Dog Training: Method of Successive Approximation 

By Tony Gravley

More than thirty years ago I had my first taste into the professional dog training world. I was in desperate need to solve a behavior issue with my best friend and companion “Coco”. Coco was a high energy, super smart (far smarter than me) 22 pound  “MinPin”. Having trained several hunting dogs for the standard AKC obedience stuff I thought I was a professional level trainer but I could not solve the problem of Coco “bolting” out the door.

On the training field she was great. She would fly back to me on the recall command. However, away from the training field she had a mind of her own. The problem of her bolting out the door was not only frustrating, but flat dangerous to her own safety.  I swallowed my pride and looked up the local AKC expert an older Gentleman named Rex Harms.

Coco’s bolting was probably the most influential item in my life long quest of training dogs because Coco’s problem lead me to Mr. Harms.

Mr. Harms was extremely influential in my training philosophies even to this day. I’m sure he was way ahead of his time in training. So, off I go for my first private lesson with Coco happily riding in the front seat for our journey to the hillside.

I grew up in Alaska. Even though Anchorage had only about 150,000 residents at the time, the city was spread out covering more square miles than most states. Close to 45 minutes later Coco and I arrived at Mr. Harm’s house. We were promptly greeted by a substantial sized male Doberman named Marco.

Mr. Harms was a little shocked to see me as he thought that for sure the way I talked to him on the phone that I was far older than I was. He quickly went through the standard introductions of who he was and what he had done in the past (impressive still to this day). I hate to admit this, but in my youth I seemed to be a bit of “know it all” and sarcastically stated that is sure impressive Mister but how do I know my 15 dollars for the private lesson will come to bear any fruit?

“Son, so little do you know in life”, he stated. Sit down and I will give you a little demonstration of what a dog can do with a little training! The events that followed still stick in my mind as if they just took place. He said, “Dogs are super smart and can understand English. Did you know that?”  I said, “Show me”.

He started telling me a story about how he and Marco like to go to town. Marco jumped to attention in a perfect proper sitting position. His story continued on saying that since it is cold outside when we go to town that he always wears a jacket —in a flash Marco sits and then went and fetched Mr. Harms Jacket.

Mr. Harms then said, “Maybe he will walk to town.”—Boom Marco popped into a sit and sprinted and was back in flash with Mr. Harms’ boots. Then Mr. Harms said, “It’s a long way so to go to town I better drive.”  With zeal and energy Marco sprung into the sit position and off again he went to retrieve the truck keys off a peg hanging by the door. He delivered them right to the hands of his Master.

At this point he had me hook, line and sinker, but it got even better. Mr. Harms continues the story with, “You know that to go to town Marco has to be on leash because the city ordinance requires all dogs to be on leash. It’s the law!” In this segment Marco Sits then runs and grabs his leash and returns front and center then lowers his head as if he is pouting.

Marco’s head stays looking down then all of a sudden it pops up and he seems happy again, Mr. Harms had just said, “It’s OK we still have a fun time.”  The behaviors just continued on and on.

I was convinced that Marco understood English as all of this took place in a normal tone. There were no loud commands or anything like that.

“Ok sir, you got me. Marco understands English. How did you teach him English?”

Mr. Harms promptly said, “I used ‘successive approximation’!”

“What the heck is that?” I replied “and what does that have to do with Marco understanding English?”

“You knuckle head. Marco does not understand English. I have trained him using successive approximation to obey commands.”

“Mister, there you go again using that fancy word that I have no idea what it means and how it relates to dog training.”

He said, “Youngster, think about it. . .  ‘successive approximation’ – YOU don’t even know English – successive means ‘follows in order or sequential’ and ‘approximation’ means to be close, near or to approximate. Now put them together, . . .  follow in sequence or be near or close. . . .”

Now I am no longer saying “Mister” but “Sir”.

“I don’t get it at all.”

He said, “Alright, in other terms I shaped the behaviors (tasks) step-by-step to put them altogether.”

“Whoa Whoa, hold on Sir I am really lost.”

He quickly jumps into the trainer role. “First thing I said was “Marco and I like to go to town.” “What did Marco do?”

“Uhm, he went to the sitting position.”

“Very good. What was next?”

“Uhm, he went and fetched your jacket”

“Yes, that is correct. So now I have two behaviors linked together.”

“Oh yes. I kinda see.. but how did you get that?”

“Thank you for asking. First I conditioned Marco to sit on the word ‘go’. Then I conditioned Marco to retrieve my jacket off the word ‘jacket’. First I rewarded him for even looking at my jacket. Then I rewarded him for touching my jacket. Then I waited for him to pick it up and so on and so on. That is the shaping part.”

“Sir so I understand this correctly. Marco really does not understand English. He is waiting for commands in your story. Since you used successive approximation you reinforced behaviors that lead to the final response. By gradually building on existing behaviors that are close to the desired behavior, you shaped the dog into the desired behavior. Simply put, you took it one step at a time.”

This was truly the beginning of me actually conditioning dogs and training behaviors. All the training I had done before was just pure luck and without any real conditioning models being followed. I did go on to correct the “bolting “ out of the door with the guidance of Mr. Harms (I’ll explain that method in another article). I trained with Mr. Harms for many months to follow prior to me going into the Marine Corps Military Working Dog Program. In all that time he only charged me for one private lesson. Maybe he saw that I loved dogs just as much as he did.  I am forever grateful for his teachings.

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