Gradually increase the distance from the handler and dog during the play sessions until the handler is out of sight and the dog remains engaged with the helper(s). Once this occurs then the dog is comfortable and is ready to begin the bark alert.
The handler begins the shaping of the bark alert. Shaping a behavior means to mark successive approximations to the final behavior. This means if the dog will only whine, then that is a small step towards the final behavior, so mark (click) and reward the whine. Eventually the dog will give a stronger response and when that begins to happen then the handler’s criteria for the bark increases. Then the handler marks only a bark and not a whine. If at any time the dog’s behavior diminishes, drop criteria and make it easier to achieve a reward. A training session should only last for 5 minutes then the dog should be given a break. A young dog may only have a 3 minute session before resting it due to the shorter attention span. During the training period the handler should have someone keep track of the number of responses. This will help determine when to raise or lower the criteria during the training session.
The quality of the bark should be noted during this time. Make sure to mark only strong barks…no air barks or whines. The weaker barks will diminish as the dog understands the type of bark that makes the click occur. Note the frequency of the bark…are there two or three barks then a pause or is the bark rhythmic? Many dogs will bounce their paws as they bark. This is the rhythmic bark alert where the dog responds to a find with a consistent, focused bark until the handler arrives to acknowledge the find. This is the goal to work towards and is obtainable by doing your ground work and building the foundation of the bark indication before putting it all together in the search arena.
Once the bark is occurring spontaneously, the handler should increase the duration and build up to a consistent strong bark that occurs in a rhythmic form for thirty seconds. During duration building the bark is placed on a variable reinforcement schedule. At this point the dog should have all strong barks and the handler is working on marking numbers of barks. For instance the first trial will be 10 barks and reward, then 5 barks and reward, then 8 barks and reward, then 20 barks and big reward since the dog worked harder on the last one. The variable schedule will make the dog work harder as it does not know when the reward is coming but do not try to push the dog too fast or the behavior will drop. Read the dog and know when to push and when to drop back. This is similar to marathon training. One day the run is long and 4 days the run is of shorter duration. A continual lengthening of duration without dropping back to shorter numbers will discourage a dog and develop a slower response as the animal knows it has to do a longer and longer trial before the reward occurs. But an animal will work harder when there is one long trial and 6 shorter ones with a payoff.
Handlers may be creative with the bark games to play at home. A toy can be thrown out of reach of the dog and the dog will have to bark to get to it. For example place food or a toy in the dog’s crate and close the door and let the dog bark. Reward by opening the door and allow the dog to get to the item of interest. Have the dog bark for its meal or a treat several times throughout the day. The handler can run into another room and shut the door and get a bark response. Have the dog bark when playing fetch with a toy. Many repetitions of the bark can be done with simple every day interaction with the dog. When the response is strong at home the dog is ready to transfer to another person.
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