Contrast in Training

October 7, 2008 at 2:00 pm 2 comments

Contrast isn’t a skill one uses to teach a dog new commands but rather a way to refine the things your dog already knows.  It’s one way to add layers of difficulty to a command.

Contrast is created by taking something the dog knows and adding new bits of things to it in a structured way.  You present two kinds of things to the dog juxtaposed in close spatial and temporal proximity and let him use the difference between them to help him make the right decision.

It’s a powerful tool because it encourages your dog to think.  Contrast helps your dog add new knowledge to old.  It can also keep your training work varied and interesting – even if you continue working on the same general skill.

Some examples of contrast exercises:

Refine the front or heel command by magnifying (increasing contrast in) the dog’s errors and encouraging him to figure out how to correct them.  If the dog sits too far away from you on the front, magnify his error by stepping backward away from him and encourage him to focus on decreasing that distance.  If he sits too wide when you halt on the heel, move farther from him to the right.  Don’t worry if the dog sits angled a bit crooked to the left or right (at least, not yet), just let him focus on the contrast of where his body is located with respect to yours.

In beginning target (place) training, select a target that has a distinctive color, texture and height from the background area.  When initially moving on to work directionals with multiple targets, use targets that are the same shape, size, and color — this lets the dog focus on the contrasting locations of the targets.

To teach a dog to retrieve specific articles by name, begin by presenting the desired article next to another article that is very different from – and less desireable for the dog to pick up – than the target article.  This contrast simplifies the initial process of teaching the dog to selectively think about which article he is retrieving.

Note that in each example only one general mode of contrast is used in each step of training.  Initially maintaining the other variables in a familiar pattern encourages the dog to focus on the specific part of the exercise you want to refine.  That’s another benefit to contrast.  It lets you select which part of an exercise the dog will focus on.

Dogs aren’t verbal creatures like we are.  They need to associate mental pictures with commands to cement their learning process.  Your dog’s library of mental pictures play a key part in training and it’s your job to make sure that the pictures don’t become too narrowly defined. After all, a simple mental picture is easier to learn and retain than a complex one.  Contrast is one of the best tools available to us to broaden a dog’s contextual landscape.  It makes them smarter.

Contrast can help you adjust your training regime to work effectively with difference kinds of dogs.  A timid, insecure dog like Zip thrives on repetition and predictability.  For Zip (a not too bright, very timid and stubborn dog), the 389th time we do a familiar exercise in a row is even better than the first.  She thrives on predictability and fears novelty. Once she’s found a comfortable place, you need a bulldozer to push her out of it.  Contrast is helpful when working with a dog like her as it gives us a predictable and incremental way to bring her out of her comfort zone. By maintaining some parameters that keep her in (or at least close to) her comfort zone constant, and not changing the exercise too often, I can help her accomplish more work with less stress.

When working with Audie (a very bright, confident, biddable dog), I can use contrast to challenge him and keep our work interesting. For a dog like Audie the key is to change parameters often, and even dramatically, to help him stay focused.


Entry filed under: behavior science, dog obedience, dog training, dogs.

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2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Andrew  |  October 10, 2008 at 11:26 am

    Great post! This sounds like the same technique we use to get our dogs steady-to-fall and to wait to be sent for the retrieve. In addition to varying the delay in sending the dog, I will also sometimes make him stay while I got get the target bird. It seems to be helping them understand that the gunshot is not a release command.


  • 2. Dog Food Comparison  |  October 31, 2008 at 6:26 pm

    Very insteresting idea. I’ve always known that you need to work on training a step at a time. This really clarifies how to think about adding more complex steps. Thanks.

    Tom Kelly
    Dog Food Comparison

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