In late 2002, I read an article in American Animal Trainer magazine that would forever change how I train my dogs. The author had a background in marine mammal care and training and in zoo animal management. She stated that marine mammal trainers use an intermediate bridge, along with teaching the animal various targets (which include body targets), to allow better communication with animals in their care. Both of these concepts were new to me.

The intermediate bridge is a continuous sound that the trainer makes to guide the animal when it is looking for the right answer. This bridging comes BEFORE the targeted behavior is reached. It is used like a hot/cold/warm game. The instant the animal gets off-track the intermediate bridge is stopped. When the targeted behavior is reached the animal is immediately bridged and then rewarded. Using the intermediate bridge allows the trainer to support the animal every instant as it is learning a new behavior.

A target is something the animal learns to touch or to interact with in some manner. The target can be your hand, a wand, or any object. (With dogs, untrained touching occurs mostly with the nose or feet -- when the dog is curious enough to investigate something by touching it -- but the dog can learn to touch anything with any part of its body that you want.) Targets can be used to teach the animal to form individual behaviors, complex behaviors, and to put the animal into positions.

I train my Standard Poodles both simple and complex behaviors for movie scripts that I write to display their training. My husband videotapes these movies with a digital video camera and then I edit the movies on my computer -- complete with titles, sound effects and music. My dogs' training curriculum includes all facets of obedience, learning to navigate all obstacles in the obstacle and agility courses, tracking, tricks, musical canine freestyle (and various aspects from other dog sports). Since I don't compete in live events, and don't want the precision those events require (except for musical freestyle), my dogs are trained to look as if they are doing actions as a natural part of their behavior repertoire.

I had trained my three late Standard Poodles using 'operant conditioning' and 'clicking' to mark any step towards a desired behavior. But, for me to teach my dogs all that I wanted them to know, this process was very time consuming. Teaching a new behavior this way was akin to me knowing that I wanted a person to pick up block number nine out of twenty-five numbered blocks spread out on the floor, but only being able to 'click' when the person happened to look at or get near block number nine. Eventually the person would pick up the correct block, but how much simpler it would be just to be able to tell them, "Pick up block number nine!" By using an intermediate bridge, that is exactly what I am able to do with my dogs. An example is scent retrieving.

By Charlene Dunlap

I had never attempted to train my previous dogs scent articles because, in order to train their dogs this exercise, I saw people tying down articles on a board, putting little tents over articles, slathering Cheese Whiz on the 'correct' article and various other gimmicks. Since I wasn't interested in competition obedience, it seemed like more effort for me that it would be worth. But, by using an intermediate bridge to guide them, I had both of my present dogs understanding the concept of scent retrieves in just a few tries. They had, of course, already been well-schooled in the retrieve and in the intermediate bridge.

Following is an account of Sydney's first lesson in scent articles

The second time I sent her out she started to pick up an unscented article so I ceased the intermediate bridge and said, "Wrong". To test, she picked up the article anyway and brought it to me. I turned away for a second (time-out), turned back and re-sent her. She was still carrying the unscented article, but that didn't matter. She dropped it when she started searching again. I began bridging her as soon as she dropped the unscented article to start searching. If she showed interest in an unscented article I stopped the intermediate bridge, resuming when she continued her search. This time, when she came to the scented article and I increased the intermediate bridge to an excited pitch, she picked up the scented article. I said "YES! Bring it." After several successes, I quit using the intermediate bridge to guide her and, for the next several sessions, she continued to bring the scented article. At that point Sydney did not, of course, have a ready-for competition scent article retrieve -- but, she did know the exercise and she learned it in a very short time.

I had taught Sydney to retrieve many different types of items as a foundation before asking her to scent retrieve. Then, by using the intermediate bridge I was able to give her constant feedback and, in effect, was able to 'talk her through' this new exercise without having to wait for her to initiate picking up the correct article on her own.

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I put down all of the metal articles (Sydney was very young at the time and still inclined to chew on the leather ones.) I scented one article with my scent and put it among the unscented ones. With Sydney at my side I said, "Find mine." She guessed that this was a new retrieve game and started towards the articles. I immediately began giving her information with the intermediate bridge. As she walked around the articles, I played the game of 'hot/cood/warm' with her -- increasing the intermediate bridge as she got close to the scented article, decreasing it in volume and tempo as she got further away. When she reached down to check the scented article, I increased my intermediate bridge in both pitch and volume. She picked up the correct article and I immediately gave a terminal bridge (I use YES! or a 'click') and then said, "Bring it." I bridged her all the way in and gave her a terminal bridge ("YES!") when she delivered the article to my hand, and then reinforced her with a quick game of tug.

Excerpts from my article in
Versatility In Poodles
August 2004 Newsletter