a verbal cue, a skill which
potential adopters may consider as essential © Can Stock Photo/adogslifephoto

Guppy, a young male “pit bull” and German shepherd dog mix, didn’t know how to sit. Or, more accurately, he didn’t know how to sit on cue. To be considered adoptable by the suburban families that frequented the shelter, this was a pretty important behavior. Guppy was incredibly friendly and goofy and he loved people. So he jumped all over them. Admittedly, 70 lbs. of exuberance, tongue and pointy teeth a few inches from your face isn’t exactly what most folks write down under “I’m looking for…” on adoption forms. Guppy could knock down able-bodied 20-something kennel attendants, let alone seniors or small children.

His trainers decided a sit (on cue) would be the best way to replace the jumping behavior, but the actual training proved very difficult. The trainers tried luring the behavior, but his butt never touched the floor. They tried capturing a sit but noticed that he never seemed to sit on his own.

Shelter workers started coming up with a variety of explanations like, “He’s got hip-dysplasia and can’t sit!” or “He’s not very smart,” or “He’s not food motivated.” The shelter veterinarian ruled out any pain or medical cause, and Guppy gobbled up all meals. Was he truly “unintelligent?” Even the word “dominance” was thrown into the mix. Guppy was being labeled as “stubborn” and “untrainable.” For a dog already happily homed with a family, being unable to sit on cue might not be the worst fate, but for a shelter dog it could easily mean a long length of stay, at best.

Training Impasse
Why do trainers and dogs reach these impasses? When progress plateaus, trainers begin to consider more invasive measures. Dogs risk being sent to boot camps and being subjected to shock or prong collars because “treat training” didn’t work. The problem is rarely motivation, of course, or the effectiveness of positive reinforcement. The problem is the trainer’s inability to set appropriate criteria.

Renowned dog trainer and founder of The Academy for Dog Trainers Jean Donaldson explains criteria as your “contract with the dog” (J. Donaldson, personal communication, February 25, 2020). What, exactly, does the dog need to do in order to get paid? Or, in the case of classical conditioning, what exactly needs to happen before the food starts? While some people may have a very good idea of this contract in their mind, a written plan with specific criteria steps is the best way to avoid roadblocks to progress.

For Guppy, the criterion of “nose follows lure over head until rear end touches floor” was too high. A simple adjustment to easier criteria was required. Guppy could follow a lure so his head was tilted up, so that could be reinforced. Then Guppy could tilt his head up for three seconds, so that was reinforced. Then Guppy could slightly bend his back knees while his head was tilted up, so that was reinforced. In three 10-minute sessions, Guppy was sitting for a food lure. A couple sessions later, the lure was faded out. And a couple sessions after that, Guppy was reliably sitting on a verbal cue. He was adopted.

The ability to set good criteria isn’t just for jumpy, mouthy dogs who find themselves in a shelter environment. It is even more important in cases of fear and aggression. In order to set criteria appropriately, a trainer needs to fully understand the parameters of their training plan. Trainer Dr. Kelly Lee, who chairs PPG’s Shelter and Rescue Committee, is currently fostering an extremely skittish dog named Pancake. Says Lee, “For Pancake, any plan has to include a parameter for session duration, my body’s orientation, and eye contact. He’s not comfortable in the presence of people for prolonged periods, and eye contact spooks him. I’m constantly re-evaluating his plan. With fearful dogs especially, you might feel stuck if you aren’t able to come up with ways to split criteria into small pieces. You might stall out in training progress.”

No doubt there are professional animal trainers who are adept at shaping behavior and effective behavior modification instinctively. They have an innate sense of when to make things harder or easier for the animal. But that’s rarely transferable to clients.

Professionals who practice behavior modification on fear and aggression cases know progress can be slow. Making progress at all is something to be celebrated. It’s not always easy for guardians to see their dog’s progression or improvement. A written plan of criteria can serve as a roadmap and a barometer.

“When I train with a plan I’m able to show a client, ‘Look, two sessions ago we were on Step 2 and now we’re on Step 12. Even though your dog can’t be picked up yet, we are on our way there,” said trainer Kylie Reed, who also sits on the PPG Shelter and Rescue Committee. This can help immensely in client satisfaction and patience with the process. As such, PPG’s recently launched Pet Rescue Resource will have a page, Training with a Plan, completely devoted to criteria changes.

As reward-based trainers, we are constantly touting our use of “science.” Of course, the science of classical and operant conditioning is working, and for everyone, whether a trainer is aware of it or not and whether they are force-free or not. “The good thing about Science is that it’s true whether or not you believe in it,” goes the famous Neil deGrasse Tyson quotation (2013).

It’s troubling to me when reward-based trainers don’t utilize scientific principles, namely controlling for variables and making decisions based on evidence (e.g., did the dog make criteria on the trial?). Without a written plan of incremental criteria changes, how can a trainer collect this evidence? And how will they know what to change when the dog is not improving? Sometimes I see guardians giving up on positive reinforcement because “it’s not working.” The science works just fine, but it’s the pace that the guardian is frustrated with, and training without a plan can make the process inefficient and even frustrating.

Another member of PPG’s Shelter and Rescue Committee, trainer Dr. Maria Karunungan, recounts a recent consultation she had with a dog guardian who was a first grade teacher. Says Karunungan, “This client was having a really hard time understanding why her dog was barking and lunging at strangers. She said he wasn’t like this as a puppy. At one point she was worried about how long it would take for him to be able to pass strangers without barking and lunging. She said, ‘I’ve been doing the treat thing and he still sometimes barks and lunges,’ so we had to talk about criteria. She needed to understand what, exactly, her dog could handle, today. I asked her if she would expect her first graders to do multiplication and long division and she looked at me like I had three heads. I said, ‘This is what is really going on with your dog. We might be expecting more from him than he is able to do today.’ Her criteria were too high. Eventually her dog will get to that point, but written plans of incremental criteria changes help humans temper their expectations of their dog getting from A to Z in one day.”

neiltyson. (2013, Jun 14). The good thing about Science is that it’s true whether or not you believe in it [Twitter Post]. Available at:
PPG Pet Rescue Resource:

This article was first published in BARKS from the Guild, May 2020, pp.52-53. For more great content on all things animal behavior and training, you can sign up for a lifetime, free of charge, subscription to the digital edition of BARKS from the Guild. If you are already a subscriber, you can view the issue here.

About the Author
K. Holden Svirsky CTC began her training and rescue work at the San Francisco SPCA in 2012 and is a 2015 recipient of the Academy for Dog Trainers shelter and rescue scholarship. She was a trainer at Tony LaRussa’s Animal Rescue Foundation, winning local magazine Best Dog Training awards in 2016, 2017, 2018 and 2019 and currently consults privately on fear and aggression cases in the Bay Area as well as teaching classes for BravoPup. Her rescued pit bull/cattle dog mix Pablo is a service dog in training and they live together aboard their 45′ sloop in the San Francisco Bay, California.


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