“Testing Through” the Levels

The whole post in three words: Don’t do it. Start at the beginning.

I’ve mentioned before that I use Sue Ailsby’s Training Levels as a guide for training my dogs. The Levels comprise an organized method for teaching your dog. The behaviors are designed to build on each other and generalize as part of the process. They are carefully laid out, and the books suggest specific ways to teach each behavior without being doctrinaire about it. The method is great for new trainers, because the trainer builds skills through the process as well.

I am not the best example of a Levels trainer because I frequently dash off-course and train something else, but with each new dog I do use the Levels for my foundation, and they are always going on in the background. Right now all three of my dogs are working some Level 3 behaviors and we are still cleaning up some in Level 2.

I’ve been on the Training Levels Yahoo group since 2008. Just before discovering the Levels, I had been putting together my own prioritized list of behaviors to teach (with competitive agility as a big focus but also plenty of polite pet behaviors). I had been patching together some Susan Garrett and Leslie McDevitt and things from other sources. So when I discovered the Levels, I was in a quandary. I am a dedicated do-it-yourselfer and am constitutionally hesitant to take “someone else’s” structure and follow it. And I wanted something focused specifically on agility. But I also had enough sense to vaguely realize that Sue Ailsby might know a tiny bit more about how to put together a dog training curriculum than I did. (That’s sarcasm. Sue’s credentials are awesome.)

Adopting the Levels

So, after some generous guidance from Lynn Shrove, with whom I struck up an email relationship and who was very generous with her time, I decided to use the Levels for my training structure.

In an email conversation I described to Lynn how I was going through the lists of behaviors in the Levels to see where I should start with my dog, since she already knew a lot of them.

Anyone who is a dedicated Levels trainer is smirking right now.

Here’s how the conversation went.

Eileen: I’ve made a check-off sheet and am going through and testing Summer through the early behaviors in the Levels so I know what Level she is already at and where to start.

Lynn: (politely) You should think about starting at the beginning.

Eileen: But Summer knows that stuff already! She has titles in obedience and agility! She can do a two-minute sit/stay with distractions. She’s good at heeling. She got her Novice obedience title in three straight trials.

Lynn: (politely) Still, I really suggest you start at the beginning. The Levels are about learning how to teach your dog and they all fit together.

Eileen: But I’ve already been training her for two years! I don’t need to backtrack.

Lynn: (patiently) What would it hurt, though, to retrain according to Sue’s methods? You will probably pick up some stuff that you didn’t know was missing.

Eileen: (grudgingly and several days later) OK, I am starting from the beginning.

Lynn: Great! Let me know if you want to share training videos.

Eileen: (a few weeks later) Oh now I know why you told me to start at the beginning. Thank you!

Perhaps I wasn’t that gracious at the end, and perhaps it was more like months, but I’m pretty sure I did tell Lynn that she was right. Because she was.

Zani Demos a Level 1 Sit

Zani Demos a Level 1 Sit

Why to Start at the Beginning

Most humans hate to backtrack, or do anything that even feels like backtracking. Also, we are usually proud to have taught our dogs anything. Finally, we are impatient. We want to get to the new, fun stuff. So it’s perfectly natural that we should see a list of behaviors, think, “Oh great, my dog already knows some of those,” and decide to start somewhere in the middle, determining what she already knows by a quick test.

Here are some of the reasons why that is a really bad idea with the Training Levels.

  1. The Levels emphasize generalization. In many obedience schools, and just by natural inclination, we teach our dogs to do a behavior in one environment and do it the same each time. If my dog can sit in the kitchen when I am holding her food bowl in my hand (facing north), I may figure she “knows sit.” Or if she can sit in a line of dogs for one minute in an obedience ring (admittedly a challenge), I figure she can “do a sit stay.” Notice that in the conversation above I defended my dog’s knowledge of behaviors by citing her titles. This is very common when coming from that training background, but in truth, being able to perform a series of behaviors in an obedience ring has little or nothing to do with being able to do them in “real life.” Different skills entirely. My dog didn’t really “know” a sit-stay. All one has to do to test this claim is to put the dog or oneself in an odd or different position or with new distractions and ask for the same thing. I did this later. I have a series of movies about this in the blog post: Dogs Notice Everything. Check it out. When you start the Levels from the beginning, generalizing becomes second nature, and that’s a good thing.
  2. If you are new to clicker or marker training, you need to practice on the easier stuff more than your dog does! And Sue gives explicit instructions about this.
  3. Behaviors taught with aversives, even mild ones like pushing the dog’s butt down into a sit, are **not the same** as those same behaviors taught with positive reinforcement. They carry with them a burden of pressure and even fear. The Levels are taught with joy. And yes, behaviors taught that way can become reliable (the Levels are great at that too). If you have used aversives, or trained the behaviors “for praise,” or “without treats,” you especially need to start over. You may even need to change your cue words, since they probably have baggage from the “old way.” I changed the phrase I used for “leave it” because I originally taught it by saying “leave it” and pulling (honestly, jerking) my dog away from a treat on the floor, without any clue ahead of time what I wanted her to do. And here’s a whole post about a cue I changed much later in my dog’s life when I finally came to see the baggage it carried: “Replacing a Poisoned Cue.”
  4. Sue knows more than you do. In short, the problem is that you don’t know what it is that you don’t know. I can’t tell you what that is. But I can practically guarantee that unless you are a professional trainer yourself, there is something in those early instructions that will be a revelation to you. Probably a lot of “somethings.”

Real Life Example of Levels Generalization

Here is a movie I made back in 2010 of my then new dog Zani sitting on cue in the 15 different situations that Sue suggested in the “old” Training Levels, Level 1. There are plenty of warts in this training including consistently late clicks, but the cool thing is that even so, Zani could and did learn to sit on cue!

 Link to “Zani: Level 1 Sit” for email subscribers.

And remember, that was just Level 1 out of 7 in the old Levels.

Now take a look at the list for Level 1 Sit from the New Levels. The list is a little shorter now, but actually more challenging.

  1. Dog sits with the leash off.
  2. Dog sits in a different part of training room, facing a different way, with the leash off.
  3. Dog sits with a hand signal only.
  4. Dog sits with a hand signal in a different room.
  5. Dog sits with the leash on.
  6. Dog sits with the leash on with you sitting down, if you originally taught it standing up, or vice versa. If you’ve done it both ways already, you can kneel or hang off the edge of your bed.
  7. The dog sits by an open door (an inside door).
  8. The dog sits: during a TV commercial, when you open the oven door, when the doorbell rings, when you’re on the phone, when you’re putting on your coat, when you’re brushing your teeth, while you’re peeling carrots, while you’re putting on her leash and collar.

That’s part of what you miss if you skip Level 1 because your dog “knows sit.”

Oh, and one more thing about “testing.” If you go around testing your dog’s sit in lots of different situations in one morning, that doesn’t give you an accurate picture. Dogs will tend to repeat the last thing they got reinforced for when they are unsure. If you go to 40 different places in your house in sequence and ask for sits, well, you’ll probably get sits. That’s why when testing behaviors, Sue specifies to do it “out of the blue.” Meaning outside the context of a training session and without having recently worked on or asked for the behavior.

So there’s another reason. If you start in the middle, you may not even know how to properly test the behaviors. Take it from this inveterate skipper-arounder. Start at the beginning.

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I’d Like to Thank the Academy

I got wonderful news earlier this week: I was nominated for and won an award from The Academy for Dog Trainers.

The Academy has yearly awards that are mostly in-house, but this year they decided to include a category for work done outside the Academy.

I was awarded the first “The Academy Applauds” award for my work here on eileenanddogs.com.

I am so honored.  Thank you, thank you, and thank you again!

Below is the letter from the Academy. I have also put a permanent graphic in the sidebar of the blog. And I’ll include a photo of my “statue” when I get it!

Academy award

Back Atcha

Thank you to the following:

  • Jean Donaldson and the students of the Academy (not just for this award, but for the work you do and what you stand for)
  • All blog readers
  • All blog commenters
  • Everyone who has shared a post
  • Everyone who has subscribed to the blog or Liked the Facebook page
  • Everyone who has provided a graphic or photo
  • Everyone who has made a video for me
  • Everyone who has pointed out little errors
  • Everyone who has pointed out big errors, privately or publicly
  • Everyone who has helped me with drafts of blogs and movies
  • The serious learning theory mavens–at all levels–who help me tackle the hard questions
  • Folks who have given me an idea for a blog, whether they knew it or not
  • Folks who have said, “Attagirl!”
  • Folks who have disagreed constructively
  • People who translated a post into another language or subtitled a movie
  • Pet owners who have decided to venture forth and take those first few steps with a clicker and treats
  • Pet owners who have realized they needed in-person help and hired a positive reinforcement based trainer or vet behaviorist
  • My training “other half,” who seems to think everything I think
  • All you pro trainers out there on the front lines
  • People who provide and manage quality, free Internet resources and keep their eyes on the prize: helping dogs and their owners over all else
  • The Pet Professional Guild
  • My friends and family
  • And of course…..my dogs!

This recognition is some of the best R+ ever. I’ll prove it by writing more!

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I have received one other “official” recognition previously: a post of mine was featured on WordPress’ “Freshly Pressed.” This was “But We Don’t Give Our Kids a Cookie Every Time They Tie Their Shoes!”

If you want to read my reasons for blogging, check out this “interview”: “2013 Pet Blogger Challenge.”

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Eileenanddogs on YouTube 

P.S. Thank you!

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What Dog Training Really Taught Me

Have you ever had an epiphany? Wherein all of a sudden some information you had been turning over and over in your mind fell into place and created an entire new picture? It has happened to me a handful of times in my life, and in each case the result was that I changed some basic beliefs.

Trainers who have switched to positive-reinforcement based training from more aversive-inclusive methods often refer to that process as “crossing over.” I have written about crossing over in many bits and pieces over the years,  plus in a couple of longer articles (I’ve linked them the bottom of this post).

For me, crossing over brought an epiphany. I have always wanted to explain it and to share it far and wide. The other day I had a realization that just might help me explain it better. You could almost say I had an epiphany about my epiphany!

A Changed Outlook

The epiphany I had when crossing over to positive reinforcement-based training was about far more than training. It changed my outlook on life. It was like a bunch of  building blocks got knocked down, then magically fell into place into a new and better pattern.

The epiphany was about learning. Not only about how dogs learn, but also about how we all learn. It wasn’t that I was suddenly dedicated to the least invasive methods possible, though I was. It wasn’t some kind of promise never to give a correction again, though I certainly had and have no plans to. It really wasn’t about what kind of trainer I was planning to be.

It was that I suddenly “got” reinforcement. I got that the behaviors I saw my dogs do: desirable and undesirable; cued by me or not; in competition settings, at home, or on a walk: these behaviors were happening because the dogs got something they wanted through doing them. (I would add now that it also could have been because the dogs avoided something undesirable, but that wasn’t part of my epiphany.)

If my dogs were repeating a behavior, I was either reinforcing it, or allowing it to be reinforced.

When my dogs did something I didn’t like, they weren’t challenging my authority. They weren’t giving me the paw. It probably wasn’t “coming out of the blue.” They did it because it worked.

I could suddenly visualize a sort of map of my house with sketches of my dogs (and me!) in different areas, color coded for the frequency of the behaviors. I realized that behavior is a map of reinforcement.

So actually, the epiphany was about the science.

But my very next realization was about ethics. How could it be fair for me to punish a behavior if it was there because it was getting reinforced, or worse, because I myself had reinforced it? And how could I now overlook the fact that inconsistency on my part (read: variable reinforcement) was keeping the unwanted behaviors alive so effectively? This was all on me.

If the dog is doing something because it gets reinforced, doesn’t it make more sense, and isn’t it more fair, to work to remove the reinforcement first, rather than jump into punishment mode? If you jump into punishment without identifying the reinforcers, that means that part of the time the dog gets reinforced, and part of the time she gets punished, for the same thing!  Plus as long as the reinforcement is there, you will never get rid of the behavior unless you are willing to escalate the level of the punishment massively, and perhaps not even then.

The thing about removing reinforcement is that it requires us to change our behavior, sometimes in some big ways. No wonder we resist the idea.

Poster shows a dog stretching out, pulling a leash taut, in order to sniff a fire hydrant. Text says, "All problem behaviors are reinforced. Somewhere...somehow.

Image credit: Yvette Van Veen of Awesome Dogs. Please see full credit and sharing info at the bottom of the post.

One of Many Examples

This reinforcement/punishment combo is very common and easy to fall into, because of ignorance about how learning works, but also because of the unwillingness of humans to change their own behavior even when they might know better. It becomes the norm in many dogs’ lives. Here is but one example.

It is a standard recommendation in traditional obedience training that when your dog pulls out of position and tightens the leash, you give a “correction” in the form of a quick jerk on the leash. This translated to the dog’s collar and from there to the neck. This is a movement that humans quickly get very good at. And even if the dog is wearing a flat nylon or leather collar (i.e., not a prong or choke collar), getting a correction has got to be at least jarring, and probably in many cases painful. The most extreme form could cause injury.

But many say this is necessary. We are told anything from “you need to be the boss” to “that’s the only way the dog will learn what not to do.”

OK, so that’s half of the story. Now forget about the corrections and the rhetoric for a moment and visualize this. You are walking along with your dog on leash.  The dog sees her best buddy and pulls you in that direction. Or you are walking along with your dog and there is evidently something just out of reach that smells wonderful, because your dog changes her course and goes over to smell it, tightening the leash momentarily on the way. Or you have just let your dog out of the car, on leash, and while you get your gear, she is walking the circumference that the leash allows, sniffing around and exploring, and tugging a little when there is something good just out of reach.

Now let’s think how positive reinforcement works. The dog does a behavior, receives something she really likes, and the behavior increases in the future. That means that in the case of each of those three examples, pulling on the leash (the behavior) probably got reinforced (access to the goodies). The dog pulled and got something she wanted. It’s as if she pulled on leash and you handed her a treat. She will likely pull again.

Keep in mind you are also probably having training sessions where you hand her a treat for the opposite behavior: staying by your side. And jerking on her for pulling. Again, the situation for the dog is that the same behavior gets reinforced sometimes and punished sometimes.

Dogs are good discriminators, so they can learn after a while which are the situations in which you are more likely to let them pull vs. when they will get the collar pop. This is one reason you will see plenty of dogs trained in competitive obedience who drag their owners to the training building (and again I will confess that I have been in this group).

But it’s just not fair. So many dogs live in this chaotic and ever-changing combination of punishment and reinforcement, yet we are encouraged to believe that the problems that arise are because we haven’t “taught them their place.”

Are We Just Robots, Then?

There are still a good many people who have a gut-level rejection of behaviorism, even when applied to animals. When presented with my epiphany, or particularly my vision of the “map of reinforcement,” some may have a negative response. It’s reductionist, they might say. It seems to represent our animals and ourselves as little machines, we don’t live in Skinner boxes, its too specific or not specific enough, it leaves out emotions, not everything fits in “quadrants,” ad infinitum.

For what it’s worth, everything I have learned in my very beginner-level studies of behavior analysis has showed me what amazing creatures our dogs are, what amazing creatures we are, and how varied and subtle the processes of learning can be. How do we interact with our environment? What effects do environmental stimuli have on us? It’s more like a wonderful, fractal dance than the cold, clinical image many people still have in their minds.

(Besides, it’s the new, sexy field of neuroscience that is presenting evidence that humans may not have free will, not the applied behaviorists!)

The tiny bit of the great field of behavior analysis that I have learned has taught me how to enhance my dogs’ happiness and fun in the world, and taught me to at least start to play fair.

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Anybody feel like sharing a story about behaviors that you have (or have been tempted to) both reinforce and punish? Or any behaviors that continue even though you can’t figure out what the reinforcer is?

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Thank you Yvette Van Veen of Awesome Dogs for the graphic. It is an Awesome Dogs Shareable! It may be shared following these guidelines.

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  • What if you are reinforcing and punishing the same behavior by your dog?
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How to Make Extinction Not Stink

[In operant learning], extinction means withholding the consequences that reinforce a behavior.  –Paul Chance, Learning and Behavior, Fifth Edition, 2003

Extinction not stink

This post is Part 2 (a year later!) of But Isn’t it Punishment to Withhold the Treat?

In that post I discussed the common error of arguing that withholding a treat from a dog in a training session (or other time) comprises punishment. On the contrary, when nothing is contingently added or taken away but behavior decreases, the process at work is extinction, not punishment.

But that is not to say that extinction is automatically better. In Dr. Susan Friedman’s Humane Hierarchy for behavioral intervention (see graphic below), extinction by itself is at the same level as negative punishment and negative reinforcement. They are roughly at the same level of (un)desirability, and the level of unpleasantness of any particular technique would depend on the circumstance and individual animal. Dr. Friedman makes a point to say that these three are not ranked in any particular order of overall undesirability.

Extinction is often overlooked when considering or analyzing methods. People often mix it up with negative punishment. It’s a bit of an oddball learning process since it applies to both operant learning and respondent conditioning. In operant learning it is sometimes jokingly called the “fifth quadrant.” The important thing to me is that its unpleasant effects can vary wildly, from practically nil to complete misery.

Dr. Susan Friedman's Humane Hierarchy: From bottom to top: Health, Nutrition, and Physical Setting; Antecedent Arrangements; Positive Reinforcement; Differential Reinforcement of Alternative Behaviors; Extinction, Negative Reinforcement and Negative Punishment; Positive Punishment.

Dr. Susan Friedman’s Humane Hierarchy

Extinction can be very, very frustrating. Here you are with these behaviors that you have been performing for such a long time that they are habitual, and all of a sudden they don’t work anymore! But there are ways to use extinction in combination with other processes to make it much less hard on the learner. And in fact, if we look at the Humane Hierarchy a little more closely we will see that extinction is actually lurking in another of the levels, partnering with something much nicer.

Let’s explore this by way of a thought experiment.

keysExtinction Scenario #1. You get your car out of the shop after a tune-up. You buy a pint of your very favorite ice cream, or other perishable treat. You realize you need one more thing from the store, so you lock the car and go back in. When you come back out, you try to unlock your car with a remote. It doesn’t work! You press the remote again and again. You press it harder. You aim it differently. No go. Then you try unlocking the door with the key. That doesn’t work either! You jiggle and jiggle the key, and try the different doors. Nothing works. You bang on the car doors. You can’t get into the car using the methods that you have always used. You are starting to cuss now. Your ice cream is melting. You finally yell at the car and it opens!

You drive back to the repair shop and ask the guy what the heck he did to your car. He said your car doors now work by voice control. Apparently he thought that sending you off to find that out on your own would be the best way to teach you.

Two questions. 1) Was that learning process fun? 2) What are your feelings towards the mechanic?

That is a description of the process of extinction. A behavior that has previously been reinforced is no longer reinforced. In this case it was actually two behaviors: opening the car with the remote and opening it with the key. Both used to be reinforced by your gaining entry to the car. Both stopped working with no warning. Stinky!

Three characteristics of extinction are the extinction burst, an increased variability of behavior, and aggression. We got all three.  When your normal methods for opening the car door didn’t work, there was a big burst of behavior from you as you tried stuff. You unconsciously started adding variety in how you performed the behaviors. And you started doing everything a little harder and banging on stuff. None of that was fun for you.

Now let’s try a different version of the scenario.

Scenario #2 When you first go to the mechanic, he tells you about a new option to have your car respond to voice commands, including that if you opt for the upgrade, in some cases the old methods will not work. You decide that it sounds good.*  Your mechanic takes 10 minutes to go over the voice commands that you will use with your car, including that you practice unlocking it with your voice.

When you stop off to go to the store and return to your car, if you are like 99% of the human race, that huge reinforcement history for using your remote or keys during your whole driving career kicks in and you initially try to use one of these to open your car. But the practice of the new behavior is fresh in your mind, so as soon as the remote doesn’t work, you remember to give the voice command. Your car unlocks!

But old habits die hard. You will probably be hitting that remote or trying your keys for quite some time, each time you approach your car. The old behaviors will diminish slowly as their reinforcement histories fade into the past and the practice of the new successful behavior overshadows them. However, there will be comparatively little frustration. You are never in the dark about what behavior will actually work. You’ll probably perform the old behavior once, go “oops!” and immediately use your voice without wasting much time.

Not so bad!

What About Dog Training?

Here are the dog training corollaries to Scenario #1 and #2 above.

Let’s say you want to address the following behavior problem: When you get out your dog’s leash, your dog gets excited and runs around getting all aroused, barking and jumping on things.

Scenario #1 You have never trained your dog to do anything, but you’ve had enough of the overexcitement. So you decide you aren’t going out that door until your dog sits calmly for you to put the leash on. So you take your dog into the front room and pick up the leash. Dog runs around. You just stand there. Dog jumps on you and on the furniture. Runs around and barks. This goes on for about 5, maybe 10 minutes. Finally your dog wears out and sits down and looks at you. You take one step towards him, holding the leash out to attach it. He gets all worked up again and you have to wait out another few minutes of excited activity. This happens over and over.

From your dog’s point of view, the rules have changed. All that previous barking and running around have been reinforced by getting to go outside. Many people frankly don’t have the stamina to outwait a dog in this situation, and will finally break down and take the dog out anyway, which worsens the problem (by finally reinforcing the behavior they’ve made it more persistent). If you do succeed and the dog calms down in 20 minutes on that first day, it may take a bit less the next day. But since this is completely new to your dog and you are asking so much of him when he is already wildly excited, it will take a while, and be a frustrating process for him

Cricket sit at attentionScenario #2 You have trained your dog to sit in all sorts of situations and for all sorts of reinforcers. He sits for his supper. He sits to go outside. He sits to greet people. He sits at the agility start line. He can hold a sit stay while you run around and play tug with another dog. So when you decide to teach him to sit calmly to put the leash on, you first practice some sits for treats in a random room of your house. Then you do the same in the room where you keep the leash. Then you pick up the dog’s leash and look at him expectantly. If he starts running around you wait. When he makes contact again you give him the expectant look. He will likely sit pretty soon. Treat!! He may jump up again when you approach him, but he is already learning.

This fits a pattern he is familiar with: sit and something good happens. You can use treats to reinforce those sits in this new situation so he doesn’t have to wait so long for the ultimate reinforcement, going out. You practice in small steps until you can put the dog’s leash on while he sits calmly. Depending on the dog and what you have trained, you may be able to take him straight out the door calmly that first day, or you may practice a few more days just putting the leash on and off before you go out the door.

Defining the Difference

Take a look at Dr. Friedman’s diagram again. See the area just below “Extinction, Negative Reinforcement, and Negative Punishment”? It is called “Differential reinforcement of alternative behaviors.” Guess what? That one corresponds exactly with both of the Scenarios #2 above. Dr. Friedman’s definition is, “Differential reinforcement is any procedure that combines extinction and reinforcement to change the frequency of a target behavior.”

Instead of being gobsmacked by the normal behavior not working anymore, the learners, dog and human, are given a big fat clue about what is going to work to get what they want. That clue is the positive reinforcement of an alternative behavior.

Extinction is part of all differential reinforcement training methods. Those methods are on a more humane rung of the hierarchy because the animal is given immediate opportunities for positive reinforcement. This can be done either by reinforcing successive approximations (shaping), or by separate practice of the desired behavior before it is evoked in the situation where the undesired behavior is likely.

So when someone says to you, “Neener neener neener, you use punishment when you withhold a treat,” say, “No, that’s extinction.” Then if they say, “Neener neener neener, you use extinction and that’s mean,” say “I use it in combination with differential positive reinforcement.” And make sure you do!

Be the mechanic who shows his client ahead of time what is going to work, instead of the one who sends him off with no clue.

* The car thing is a deliberately ridiculous scenario. Obviously, to cause a car’s keys and remote not to work would be horribly dangerous, and hardly anyone would consent to that even if it allowed one access to a new feature like voice commands.

Related Posts and Pages

But Isn’t It Punishment if You Withhold the Treat? (Extinction Part 1)

R+ Misconceptions

I never got to the issue of “ignoring” in these extinction posts. So I guess there is going to be a Part 3.

 

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The Secret to Filling a Food Tube

 

Two Coghlan's food tubes used for dog training. They are clear plastic with black caps and a white clamp at the bottom. The one on the left has a white filling (Neufchatel cheese, milk, and peanut butter) and the one on the right has a brown filling: canned cat food.

Yummy goodness for dogs. Recipes below.

 

A food tube (aka squeeze tube) is a vehicle for delivering soft, tasty food straight into your dog’s mouth. Food tubes are great for general dog training when high value treats are needed.  They are also invaluable for doing desensitization/counterconditioning for dogs with fear issues.

There is a trick for using food tubes successfully, and just as with the non-crumbly treat recipe, I’m going to tell you right up front. I wish someone had told me, because the first time I ever tried a food tube, it didn’t work for us and I didn’t try it again for more than a year.

The secret to good use of a food tube is to get the filling just the right consistency. If it is too solid or dry, like ground up roasted white meat chicken without much moisture, it won’t extrude correctly. Likewise if it’s lumpy. If it’s too liquid-y, like chicken baby food or plain yogurt, it drips out when you are not trying to feed your dog and makes a mess.

So what you do is either buy something that is already the right consistency, or mix and match different filling types to achieve that in a do-it-yourself way.

The rest of the post covers what you can buy and what you can make, and has a few other tips for successful use.

The Easiest Way

Here is the very easiest way to use a food tube for successful high value treat delivery:

  1. Buy a couple of Coghlan’s squeeze tubes from REI or Amazon. (Trainer Randi Rossman recommends these tubes, which are similar but have a larger opening. The discussion in this blog is geared towards the Coghlan tubes since they are what I have used and can make recommendations about.)
  2. Go to a pet food or grocery store and buy a can of pureed style dog or cat food. Or for raw feeders, get finely ground meat.
  3. Put the lid on the tube, turn the tube upside down, and spoon the food in. If there is separate juice in the canned food, save it for something else.
  4. Squeeze the air out, fold over the bottom, and close with the included clamp.
  5. Take off the lid and offer a squirt to your dog when he does something right. You will become a god in his eyes. (And he’ll soon learn how to get the goodness efficiently into his mouth!)

Mixing It Yourself

Zani food tube

Zani loves the white meat chicken & baby food mixture

Again, it’s all about the consistency. In the series of pictures above: the “too thick” one was 8 oz of baked white meat chicken, chopped fine in a food processor. The “too thin” one was 2.5 oz of Gerber chicken baby food straight out of the jar. The Goldilocks version was simply those two things combined in that proportion.

So that gives you the idea. In most cases, if you use 3 – 4 parts of something thick cut with 1 part of something thinner, you’ll probably hit the sweet spot. Here are some suggestions to choose from. Be mindful of the fat content whenever you give your dog rich stuff. Some of these adapt very well to low fat though.

Thick Things 

  • Pureed cooked meat
  • Pureed boiled liver
  • Pureed liverwurst
  • Cream cheese (regular, low fat, or non-fat)
  • Neufchatel cheese
  • Pureed cooked rice or oatmeal
  • Smashed banana
  • Mashed potatoes

Thin Things

  • Low salt broth
  • Yogurt
  • Apple sauce
  • Milk
  • Baby food
  • Pureed veggies (baby food or homemade)

Can Go Either Way

  • Peanut butter
  • Mashed sweet potatoes
  • Canned tripe (but every once in a while there is a piece of…something…that doesn’t want to go through the hole). That stuff is crack for dogs, though.
  • Canned pumpkin
  • Small curd cottage cheese

Thickeners

(These are things you can add to something that is too drippy. See Micha’s filling method below.)

  • Oat or rice flour
  • Guar gum
  • Tapioca flour

Tips

  • Test the mixture at the temperature at which you will be using it. Most will be softer at room temperature, more solid when refrigerated.
  • Test the consistency by taking off the lid and pointing the end down. If filling drips out without squeezing, it’s too thin.
  • Avoid canned foods that say “chunky,” “stew,” “homestyle,” or “flakes.”
  • If canned food is too moist, let it drain in a strainer–Randi Rossman.

Fillings

(Thank you to members of the Facebook Fearful Dogs Group for fillings suggestions and others throughout this post!)

  • Canned dog or cat food: pureed or mousse style. Examples: Wellness 95% canned food; Newman’s Own Organic Dog Food (Debbie Jacobs of Fearfuldogs.com says this one cuts nicely with canned pumpkin); Friskies pâté style canned cat food.
  • Honest Kitchen dehydrated dog food (rehydrated of course!).
  • Food tube heather edgar

    Heather’s dogs are crazy about this liverwurst!

    Heather Edgar of Caninesteins says: “The hands-down favourite of all of my dogs is liverwurst. If you wanted to dilute it down because it’s both high calorie and a bit thick, it could be pureed with a baby food veg or cooked pureed vegetables–the easiest is probably using jarred baby food sweet potato.” 

  • Alex Bliss starts with pureed baby food and adds chicken breast, a tin of sardines, or tuna. She says that low fat soft cheese is also very popular with her dogs as a base for other flavors.
  • You can use pure peanut butter at room temperature, but oh, the calories! You’d better have a big dog or a very special occasion!
  • Ground raw meat for the raw feeders!
  • Deb Manheim CPDT-KA, CDBC of Happy Tails Family Dog Training purees the special diet of one of her dogs: baked North Atlantic cod and rice congee with vegetables. If you home cook for your dog already, this could be a very straightforward solution.
  • Micha Michlewicz starts with a protein or fruit, perhaps some veggies, and then oat or rice flour as a binder. She too mentions that you can blend up your dog’s meals and make a paste for the tube.
  • Dr. Jenny LeMoine suggests boiled chicken breasts, thinned down with the broth, and some yogurt mixed in as an optional treat.
  • The tube on the left in the large photo at the top of the post has: 4 oz Neufchatel cheese, 1/2 oz peanut butter, and 1 oz skim milk. The one on the right has commercial cat food!
Crack for dogs.

Tripe: crack for dogs.

Other Tubes: Commercial or Do It Yourself

I really like the tubes like Coghlan’s with a screw top and clamp because they are so resistant to leaks and mess. I have used the same two tubes in agility for years and used them hard. I throw them ahead of my dogs and have never once had a leak or explosion. That being said, here are some alternatives. Readers, if you know of other tubes, let me know and I’ll add them.

  • PawGear Treat Toob
  • Evriholder Dressing to Go
  • Used mustard or other condiment squeeze container. Denise Donnelly Zomisky has experimented with this: she says you need to play around with the texture of the filling.
  • A sandwich bag, sealed, with a lower corner cut off –suggested by a Fearful Dogs member
  • Re-used toothpaste tube–Anna Jane Grossman explains how in a Huffington Post article
  • Organic baby food in a pouch–a couple of people suggested this!
  • Here’s another food that’s already in a tube: Carly Loveless points out that in Norway you can buy flavored cream cheese in a tube. How cool is that? And bacon sounds like a nice flavor for a homemade version as well.

What do you put in your food tube?

Link to the silly movie for email subscribers.

Related Posts

The Secret to Quick, Non-Crumbly Homemade Dog Treats

How to Give Your Dog a Pill: Several Methods (including with a food tube)

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I Will Teach You What I Want You To Know: Puppy Lesson Six

You are not born with the skills to be successful in my world. It’s up to me to teach you.–Marge Rogers’ pledge to her puppy, Zip

In case you hadn’t noticed, all these “puppy lessons” are lessons for the trainer as much or more than for the puppy. But Lesson Six most of all.  In this lesson, Marge makes a pledge to Zip: She will remember that it is up to her to teach him what he needs to know and how to act in order to be happy in our strange human world.

It’s not a question of “obedience.” It’s more like someone explaining to a dear friend how best to get along in foreign country.

So much of our normal approach to dog training is that of solving “problem behaviors” that bother us (usually after they have gotten established). Nine times out of ten (that’s a made up statistic, but I bet it’s true), the problem behaviors are just regular old “out of the box” dog behaviors that don’t fit well in our human world. You know, chewing stuff up, stealing food, jumping on people, digging holes, barking too much, nipping at fingers. These things aren’t evil. They usually just aren’t convenient for us. But throw in the mythology of dominance, where we are told that dogs are continually challenging our authority, and these natural dog behaviors can cause a dog to lose its home or its life.

What you will see in this movie is the opposite of that. The most important word in the movie is “teach.” Thoughtful, preemptive teaching such as Marge is doing is a win/win for human and dog. Puppy learns a palette of fun, acceptable behaviors via positive reinforcement. He develops skills for even more fun and learning with Marge. He develops good associations to the world through careful exposures. Marge gets a lovely, well behaved dog and Zip gets a big, big world to play in.

Marge promises Zip: "I will do my best to help you be confident and happy."

Marge promises Zip: “I will do my best to help you be confident and happy.”

Marge points out in the movie that puppies are not born with the skills to get along perfectly in the human world. And it’s actually worse than that: they are born with behaviors that are actively troublesome to us. For instance, “See food. Eat food,” as Marge puts it. The counter surfing dog is not challenging our authority. He is doing what comes naturally: scarfing up whatever is available. And once he finds something up there, it will be tough teaching him never to go there again. It will make little sense to his doggie brain. It’s not about authority, it’s about availability. How much better would it be to teach him never to go there in the first place? Never get that first sweet reinforcer for counter or table surfing.

Hence, Marge will teach Zip habits that are incompatible with inappropriate scavenging. Marge used to have much bigger dogs (mastiffs, then ridgebacks) and I was going to tease her and say she finally got a dog who couldn’t reach the counter, but I can hear Sue Ailsby laughing at me. Porties are said to be incorrigible counter dogs. But Marge is a match for that. As you’ll see in the movie, she has her special “magnetic mat” in the kitchen door that has thwarted many a potential food thief.

Whose Benefit?

My favorite part of the movie is when Marge has Zip in her lap for administering eye medication and getting a toenail trim. She prioritized handling (building positive associations with classical conditioning) and has a pup who is all squishy in her lap: relaxed and trusting. She has the benefit of being able to do some tricky husbandry behaviors with a cooperative puppy. But Zip is the big winner here. He doesn’t fear the grooming table, the clippers, the medication bottle, or Marge’s hands, for that matter.

My heart still gets all mooshy when I see people doing training that doesn’t have human preferences as the sole prompt. This whole movie is dedicated to Zip’s welfare every bit as much as Marge’s convenience. The more things our dogs are comfortable with, the more skills our dogs have, the wider their worlds can be.

 

Link to the movie for email subscribers.

Let’s Train!

Marge’s summary to Zip after the six Life Lessons (so far!):

These are my life lessons for you, my sweet puppy. And for me too. Now, let’s train!

Related Posts

Life Lessons for My Puppy (a blog page with all the puppy lessons)

Other Good Stuff

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Marge’s FaceBook business page: Rewarded Behavior Continues

 

 

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See My Successes; See My Failures

I wrote in my first post that one of the things I have to offer the world is a window into my mistakes as a beginner trainer. Last week I posted an update on the smashing success of my feral dog Clara (which I can’t really take credit for; most credit goes to my teacher).

So today I’m going to show you something that didn’t work with one of my other dogs, at least not how I expected it to. I think it may be very helpful to some people, as I made an extremely common error. I don’t enjoy these pictures and videos of my dear little Cricket showing stress signals, but perhaps publishing them can help some other people and their dogs.

Counterconditioning Failed?

This post is for all the people who “tried counterconditioning and it didn’t work.” There are myriad mistakes people make with this procedure, but mine was one of the most common.

When she was about 14, I started giving my little old dog, Cricket, a treat every time just after I picked her up. I did it for the rest of her life. How come she didn’t start liking being picked up? That’s how it works, right?

The concept of desensitization/counterconditioning (DS/CC) is that we pair the scary thing, called the trigger, with something the dog loves, like some meat. That’s the counterconditioning part. Whenever the dog perceives the trigger, out comes the meat. The desensitization part means that we start with a version of the trigger that isn’t scary.  That’s right. The procedure progresses much more quickly if you start with a non-scary presentation. This usually means farther away (sometimes very far) but there are other ways to dilute the intensity of an exposure, depending on what exactly is triggering the dog’s fear.

With a dog who is scared of moving cars, for instance, you could start at a large distance away from the cars. You do the pairing thing when cars come by until your dog not only isn’t bothered by the cars, but starts looking for them because they predict goodies. Then you would do the same thing a little closer. Lather, rinse, repeat. Alternative if the big problem is the movement, you could start a bit closer with one stationary car, and have a helper drive the car, at first very slowly and for very short distances, in similar controlled exposures. The more details you can tease out about the fear, the better you can aim your graduated exposures at the trigger.

The following posts have sample lists of this gradual exposure process that is involved in desensitizing to a scary or unpleasant stimulus:

Are you back? Good. So, counterconditioning can be done without these gradual desensitization exposures but it is less likely to be effective. If you leave out them out, you will likely start at a point where your animal is already bothered by the trigger. Replacing feelings of fear and anxiety with a positive conditioned emotional response can sometimes be done, but it takes a lot more time and may never be effective as when desensitization is involved.

My Case Study

So, to Cricket’s problem with being picked up. Take a look at this picture. I am reaching for her. Her body language shows classic stress. She is leaning back, away from me. Her ears are way back, almost 45 degrees from normal. Her eye is rolling and you can see the white (whale eye). She is doing a huge lip lick. Look at her tight little jaw muscles, too. And she is about to raise her right paw.

Cricket's feelings about being reached for are pretty clear

Cricket’s feelings about being reached for are pretty clear

As I said above, I started giving Cricket a treat immediately after I picked her up, as soon as I had her in my arms. I was extremely consistent about it. Over time, her stress at being picked up abated **somewhat**. But it did not disappear.

Why Didn’t Counterconditioning “Work”?

The problem was that Cricket’s discomfort was not limited to the event of being picked up. You’ll see in the movie that she was visibly upset long before I touched her with my hands. You can see her stress response as I walked towards her and leaned over.  She even appeared to consider punching me with her muzzle when I finally grabbed her.

To properly countercondition a dog to being picked up, we have to use desensitization as well. We need to start with versions of the triggers that are non-aversive, plus we need to make sure we work on every aspect of the situation. If the dog is uncomfortable being approached, having a human stand close, and being leaned over and reached toward, each one of these needs to be treated with DS/CC, And all should start with a version that is not uncomfortable to the dog, that is,  under the threshold of stimulus aversiveness.

Link to the video for email subscribers. 

Oops! But it Worked After All

The title of this post was actually a little tricky. My attempt at counterconditioning Cricket to being picked up didn’t work. She remained uncomfortable with being walked at directly, being leaned over, being reached at, and being picked up as long as she still had her marbles. (In truth, she stopped being bothered by these things when she had advanced dementia, but that was definitely not due to my counterconditioning attempt!)

However, something did get counterconditioned. Once again, the sequence was to walk over to her, lean down, reach out, grab her around the abdomen, and pick her up. Then I would immediately give her a treat. If I was carrying her for a while, I would give her another treat from time to time.

I miss the closeness of my little Cricket

I miss the closeness of my little Cricket

I counterconditioned Cricket to being held. The instant the picking up process was finished, her head would whip around to look for her treat. And she remained quite happy with being held and carried around for the rest of her life.

Full Disclosure

I did realize what the problem was well before Cricket died. I chose not to try DS/CC on the other triggers because by that time, I already had to pick her up and carry her probably a dozen times a day. One of the principles of successful DS/CC is that you do the pairing every time the action is performed; you never perform the action without the treat. Also you work on one action at a time. That simply was not feasible. But I was faithful with her treat after being picked up. Her discomfort abated somewhat, and she was already anticipating her treat when she was in the air, coming up to be held.

It was a lesson learned for me though, and Zani, whom I may need to pick up a lot as she gets older (we are working on it now), will profit from it.  Another lesson for me was start early with all husbandry behaviors!

Whenever we think the science doesn’t work as predicted, examining our own actions and techniques is a great place to start.

Anybody else have any educational failures? Man, dog training is sure like that for me. The dogs are like little maps of all my mistakes!

Related Posts and Resources:

I will be making a movie in the future on the specific topic of counterconditioning a dog to being picked up. In the meantime you can get an idea of the first steps of a handling protocol from this movie of mine, or this movie by Chirag Patel of Domesticated Manners about teaching a dog to wear a muzzle. Neither video is an exact match for how we would start out if teaching a dog to like being picked up, but you can get the idea of starting at the very beginning, rather than lumping all the steps together.

For more resources on desensitization/counterconditioning, see my DS/CC resource page.

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Let Rats Decide

Wait a minute! I thought this was Eileenanddogs! Well, just for today, it is Eileenandrats.

I write a lot about dog body language in this blog.  I discuss letting animals have a say in how and when they are handled and touched. I talk some about how to perceive their answers through observation. And I have shown, in my most popular post of all time, dogs communicating “yes” and “no” about whether they want to be touched. It’s a mini lesson about body language as well as a proposal that we let the dogs decide whether they want to be petted.

So you can imagine I was delighted to come across Gwen Lindsey’s work on rat body language and giving rats the chance to say yes or no to handling or other actions. She discusses the issues on this page, Let Rats Decide When, and has a lovely video on the same topic (embedded below). Gwen is the owner of the website JoinRats.com, a site that is chock full of advice for people who have rats as pets.

Small Animals

Mr. Robin Rat is thinking hard and super curious about the strange photographer and her noisy clicking machine. Staying out in the open is a sign that he is handling the strange situation very well.

Mr. Robin Rat is thinking hard and super curious about the strange photographer and her noisy clicking machine. Staying out in the open is a sign that he is handling the strange situation very well.

In the dog training community, it is still a fairly foreign idea to let dogs have a choice about being handled. They are legally only property, and to some people that seems fine and natural. Others of us don’t think it is fine, but even so, can still carry around the underlying assumption. It can be hard to shake off.

So if it’s that way for dogs, what might people’s attitudes to very small pets be? Not only are most of them much easier to force our will upon, simply because of their small size, but they don’t have the historical partnership with us that dogs do. And I think most people have kind of a rough assumption that any pet smaller than a cat doesn’t have much of a personality, and that we just don’t need to concern ourselves with what they might want.

I hope Gwen’s video can persuade people otherwise. It certainly was a revelation to me, seeing how her rats interacted with her. It’s the same difference that crossover dog trainers start to see in their dogs. I have always loved my dogs, thought they were brilliant, and appreciated their personalities and quirks. But they blossomed after I started to use positive reinforcement and desensitization/counterconditioning to “converse” with them. It added a new dimension to our relationships, and added freedom to their lives in ways that were visible in the smallest elements of their body language. 

I had pet rats in my teens and twenties. I was very fond of them, and good to them.  But at that time no one talked about enrichment or training for small animals. I know that my rats associated me with good things, but I could have built such a better life for them, and had such a better relationship, had I known then what I know now. They could have blossomed. too. Ahh, for do-overs. 

For now I hope some of you out there will enjoy, as I do, the happy, trusting rats in this movie.

 

Link to the video for email subscribers. 

I know there are some folks out there (and rats or other small animals) whose lives will be changed if they see this video. So please feel free to share it, either directly from this URL or by sharing this blog.

Gwen has tons of great information on pet rats on her website but is also revamping a lot of things right now. Another really nice page of hers for rat owners who are new to training their rats or enriching their lives is Using Positive Reinforcement to Help Rats Trust.

I bet some of you have a lot of questions. Gwen can be reached by email here, and will also answer questions in the comments section below.

I am hoping to find some rattie lovers out there among my readers!  

Coming Up:

  • The Girl with the Paper Hat Part 2: The Matching Law
  • Did it Work? Cognitive Fallacies when Assigning Causation
  • How Skilled are You at Ignoring? Extinction Part 2
  • Why Counterconditioning Didn’t “Work”

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  • What does it look like when a rat says, "I don't wanna!"
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Socializing a Formerly Feral Dog

tan puppy on a brick walk. She is leaning back and down, and her tail is tucked and her ears are back

Clara the Wild Puppy

When I started this blog, I assumed that I would write a lot about Clara’s training. Clara burst into my life as a 10 week old feral puppy [see note at bottom about feral dogs], and her socialization window was in the process of closing by the time she came to me.

I slipped in that window before it shut and was fully accepted and trusted. But she growled at all other humans, even at that young age. In general, she related to them as a wild animal would, with huge wariness of any movement on their part and no tolerance for their proximity.

I have been working with a wonderful trainer and friend, Lisa, since those early days, playing catch-up on Clara’s socialization.

Contrary to my assumption about the blog, though, I have actually written very little about what we have done, and I have taken almost no videos of that work.

Tan dog with a black muzzle and tail wearing a pink harness. She is lying down and looking up at her handler with a pleased look and relaxed open mouth. Her tail is wagging, clearly even in the still.

Clara on the sidewalk at the mall

Our sessions took all of my awareness to do the job well. Because Clara’s socialization window had closed, we used the technique of desensitization and counterconditioning to address her fears and change her emotional response to humans to a positive one.

This is a tall order with a a dog with a lot of the habits of a wild animal.  Both my trainer and I had to be very vigilant to always keep Clara in the zone where she was happy and comfortable, but getting graduated exposure to humans and our world. This was new to me and difficult. The careful work demanded that we protect her from sudden environmental changes and overly interested humans. It took an immense amount of concentration, and I was often exhausted afterwards. Wielding a camera would have been out of the question.

Not to mention that even with all that effort going into it, video of the actual socialization would generally have been completely undramatic. When things went as they should,  it just looked like a dog hanging out or strolling around, seeing people from various distances, and getting a lot of food. That is what desensitization and counterconditioning look like when the dog is under the threshold of stimulus aversiveness. The dog can perceive the trigger (the potentially scary thing, in this case, a human) but at a distance or a presentation that in some other way is diluted such that it isn’t scary.

If the dog is over the threshold of stimulus aversiveness, she will likely look and act uptight in various ways. And if she approaches her threshold for reactive behavior, her fear will become obvious. Our goal was generally to keep her below both of these thresholds, in a space where she was happy and comfortable.

I do so wish that I had video documentation of how far we’ve come. What with all the videos I have shown with her looking like a normal dog in her interactions with me, I know that you readers out there have a very incomplete picture of Clara.

So I dug up some photos. I have never, ever deliberately set Clara up to react, but I do have this set of video stills from the one time ever she was badly scared in my home. Sorry they are mostly blurry. She was on the move.

There, she looks a little more “wild” in those photos, doesn’t she? I’m rather proud that I don’t have any more accidental footage of her reacting, because those reactions were hair-trigger and very easy to provoke. But one of our goals was to keep them from happening and we did very well. Credit goes to my teacher for that.

The Steps To Get There

Here are some of the many gradual steps it took to get Clara to her current comfort level, both outdoors at the shopping center, and inside one store with some kind help from friends.

Many people reported that my post that delineated a desensitization/counterconditioning plan of graduated exposure to crawdads was very helpful to them in understanding the exposure process in DS/CC. You can look at the following lists as a typical “dog version” of such a list. Humans were Clara’s crawdads (actually quite a bit worse than crawdads are for me)!

Note: These lists are descriptive, not prescriptive. Every dog and situation is going to call for different actions.

List of Graduated Activities Out and About At the Shopping Center

  • We walked around the parking lot on the periphery of the shopping center. Clara got very high value treats (canned salmon dog food in a tube) at the sight of any human.
  • Clara practiced relaxing on a mat in the parking lot.
  • We ventured into the ends and quiet areas of the (outdoor) mall. Clara’s comfortable distance from humans was about 60 feet at the beginning. Farther if they were in groups or included strollers, wheelchairs, children, or people clothed in an out of the ordinary manner. It was a big deal if she had 5 or 6 sightings in an hour.
  • We sat on a bench in a quiet courtyard playing open bar/closed bar (DS/CC).
  • We worked all of these activities very VERY gradually to closer proximity to humans.
  • Simultaneously we started training some operant behaviors when she was well within her comfort zone. Rather than looking at strangers, looking at me, looking at strangers, looking at me, we taught her to take a look, then give me some more extended eye contact. Not forever, but enough duration to prevent the back and forth thing. Later we added a default down. For about a year, this was her go-to behavior when she saw humans. (It’s hardly necessary anymore.)
  • We started hanging out in busier parts of the shopping center, for instance sitting on a bench outside the enclosed area of an outdoor restaurant watching the people (fenced in people!).
  • We practiced passing people on the sidewalk (still doing classical conditioning).
  • We faded the classical conditioning as she chose other activities she enjoyed, such as sniffing after a person had walked by or exploring.

We also worked on an explicit relax behavior for when there was little going on, for which I reinforced her for putting her head down and relaxing in other ways.

List of Graduated Activities at the Gourmet Dog Treat Store

We also spent time during most sessions working on going into a particular store. This work was going on simultaneously to the outdoor work. Clara and I would first wait about 50 feet away while our trainer went to the store to determine whether the “coast was clear.” We were in a place where we could retreat another 50 feet if I saw that the situation might get too intense. Then we embarked on the following steps.

  • Going to the front door of a dog treat store when there were no people nearby (none!) and getting a cupcake that the owner had placed outside the door for her
  • Standing a little ways back from the front door as the owner put the cupcake out
  • Standing at the front door of the store as the owner put the cupcake out
  • Taking the cupcake from the hand of the store owner as she stuck it out the door (Note: being fed by strangers is not a necessary or recommended step for many dogs, and especially not too early in the process.)
  • Coming into the front of the store for the cupcake, then leaving
  • Coming farther into the store. Getting a cupcake and also exploring.
  • Starting to get cupcakes cut up in pieces (for more iterations and more extended contact), from someone in the store.
  • Spending more time in the store; but retreating to a back room before Clara got uncomfortable if customers came in.
  • Classically conditioning being “approached” by employees (soft body language from the humans, no eye contact).
  • Playing with a toy in the store.
  • Matting in the back of the store (rather than retreating to the back room) when some customers came in. We had to make a snap judgment about people as they came in. Safe or not safe?
  • Playing targeting and petting games with the employees as she got her cupcake.
  • Strolling around the store on her own.

Results

So, those were the steps. What does it look like today?

Earlier in 2014 we hit a milestone in our socialization work. In May 2014,  we were able to start walking freely anywhere in the shopping center. We could walk right by people. They could walk straight at us. Clara  associated their approach with good things, but had gone beyond that. It was more like she started taking them for granted in the ways that socialized dogs might. I stopped giving her food every time we saw one.

I think what made me “get it” that the picture had changed for her was that she actually got less centered on me and started really enjoying the environment. One of her biggest pleasures became checking the pee-mail in the shopping center, with or without a dog buddy. I want to emphasize that this was not stress sniffing. It was sniffing with a purpose; she was happily following scent wherever it took her.

I have put together most of the video footage I have of her socialization process up to this point into a movie. As I mentioned above, there is very very little from the early days; what you will see is practically all I have.

Also,  the camera work is poor. It’s not easy to film a dog while holding a leash and having treats at the read, particularly in the bright sun where you can’t even see what you have in the frame. I’ve edited out most of the parts where I didn’t even have her in the picture. (I finally realized that this was a situation in which shooting vertically made more sense. I was more likely to be able to get most of the dog and some of her environment!)

Hopefully, the footage gives a tiny window into the results (if not the process) of DS/CC. Once more, credit goes to my teacher. I would not have had the skill on my own to go slowly enough, read the situation well enough, or decide what activities to try next.

If the lack of loose leash walking raises questions in your mind, check out my post When Is It OK for Your Dog to Pull on Leash?

Clara at the Mall: The Movie 

Link to the video for email subscribers. 

Limitations

You can see what a good time she is having in the video. What is not as apparent are the limitations on the situation. In the interest of transparency, here are some of them.

  • Her comfort level is partly specific to that particular shopping mall, although we recently started going to new locations and she has done great. It has been amazing to watch the classical conditioning generalize to other situations and locations.
  • She is more comfortable when our trainer is there.
  • She is more comfortable when a dog friend is there.
  • She is very curious about people, but she still may be bothered by some assertive (rude) behavior from humans: walking straight at her, locking eyes, saying “Oh, how sweet.”
  • We are starting to work on exposure to leashed dogs. She is not particularly inclined to dog reactivity, but she has almost zero experience meeting leashed dogs because we previously had to completely avoid the humans on the other end of the leash.

There are always more challenges, but I now have a dog whom I can take places and have her be very comfortable. More so than many non-feral animals, since she has had so much experience with such a variety of people and situations.

Joy

The last  few months have been among the most exciting in my dog training life. To see Clara walking down a crowded sidewalk, tail wagging, following whatever most interests her, is purely joyful. As it also was recently when we were on a walk in the country and solitary man popped up from over a hill ahead, approached, and stopped to talk to us for a few minutes. Clara stayed relaxed as he approached (his sudden appearance and approach would have have been startling to many dogs), watched him and wagged as he talked to us, and finally lay down on the pavement beside me until we were finished talking. Priceless. I hope you can enjoy this with me.

Coming Up:

  • Let the Animal Decide
  • The Girl with the Paper Hat Part 2: The Matching Law
  • How Skilled are You at Ignoring> Extinction Part 2
  • Why Counterconditioning Didn’t “Work”

Eileenanddogs on YouTube

* A reader has suggested that a warning about feral dogs and puppies would be appropriate, and I agree. I have never mentioned this. It is a dangerous undertaking to capture and take in a wild dog. There is a bite risk from adult dogs, and a large risk of transmittable diseases, including rabies, from puppies. The risks are to both humans and other dogs in the household.

I do not recommend that an individual take these risks. I was ignorant, and my dogs and I were very lucky.

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Posted in Classical conditioning, Desensitization and Counterconditioning, Stress Signals | Tagged , , , , | 13 Comments

World Dog Trainers’ Motivation Transparency Challenge

What should a dog trainer be willing and able to tell you about his or her techniques? And how valuable is it to get that information in clear, concrete language?

Renowned dog trainer Jean Donaldson has put a lot of thought into this. We live in a world where dog training is a completely unlicensed industry, and it’s total chaos out there.

There are a dozen euphemisms for what is commonly known as an electric shock. Some trainers make positive reinforcement approaches out to be extremist.  There is plenty of talk of packs and wolves and being a leader, but sometimes little specificity about what these “leaders” do.

When asked about their methods, trainers who employ punishment and negative reinforcement often throw up verbal smoke screens about it. Some may talk about magical leadership powers that can solve problems all by themselves and will insist that they do nothing to hurt, scare, startle, or coerce the dog, claiming knowledge of the Magical Attention Signal  that works without having any consequences. Others will admit to using “corrections.” But many such trainers who use them claim they do not constitute punishment, while arguing that such things are necessary for the dog’s safety.

This latter is unlikely to be true. There are trainers all over the world who can train behaviors to fluency and solve behavioral problems without those corrections. I think it would be a huge step in the right direction if trainers who used methods such as  throwing things, kicking, poking, and hitting dogs, and of course “special” collars, would simply say so, and not hide between the buzz word of “positive.” Using aversives in this day and age is a choice, not a necessity, and that is what many trainers do not want people to know.

Jean Donaldson has developed three questions for consumers to ask prospective trainers before ever handing over their dog’s leash to them. The purpose of asking the questions–and continuing to ask until one gets a straight answer–is to insist on transparency of methods from anyone who purports to be an expert on helping a four-legged carnivore live in close proximity to, or even as a member of, a human family.

The Questions

Three questions

So these are the questions:

  • What exactly will happen to my dog when she gets it right?
  • What exactly will happen to her when she gets it wrong?
  • Are there any less invasive alternatives to what you propose?

Informed Consent

Ms. Donaldson has also proposed that trainers describe their methods specifically, and inform the consumer of alternatives in written consent statement.

Here is a sample consent statement from Ms. Donaldson, quoted with permission. This is what a statement from a trainer who used a prong or shock collar exclusively might look like if they were truthful and transparent.

I propose using pain and fear to motivate your dog. The potential side effects and adverse outcomes associated with these are X, Y, Z.

There are alternatives to what I propose. You could employ food, play, access to smells and patting as motivators. The potential side effects and adverse outcomes associated with these are A, B, C. You could also seek the opinion of a veterinary behaviorist. Our goal is that you are fully informed before consenting to any dog training or behavior modification.

When I first heard these words in her webinar, I got the shivers at the boldness of the statement. Nobody says, “I propose to use pain and fear to motivate your dog.” But it shouldn’t be bold to suggest that at all, if it’s the truth. It shouldn’t be revolutionary to ask for–or be confronted with–with honesty from all trainers.  Can you imagine if the norm for discussing a medical procedure with a doctor were that she deliberately withheld possible side effects, didn’t tell you of alternatives, and wouldn’t be specific about what exactly she was going to do? And that there was no code of ethics or regulatory body to prevent that?

The Video Transparency Challenge

John McGuigan, the Glasgow Dog Trainer, took Ms. Donaldson’s three questions and started a challenge for all trainers to answer them in a video.

So below I’m featuring a video that I believe does this well, and I’ll switch to a new one every week or two. You will get to hear from many different trainers who actually do use “modern, evidence-based, humane methods,” to use the language from the poster above.

Featured Video

The section between the asterisks is a separate, embedded page.

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Today’s featured video is from Carolina Rocha of Brazil.

 

Blog post about the Transparency Challenge and where it came from.

The share buttons on the next line are for this mini-page with the embedded video.

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OK, we are back on the main page now.

Direct link to the video page for email subscribers.

Commonalities of the Answers

It’s fascinating to me how much these videos can have in common, but also how every trainer’s answer has a different “flavor.” The most important commonality to me is that trainers who choose to use positive reinforcement based training uniformly mention continuing education. In response to the third question, many will say that there are probably not any less invasive methods than what they use, but if they are out there, they want to know about them. They state that they are always educating themselves and learning more. Some mention that if they feel that a case is beyond their skill set, they will consult colleagues or even refer the case on, just as a family doctor might refer a patient to a specialist if she had a certain type of medical problem. This kind of honest self-assessment is a strong indicator of competency in my opinion. The truly skilled know their skills and are honest about both their breadth and limitations.

You will also hear almost all of them state that if a dog makes a “mistake” when working on a training task, it is their mistake, not the dog’s. This is not some romantic woo. It is the literal truth. It is up to the teacher to set the pace and difficulty of the learning for the student.

The video of my own answers to the Transparency Challenge can be found on the following page: My Training Philosophy.

Further Information on Transparency

This blog post from Pawsforpraise, Finding the Right Dog Trainer: Harder than You Think, delineates some more of Ms. Donaldson’s thinking on the questions consumers should ask prospective dog trainers. In her webinar “Out of What Box?” she further detailed her thinking on this, suggesting that trainers put the plans in writing for clients, informing them of the methods they will use, the risks and benefits, and whether there are alternatives. The webinar was a discussion on the development of standard operating procedures in pet dog training. Here is a link that describes the webinar, and here is a link to register for and purchase the recorded version.

And how about we all add to the information out there? This is a call to all trainers, professional and amateur, to think through and answer these questions for themselves. Publish your videos, graphics, or written answers online.  Be transparent, and challenge others to do so.

Coming Up:

  • Socializing a Feral Dog
  • Let the Animal Decide
  • The Girl with the Paper Hat Part 2: The Matching Law
  • How Skilled are You at Ignoring? Extinction Part 2
  • Why Counterconditioning Didn’t “Work” (almost done!)

Eileenanddogs on YouTube. 

List of Previously Featured Videos

Sonya Bevan of Australia

 

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  • Transparency in training is the word of the day!