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"String Training" - Building a Connection Between the Trainer and the Learner

Updated: Jun 7, 2023

The pup with his nose on my face is the focus of my story. This is quite a gift he is giving me.

String training is a concept presented to me by Steve Martin only six short months ago in a course I attended at his facility in Florida. The blog post for that event is at the bottom of this page.

In order to train any animal, that animal must show a connection to the trainer. With dogs, I work to build eye contact, and use my voice and touch as reinforcers, in part. Well, what are the options when working with an animal that does not find touch reinforcing and doesn't care much about a trainer's voice? That was the situation in Florida when I learned about string training with a Macaw.

The Macaw was placed in front of me on a perch. I fed him pieces of peanuts for a minute or so. When he appeared to find me interesting, I stepped one step to the right - and he stepped to the right. This was my first clue that we were beginning to establish a training relationship, our string. I stepped to the left, and he stepped to the left. Over the next few minutes, we did this dance, of sorts, as he began to watch me for opportunities to earn reinforcement. In Steve's words, this is the beginning of string training. As with a lot of what I learn in the courses I complete, there are parts of training that I was already doing; the courses help me do a better job.

Thinking of my connection to an animal as something as fragile and tenuous as a piece of string gives me a visual image that I find helpful. The photo below shows me doing training with part of a litter of five-month-old pups. The dam of the pups is a cautious dog around strangers, as are her puppies, some more than others. With pups like this, their interactions with strangers need to go particularly well in order for the pups to become more confident around strangers. A badly handled interaction with a stranger at this age can set a pup back a long way; he may never forget it. So, I am especially touched that Kim allowed me to practice some of my new training tools with these sensitive pups.

The pups can come into the building through the doggie door. The pups that did this are the pups that decided to check out what was going on inside, in part to check me out. So I went to work. From outside the kennel, I fed treats to any pup that would take them; that was most of the pups. When they seemed comfortable with that, I slowly and carefully eased my way into their kennel, working hard not to put too much pressure on the pups. We have just the beginning of a string between us at this point; it wouldn't have taken much to spook them right out the door. I sat on their Kundra bed, as close to the wall and door as I could get. You can see that their interaction with me is tentative.

These are my first moments in the kennel with the pups. They did not yet trust me, as you can see.

Over the next few minutes, most of them became more invested in being near me and taking treats from my hands, but not all of them. Notice the worried look on the pup's face who is nearest to the escape door. There were two pups that were especially cautious. The blue pup had been being picked on by his litter mates out in the pasture, so having him in this small space with me seemed dangerous. If one of his siblings attacked him while a stranger is in the kennel, he could easily form a long-term association between a stranger and fear. I asked the breeder to remove him. She brought him through the kennel door and into the aisle of the building; one of the other pups shot through as well.

Here, I have just a little more investment in me by two of the pups.

Now, I have four puppies who are comfortable with me and consistently interacting with me. Wonderful! But my interest was drawn to the pair of pups in the aisle as I hoped to form a little better relationship with them.

These four pups are fully engaged with me.

The photo below shows the set-up inside the building; these are not the pups I worked with, as this photo was taken later. The kennel at the far right is where I sat with the group of pups.

The two pups we let into this aisle were not willing to make eye contact with me and were sensitive to my proximity to them and any movement on my part. Having a human anchored to something physical helps dogs in this situation, so I found a chair and sat still. Spooked dogs. I had meatballs to use as treats. This was great because I could tear off pieces large enough to toss or roll. When I got just a glance from one of the pups, I rolled a piece of meatball most of the way to him and sat still. One of the pups slowly approached the meatball. As he ate it, I rolled him another one. Think about this because this is cool; meatballs are falling from the sky! Free food! So now, there is the beginning of a connection between the stranger and free food. The presence of the food is only contingent on his willingness to eat it, nothing more.

Only one of the pups was willing to play this game with me. I rolled meatballs closer and closer to me, but I didn't advance to the pup or speak to him. At one point, I changed my location - and the pup watched me. There's my string. After a few minutes, Kim and I went outside to play with other pups and allowed these pups to join us; only one pup did, the one who had been eating meatballs for me.

I had gone to see the breeder to learn about the character of the three pups shown here. But look where my white pup positioned himself. I never reached for him, as I was able to do with the female pups. He just got to stay and eat treats. See the pup in the doorway? That is my scared pup. Behind that door, he felt safe enough to join our training session. In zoo terminology, he is behind "protected contact." Working like this with a frightened animal often helps them feel safer. He was learning a lot from behind that door.

The cautious pup was willing to interact with me here because I was sitting, and he had safety in numbers.

Now, he is alone with me. I am standing, which is more challenging for him. I gave him as much space as possible as I delivered treats to him. In the photo, you can see that his body shows some tension.

When I stood up I was a little scarier to him.

After a minute or two, he came closer to me on his own. That is a lot of information for me! Food is a primary reinforcer. So is space and control, the pup's control of his body. Up to this point, I had been giving him all the space that I could, using that as part of my reinforcement for him. Right here, at this point, he showed me that he found being near me more reinforcing than keeping his distance. Wow.

He is now willing to be close to me which means I have earned a little of his trust.

In the video below, you will see me move him, as I did the Macaw, using the string we had created between us. He was so much fun, so interesting to have progressed to this point with him. But. Near the end of the video, I broke our string, our connection. Can you see it?

Up to this point, I had been giving the pup continual information about how to earn reinforcement. I wanted to check in with him to see how strong our connection was, so I asked him to offer a behavior. I just kept still. What I was hoping he would do was mand; what he did was bounce twice. That isn't a behavior I wanted to reinforce, although I could have chosen to just to build his confidence. He took a chance by offering me this behavior, but having guessed wrong - in that, he didn't get paid - it was no longer reinforcing enough for him to be that close to me. He walked away. When he stopped and looked back at me several strides later, I offered him a treat, and he came back to me. I paid him a few more times and then ended the session. This pup had done a great job, and I learned a lot from him. Thank you, pup!

We brought the girls back in, and I sat on the step and played with pups. This was partially snuggle time, although I did not reach for my white pup. Notice that the pup behind the door is back. I positioned myself so that I could, carefully, open the door just a little bit and set a meatball on the floor just inside the door. He got to a point where he didn't step back when I did this, which was a lot of progress for him!

Now he needs less support from friends to be willing to be close to me.

By the end of my time with the pups, my white pup was curled up next to me. We were no longer doing treats, it was snuggle time only. I was able to touch him under his chin and on his neck, I didn't try for more.

He is tucked in near me. What a long way we have come!

By the time I left, he would push his head against my chest and ask for snuggles. At one point, he stretched out on the ground right in front of me and gave me his whole body. What a privilege it was to be able to touch him in this way.

This kind of training is all about choice. It is about mindfully using space as a reinforcer. Feeding treats creates a sense of well-being for an animal, and it is part of a language that makes sense to them. I never lured the puppies. Other than that one time in the video, I never asked for anything. Getting treats was only contingent on being willing to be near me.

To me, this training is exciting. It is empowering to animals, as you can see in watching the changing behavior of this white pup.

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