“Good Sit!”

Summer Zani sit stay

Here is a quiz. Let’s say someone says, “Sit,” to a dog, intending the word as a cue.

  1. What part of speech is the word, “Sit”?
  2. Then, what part of speech is the same word if we say, “Good sit!” afterwards?

That was a trick.

If we were talking to a human who speaks the same language we do, the first “Sit” could be an imperative or command verb. The second “Sit” would be a noun.

But neither of those, while grammatically correct, applies to training a dog. Dogs are not humans. “Sit” is something else entirely to them.

In dog training based on positive reinforcement, “sit” is a discriminative stimulus. To the dog it is not a word. It is not English. It is not eligible for grammatical analysis. It is an antecedent, in this case a specific sound that comes to indicate that reinforcement is likely available for the act of sitting. (I include the word “likely” because sometimes we don’t reinforce every single sit.)

Examples of other discriminative stimuli for dogs are hand signals we give them, auditory cues such as whistles, and all sorts of things in life that act as cues that certain behaviors will be reinforced. These life events are not necessarily deliberate actions by us, and may not even be known to us. I wrote about some in my post called, “16 Behavioral Cues That I Didn’t Train (But Are Still for Real).”

So if “Sit” is a discriminative stimulus, what is “Good sit”? I’ll get there. First I need to talk about this problem with words and meanings.

I Can’t Get It Out of My Head

We humans have an enormous problem to overcome when we use words as cues. When we hear the sounds that comprise the word “Sit,” in whatever language we speak, we can’t divorce the meaning of the word “Sit.” We generally pick verbal cues that are descriptions of the behaviors they apply to. Convenient for us, but unfortunate for the dogs. We can’t help but think they understand the cues as language.

Sometimes we pick more colorful words for cues for our amusement or because the standard word is inconvenient. My friend Marge’s cue for her dog Zip to sit is, “Senta,” the Portuguese word for sit. “Sit” was too close to his name, plus she didn’t want to spend his life sputtering out, “Zip, sit!” And although he’s a Portuguese Water Dog, she didn’t pick “Senta” because he innately understood it. He doesn’t. She picked it because it’s fun, clear, and didn’t resemble any of her other cues.

I have a couple of fun cues. I use “Yoga” to cue Zani into the bow position (downward dog, get it?). I use “Rewind” to cue Summer to do a funny little backwards crawl/scoot. But hey, I’m a human, so I still hear these as words, with meanings. Not just a group of sounds. (And of course, the “funny” part has to do with their meanings…just can’t get away from that, can we?)

The Curse of Knowledge

This inability to get the meanings of words out of our heads on behalf of our dogs is an intra-species example of the “curse of knowledge.” This refers to a situation where someone who knows something (in this case the human) can’t imagine not knowing it. Here is a link to a good synopsis of a famous study, “tappers and listeners,” about the curse of knowledge.

In the tappers and listeners study, one person in a team of two would tap out the rhythm of a well-known song. The other person had to guess the song. The listeners could guess correctly only about 2.5% of the time. But get this: the tappers predicted that the listeners would know the answer 50% of the time.

The tappers heard the song in their heads as they tapped, and couldn’t put themselves accurately in the place of the listeners, who were only hearing tapping. Even the most empathetic of us can’t turn off the songs in our own heads.

In dog training, we are the tappers and the dogs are the listeners. It’s worse though, because not only do they not know all these meanings and subtexts that are there for us, they are not capable of knowing most of them. Yet they read situations so well and are typically so attuned to us that they give the impression of knowing these things in the same way we know them. They have their own geniuses, but it is not likely that any dog understands language and grammar as we do.

By the way, I am not the first to tell about the “tappers and listeners” study with regard to some characteristics of dog training. Kathy Sdao describes it and even demonstrates it in her DVD “What Not to Err.” My friend Marge incorporates it into her orientation for beginning clicker trainers.

“Good Sit!”

OK, I finally made my way back around to this phrase. You can easily find dozens of websites that instruct you to say, “Good sit!” after your dog sits. Probably some of you have been instructed to do that. I have. I was told the following by an obedience instructor: “You should say, “Good sit” after your dog sits so they will know what it is they did right.”

This assumes that the dog can follow the leap from “Sit” as a noise meaning that sit will be reinforced, to “Sit” as a noun, modified by “Good.” This makes no sense. It only makes sense in our twisted world where verbal cues unfortunately have meanings that correspond to the actions we attach to them.

Here is an example that I hope demonstrates the faulty logic of “Good sit.”

The starter's pistol is a discriminative stimulus.

The starter’s pistol is a discriminative stimulus. Photo credit: Stewsnews on Flickr. License at bottom of the page.

The starter’s pistol going off is a discriminative stimulus for people who run track. It indicates that pushing off the starting block and starting to run will likely be reinforced. So please envision this. A runner is practicing her starts. Today the coach is using a real starter’s pistol so she’ll get used to it. The coach fires the pistol, and the runner makes an excellent start. She runs a few yards, stops, and turns back. The coach says, “Good…” and BANG! fires the pistol in the air again. The runner startles and says, “Why did you fire again? I’m not ready! I’m not even in the block.” The coach says, “I was telling you that you made a good…” BANG! and fires the pistol one more time.

With this example, we can clearly see that that the cue is not the same as the action. The coach means to tell the runner that she made a good start. **BANG** is not a description of the action of start. It’s just the cue that indicates a certain action will be reinforced. Likewise, “Sit” is the noise that indicates to a dog that sitting will be reinforced. It does not somehow “mean” that action to the dog.

Frankly, I can keep this in my head only for short periods. It slides away so easily.

It’s Not Harmless

Some might say, OK, it doesn’t mean what we think it does, but it doesn’t hurt anything to say it anyway. Well yes, there are worse things. But using, “Sit” as part of a praise phrase is not a desirable practice.

First, you are repeating the cue when the dog is already doing the behavior. This dilutes the one-to-one pairing of the cue and the action, diminishing the power of the cue. It also adds more chatter to the training session, creating more verbiage for the dog to sift through to try to catch words that might be cues. Or to learn to ignore them. Finally, I believe we need to do everything possible to understand the dog’s point of view. Choose cues thoughtfully. Make sure they all sound different. Use them consistently, and only for that purpose. What if, instead of words in English (or your own native language), you had to use a randomly assigned color flash card or a complete nonsense phrase for every cue? Wouldn’t they be kind of hard to remember? That’s the position our dogs are in. They have to use brute memory on cues.

That last reason is the big one. Saying, “Good sit!” every once in a while or even regularly does little harm to the dog in the grand scheme of things. I’m sure I do half a dozen things to my dogs that are more confusing than that. The harm is to us as trainers. It keeps us entrenched in the belief that dogs understand language the same way we do.

If you are going to praise, far better to say, “Good!” or “Good girl!” or “Good dog!” And to say the same thing consistently. If you say it regularly before you give the treat, you are also building up a nice little conditioned reinforcer. But that’s a post for another day!

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© Eileen Anderson 2015                                                                                                                               eileenanddogs.com

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Go Sniff! Then Please Come Back!

Please share this post whenever you see someone suggest to an inexperienced trainer that she use sniffing as a reinforcer on walks.

Summer air scenting keep 3

Summer air sniffing

Hey. You know that thing that seems like the perfect solution to problems with your dog when walking on leash? It’s not a free ride after all.

Let’s say you are a beginner trainer struggling with teaching loose leash walking. Your dog is very tuned into the environment, and the thing he is most interested in is sniffing. So when you ask for advice on the Internet, it is pretty much guaranteed that several people are going to chime in with the same suggestion: use sniffing as the reinforcer!

It sounds perfect, right? Sniffing, i.e. access to odor, is a powerful motivator for most dogs and an obvious candidate to use for reinforcement. But unfortunately for us amateurs, it takes some finesse to use it. I know this from hard experience.

What’s the Problem?

The problem is that if you release a dog to sniff, you need a way of getting him back. He has already told you with his behavior that access to sniffing interesting odors is massively interesting, more so than the treats in your pocket. So if you let him sniff, then what? You have the same problem you had to begin with, only worse: your dog is all excited about the environment and can’t focus on the task of leash walking.

If your dog is a beginner at this, the problem is worse. You are asking him to learn a difficult skill, keeping the leash loose and walking with you in a connected way. But you are also letting him run around sniffing with you following behind on a sometimes tight leash. How do you keep the criteria clear?

Most of the time a non-fearful dog’s difficulty with loose leash walking boils down to some of the following:

  1. The dog is too excited to focus on the difficult task of walking on a loose leash;
  2. The dog didn’t get enough practice walking at his person’s side in less interesting environments; and/or
  3. The item (food, toy) the trainer is trying to use as reinforcement doesn’t have enough value.
This is probably stress sniffing

Zani is probably stress sniffing

(I am excluding fearful dogs, because their issues can be different. Sniffing may not be for the purpose of information or entertainment. It can be a displacement behavior, a sign of stress. In this post I’m discussing dogs who are not anxious, just intensely interested in the odors around them. Be sure you know which it is for your dog.)

Let’s see if releasing the dog to sniff will likely solve the above problems.

  1. Dogs who are too excited to focus. If you get a few steps of nice walking on a leash from such a dog, and release him to sniff, will sniffing “get it out of his system” and allow him to come back to you, ready to focus and work? Probably not. If the dog couldn’t focus in the first place, allowing a sniff session will probably not fix that.
  2. Dogs who haven’t gotten enough practice in less interesting environments. If he didn’t get enough practice in your training room or back yard, a sniffing session is not going to magically give him the skills to return to you and have good leash manners.
  3. Dogs for whom the reinforcer is not sufficient. If your reinforcer was not strong enough to get the dog’s attention in the first place, how could it work to get him back when you have released him into happy sniff land?

What Happens When You Try It

Here’s what probably happens when you try the sniff thing without adequate background work. You get a few steps of nice walking, and then you release your dog to go sniff. You follow him around a bit. When you decide it’s time to move on, you say, “Let’s go, ” or a similar cue.

Your dog will keep sniffing. You say it again. Still sniffing. You finally pull on your dog’s leash to get him to come with you. Depending on how deeply interested he was in the smell, he may come now, or he may wait until you pull even harder.

If the environment is so fascinating, and you’ve cued him to go dive into it, how will you humanely get him back?

You might be one of the lucky few with a dog who thrives on doing stuff with his human.  One or two of these pulls from you and he’ll get it that he is supposed to quit sniffing and come back to you, and will do so in the future. But if you had that kind of dog, you probably wouldn’t be losing him to the environment in the first place, right?

Pulling him to you if he fails to respond is employing an aversive. Depending on the dog, it can vary from mild to extreme.

In positive reinforcement-based training, cues are opportunities for reinforcement.  We train so that there is no need for an “Or else.” And incidentally, pulling on a dog’s leash to enforce a “come” cue is exactly the behavior that was used in the graduate thesis from University of North Texas on so-called “poisoned cues.” The dog in the study responded in a completely different way to the cue that included the possibility of this type of forced compliance than to the cue that was trained with positive reinforcement only.

Pulling on your dog’s leash to get him to walk with you is aversive but not the end of the world. It probably happens to most trainers at one time or another. (It’s a good reason to attach the leash to a harness rather than a collar.) But if it happens most every time you cue the dog to go sniff, you are shooting your training in the foot. Dragging your dog around is one of the problems you were trying to solve to begin with.

The Solution: Practice, Practice, Practice

The solution is straightforward, if not exactly easy. You need to practice not only the loose leash walking in less stimulating environments, you also need to train the heck out of your “return to me” cue with positive reinforcement. And you will need to reinforce it on walks, at least some of the time. You can’t leave the food at home.

Elderly Cricket's sniffing on walks was no problem

Elderly Cricket’s sniffing on walks was no problem

It can be difficult to emulate the real life scenario of an enticing odor. If you are in a low-distraction environment, there probably aren’t many novel odors there. So there’s a gap between practicing the cue when your dog is standing around with not much else to do, and practicing it when he is enticed by something.

actually succeeded fairly well with this with Zani, my little hound mix, and now I’m practicing with Clara. Some of you will remember my post on when not to work on loose leash walking. I’m pleased to say that Clara handles being around people and dogs on walks so well now that we have “graduated” from counterconditioning and are working on loose leash walking.

Allowing my dog to get what she most wants is important to me. Here are some of the ways I worked on our “Let’s go” cue. I bridged the gap between low-distraction practice and real life situations in several ways. You can see these in the movie as well.

  1. I started off by practicing indoors with Clara both on and off-leash. She learned to reorient to me when I cued, “Let’s go!” I often turned and ran after giving the cue, both to make it both more challenging and more fun.
  2. I have a closed-off room in my house that contains dog food, chew toys, and other interesting stuff. Odor heaven. In training I allowed Clara to go in. After a moment I called her out and reinforced her generously for walking away with me.
  3. I put synthetic rabbit pee on a piece of cardboard and taped it to the floor. Clara got a reward if she responded and left it at my cue. (You’ll see in the movie, though, that it was only enticing the first time. That was a lot of trouble to go to for just one repetition.)
  4. I scattered kibble on the floor or ground, let Clara start eating it, then gave her the “Let’s Go!” cue and rewarded generously when she left the kibble behind. This is a good corollary to what we are asking dogs to do when we ask them to leave enticing smells.
  5. And that leads to–Zen (“leave-it.”) Any kind of leave-it exercise is good practice for this.

Someone is sure to suggest sending the dog back to the odor or out to sniff again as a reward. That’s a great thing to do–sometimes. But you can’t use it as a reinforcer every time with most dogs. If you never reinforce at your side, you risk gradually sucking the value out of walking with you. Nope, most of us just can’t get away with leaving the food or toys at home.

Link to the movie for email subscribers.

One More Decision

If you watch dogs who are having a good time sniffing, they don’t just stand still and put their heads down to the ground for a moment. They follow where the odor takes them. If free to do so, many dash back and forth, run, walk, back up, make sudden u-turns, and stop just as suddenly. Our dogs are generally much faster and more agile than we are. As long as your dog is on leash you will be in the position of having to curtail some of the fun. How far into the neighbor’s yard may he go? How close can he get to their cat? You will have to assess how much these limitations frustrate your dog, and make sure that using sniffing as a reinforcer under these conditions is worth it to him.

Anybody have any sniffing odor as reinforcement stories? I’d love to hear about them.

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6 Myths about Positive Reinforcement-Based Training

Positive reinforcement-based training is subject to a lot of misunderstanding and misrepresentation. Many people genuinely don’t understand how it works, and others seem to deliberately misrepresent it. Some of these misunderstandings and misrepresentations are very “sticky.”  Misunderstandings, straw men, myths–call them what you will, but they are out there and they are potent.

Here are six that are quite common. There are many more out there. For example, I didn’t even hit on “dogs trained with R+ are obese” or “R+ training only works for tricks and easy dogs” or “R+ training is bribery.”  But the following six illuminate some common misunderstandings about positive reinforcement-based training.

  1. Positive reinforcement-based training is permissive. I believe this one is a true misunderstanding for a lot of people.  Before I started studying learning theory, I certainly would have had no clue how one could use positive reinforcement as part of a training plan, for instance, to get rid of an unwanted behavior. All I could imagine was someone passing out cookies for good behavior. It seemed like a good recipe for chaos. What would one do with a cookie if the dog did something “bad”? What I didn’t know was that positive reinforcement-based trainers not only reinforce desired behaviors, but also have several humane techniques for interfering with the reinforcement for unwanted behaviors so that they don’t pay off for the animal. These include antecedent arrangement, reinforcement of alternative behaviors, and in some cases negative punishment. Positive reinforcement-based training, especially when applied to behavior problems, takes careful thought and planning. It is precise, deliberate, and the opposite of “let’s all hang out here in happy fairy rainbow land.”
  2. Naughty dogs

    Will this behavior fade away if I just ignore it?

    Positive reinforcement-based trainers just ignore bad behavior. The one also brings a very bad image to mind: a doting pet owner letting her pet  jump on grandma, countersurf, and go through the trash. But the truth is quite different. What we actually do about unwanted behavior is to 1) prevent it from happening in the first place; 2) teach the dog something acceptable to do instead;  and occasionally, 3) punish it using negative punishment. We know that ignoring reinforced behaviors doesn’t make them go away. But to make things a little more complicated, there are two situations where “ignoring” is used in training. One is when training new behaviors and/or associating a verbal cue with a new behavior. In these cases, if the dog makes an error, nothing happens. We do not treat. But in these situations we are not dealing with some habitual, harmful behavior that is getting reinforced some other way. It’s just a wrong guess in a guessing game. The other situation where ignoring might be used as a part of a training approach is when the animal’s behavior is being reinforced with attention. But even in that situation we would not use ignoring by itself.

  3. Positive reinforcement trainers believe that nothing unpleasant should happen in the dog’s life, ever, and they try to protect their dogs from all aversives. First, this is impossible. Mild to moderate aversive stimuli are around us at all times, and we–and our animals–perform loads of behaviors to avoid or lessen them. Perhaps the dog is too hot. That’s aversive. Perhaps there is a fly buzzing around her head. That’s aversive. Perhaps the dog has to get a shot at the vet. That’s aversive! The truth is that we avoid training with aversives, even with mild ones. As I’ve written elsewhere, if a thunder-phobic dog escapes into the house when it storms, this is called natural or automatic negative reinforcement. The dog is reinforced for running into the house by gaining distance from the thunder noise. The thunder is an unavoidable aversive in life. (I help my dogs deal with it in other ways besides mere escape.) But I would never put a loud noise into a training session and use a dog’s fear of it to get a certain behavior out of her. And as for major aversives (thinking vet visit again)–we do prepare the dog for them as best we can to make them less so. That’s the opposite of using their aversive qualities.
  4. Because of #3, positive reinforcement-based trainers will do things like let their dog run out in traffic so as to avoid jerking on his collar, or avoid any medical procedure that might “hurt.” This one is almost always a straw man. I’m pretty sure the people saying it and acting like they believe it really don’t think we would stand by in an emergency and watch our dogs get hurt. In an emergency we will body block or grab or tackle or apply leash pressure to a dog who is about to do something dangerous, just like any other normal human being who cares about his or her dog. Yes, this is using an aversive. But it is not part of a teaching scenario. Different behaviors are expected and needed in difficult situations. For example, a friend might ask me to use a needle to remove a sliver that she can’t reach. I would do this if asked, even if it might mean hurting her. But because I am willing to do that, it does not follow that I am fine with training her a new job skill by poking her with a needle every time she makes an error.
  5. Positive reinforcement-based trainers use punishment but just don’t know it (or just don’t admit it). This is silly. We are generally the ones who are trying our best to leave mythology behind and learn the science behind good training. But again, the claim can come from someone who just doesn’t understand what it is we are doing; someone who figures there just has to be punishment in there somewhere! Sometimes there is. And those of us who use negative punishment know when we are using it! But a common variant of this claim is, “When you train, you don’t always give the dog the treat. You are withholding the reward and that’s punishment, har har har.” Actually it is not. As long as there is no consequence to the dog’s wrong guess it is not punishment. It is extinction at work. Extinction by itself is no picnic for the dog either, but in general we don’t use it by itself. Usually another behavior or multiple other behaviors are being reinforced, and we help the animal make the transition to performing one of those instead. We also know and freely admit that certain tools fall easily into aversive use. It’s no news that a plain old collar can be used to hurt a dog. That’s why when we start using any gear on a dog, we use counterconditioning to help the dog build pleasant associations, and we teach the dog behaviors so as to minimize the chance of discomfort. This is the opposite of using the aversive properties of a piece of gear.
  6. Positive reinforcement-based training is just as stressful on dogs as balanced or aversive-based training. Training with positive reinforcement can surely be stressful. But as I’ve written elsewhere, the stressors generally have to do with lack of skill (errors by the trainer), or an added aversive situation that wasn’t planned. It is not sensible to argue that a method that consists of giving the dog food or playing with her when she performs a desirable behavior is as aversive as a method that depends on applying discomfort, pain, or intimidation.
Clara and trash

Surely Clara won’t get in the trash if I keep ignoring her, right?

The Commonalities

Every one of these points is focused on punishment or aversive stimuli. Clearly that is a sticking point in people’s understanding of positive reinforcement-based training. The claims also fit neatly into two categories. The first four misrepresent positive reinforcement-based training. They paint it in a ridiculous light and imply it is impossible or ineffective.  The last two blur the lines between positive reinforcement-based training and training that involves deliberate use of aversives.

In rhetorical terms, the first four are straw man arguments, and the latter two use the tu quoque fallacy in addition to the continuum fallacy. (Follow the links for definitions and examples of the individual terms.)

But as irritating as it is to read and hear these over and over, I try to keep in mind that they can be made from ignorance rather than malice. This is described nicely in the straw man link. Every one of us grew up in a culture that instructs us to use aversives to attempt to change behavior. The “cultural fog” around learning and behavior that Dr. Susan Friedman refers to makes us leery of reinforcement, and can cause us to equate it with mere indulgence or even moral corruption.

I am sure that many of the people who make these arguments are completely unfamiliar with the planning and precision that necessarily go into positive reinforcement training plans. I know I was. I got over it by listening to you folks out there who patiently explained the processes involved in positive reinforcement-based training. I hope you keep describing to the world what you do!

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Misconceptions about R+ Training (a compendium)

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Before You Share That “Cute” Dog and Baby Picture…

Dog and baby

Source: YouTube Creative Commons

First things first. I didn’t write this with you in mind. Let’s not make this about your dog or your parental decisions.

But there’s a problem with sharing that “cute” dog and baby picture. The problem is bigger than your individual situation, your family.

The problem is that posting a picture such as the one above sets an example and feeds a dangerous myth. A myth so dangerous that people die because of it. Children, especially, are hurt, and sometimes die because of it.

The myth is that good dogs, family dogs, your dogs–don’t bite. The myth says that dogs who live with us, dogs who like our kids, dogs who have always been “tolerant”–will stay that way, no matter what we or the kids do to them. The myth also says that dogs are supposed to take whatever kids dish out.

OK–remember–we don’t have to be talking about your dog. But when you post a picture of anybody’s dog with a very young child draped over him, hugging him, riding him, pulling his tongue, tail, or whiskers, or just plain sitting too close to him, and you “Like” it or include an approving comment, you feed the myth. The myth that gets some people’s kids terribly hurt or killed, and dogs euthanized.

Dogs are animals. They can move with lightning speed if they feel the need to. If you are six feet away taking the picture and the dog has his face right up next to your baby…you can’t get there near fast enough. Even if you are sitting right next to your child, the dog can still move faster than you.

A dog doesn’t have to be “vicious” or “mean” to bite. Sometimes all it takes is for him to be startled. Very young children, with their erratic movements, lack of fine motor skills, and exploratory natures, can stress out the most tolerant of dogs. It’s not fair to subject dogs to that. It’s not wise, either. Having a dog’s face, with that mouthful of teeth, up close to an infant’s head is an enormous risk. It’s not something to show off on social media.

Real Life Examples

A lot of people out there believed the myth until they learned otherwise. The hard way. The tragic way. Here are some real quotes from real people–mostly parents–from real news stories about dogs seriously biting children. The quotes took about 15 minutes of web searching to find. I promise–they are real.

“Fido” was super cuddly, the nicest dog you would ever imagine, and never once snapped … never growled, nothing. He never, never, never went after a person. I’m just in disbelief. –2015

In an apparently unprovoked attack, a 3-year-old child was bitten by a pet dog on Saturday… The girl was playing with the 2-year-old dog just before noon when she was bitten on the top and back of the head.–2015

She said the bite was out of the blue. “Mary” has known and played with the dog for years.–2014

I stood in the kitchen with my friend and her dog and my little girl. It was completely out of the blue, he jumped at my girl and tried to headbutt her to put her to the floor.–2015

I don’t really know what happened. It was right behind me. My dog just went for her. They are like best buddies. I don’t know what happened.–2014

He said the dog had no previous biting incidents, which is why he didn’t think anything of turning his back while his daughter went to play with the dog.–2014

The dogs had given no prior indication of behaving in this way, it was an attack out of the blue.–2015

What I didn’t include in the above quotes are the clues that were often just a few sentences away in the news story. The bites don’t usually come without warning, if one only knows how to read the signs. Perhaps the dog just got back from the vet after getting some shots. Maybe there’s a brand new dog in the household. Perhaps it is mentioned in passing that the dog doesn’t really like his tail pulled (but the child was allowed to do it anyway). Maybe the dog has growled in the past, and the owners duly punished him for it. (That’s a bad idea, by the way.)

Shooting Down the Myth

Maybe I can’t persuade you that your dog has the potential to do animal things. Maybe you simply can’t believe that your dog could get fed up one day and bite (probably after several warning signs that you might miss). Perhaps you’ve got the single most tolerant dog in the world. Can I persuade you not to share those pictures anyway? Your own or anybody else’s? Sharing them feeds the myth. If you share, you are implicitly condoning dangerous practices. You are encouraging others to let their kids get too close to their dogs and let them do uncomfortable things to the dogs for the sake of the myth, the romantic noble dog meme, that 15 minutes of Facebook fame.

There’s nothing new in what I’ve written here. (For instance, check out the second and third articles listed below.) Trainers and behaviorists cringe whenever they see photos like the one going around right now because probably this very week they have seen several very nice family dogs who bit a child “out of the blue.” The parents were loving and well intentioned, but they grew up with the myth, and they still see social media saturated with it.

Let’s stop it now. Please don’t post or repost that picture. Please don’t take that picture. Please don’t let your child and dog interact that way.

Do learn about dog body language. Do keep your children and dog safe. Do check out the resources below on how to do that. Most of them have multiple, excellent articles on the subject.

Help educate people about safe practices with dogs and children. You can share the materials below instead of sharing that photo. Thank you!

Resources

4/8/15 Addendum: Some people have been concerned about sharing **this** post because of the photo. Great point! I really debated whether to include one, but finally did because I felt I needed an example of what I’m talking about. I hope the narrative I have written sheds a different light on this type of photo. Please do share the blog post if you are moved to do so.

© Copyright Eileen Anderson 2015

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Posted in Aggression, Dog body language, Human and dog misunderstandings | 61 Comments

But I’ve Seen Stressed-Out Dogs During Positive Reinforcement Training Too!

Thank you to Jennifer Titus of CARE for Reactive Dogs for editorial advice. All errors and awkward moments are mine alone.

Citing “stressed-out R+ dogs” in an argument is an old chestnut that comes around regularly. The writer usually describes a training session he or she witnessed where a dog being trained with positive reinforcement was exhibiting fear or stress. The goal of sharing this description generally seems to be to blur the real differences between training that is based on positive reinforcement (R+) and training that is based on escape, avoidance, and punishment. Sometimes it is a feeble attempt to argue with the ranking of methods in assessments such as the Humane Hierarchy.

Cherry-picking a moment out of any dog’s life to support a general point about methods is tempting but is not effective argument.

Summer over the threshold of stimulus aversivness

My dog Summer showing stress during an R+ training session. What can we therefore conclude about the learning process called positive reinforcement? 

The “Stressed-Out” R+ Dog

So let’s consider the stressed-out dog in positive reinforcement training. What are some possible causes of stress in an R+ training session?

When using positive reinforcement, some metrics we use to assess the skill of the trainer and the effectiveness of the training are timing, criteria, and rate (or sometimes magnitude) of reinforcement. Let’s start our analysis there.

Bad timing can cause the dog some stress through lack of clarity. The trainer is marking and rewarding some incorrect behaviors while sometimes failing to reinforce some correct ones. If she cleans up her act and stops reinforcing the wrong stuff, the dog will go through an extinction process. Depending on the trainer’s skill, this can be stressful.

Raising criteria too fast means a higher failure rate. This can also cause some frustration. So while this is in an R+ training environment, what you have when you raise criteria too fast and the dog doesn’t do anything reinforceable is, again, an extinction problem.

If the rate of reinforcement is too low, you can actually put the desired behavior on extinction. So you may get a confused dog who starts throwing behaviors out of frustration, or a dog who will wander off and do something else more reinforcing, given the choice to do so.

Another stressor can be the use of negative punishment when the dog hasn’t learned the behavior. If the dog isn’t clear on how it can earn the reinforcer, it is frustrating to have it taken away contingently as it tries other things.

Note that none of the above errors is likely to hurt, scare, or startle the dog.

Two more types of stressors possible in an R+ training session are pressure of some type, and an accidental, momentary aversive. These two can indeed hurt, scare, or startle the dog, but are not linked to the positive reinforcement learning process.

  • What I’m calling pressure could consist of anything in the environment, setup, or even mannerisms of the trainer that the dog would like to escape from. Is something too loud? Is someone pressuring the dog with his or her body? Is the dog being kept too close to something she is scared of? This type of problem comes from the unwitting inclusion of an aversive stimulus.
  • Likewise, accidents happen, as they can in any training. A trainer might step on her dog’s tail during a stay, but again, this is an aversive accident, not an integral part of R+ training.

So our causes of stress are probably either technical mistakes on the trainer’s part or the presence of an unplanned or unrecognized aversive stimulus.  Are these problems unique to positive reinforcement training? Absolutely not. They can happen in training based on aversives just as easily.

A Fair Comparison

Let’s compare apples with apples. Rather than focusing on the stressors in faulty positive reinforcement training, lets compare the net effect on the dog of R+ training vs. aversive-based training–with both done poorly. There is certainly no shortage of sloppy training done with aversive methods. I can find such a video on YouTube within a couple of minutes, and  the trainer is often touting it as a success story.

So what happens to a dog being trained with escape/avoidance and punishment when the problems and errors I described above are present? Not only is the dog startled, hurt, intimidated, or at least irritated by the training itself, she will also be subjected to the additional stress resulting from trainer errors. Or she may experience aversives in addition to the ones the trainer is purposely using.

Here’s what it could look like.

  • Bad timing: Imagine popping a dog’s collar when she is heeling perfectly, in addition to popping her when she makes an error.
  • Changing criteria too fast: Imagine using duration shock to teach a dog to jump off a platform immediately after using it to teach her to jump on it.
  • Unplanned aversive stimulus: Imagine teaching stays using your hands to force a sound-sensitive dog to hold her position while a delivery truck with a no muffler drives by.

Those make the possible stressors in R+ training look rather like small potatoes, don’t they?

A Real-Life Example of the Results of R+ Training with Errors

I will be the guinea pig. I have a video of my own training that demonstrates many of the stressors I listed above.

In this popular video of mine that demonstrates lumping, I raise criteria too fast for Zani. She gets visibly frustrated. You can see it around 2:25 in particular. She plants herself in front of me in a sit and makes what I call the “terrier frustration noise.” A sharp exhale through her nose. I don’t blame her.

In addition to the training errors that are the subject of the video, there are more. I often mark late. I mark and reinforce improper behaviors, both when she targets my bare hand instead of the tape, or does a “drive-by” and doesn’t connect at all.

My rate of reinforcement is not bad, but there are a couple of times when Zani is going through extinction, trying other behaviors, where I might have interrupted her sooner, or marked something approaching the right behavior.

My reinforcement placement is not thoughtful. I am generally tossing the treat in order to reset Zani, but think how much faster she could have gotten to the wall if I had treated in that direction instead of away from it?

Another criterion issue is my poor choice of tape color. Gray, even metallic, is not a good contrast on a tan/yellow wall. Zani probably couldn’t see it well.

Interestingly, there is a subtle aversive stimulus in the session as well, and I think we can see the effects of it on Zani’s actions.  The tape on the wall is in a tight area.  I think her reluctance to enter that small area (in other words, an aversive setup) is one of the reasons she targets the desk multiple times instead of going for the tape. She is extremely pressure sensitive and I am asking her to go by me into a tight little space. She tries to avoid it.

So in one video, we have many of the problems I listed above.

Link to the Lumping video for email subscribers.

But even with the errors in the training and the slightly aversive setup, Zani hung in there with me and was wagging her tail in the last section. She successfully learned the behavior I was teaching and got 24 tasty food treats in the three minutes of training time shown. Not a bad rate at all, considering that there were two dry spells and also that she was spending a fair amount of time chasing down treats.

So here is a thought experiment. Imagine that instead of what you saw in the video, I used aversive methods to get the targeting behavior from Zani. You can imagine a combination of physical manipulation and body pressure, or a shock collar. No food in the picture. (If you are imagining Zani falling to pieces, that’s about right.) Now add to that multiple errors of timing and criteria, and an unwise setup that creates a tight space. How is Zani doing now?

That is a much fairer comparison of the results of different training methods.

The Proper Rejoinder

Evoking the scenario of the stressed-out R+ dog in argument invites the following response:

It’s a good thing the dog was being trained with positive reinforcement then. Adding training errors and aversive situations to any protocol can cause stress. Think how much worse it would have been if the dog were being deliberately trained with aversives to start off with!

The real illogic of the comment in the title is that in most examples described it’s the addition of aversive stimuli that creates stress. Blaming stress that results from the accidental inclusion of aversive stimuli on the process of positive reinforcement training is not only illogical; it’s a cheap shot.

Conclusions from Examples

Drawing conclusions from examples is tricky, and can easily lead to the logical fallacy of “missing the point.”

A couple of the valid conclusions that can be drawn from the “stressed-out R+ dog” scenario are that some positive reinforcement trainers lack mechanical or observational skills, and that it is possible for other learning processes besides positive reinforcement to be going on when we are trying to train with R+.

What the scenario doesn’t support is the idea that there is some unknown dark side intrinsic to positive reinforcement training, or that there are characteristics of training methods that are immune to analysis through learning theory, or that stressors from lack of skill happen only in R+ training, or that training based on the use of aversive stimuli can make for a happier dog.

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© Eileen Anderson 2015                                                                                                                               eileenanddogs.com

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Posted in Behavior analysis, Escape/Avoidance, Negative Reinforcement, Operant conditioning, Positive Reinforcement | 8 Comments

Bootleg Reinforcement

-Many thanks to Debbie Jacobs, Randi Rossman, and Dr. Susan Friedman for making suggestions about the movies. Any errors are, of course, my own.

A sand colored dog with a black tail and muzzle is in a play bow position, sniffing a person's boots.

Clara excitedly sniffing my boot. Really!

Did you know that there is interesting name for that thing that messes up our best-laid training plans sometimes?

Bootleg Reinforcement: Reinforcement that is not part of, and tends to undermine, an intervention.–scienceofbehavior.com

The term “bootleg” does not mean there is anything wrong or second-rate about the reinforcement. On the contrary, it is usually something very potent. (See the bottom of the post for the historical usage of the term.) “Bootleg” is a value judgment, but it’s from our standpoint, not the standpoint of the one getting reinforced. It means that this particular reinforcement is what is messing up our plans and behavioral interventions. Something else is competing with–and winning against–our training plan.

Bootleg reinforcement is often involved in situations that are cited to “prove” that positive reinforcement training doesn’t work. For example, some dogs keep jumping on people even if they are reinforced for “four on the floor” and the jumped-upon humans turn their backs and ignore them when they jump.  Removing the human attention doesn’t work. Sometimes this happens because it is intrinsically reinforcing for the dog to jump or body slam. People can turn their backs on the dog all they want, but there is bootleg reinforcement maintaining the behavior as long as the dog enjoys jumping and bodily contact. In this case, positive reinforcement is working great! Just not the reinforcer we’re trying to use.

When a dog gets access to a bootleg reinforcer, they can get reinforced for exactly the thing you are trying to get them to stop doing. Some common bootleg reinforcers are:

  • Food on the counter.
  • Scraps in the trashcan.
  • Food the dog can grab if she runs away from you on the agility field and back to your setup area.
  • All manner of critters on the agility field.
  • Rat trails along the walls of an indoor agility course (this happened to me and my dog once).
  • Books on the bookshelf available to chew.
  • Buried cat poop that the dog can dig up.
  • Neighbor dog available to fence fight (there are bootleg negative reinforcers, now that I think of it).
  • Whatever happens to be reinforcing about barking (either positively or negatively reinforcing).
  • Whatever the dogs gets access to when she pulls on leash. And that leads to…

Odors

The example in the movies below involves the bootleg reinforcer of odor. It is a little uncommon as an indoor bootleg reinforcer, but very common outdoors on leash walks. If you are walking your dog and she succeeds in dragging you over so she can sniff an interesting smell, what has happened? Just as surely as if someone had given her a treat, she has just received positive reinforcement for pulling on leash. Access to odor is a great reinforcer for most dogs, and it’s a hard one to control. Heck, half the time we don’t even know the odor is there! Odor is a classic bootleg reinforcer for dogs outdoors, but I’m here to tell you it can be potent indoors as well.

Clara, my formerly feral dog, is extremely curious. Except regarding those pesky things called humans, she is extremely neophilic, that is, 1)An astute reader pointed out that “neophilic” is a label, and using labels to describe animals is not best practice. Using a label is the opposite of actually describing behavior, and encourages mental shortcuts that impoverish our observation and hence our understanding of the animal. Also, since we all likely have different ideas of the behaviors that “fit” under the label, using one leads to the author’s point being lost or undermined. Since I did go on to describe Clara’s behavior, I’m deleting the label.  she is fascinated with and drawn to investigate anything new. She notices when I wear new shoes or clothes. She loves to explore. She strives to check out anything new that I bring into the house, and I mean anything. Her primary way of checking things out is by sniffing.

Clara sniffing

Copping a drive-by sniff

So here’s where the problem with that comes in. I have written about my dogs’ mat behavior at the back door previously in What’s an Antecedent Arrangement? Recently I had a little struggle with that again. In some situations, even though I had been well reinforced for it many times, Clara would not get on her mat, but would wander up and start to sniff me all over. Because I was standing by the door, I had nowhere to go and she could get a sniff before I could do anything about it. (I suspect another common characteristic of bootleg reinforcement is how frustrating it can be to witness!)

I realized that this behavior would be a great one to show to explain bootleg reinforcement, and that I could also share how I addressed the behavior problem it created.

The Movies

Below are the two movies I made to illustrate bootleg reinforcement. Part 1 is about the definition of the term and has a short example. Part 2 shows the application and results of a behavioral intervention to prevent the bootleg reinforcement in the given example. That intervention may be completely unexpected one for many of you.

I have written quite a bit about Dr. Susan Friedman and the Humane Hierarchy before (see an image of the Humane Hierarchy here).  I think the interesting end of the Hierarchy is the “most humane” end; the end that lists behavioral interventions that are less intrusive to the animal than positive reinforcement.

I can honestly say that had I not been introduced to the Humane Hierarchy and antecedent arrangements, I would not have known to take this step that ended up being an incredible win/win for me and for Clara. When it first worked out and I saw the video, I got tears in my eyes.

The standard advice for a competing reinforcer situation, such as the choice to “get on the mat for a cookie” vs. “take a sniff and get some novel odor,” would be to raise the value of the reinforcement for the desired behavior, and start over and practice in easier situations. Positive reinforcement trainers, especially relatively inexperienced ones like me, get in that situation all the time. Oops, we didn’t reinforce richly enough. Need to start over. And it generally works. We don’t think of positive reinforcement as a particularly intrusive solution, but often we do it as a substitute for the animal’s first choice of behavior. And the desire for that behavior has no reason to fade.

So–what if we could make the competing reinforcer non-competing? What if we could make the bootleg reinforcer legal? This won’t work with behaviors that are never acceptable, like eating cat poop or knocking over toddlers, but sniffing? Why not try it?

When addressing a problem behavior, Dr. Friedman suggests exploring ways that the animal can have what it wants when possible. Following that lead, and examining the Humane Hierarchy, I took the step of making the bootleg reinforcer legal after all. And as Dr. Friedman describes it, Clara ended up getting super-sized reinforcement. Clara was then happily able to perform the behavior that I needed in order for our lives to go smoothly.

If I had followed the standard advice, even though it involved positive reinforcement training, Clara would have had less enrichment in her life and fewer choices. Thank you once again, Dr. Friedman!

Link to Bootleg Reinforcement Movie Part 1.

 

Link to Bootleg Reinforcement Movie Part 2.

I bet there are some great examples of bootleg reinforcement out there. Care to share?

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Addendum: History of the Term “Bootleg”

Illegally manufactured or sold alcohol. From Online Etymology Dictionary:

bootleg (n.) Look up bootleg at Dictionary.com“leg of a boot,” 1630s, from boot (n.1) + leg (n.). As an adjective in reference to illegal liquor, 1889, American English slang, from the trick of concealing a flask of liquor down the leg of a high boot. Before that the bootleg was the place to secret (sic) knives and pistols.

Bootleg items

Bootleg items courtesy of the Cleveland Police Museum, via Wikimedia Commons (click photo for license)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

© Eileen Anderson 2015                                                                                                                               eileenanddogs.com

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Notes   [ + ]

1. An astute reader pointed out that “neophilic” is a label, and using labels to describe animals is not best practice. Using a label is the opposite of actually describing behavior, and encourages mental shortcuts that impoverish our observation and hence our understanding of the animal. Also, since we all likely have different ideas of the behaviors that “fit” under the label, using one leads to the author’s point being lost or undermined. Since I did go on to describe Clara’s behavior, I’m deleting the label.
Posted in Behavior analysis, Dog training hints, Reinforcement | Tagged , , | 48 Comments

Release Me!

Three dogs waitingHey! It turns out I have some bragging rights I haven’t collected on. So here goes.

Back in Spring 2013, I wrote two posts about practical issues with multiple dogs that were both quite popular.

A Secret for Training Two Dogs delineated a trick I learned about how to train one dog to wait quietly, unconfined, while another is actively trained.

The Right Word: Reducing Errors in Verbal Cue Discrimination is related to the first, in that it described how I taught my dogs their unique cues for individual releases. If you train more than one dog, and they are waiting quietly as mentioned above, you need to be able to tell one that it is her turn, right? And the others need to ignore that cue and wait for their own. I taught the individual release cues following the guidelines of errorless learning (which I refer to as reduced error learning, following the terminology lead of Dr. Susan Friedman).

Both of the above posts had movies attached with real life training.

At the end of the movie about teaching individual release cues, I was still working with the dogs one at a time, but I promised to show more as we improved. By this time,  almost two years later, I use these cues virtually every day.

It seems that stays, boundary training, and releases are trendy “show-off” exercises right now. So I’m going to show off a little, but I also want to direct people to the idea of using positive reinforcement to train these very useful behaviors.

As it happened, I taught the releases with almost pure positive reinforcement. There was a tiny bit of extinction, for when the dogs made wrong guesses, but I minimized that as well.

In today’s video I am showing the end behavior as I use it in my house. If you want to see how I trained it, click on the blog names above.

Link to the video for email subscribers.

Link to my YouTube playlist: Helpful Behaviors for Households with Multiple Dogs

I would love to see a proliferation of positive reinforcement based videos of individual releases and boundary training with happy dogs. Anybody else up for it?

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© Eileen Anderson 2015                                                                                                                               eileenanddogs.com

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Please Go Away: Dog Body Language Study

They really do get along! Honest!

They really do get along! Honest!

One of the things I am very grateful for in my life with dogs is that my current three get along. They don’t adore each other, but two of them, Clara and Zani, actually play together and are comfortable in each other’s space bubbles. Zani helped “bring up” Clara, even though Clara got pretty obnoxious pretty fast as a pup. And both of them manage to get along with Summer, who would really prefer to be the only dog in the world. Or at least the only female. But thank goodness they don’t hate each other.

I’ve written before that Summer is bothered by rowdy play and used to go on the attack when she thought Zani and Clara were being a bit too chaotic. I taught Summer something else to do rather than charge in snarling and snapping. I’ve shown some other clips and stills of Summer and Clara in particular vying over resources, but doing it without physical contact or a fight.

But before I ever had Clara, during Zani’s first several months in the household, Summer and Zani played almost constantly. So Summer does know how to play. I’ve always kept a close eye when she did, since her play often has a little edge to it.

Nowadays, every once in a while Summer seems to invite the others to play, or something. Usually she play-bows to Zani, then follows it up very quickly with an attempt to hump her. Often Zani will come leap in my lap when Summer tries that. Sometimes Clara gets between Summer and Zani. Typically, Clara and Zani both get visibly anxious when Summer initiates…whatever it is she initiates.

The Movie

In today’s movie, it didn’t play out quite like that, but I think it’s very interesting. Summer appeared to invite the others to play, and they weren’t having any of it. Zani wasn’t nervous enough to flee, and instead was quite assertive. Clara was her usual blunt self. But even though the other two ganged up on her, Summer remained remarkably calm and unbothered.

The most interesting thing to me was Zani’s extensive nosing of Summer’s ear and mouth, followed by Clara doing something similar. Some people who have seen the movie have speculated that Summer might have something medically wrong that the others were picking up on. But I can say with near certainty that the nosing was not curiosity of any sort (and that there’s nothing wrong with Summer’s mouth or ears). Zani’s automatic, normal response to either of the other dogs coming to get attention from me is to stick her nose persistently into private places–butts, ears, or mouths usually. She can almost always get Summer to move away by doing that. And if you look at Clara’s behavior carefully, she is doing a whole lot more poking with her nose than sniffing.

It’s easy to feel bad for Summer watching this. The other two are so obviously telling her to get lost. But my read on it was that Summer was relaxed about the whole thing. Her initial invitations were, for her, loose and friendly looking. During the whole of the intrusive nosing, she stood there wagging her tail (a nice wag–slow and wide, at three quarters-mast). She had fleeting looks of concern, but mostly her mouth was loose and to me she looked quite pleased with herself. Also–Clara left the scene first. (Clara and Summer headed for two different water bowls for a drink at the end.) I score it Summer: 1; Clara and Zani: 0. Nice try, girls!

Link to the video for email subscribers.

A Note on Behavioral Function

Performing behavior analysis in situations other than training helps me understand things better. Perhaps it does for some of you, too. So I’ll bolster my hypothesis with a tiny bit of it.

The reason I think that Zani’s sniffing/nosing behavior was saying, “Go away” to Summer, is that I have seen it perform that function dozens of times. The usual behavior analysis goes like this:

  • Setting: Summer is standing near me and I am petting her and/or talking to her; Zani is close by
  • Antecedent: Zani sticks her nose in Summer’s butt or ear and presses it there for a duration of time
  • Behavior: Summer moves away
  • Consequence: Pressure from Zani’s nose is escaped
  • Prediction: Summer’s moving away when Zani’s nose is pressed into her will increase or maintain.

This is a negative reinforcement scenario. My dogs are all experts on using pressure on each other (and on me). But the interesting thing is that the prediction didn’t come true.

This time, Summer didn’t move away, even when Clara joined in with the pressure as well. So I’ll have to keep an eye on the behavior patterns in the future. Was this a rare aberration for Summer? Or is she getting desensitized to Zani’s nosiness? And if so, will Zani develop a new tactic? Zani is an expert communicator, and as the smallest dog in the household develops some interesting ways to get what she wants. I’ll report back if something interesting comes of this.

Clara and Zani on day bed

Clara and Zani are comfortable in each other’s space. Summer, not so much.

Do you have a dog who does something non-violent (but obnoxious) to get another dog to move away?

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Coping with In-Home Construction with Dogs

Summer with HammerLife intervenes in our most careful, gradual training programs sometimes. I’ve got a dog that was born feral and a recovering reactive dog, both of whom I work with on their issues, including that I take regular lessons from a very talented trainer. Clara, the formerly feral dog, has made great strides in her ability to be comfortable around humans other than those on her very short list. She was still a wild puppy through almost all of her socialization window. I have done lots of DS/CC as well as positive reinforcement-based training with her over the last three years, and she now does well in many environments that would be challenging for almost any dog. And my mildly reactive dog Summer has been making great progress lately, mostly with an operant approach. But Clara in particular has very little experience with strangers in the house.

Ready or not, though, I couldn’t put it off any longer. I needed some work done on my house that would necessitate the long-term presence of workmen.

Usually when I have someone working in the house for an hour or two, I stash all the dogs in the bedroom with stuffed food toys in their crates. I turn up some loud music to mask some of the sound and we get through it. They do fine for a few hours.

However, this time the workers needed access to almost the whole house, including our major hangouts. And the project was days, not hours.

How We Coped

First, Summer and Zani got to go on a field trip every day. They went to work with our dear friend. They thought it was great. They got in the swing of things by the second or third day and were very cute when I would take them out front to wait for their “ride.” They were so excited when our friend pulled up.

Clara and I took up residence in the study, a small bedroom that was one of the few places the workmen didn’t need access to. This room was completely familiar to her, and a place where she would typically snooze while I worked at the computer.1)It’s not a great idea to go hang out in an uncomfortable or unfamiliar place when you are already interrupting your dog’s routine. Going to the special room can become the predictor that scary stuff is going to happen. If you must use a new place, then it’s good to practice a few days before the actual event and mix things up a bit. We had a door we could close, but the room was right on the hall that the men had to walk up and down all day. I left it open the first few times so Clara could see what was going on (not sure whether that was a good idea, but she did great), then closed it for the rest of the time. I kept Clara on a harness, dragging a leash, because I am a worrywart about the possibility of doors and gates being left open when there are people coming and going.

I made a couple of really good frozen Kongs for Clara every day. I included high value stuff like some bits of chicken in each one. The men were there way too long each day for Clara to be able to eat the whole time, but I would give her a Kong when they first got here, and then another sometime in the afternoon when things were busiest. I used dog food roll for treats in the interim, and some spray cheese when things got tough. I cut down her other meals accordingly, but she always got a decent breakfast. No point in facing a stressful situation on an empty stomach!

Luckily, Clara is not sound phobic. Nobody likes booms, sawing, or machinery noises, but beyond the startle/annoyance factor, she doesn’t mind them much. It is all about the strange people for her. So her main triggers were the human noises: hearing the guys talk to each other or to me, or hearing them come in the door or walk around, especially right by us down the hall.

Oh yeah, and she wasn’t really fond of it when an electrician had to go in the attic and was obviously walking on the beams right above us. She looked at me like, “You have got to be kidding me!!”

Here is a printable list of our coping strategies: Helping Dogs Cope with Construction

Clara asleep during construction

Clara asleep during construction

The Order of Events

Even though it meant that I might get a small barking outburst from her, every day I made sure Clara saw and/or heard the guys coming in before we went into our room and she got her Kong. I wanted to make sure that the prediction went the right direction. Guys coming in the house should predict a great treat. I didn’t want being given a Kong to predict that something scary was about to happen.

After a couple of days Clara learned the sound of one guy’s truck, and would run to the door, ready to bark, when he got there. Instead I would lead her straight into our hideout, and once inside she would turn to me for her Kong.

Throughout the day, whenever there was a triggering event, be it a man’s shout, a door slam, or a startling noise, I generally gave her a treat. I say generally because I had to limit it somewhat. It was just too long a time to be completely consistent, or even Clara would have gotten sick from all the food. So even as she was generalizing, looking to me for treats with every sound, I had to deliver them less frequently. I did my best to save the good stuff for the more dramatic moments, like the predictable time at the end of the day when the last workman would come knock on the study door and give me an update.

One other thing I was careful about–I tend to get hypervigilant when I am expecting visitors. I look out the window at every little sound; I go look out the door, etc. I do this whether I am expecting my favorite people in the world or someone I would rather not see. I just get very anticipatory. I actively fought this behavior on my part this week because I did not want my peering out the window and door to become a predictor for the dogs of invasion by workmen. So I was purposely less vigilant and more discreet when I did take a peek.  I’m pretty sure I prevented that particular connection from being made.

Counterconditioning without Desensitization–                                 No Wait, it’s Management

Following triggers with treats is classical conditioning or counterconditioning–if one can be consistent, if one’s timing is good, and if the dog is in shape to take the treats. But I have to say that because of the long periods of time involved and my lack of control of the process, this wasn’t a training situation, it was management. There were simply too many events every day. My goal was to keep from hold our own and prevent backsliding, and I achieved that.

And there was zero desensitization involved. When we have control over triggers, we can start them at a non-aversive level and gradually increase the proximity or amplitude of the trigger when the animal is ready. (If you add a goodie after each exposure you get the magic combination of desensitization and counterconditioning.) But most real-life situations don’t work like that. I don’t have the means or the time to hire a guy to come impersonate a workman for a month, first just driving up to my house, then walking to my front door, then coming in, then talking to me, then making gradually more noise, etc. All of that would have to be carefully coordinated so as not to be an aversive exposure, include only a limited number of reps per day, and require exquisite timing on my part. Ain’t happening.

So at best, we had management and a bit of counterconditioning. Clara did learn that having workmen in the house predicted Kongs and spray cheese, so I guess I can say that we did build a classical association!

Summer

Summer offering eye contact again

Summer continues to do really well with her triggers and did fantastic the couple of times she had to be around the construction. One day the workmen stayed late and she “came home from work” about an hour before they left. All three dogs came in the study with me, and Summer did phenomenally well, not reacting to the workman talking on his cell phone, whistling, or walking up and down the hall. You’ll see in the video–she looks quite relaxed. (As opposed to Clara, who is looking pretty worn out–it was her seventh hour of commotion, as opposed to Summer’s first!)

Getting the Connection

You can see in the video at least one Positive Conditioned Emotional Response (CER+), where Clara’s tail starts to wag after the man walks by us. You can also see a good handful of “expectant” responses from both Clara and Summer when they hear something. No tail wags or obvious drooling, but the “where’s my treat?” look. This is not all the way to a complete CER+, but think how much nicer it is for the dog than barking, lunging, and panicking.

Link to the video for email subscribers

Did I miss any tips? I can always add to my list. Here’s the link one more time:

Helping Dogs Cope with Construction

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© Eileen Anderson 2015                                                                                                                               eileenanddogs.com

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Notes   [ + ]

1. It’s not a great idea to go hang out in an uncomfortable or unfamiliar place when you are already interrupting your dog’s routine. Going to the special room can become the predictor that scary stuff is going to happen. If you must use a new place, then it’s good to practice a few days before the actual event and mix things up a bit.
Posted in Classical conditioning, Differential Reinforcement, Management, Sound sensitivity | Tagged | 7 Comments

Shaping Without a Clicker

no markerMost trainers agree that if there is one thing that the tool called a clicker is useful for in particular, it is for shaping behavior. Shaping consists of marking and reinforcing successive approximations towards a goal behavior. When shaping, the trainer can find herself needing to mark very small or quick movements indeed, sometimes just a weight shift or a breath. When that is the case, the behavior is usually long over by the time one can get food or a toy to the animal.

A clicker or other marker can form a “bridge” between the behavior and the reinforcer, letting the animal know more precisely what behavior we are attempting to reinforce.

The other day I was in a discussion, a common one online, about whether a clicker or a marker word is better for training in general. (Guess what–I have a blog post coming out about that soon!) Someone said that in any case, a clicker was necessary when shaping. I said that it wasn’t. The discussion went a different direction after that, so I decided to demonstrate here what I mean.1)This idea is not original to me. I originally read it years ago on the Yahoo group ClickerSolutions, but I don’t remember the author. I’m sorry that I can’t make a proper attribution.

Everybody who thinks they are about to see three shaping clips with the trainer using some other kind of marker–think again. In these three movies I shape three different dogs to do three different behaviors with no marker at all. No deliberate one anyway.

In two out of the three clips, the dog is working at a slight distance from me, so in that case my motion to throw the treat becomes a marker when they see it. In fact, at one point (in a video not shown here) I did the equivalent of clicking and not treating: I wound up to throw but held back. I saw Summer notice that, bless her heart, but she soldiered right on when she saw that I wasn’t going to throw.

Doubtless the dogs picked up on other behaviors of mine that mean, “Food coming!” But that happens when we use a deliberate marker as well.

Benefits

Why even try such an odd thing?

It’s a learning opportunity, and quite an interesting one. When you take away the marker, what you have left to work with is placement and speed of treat delivery–things that skilled trainer seek to optimize anyway. I would encourage any trainer to try it as an exercise. One of the challenges when working at a distance and throwing treats is whether you can successfully anticipate the animal’s movement and start your throw so that the treat arrives right as she does the behavior. It’s a gamble. Either you wait and the treat arrives late, or don’t wait and risk a “false positive” throw when they didn’t do what you wanted after all. (For instance in Clara’s video, at 2:36 and 2:54, I accidentally reward a weight shift when her paw ends up not moving, well after I should have finished rewarding weight shifts.)

I noticed that I started watching the dogs’ bodies with the intent of predicting when they would make a certain movement. This is a valuable habit for marker training–something I should be doing in any case. But taking away the marker forced me to improve. I learned some things that I think I will retain about how my dogs balance their bodies and how to predict their movements.

If you want to watch only one movie, watch Clara’s. It was the biggest challenge and the most interesting.

Zani’s Task: Nose Target a Piece of Tape on the Wall

This is a known behavior for Zani, and in a known place, but she still had to figure out where to go within our working area, and then to notice and respond to the tape. I deliberately handicapped myself (in addition to not using a marker) by sitting at a distance from the tape.

Link to Zani’s video for email subscribers.

Summer’s Task: Paws Up on a Chair

Again, this is a known behavior. But we have never practiced it without me standing right there, so the distance was new. Also the towel I put on the chair changed the look of the situation. In an earlier session with Zani, not shown here, I had really screwed up my setting factors. I tried to shape Zani into paws up position on the chair, and actually did succeed, but it took a while because of the following drawbacks:

  • The treats (kibble) that I tossed onto the chair bounced off Every. Single. Time.
  • A good portion of the treats that I tossed on the floor rolled under the desk.

So when I tried it with Summer I placed a towel to pad the chair seat a bit and also to block the most direct path under the desk. I also switched to cheese, which is less prone to ricochet. (Lucky Summer!)

I stayed seated until she got the paws up part, but I did jump up at the end to treat Summer in position when she made it up there.

Summer is my crossover dog, but also the most inventive of my three. Be sure to catch her signature shaping move, a kind of sashay while tossing her head. The best one is at 0:59.

Link to Summer’s video for email subscribers.

Clara’s Task: Left Paw Lift

Clara shapingI am really proud of this one. With the other two behaviors shown, a critic could say that just by loading treats over into the area where the target behavior was, I was almost luring the dog  (even though we often do that when shaping with a marker as well). So for Clara, I deliberately picked a behavior I had never trained before that didn’t involve going to a location. This was completely new for Clara, as was the actual behavior, the paw lift (on a side designated ahead of time by me). Also, I’ve never shaped this kind of body movement with her before.

The thing I really like about both shaping and capturing is when the target behavior becomes more frequent and more exaggerated, seemingly even before the dog “knows” what she is doing. You can see Clara’s left paw movement get more frequent and more pronounced starting at about 2:00 in the video. (Yes, and you can see me miss reinforcing some really good ones.) It’s pretty amazing how fast she got it considering that there was a varying time lag between her foot movement and the treat.

Link to Clara’s video for email subscribers.

Clara Makes Choices

You’ll see in Clara’s video that she is slow to get started and also leaves the session twice for a few seconds. There were a couple of reasons for this. When I do nose work in the house with my dogs, I get them to stay out of sight and then release them into the target area. I don’t have a verbal cue for it yet (my bad). So when I released Clara to enter the area, it’s pretty clear she thought that’s what we were doing. It was exacerbated by the fact that I had been using homemade chicken brownies and mozzarella cheese earlier, but I was down to using small kibble at this point. So I don’t blame her for taking a few sniffs around to make sure she wasn’t supposed to be hunting something down.

Do I mind that my dog wandered off in the middle of a session? At first I did–dammit, I was recording! But then I reminded myself that she has that choice. Clara had already had a few sessions and eaten quite a few different types of treats, so the value of the current reinforcement was low, especially considering the difficulty of the task. I have tons of value built with working with me already and she’s normally a very focused worker, so her leaving was not worrisome, as it might have been with a different dog. (Also, the sniffing was clearly with a purpose; Clara was not leaving on account of any stress.)

Often when people talk about giving their dogs choices it centers on the choice to leave something that might be aversive, such as getting their nails trimmed, or seeing one of their triggers. That’s a given for most positive reinforcement based trainers, and my dogs have that choice as much as I can possibly provide it. (Exceptions being things like vet visits, but I strive to make those as non-aversive as possible.)

But in this case, Clara was choosing between two positively reinforcing activities: a shaping session and sniffing around and possibly finding a high value treat. It makes me happy that she and I have such a great relationship that I can give her this choice.

And hey, she came back and NAILED it!

So here’s a challenge if you are interested. If your dog is already shaping-savvy, try shaping without a marker. (If you typically use a clicker or other marker for everything, you might want to experiment with leaving it out while doing something a little easier than shaping at first.) And let us know how it goes. You can even tape your mouth shut. I did for our first sessions!

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© Eileen Anderson 2015                                                                                                                               eileenanddogs.com

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Notes   [ + ]

1. This idea is not original to me. I originally read it years ago on the Yahoo group ClickerSolutions, but I don’t remember the author. I’m sorry that I can’t make a proper attribution.
Posted in Clicker | Tagged , | 11 Comments