Teaching the Out Without Corrections

This is how I managed, almost by accident, to teach my first and only Schutzhund dog to out without any corrections (positive punishment). I pretty much made it up as I went along using bits and pieces from various books and wisdom from training friends. I don't know whether or not this will work for any other dog.

Lodi is a male German Shepherd Dog out of European and American working lines. He has been described to me, by more experienced trainers, as an extreme dog, very high drive. Not exactly the pet I was looking for, but fortunately he is also very sweet and a bit handler sensitive.

Lodi's favorite game is tug-o-war. He'll play with anything, including my hand or my arm if I'd let him. I started playing tug-o-war with him when he was a tiny puppy, eight weeks old. At first we'd tug for just a second or two, then he'd win. I tried to manage the fight so that it was neither too easy nor too hard to win. I wanted him to learn to enjoy the fight.

By the time he was four months he was addicted to tug-o-war. He had his favorite toy, a heavy leather-work glove, but we played with all kinds of stuff. This is when I introduced the out. I started by playing with him a bit to get him worked up, then I'd let him win. When he came back to me to start again, I'd have another toy in my hand and I'd softly say "aus". I'd stimulate him with the other toy and as soon as he dropped the one he had we'd play with the other one. Usually I used pairs of identical toys.

I didn't do a lot of outs in any one session. I didn't want him to be stressed about outting. Limiting the outs to just a few each session let him learn the command, but not stress over it.

All of my out commands are very soft. The dog is already so excited by the game that he is having a hard time thinking. A loud out command only increases his excitement. A soft command helps him calm, helps him think.

At first the outs were slow, but they quickly picked up speed. If he didn't out I'd put the other toy away, and that was the end of the game. He got to keep his toy, but it wasn't as much fun alone as playing tug with me. I never touched the toy he had. He was free to hold it or drop it or walk away, whatever. His choice. He quickly learned the game, and that's all we did for the next few months. We'd do maybe four outs during each session of tug and played two short sessions of tug per day.

After a while, I started changing the game. I don't remember the exact timing, but that's not what's important. What was important was that Lodi was happy and confident with the out at each stage before we moved on to the next one. Mostly he instantly responded, with little stress, to the change in the game.

The first change was to increase the number of outs until roughly one in four tug battles would have an out after the win. This went on for a long time until the game was deeply imprinted. I wanted him to be certain that he would win most of the battles, and that when he outted he would instantly get a new battle. We did this for two or three months.

Then I began hiding the exchange toy behind my back. There was zero stress here, because he knew I had it and that he would get it. This lasted a few weeks.

Next, I began putting my hand on the toy he had, then asking him to out. Before this, I would let him win, then, when he brought the toy back for the next battle, I would ask him to out. I would not touch the toy. He would just drop it on the floor, then I'd start the battle with the other toy and pick the first one up, either during the battle or, more often, when he was carrying after winning. With this change, I would put my hand on the toy and ask for the out. If he started fighting again, he'd instantly pull the toy out of my hand. I would not give him a fight. When he came back, I would put my hand on the toy and ask for the out. When he outted, he got a battle with the exchange toy. At first, the exchange toy was in view, but later it was hidden. I only did the hand-on-toy outs a few times each session. The rest were hand-off-toy. This kept the game fun and the stress under control.

This was a tough step. It took several weeks before he became confident in exchanging with me holding his toy, but after a while he got it. If he just would not out after several tries I would put my toy away and end the game. After he got it, I continued with the game at this level for some time, a month or so, gradually decreasing the number of hand-off-toy exchanges until they were all hand-on-toy.

When that was easy for him, I stopped using the second toy. At this point the game was fight, win, fight, win, fight, win, out, fight, win, .... After a win, he had to bring the toy back to me to start the game again. Sometimes, one out of three or four, I'd give an out command when he brought it back. This was easy. He'd been exchanging for a hidden toy, so releasing this toy to start the game again was no big deal. On the few occasions that he didn't out, the game would end. Yes, he got to keep the toy, but it wasn't as much fun alone as playing the game with me.

It was about this time that I started exchanging the toy for food at the end of the game, so that I could put the toy away. I had to be very careful not to give any clue that I was going to end the game, or else he would not bring the toy back. I started playing games that lasted just one or two battles as well as some real wars that lasted ten or fifteen minutes. He quickly learned that he couldn't predict when the game would end.

Exchanging for food was tough. His food drive is not that high. He'd bring me the toy and I'd get hold of it, then I'd drag him over to where the treats were. He'd know what was coming, but since I had the toy, there wasn't much he could do about it. Then I'd get a treat and tell him "aus". Then we'd stand there. I'd brace my arm against my legs so that the toy wouldn't move. This would take most of the fun out of the fight. And we'd stand there. After a while he'd drop out of drive and give up the toy and take the food. He still doesn't like exchanging for food, but he knows the game and will do it.

Prior to this, I had ended the game by exchanging the tug-o-war toy for one of his chew toys. The tug toys were special, only for tug. If, for some reason, he ended up keeping a tug toy I'd put it away at the first opportunity. This kept the tug toys special.

The next step was the hardest of all: outing at the end of the fight rather than after the win. We'd fight for a bit, then I'd tell him "aus" and lock my arms against my legs so the toy wouldn't move. He'd growl, whine, try to fight, but I'd just stay locked up until he let go. At first, I'd only do this once a day. As he got better, I'd do it more often. Of course, the instant he let go, I'd start the fight again, as always.

I should point out that Lodi was over a year old by now and a very strong boy. He weighed about 85 very lean pounds and was (and is) heavily muscled. When I say I locked up and kept the toy from moving, that's more wishful thinking on my part than anything else. But I managed to keep the toy still enough that the game wasn't much fun.

We played this final game, fight, win, fight win, fight, out, fight, win, .... for a couple of months until it became automatic. His outs were a bit slow and he was still stressed, so I added one other exercise. We only did this for a few days, but it made a big difference. I still do it occasionally.

The new exercise is the quick two-toy exchange. I would get two toys and then we'd do rapid exchanges: tug, tug, out, other toy, tug, tug, out, other toy, tug, tug, out, ... tug, tug, win. Just 30 seconds or a minute. Certainly no more. In this game, the second toy was behind my back where Lodi couldn't see it. That was mostly so I could control the switch. If the toy was out in front, he would switch on his own. By putting the toy behind my back I controlled when he could switch.

This game is supposed to be fast and fun for the dog. After a second or two of fight, I'd stop fighting with one toy, bring the other toy into view and make prey motions, and say "aus", all at once. Lodi quickly learned to switch toys to continue the fight. The point was to make the out just a trivial part of a fast fun game; the faster the out, the faster and more fun the game. Lodi really loves the fight more than he wants the toy, so this was pretty easy. A dog that was more possession-focused might need to win more often. The quick exchange game taught him to out fast.

At this point, Lodi was 14 months old. He'd been biting the sleeve since he was eight months old, but had never been asked to out a sleeve on the man. He would out the toy in my hand after a win instantly. He would out the toy in my hand after a fight but before the win nearly as fast. And he was not particularly stressed about either.

Lodi had been about eight months old and pretty far into the toy games when he was introduced to the sleeve. At first, I didn't ask him to out the sleeve. I'd just hold him up by the harness, front feet off the ground. If he didn't drop the sleeve within ten seconds or so I'd pull up gently on his fursaver until he'd drop the sleeve. I didn't want to ask him to out the sleeve until I was sure he would do it.

When I would hold Lodi up by the harness to get him to drop the sleeve, as I transferred some pressure to the fursaver, I would barely whisper "aus". No one heard this but me and Lodi. I tried to time it so it would come just as the sleeve dropped out of his mouth. As time went on, I would just barely apply pressure with the fursaver and whisper "aus" and he would drop the sleeve. When the helper first asked me to down Lodi and out him, I was absolutely certain that he would do it because he'd done so before.

I wasn't overly happy about taking him off the sleeve by applying pressure with the fursaver, but I didn't want to give him an out command that I wasn't sure he would obey. I didn't want him to know that it was possible not to out the sleeve on command. I preferred to use a bit of discomfort, the pressure of the fursaver behind his jaw, to get him to drop the sleeve rather than give a iffy command. The out is so important that I want to build one that is absolutely rock solid; that means the dog can't even think that not outting is possible.

Once his out of the toy after a win was rock solid, I started asking him to out the sleeve after a carry. I would platz him facing the helper and then give an out command. He was a bit munchy and would try to grab it back, but he did out. Of course, immediately after the out the helper would get the sleeve and the game would begin again. Within a month or so, his out in a platz was totally stress free. I would tell him "platz" and he would down, drop the sleeve, and look up at me smiling, waiting for the game to begin again.

At this point, he was a little over 16 months old. He was comfortable on the sleeve and he would out the sleeve in a platz after a carry. So one day when he was on the sleeve, the helper locked up, I said "aus", and he outted. Slowly, but he came off the sleeve. The helper gave him a bite and slipped the sleeve. His first out on the man and no corrections.

This is where I made a mistake. The helper thought that he came off the sleeve too slow. So did I, but he'd never been asked to before, so he was probably a bit confused. The helper said that he needed to be faster off the sleeve, so we put a long line on Lodi's pinch collar, another club member got behind the helper, and when I said "aus" he corrected Lodi into the helper. Sure, Lodi came off the sleeve quicker, but he started getting stressed about the out. I should have stood up for my dog, but was intimidated by the helper. This was the only time Lodi was corrected for an out, and then it was just for being slow. He has never failed to out a sleeve.

I've done a lot of work since then trying to reduce his stress on the out, including some sessions where he only outs the sleeve after the carry, not on the man. I think we're mostly where we would have been if I had not made that mistake. Sorry, Lodi.

We've also done some sessions that were bite, out, bite, out, bite, slip, ... as many as a dozen outs in a session. I think that was pushing him a bit too fast, as he was getting a bit growly on the sleeve. We've since dropped back to only a small number of outs on the man per session and his stress level has dropped. As he matures and learns the game on the sleeve better, I'm sure that he will be able to handle more outs on the man without stressing.

I think the most important part of what I did was reading the dog and moving to more advanced forms of the game only when he was ready. The progression of changes I made in the game may not be right for another dog (or indeed been the best for Lodi). Again, what's really important is reading the dog.

Stress is my indicator of when to move on. If the dog is not stressing over the out in a particular set up, then I figure that he understands what is being asked of him and, most importantly, doesn't think of it as something hateful to do. A dog that is stressing--whining, growling--over the out is a dog that is trying to decide whether to obey or not. He's happy holding the sleeve/toy and is unsure that he'll be happy with what comes after he outs, so he may not out. Once the dog understands, with total certainty, that when given the out command, the game stops until he outs and then the game begins again, he'll out happily. What I was trying to teach Lodi is that it is a law of nature, like gravity, that the game stops after an "aus" until he outs, then it begins again. He doesn't think about holding onto the sleeve/toy after an "aus" in order to continue the fight because that's never ever been successful.

Many dog trainers use stress on the sleeve to build drive. By withholding the sleeve they increase the dog's intensity and barking. I have no experience with a dog in whom one needed to build more drive. Building drive in Lodi is not a problem. If anything, teaching him to cap his drive is the hardest part of training him. He is also a very vocal dog. Getting Lodi to bark is not hard; try getting him to shut up, though.

There is clearly a tension between the drive for the sleeve/toy and the understanding that the out leads to more fight/play. The trainer must balance between increasing the dog's drive by withholding the sleeve and making the dog comfortable by following the out by a quick bite. With Lodi, that balance was easy to achieve because he has tremendous native drive for the sleeve, so I didn't have to do a whole lot to build it up. For a dog that lacked Lodi's drive, that balance might be harder to find.

My suggestion, for what it's worth, would be to teach the dog the game starting when he's a tiny puppy. Make the fight for the toy the most fun thing in his life, if possible. Go for zero stress with the toy. There will be plenty of stress on the sleeve on the man. Then, when you need to build intensity, you can use that stress by withholding the sleeve, but you can also gauge what that is doing to your out. As long as the dog is giving you a good out, you are ok. But, if you ever stress him so much that he begins to doubt that he'll ever get the sleeve again, your out might go. That's something that I think you want to avoid, if possible. If it does go, then it seems you have two choices: go back and rebuild your out by reducing stress, possibly sacrificing some drive; or compel the out. If the dog doesn't have and you can't build enough drive without losing the out, then, as far as I know, you are stuck with compulsion. Others certainly may know better.

Douglas Surber Copyright © 2001

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