Training Merlin – Making the Small Steps even Smaller

When training dogs (or tackling any other task), I am a great advocate of breaking everything down into small ’baby steps’. Dogs will learn things super-fast when guided through these steps to develop behaviors. Even a behavior they will absolutely not attempt or begin can be easily mastered by breaking it down.

And I am good at creating baby steps… or so I thought…until I met Merlin. Then I discovered that the problem with baby steps is…well, you need to have steps. Motion or intent of some kind. But Merlin was frozen.

Merlin is a labradoodle, five and a half months at the time his training began, who was very under-socialized combined with a remarkably tentative approach to everything. And when we took him out of the kennel, he was frozen. He didn’t move. He didn’t twitch. He just stood still and looked straight ahead.

Merlin - Touch

After observing Merlin for several hours, I begin to wonder if there were, in fact, steps small enough for this dog. He didn’t seem to care about people or toys and he wouldn’t take food. Fortunately he liked other dogs – a lot. He liked other dogs enough to find them rewarding. And that, combined with his meals (which we handfed) was the beginning of the breakthrough.

Now ‘breakthrough’ is a large and weighty word for a super small step. On day two of our (so called) training, Merlin’s nose moved slightly toward my outstretched hand. With that small movement, rewarded by play with the dogs, we began to develop a touch to the hand. (The actual touch took another day and a half).

I had Merlin for 12 days to train before he would be picked up by his new owners. By the end of his time with us, he learned to sit, down stand, back up , settle (play dead), walk on and off lead, come, Gotcha! (emergency grab of the collar), and of course, touch. I also taught him to stay (or perhaps he taught me to pay him for his behavior of choice). Each of these behaviors was trained with the smallest steps I could develop.

Some of Merlin’s (super small) steps included:

Sitting on the top step eating a treat on the next step down (on his way to walking down a flight of steps).

Standing frozen and staring with a leash on and shifting his head slightly toward me (on his way to happily walking on a loose leash down the street).

Ducking his head minutely to look a treat (on his way to a lovely down on cue).

Allowing me to hold an open hand a foot from his head (on the way to allowing his collar to be grabbed quickly without backing off or flinching)

Training Merlin was remarkably difficult, remarkably frustrating, but oh so rewarding. What a joy it was to see him bound up (not down, that came much later) a flight of steps to get a treat. And those first steps on the leash – it took all that was in me not to shriek in delight (which, of course, would have sent Merlin right back into the frozen staring position)

What I learned from Merlin was far greater than the time and energy it took to work with him. That is – small steps – baby steps – minute barely perceivable steps will still move you towards your goal if you persist and have to courage to take the next one.

Check out Merlin’s first week of training here –

Merlin thumbnail