The Evolution of Darwin

Darwin runs off with a his paper plate prize.

(I am taking a break this month from talking about getting a new dog. Instead, I’m going to use this time to talk about my personal journey with my dog, Darwin, in the hopes that it will be beneficial to others as well.)

I’ve been working hard on embracing failure lately for a number of reasons.  In general, I believe failure isn’t something to be ashamed of and is, in fact, necessary for learning.  I also view  failure as something that is temporary, rather than final, at least in most cases.  It gives us a chance to stop, reconsider and readjust, often coming out better and stronger in the end.

This is something that’s been very true with my dog, Darwin.  He’s the first dog I’ve had that is not terribly food motivated, despite being (mostly) beagle!  Add this to the fact that he is a hound and prefers to live life with his nose glued to the ground, and, well…it’s made training him far more challenging than with any other dog I’ve had.

Digging is high on  Darwins list of priorities.
Digging far outweighs food on Darwins list of priorities.

Don’t get me wrong – I knew a lot of this going in.  I knew there was a good chance he would never be able to be off leash.  But, I am still a trainer and can’t help setting high goals.  I want him to be reliable and safe off leash.  I consider this extremely important for safety reasons in case he ever gets loose.  (He has actually gotten loose and has come when called, which I consider a major victory.  But if he was on a fresh scent or chasing a rabbit?  Forget it.  No way would he come when called.  At least not yet.)  I’d also love for him to be off leash so that he can simply have the freedom to explore the world at his own pace and so that he can run.  Finally, it’s important in the agility ring to maintain control even amidst distractions.

Training Darwin has forced me to reconsider my training methods, brush up (a lot) on my mechanical skills and be creative with my training solutions.  This has meant I’ve tried a lot of things that either haven’t worked or that have to be continuously adjusted.  It means I’ve waded into the realm of new and exciting training methods that I’ve never tried before.  Because these methods are new, they come along with failure – something I’m not very comfortable with.  But, with Darwin, I’ve learned that if I want to succeed with him, I’m going to have to embrace failure.  As a result, I’ve become a much better trainer.

We are not there yet.  I still can’t let him off leash in an unfenced area.  Perhaps we’ll never get to that point.  But, I’m sure as heck going to try.  And he is making steady progress, which is extremely rewarding to me.  Our relationship continues to grow stronger and he is becoming more and more responsive to me in a variety of situations.


I know that a lot of my clients really struggle with a sense of failure when it comes to their dogs.  They haven’t been able to accomplish the training or behavior change they’re hoping for on their own, which is why they contact me.  Their experiences are often very discouraging and, because many of my clients have very challenging dogs, they are often in for a long road before they have the dog they want.  Living and working with Darwin has really enhanced my ability to help and empathize with these clients because I’ve had to learn first hand how to work with a dog that’s not bred to be trained (most of my previous dogs have been herding dogs) and that cares much more about sniffing than food or toys.

I am going to try something new and post a few blog posts about my journey with Darwin in the hopes that it will help other clients with their own dogs.  I will share and embrace my failures as well as my successes with him.  My hope is that you, my readers, will find encouragement in reading about our failures, our solutions and the changes that can be accomplished with persistence and that you will also learn some valuable practical skills that you can directly apply to your own dogs.

We’ll start with a simple thought exercise.  This is something that I learned from Susan Garrett, a highly accomplished agility competitor and trainer.  Think of the things that cause your dog to “fail” – that is, those things that distract your dog so much that he or she won’t listen to your cues.  These things fall into roughly two categories: 1) things that your dog loves so much he can’t ignore them and 2) things that scare or stress your dog so much that he can’t ignore them.  Today, I want to focus on those things in category one.  For Darwin, some of the things on that list are other dogs, rabbits, squirrels and fresh scents and, to a lesser extent, people and food.  Take a minute to think of those things that are so distracting to your dog that she can’t focus around them because she is so driven to get to them.  Now, consider this – those “distractions” can be turned into rewards for your dog!

Treeing a squirrel - imagine if you could harness the power of "squirrel" when training your dog!
Treeing a squirrel – imagine if you could harness the power of “squirrel” when training your dog!

This is the idea laid down in the Premack Principle – a less likely behavior can be strengthened if it gives an animal access to a more likely (that is, desirable) behavior.  For example, if Darwin was given the choice of looking at me or sniffing the grass, he would almost always choose sniffing the grass.  But, what if I used sniffing the grass as a reward for looking at me?  That is, if Darwin wants to sniff the grass, he has to look at me first.  Several months ago, I started using this technique with Darwin and it worked wonders.  As I said before, I still don’t think he’s ready to be off leash yet, but switching from food to Premack had an immediate noticeable impact on his responsiveness to me during training.

My next post in the series will go into more detail about exactly how to implement this with your own dog.  For now, I will leave you with one simple exercise.  Does your dog tend to dash out the door as soon as you open it?  Teach him to stand (or sit, or down) and wait at the door by making it a requirement of going outside.  How do you do this?

  1. Put your dog on leash
  2. Open the door slowly
  3. As soon as your dog starts to move, or even shift her weight forward, gently close the door again.
  4. Once your dog steps back or shifts her weight back again, slowly open the door again.
  5. Repeat steps 3 and 4 until you can open the door and your dog does not move or shift forward.
  6. Release your dog with your release cue (examples include “okay”, “free” and “break”).

What other scenarios present a particular challenge for you and your dog?

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Picture of Kristina Spaulding

Kristina Spaulding


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The Science Matters blog provides practical science-based information on dog training and behavior in addition to personal, heartfelt stories about loving and living with dogs.   For a more detailed summary, take a look at the first blog post here.

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