Dog Training Basics: Getting the Behavior

Tan puppy with black muzzle is lying on a navy blue bath mat and looks seriousI think one of the hardest steps for people who cross over to positive reinforcement based training is learning how to get a dog to start performing a behavior.

If we have experience with mild force-based methods, such as verbally telling the dog to sit, then pushing his butt down, or even if we have done lots of luring, it’s hard to imagine how to explain to a dog what we want them to do without taking one of those actions. It’s even harder to believe that he will do it repeatedly without a lot of chatter on our parts.

Getting a dog to do something over and over without saying a word, which can be quite easy once you know how, is very hard to explain to someone who has never done it or seen it. I have seen countless questions about it on Yahoo groups and FaceBook, and even after it is described to questioners, the videos that they subsequently post usually show them struggling to understand the concept. They speak verbal cues long before the dog understands the connection of the cue and the behavior, then wait impatiently for the stunned dog to do something.  Then they go through all sorts of gyrations to get the dog to do stuff. They also frequently startle their dog, are too loud, use pressure-ful body language, and do other things that cause the dog to not have a good time.

I feel OK pointing this out because I have done all of the above. Some of them you will see in the videos below.

I recently ran across this series of videos I posted when Clara was a puppy that document the first 5 sessions of teaching her “down” and thought they might be helpful to people who are not familiar with the process of getting behavior.

It’s not exemplary training, but that’s one of the points of my blog. The process is robust, and dogs are very forgiving. I do show my mistakes, and hopefully how I solve the problems I create. One of the four videos shows a miserable failure of a training session, but it’s a good lesson and also pretty funny. Clara is a little stressy in some other sessions. But I do a few things right, too, and they might be helpful as well.

The two things that I believe the videos demonstrate fairly well are a way to “get the behavior,” i.e. get a dog started on and repeating a behavior, and how to start adding a verbal cue.

Getting Started

My go-to method for getting and training basic behaviors from a dog I live with is capturing. It helps built great habits for me, since it makes me watch for my dogs to do something I like, and it is generally fun and very low stress for the dogs, too.

When you set up a training session based on capturing a behavior, antecedents are especially important. There are three types of antecedents: cues, setting factors, and motivating operations.  Cues signal that a certain behavior is likely to be reinforced. Setting factors make the behavior easier to do. Motivating operations provide an impetus for the animal to do it. You can modify the environment and situation through these methods to make the behavior you want easy for the dog to do and hence more likely.

In the case of lying down, I had already reinforced baby Clara for lying down on mats I have scattered around my house as “parking places” for dogs. I have entirely hardwood, tile, and cement floors, so the comfort of a mat on the floor is already an antecedent that sets the scene for the dog to sit or lie down. The mats are both cues for lying down, because of the reinforcement history tied to them, and also setting factors. Lying down on them is more comfortable than on the surrounding floor. I didn’t use a motivating operation, but an obvious one would have been to do the sessions after Clara had exercised and was a little tired. To me that’s a little bit of overkill; I’d rather have an alert puppy and use other ways to make lying down likely. So I used a mat to “jump start” Clara to start offering downs.

If you don’t use mats in your house, you could take your pup to the place where it is most likely that she will lie down. Perhaps her bed (or your bed!). Or you can do the “bathroom” trick. Go into the bathroom with the pup, have a bathmat down, and wait around and be boring until she lies down out of sheer boredom.

A small black and white rat terrier is almost lying down, but her chest and elbows are not touching the floor

Cricket demos the dreaded “bridge” instead of a down. Her chest and elbows are elevated.

(Capturing a down is not ideal for little dogs who hate to lie down. It can be because of the surface, or because they don’t feel safe in that position, or a combination of reasons. You probably already know if you have one of those dogs. Capturing could work if you can get them somewhere where they are very comfortable and relaxed, but you might want to use a different force free method instead, like shaping or luring a few repetitions. )

Applying the Cue

This is the other thing that is very hard to comprehend when you come from a traditional training background. We think we need to tell the dog what to do, then make them or get them to do it. To truly cross over, we need to let go of that idea completely and do things the other way around.

One way to help yourself get over the hump is to think of the cue as a label. (This is not technically correct, but it is a stepping stone away from the idea of a “command.”) As Sue Ailsby puts it, our message to the dog and in our heads can be, “That thing you are doing–we are going to call it ‘Down.’”

Again, almost everybody wants to talk first. Most of us have an unconscious belief that the dog understands the trainer’s native human language. And they are so good at reading us that they appear to understand much more language than they actually do.

One way that helped me finally get it that the “meaning” of cues is for us and us alone, was to see the silly cues that people sometimes give to behavior. You don’t have to call a sit “Sit.” You could call it “triangle” or “rocket” or “potaperm” and it would work equally well as a cue for the dog, if you taught it properly. And in fact, doing that–training a trick and giving it a nonsense cue–is an excellent way to see things a little more from the dog’s perspective. We operate from the meaning of the word. They have to go by pure sound recognition and memory.

The usual method of beginning to teach a cue is to get the dog doing the behavior repeatedly and consistently, then start saying the cue just as, or a hair before they perform the behavior. You’ll see that below in Session 4 in the video. My timing is not perfect.  I do it just a tiny bit early the first time, but luckily Clara, though startled, downs anyway.

The Training Sessions

What follows are five training sessions combined onto four videos. I’ve put a little explanation before each one.

Session 1 In order go get Clara “thinking about downs” I start with her on a mat. Then as quickly as I can I take away the mat but work in the same place. I look at her expectantly and she tries it! After she is doing it repeatedly I move us to a different place.

Link to the Session 1 video for email subscribers.

Session 2 First I do some review repetitions in the original location. Then I make a series of mistakes. I take Clara out in the back yard, and it is probably too soon for that more distracting environment. I make it worse by switching to a lower value treat (thinking that it will be easier to see in the grass) that she doesn’t even like. Oh oh! The session goes south. Then I even try to continue after she gets worried about a noise.

Link to the Session 2 video for email subscribers.

Sessions 3 & 4 (on same video)

In Session 3 we work inside again and I have her complete attention. She starts offering me a little duration, so I alternate with feeding her in position and tossing the treat to reset. Note that she is always free to get up after I click, but she sometimes chooses not to.

In Session 4 I start adding the cue as she is in the process of going down. As I mention in the video, she doesn’t “know” the cue yet; it’s just a noise that it happening in the training session. In retrospect I am not pleased with her demeanor in this session; she looks stressy and isn’t having much fun. Insensitive trainer!

In the second part of Session 4 we review “Sit.” If you do one behavior exclusively, especially with a pup, it tends to overshadow everything else. She did know the verbal cue for Sit pretty well, so we did a few successful reps. She was a little perkier, but I still went on at least one rep after she was saying it was time to quit.

Link to the Sessions 3-4 video for email subscribers.

Session 5

In this final session she is offering downs fast and furious so I add the cue again. I think it’s interesting that she actually startles the first time I give the cue (plus I was a tiny bit too early). She looked up and said, “Huh?” Then tried lying down. This session went on a tiny bit too long as well.

I’m always learning as a trainer and I think I am better now at gauging my dogs’ happiness with our activities and judging how long we should go on.

Link to the Session 5 video for email subscribers.

All Grown Up

I’m very grateful that even though Clara has such a short coat, she does not mind lying down on hard surfaces, as many smaller dogs do. Ahem–Cricket–ahem–Zani. It is a strong default behavior for her and we use it all the time.

Clara offers a down with eye contact on a field trip

Clara offers a down with eye contact on a field trip

 A Note about Crossover Dogs

One of my pet peeves is training videos made with dogs who already know the behavior. That is not exactly the case here, but I do realize that Clara has a jump start compared to a lot of dogs, my own crossover dog included.

If your dog is coming from a training background where trying things out has not been encouraged, it will likely take longer for her to catch on to the methods I am describing here, but she probably will eventually. All animals are wired to notice what makes good stuff come their way (as well as what predicts bad stuff). Clara’s readiness to offer behavior is greater than that of dogs who have not been reinforced for that, so naturally things go pretty quickly. I reinforced behaviors I liked from her from the first day she came in my house, without setting up any formal “training.”

But that can also be a good way to start with a crossover dog. You can use some of the dog’s meal calories during the day by tossing him a good treat when he is doing something you like. Kathy Sdao describes a protocol she calls SMART x 50, which she suggests as a way to jump start a healthy training relationship with a dog that is not based on a paradigm of making them “work” for everything. When I first got little Zani, who had been cared for but not trained in her previous home, she lit up with excitement when she realized that she could perform behaviors that earned her treats during everyday life.

OK folks, do you capture? Am I the only capturing fiend? I would love to hear how you set about making desired behaviors more likely, when capturing or using any other method.

Coming Up:

  • The Girl with the Paper Hat Part 2: The Matching Law
  • Punishment is not a Feeling
  • Stinky Stuff on My Back: DS/CC for Topical Medicines
  • Why Counterconditioning Didn’t “Work”
  • What if Respondent Learning Didn’t Work?

Eileenanddogs on YouTube

 

 

Easy tweets! (They include a link to this post)

  • That thing you are doing--we're going to call it "Down," OK?
  • Set the stage for the behavior and it will be easier to capture.
Posted in Clicker, Dog training hints, Operant conditioning | Tagged , , , , | 8 Comments

You’re Too Close! Dogs and Body Pressure

A small black and rust hound is standing several feet from a human (we see only lower half of human), looking up at her

Too close for comfort?

So you are standing at a party, or in your office, or on your front lawn. Someone you know only vaguely walks up to you. He walks up very close, face to face, close enough that you can see up his nose and smell his breath. He starts a conversation. What do you do?

What you desperately want to do is step back! You may or may not do it, depending on the social situation or a host of other reasons. But when someone we don’t know well enters our personal space bubble, it can be very uncomfortable.

Everyone has his or her own bubble. In addition to individual preferences it is also dependent on age, gender, and culture. So I guess it shouldn’t surprise us that dogs vary in their sense of personal space as well.

How sensitive is your dog to this kind of pressure? How big is his or her space bubble?

What Kind Of Pressure?

I talk about body pressure a fair amount, so I thought it was time to define and demonstrate it for those who may not be familiar with the concept.

There are different kinds of pressure, of course. Humans have non-concrete types of pressure. Pressure from our jobs, from societal expectations. From owing money.

Dogs seem to experience pressure from expectations as well. We can certainly stress them out easily enough when we train with poor technique, even with positive reinforcement. And of course they respond to physical pressure, touching or pushing, either by yielding to it or with an opposition reflex.

But when I talk about “body pressure,” it is pressure from proximity and body language. Not touching, but the nearness (and body language) of another person or dog.

Pressure from Humans

So it’s not only what we do (get close) but how we do it. Standing and staring straight at one’s dog is very different from brushing by them in the hallway, even though you might be closer in the hallway scenario.

Some of the common ways that dogs feel pressure from us include:

  • When we stand facing them straight on
  • When we look at them directly
  • When we stand tall or lean over them, especially for small dogs
  • When we reach out with our hands
  • When we walk into their space

I do have a very pressure sensitive dog: little Zani. And I also have a very non-sensitive dog (Clara).  In the video I show what their differing responses to proximity to my body look like.

Is Sensitivity to Pressure a Problem?

It can be. Most of us tend to misunderstand or disregard dogs’ body language. You can find thousands of videos on YouTube of dogs who are desperately indicating that they would prefer that the humans back off, while the humans actually talk about how happy the dogs are.

Small black and rust colored hound dog is sitting on a woman's lap with her head leaning up against her, eyes closed

Actually, Zani really does like being close sometimes

Zani is extremely pressure sensitive, as a lot of hounds seem to be. She is what people call a “soft dog.” She bounces back pretty well in most cases, though. Considering the problems of most dogs in this world, be they hungry, neglected, or abused, I would say that Zani has a pretty good life with me. However, from her point of view I am severely lacking. I am an insensitive clod. So I do work on exercises to make her more comfortable.

When a dog is uncomfortable with something, there are a couple of ways to address that discomfort. One is by using desensitization and counterconditioning (DS/CC). In this situation, to do that I would pair being close to me with great stuff, non-contingent on what she was doing. We have done some of that with handling, and also with a fear she had of my elliptical trainer.

If a dog is only mildly uncomfortable with something, one can take an approach where the dog is more active. This is sometimes called operant counter-conditioning, or differential reinforcement of an incompatible behavior. The game I show in the video where I am dropping a treat when Zani crosses a line on the floor, coming close to me, is such an activity. She was comfortable with the distance I set when I was turned to the side. I had envisioned slowly turning towards her, then decreasing the distance between the line and me. But as is clear in the video, Zani told me there was a huge difference in body pressure when I started turning towards her.

I could have adjusted the distance and continued with that plan. But instead I decided to do a combination of DS/CC and some operant games that isolate just one part of the body pressure at a time.  I will report back about our progress in the future.

Working on relaxed body handling

Working on relaxed body handling

Who else has a pressure sensitive dog? Have you worked on it at all?

Related Post:

Does Your Dog REALLY Want to Be Petted?

Coming Up:

  • The Girl with the Paper Hat Part 2: The Matching Law
  • Punishment is not a Feeling
  • Why Counterconditioning Didn’t “Work”
  • What if Respondent Learning Didn’t Work?

Eileenanddogs on YouTube

 

 

Posted in Dog body language, Human and dog misunderstandings, Human body language, Stress Signals, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | 18 Comments

Summer’s Turtle Diary

A three-toed box turtle is walking through some high grass. Its she is yellowish brown with darker markings. Its head is held high

Turtle minding its own business

I was reminded again this week of the awesome olfactory capabilities of dogs.

My dog Summer has a passion for turtles. Passion is maybe not the right word. Fixation, love-hate relationship.

She wants to get them and chew them up. I have no doubt that she would eventually chew through the shell completely and kill them. Second best is getting them and having me remove them from the premises. I’m getting really anthropomorphic here, but she acts like they really, really offend her.

She cannot rest if one is around.

A sable dog is curved towards and looking directly at a small, black and white rat terrier. The sable dog is resource guarding a turtle. The look is direct and unfriendly.

Summer says, “My turtle!”

Here is a video (from when she was much younger) of her trying to get a turtle. You can see that she gives Cricket a very hard look (at 0:30) when she comes a little too close. Summer is resource guarding the turtle, which is unreachable on the other side of the fence. Speaking of the fence, note the chain length fence. That fence is still there, behind my privacy fence. That becomes relevant in the new movie below.

Turtle Migration

These are three-toed box turtles, and this is their migration season. They used to come in my yard from my neighbor’s yard, heading west. Then I put in a privacy fence. This was both bad and good for the turtles. Bad because it made their migration more difficult. (Sorry! I hate that!) Good because they won’t stumble into the clutches of Summer, the dog who hunts turtles.

Amy Martin has a really nice blog post on how to help turtles that are trying to migrate, including directions on how to handle snapping turtles. (Answer: very, very carefully.)

Anyway, a turtle showed up in the neighbor’s yard on June 16th, and Summer stalked it relentlessly for 11 days. Every single time she went outside, even during hard rain, she paced the fence until she got as close as she could to its current location. Then she would dig. I wasn’t particularly concerned because between our two yards are a wooden privacy fence, the original chain length fence right next to it, embedded in the ground, all mingled with a privet hedge that has been there more than 30 years and has an impermeable tangle of roots. Or so I thought.

If this were one of those tacky, click garnering websites, here is where I would say, “and I couldn’t believe what happened next!” And I really couldn’t! But I’ll tell you below in case you don’t want to watch the video (which is adorable, grin).

On June 27th Summer dug a shallow but incredibly accurate hole under the fences and through the roots, and pulled that turtle out of the other yard. I still don’t know exactly how she pulled that turtle through. Did it just stand there on the other side, wait, and tumble into the hole she dug? Was it digging too?

In any case, she grabbed it and brought it up to the house, then very nicely put it at my feet (really!). She watched me quite happily as I took it away into the other neighbor’s yard, in the direction it was going.

She has been patrolling the original fence daily since then, but not with the same intensity. She just gives it a quick check, to make sure there are no new offenders. She pays no attention to the fence in the direction I put the turtle, which tells me it must have torqued on out of there. I don’t blame it!

I have known four other dogs who were very intense about turtles. They were all rat terriers. I also read that there is a guy in South Caroline who uses Boykin Spaniels to help researchers do turtle counts. How about you? Are your dogs interested in turtles?

Coming Up:

  • The Girl with the Paper Hat Part 2: The Matching Law
  • You’re Too Close! The Pressure Sensitive Dog
  • Punishment is not a Feeling
  • Why Counterconditioning Didn’t “Work”
  • What if Respondent Learning Didn’t Work?

Eileenanddogs on YouTube

 

 

 

Posted in Dog behavior, Dogs and prey, Dogs' sense of smell, Scent work | Tagged | 6 Comments

It’s OK to Comfort Your Dog!

U.S. folks and Canadians, get ready for the fireworks!

Summer, a sable colored dog, is photographed in profile looking scared and worried

Summer back when she was more afraid of thunder, fireworks, and other loud noises

This is partially a re-post from 2013, but I’ve added some new resources.

People in the U.S. and Canada are getting ready for national holidays that often include all sorts of loud pops and booms from fireworks and firecrackers, even cannons and guns.

These kinds of noises scare some dogs very badly, and during these holidays the noises are unpredictable and can go on for a long time period.

A lot of folks worry about comforting their dogs when they are afraid, and are concerned that they will reinforce their dogs’ fears.

That is incorrect.

  1. Behaviors can be reinforced.
  2. Emotions can’t.
  3. Fear is an emotion.
  4. If you comfort your fearful dog, it doesn’t somehow “reinforce” the fear and make them more scared next time.

But don’t take my word for it.

Take Dr. Patricia McConnell’s: You Can’t Reinforce Fear; Dogs and Thunderstorms

Or Suzanne Clothier’s: Calming the Fearful Dog

A sable colored dog (fur is brown with black on the tips) is sitting under a kitchen table. She looks (and is) frightened.

Summer hiding under the table during a thunderstorm

Everybody’s dog is different. Maybe your dog profits from just hanging out with you. Or maybe you make her more nervous and she’d rather get in a crate. If she isn’t too scared to eat, maybe she would like a food toy. You can judge what helps the most.

At my house, whenever possible during fireworks or thunder, we all troop to the bedroom. Summer gets on the bed with me and cuddles. I give everybody spray cheese every time it booms. Clara and Zani consequently LOVE thunderstorms. And Summer feels better being near me and profits from the routine.

If you want to get really nitpicky, it is possible to reinforce fearful behaviors. But during a noisy holiday is not the time to worry about that!

Other Resources for Getting Through the Fireworks

Fireworks: Photo Credit Wikimedia Commons

Fireworks: Photo Credit Wikimedia Commons

Here are some very practical tips for getting your dog through events with loud noises. Some are short term helps, and some are long term solutions. I hope you find something that will help in your own situation.

Keep your gates locked and your dogs’ identification items on.

Thanks for reading! You can go cuddle your dog, if she likes it!

Coming Up:

  • The Girl with the Paper Hat Part 2: The Matching Law
  • Sniffing for Joy
  • Punishment is not a Feeling
  • Why Counterconditioning Didn’t “Work”
  • What if Respondent Learning Didn’t Work?

Eileenanddogs on YouTube

Posted in Desensitization and Counterconditioning, Fear, Reactivity | Tagged , , , , , , | 10 Comments

When is it OK for Your Dog to Pull on Leash?

Clara pulls on leash edited

Is there actually a situation in which it’s OK for your dog to pull on leash? Oh, yes. For fearful and reactive dogs there are at least two!

  • One is when you are practicing desensitization/counterconditioning with your dog in public and can’t ask her for an operant behavior.
  • The other is later, when she is approaching something she used to be scared of with joy and enthusiasm.

Those of us who have fearful, reactive, fear-aggressive, or feral dogs and are using desensitization and counterconditioning with them out in the world are working on giving them a positive conditioned emotional response. We do this by building associations between triggers that formerly scared them and wonderful things.

Working on these associations first and foremost affects other decisions we make when we have our dog out and about.

Doing DS/CC Correctly

The guidelines for doing successful DS/CC call for great clarity. It has to be absolutely clear to the dog that the great treat exactly follows the appearance of the trigger and nothing else. Each time and every time.  We work on our timing, and on making the relationship between those two things completely salient, doing nothing to muddy up the works. The CARE for Reactive Dogs website has great instructions for the mechanics of clearly pairing the trigger with the treat under the 2nd section: CAREMethod.

In addition, our dogs’ behavior doesn’t matter. Yes, you read that right. As opposed to operant learning, which is about the consequences of behavior, respondent learning does not depend on the dogs’ actions. The pairing of the stimuli to create a new emotional response is the whole game. Of course we take great pains to keep everybody safe and make sure our dogs are under the threshold of stimulus aversiveness, but if we screw up on the latter and they see the stimulus and bark or otherwise react, they still get the goodie.

How can walking on a loose leash fit into this scenario? It can’t. Not at this point. It is a trained behavior that asks a whole lot of the dog. However, it is not at all ruled out as a learned behavior after the dog has become comfortable in the world.  Many fearful dogs go on to be wonderful family pets or even competition dogs. And even those who never get completely comfortable in public situations can enjoy learning all sorts of tricks and other behaviors for enrichment and to help them fit into the human world at home better.

So I’m not saying “don’t train your dog.” Working with your dog at home is wonderfully enriching for both of you. You can include some behaviors that will help you when you are out doing a session of DS/CC. Most people pretrain some behaviors that can help them move their dog around the environment and get out of sticky situations. The important thing is not to try to train your dog during a session of desensitization/counterconditioning.

Loose Leash Walking

Loose leash walking is a great skill. It not only makes life much easier and more pleasant for the human, it is of great benefit to the dog. If your dog has been taught to walk at your side before you ever put the leash on, and proofed and taught in progressively more difficult environments, she may never run to the end of the leash and get stopped in her tracks, or experience the nagging discomfort of pressure on some part of her body when she forges ahead.

But doing leash work in progressively more difficult environments is a problem for the fearful dog. If she is still fearful, as soon as the environment holds any challenges at all, you need to be working on the pairing of stimuli to create a positive conditioned emotional response, not trying to practice a difficult behavior.

Pavlov Wins

Text box: "Holding to strict criteria for walking on a loose leash and maintaining the clarity of pairing in classical conditioning are mutually exclusive

Asking for loose leash walking, a difficult behavior, from a dog whose fears you are trying to rehabilitate, not only won’t work, it will likely set your dog’s progress back. Not only does it throw you into the world of operant learning, leaving the dog’s emotional state by the wayside, you are also diluting the purity of the pairing of two stimuli. You must have a one-to-one relationship: experience trigger, get great food. If you start giving the same food for behaviors as well, you are shooting yourself in the foot. (Some people carry two kinds of food, and use the lesser value food for working on other behaviors during “down time.” Others prefer the clarity of not using food for anything else during this period.)

The good news is that if you are consistently treating your dog at the perception of triggers, they will probably develop the operant behavior of sticking close by you anyway. You may “accidentally” make staying or walking at your side a very strong behavior. But you can’t insist on it. And it may break down when your dog gets so comfortable in the environment that she stops noticing the triggers, or chooses other delights like a good sniff of the bushes instead of the treat. But what a happy day that is!

After DS/CC

Conditioning your dog doesn’t happen all at once. She may be completely happy in several public environments, but you still need to generalize to more. If she was feral and humans are strange to her, there are still new challenges to be had even after she is largely happy among people. For instance, although my formerly feral dog Clara has gradually gotten used to people who are flamboyantly dressed, people in wheelchairs and with baby strollers, children swinging bags, workers doing noisy construction,  and many other variations among the human population, there is still the occasional challenge. Last week she got slightly worried about a woman who had a jingling ankle bracelet, just enough to decide to go the other direction.

During this period of training as well, letting the dog lead the way pays off. Clara is now at a stage where she is comfortable enough that she can explore her environment, even with people all around. She often pulls forward excitedly when we are approaching her friends or a favorite part of the shopping mall or some good pee-mail. Likewise, she can “vote with her feet” in a non-panicked way when occasionally she doesn’t like the looks of something.

Even with all her progress, it is too early to ask her to walk strictly by my side.  I need the information that her movements give me. She generally needs very little intervention from me nowadays except to put the brakes on if she is in danger of being bothersome to a stranger or getting in over her head. (She is a very curious dog.) But I still carry the high value stuff in case a new challenge arises.

I do ask for some operant behaviors, and as she gets even more comfortable, it will be possible to work on walking consistently at my side. But frankly, at this point, she is enjoying the world so much that  it gives me great joy to be led around!

Clara stops to smell the roses

Clara stops to smell the roses

What It Looks Like

This video shows Clara at a large public shopping mall where a lot of her socialization has taken place. This is a place she is comfortable, and you won’t see me doing any classical pairing with treats in the video. She can now walk happily down the sidewalks there among groups of people, even next to doors that might pop open at any time.

In the video I show her both eagerly pulling towards things she is interested in, and meandering around checking the pee-mail with me in tow.

Most of the footage was taken on an extremely hot day. We were only out for 10-15 minutes at a time, but the heat is the reason she is panting.

Even though I have to allow the leash to become taut at times, because of her speed or because I am trying to handle a camera and treats in addition to a leash, it pleases me to see that there is no reactivity caused by frustration with the leash. When she is pulling ahead, she is doing so because of excitement and enthusiasm, and that overrules everything else. She just tugs me along.

Link to the video for email subscribers.

Pulling Isn’t Comfortable!

That’s right. Much of the gear we use, from flat collars to front attach harnesses, has the effect of making pulling uncomfortable.

So what do we do when we are breaking all the rules, and the dog is allowed to pull?  I used a front-attach harness in the beginning with Clara. Most people with fearful or reactive dogs in public need the control that affords. Now that Clara can do so much more in public,  I’ve gotten her a padded back-attach harness that does not discourage pulling. All dog owners can investigate different gear and see what is the most safe and comfortable for their dog.

But let me be clear: it can be unpleasant for a dog to be restrained, by whatever method. When Clara is “in the lead,” I do my best to minimize physical discomfort and frustration from gear and the “slow attached human.” See the video in the Resources section below for some great ideas on how to do that.

Stigma

If you have a fear-aggressive dog, or any dog that makes noisy displays in public, you have experience with the stigma of a “misbehaving” dog. There is immense social pressure for you to make your dog shape up. Total strangers are completely comfortable giving unwanted advice, or shaming you in public, or even trying to discipline  your dog themselves. Most want you to get tough with your dog and show your dog who is boss. (And all the time your dog is essentially crying for help.)

It can be extremely embarrassing to have a dog that is acting up. But if you have made it through that phase and your dog’s fearful displays are gone, you can certainly deal with the occasional snotty comment that comes by about your dog pulling you around. You know, like, “Are you walking your dog or is your dog walking you? Heh heh heh!” Perhaps you can come up with a clever comeback.

Clara and her buddy taking a break from shopping

Clara and her buddy in a department store display window taking a break from shopping

For me, it warms my heart to see my formerly feral dog having a great time exploring and checking out the pee-mail and pulling me around, while either ignoring the proximity of humans or actually tailing them curiously. When we started, her comfortable proximity to a single non-moving human was about 60 feet, and she was extremely sensitive to any situation where she might feel like her escape options were limited.

I think some people still have an image of a classically conditioned dog as being robotically controlled and micromanaged. Nothing could be further from the truth. Teaching Clara that the proximity of humans predicts great things has allowed her to get huge enjoyment out of environments that would formerly have been impossible for her to even enter. Also, from the earliest stages of the process, she was free to move around.

Isn’t Sniffing a Stress Behavior?

It can be. But with a little experience, it’s not hard to tell the difference between a stress sniff, and exploratory odor sniffing. I have a followup post about this coming soon.

Resources

Coming Up:

  • The Girl with the Paper Hat Part 2: The Matching Law
  • Sniffing for Joy
  • Punishment is not a Feeling
  • Why Counterconditioning Didn’t “Work”
  • What if Respondent Learning Didn’t Work?

Eileenanddogs on YouTube

 

Posted in Classical conditioning, Desensitization and Counterconditioning, Dog training hints, Fear, Operant conditioning, Reactivity | Tagged , , , | 20 Comments

Let’s Talk about Using Aversives in Training. I’ll Go First!

A speech balloon with the words, "This method is OK because..." in it.Today’s post is about being  thoughtful about the use of aversives. I write about that frequently, so how about if I describe what I mean by “thoughtful”?

  • I am going to present a description of an aversive method I used to use.
  • I am going to list many common justifications that could be offered as reasons why that method could be OK.
  • I’m going to describe the possible fallout from the method for the dog and for the handler.
  • I’m going to discuss the difference between justification and weighing the pros and cons,  taking into consideration possible side effects of the method.

Aversives

Paul Chance, Learning and Behavior, 7th edition, defined aversives as:

Stimuli the animal would avoid, given the option.

An aversive can be a thing or an event. The same thing can be sometimes aversive and sometimes not. As I’ve mentioned, aversives can range from something a tiny bit annoying, like a fly buzzing around or hair blowing in your face, to being chased by a predator and at risk of death. As I delineated in a blog about assessing stress in training, we all expose our dogs to aversives. knowingly or by accident. Aversive events of different magnitudes are happening all around us all the time.

Also, for clarity’s sake, let me repeat something I say with great regularity. I do not claim to protect my dogs from all aversive events.  The thing I pay keen attention to is using aversives in training. Many of us have been culturally programmed to assume that applying a pretty high level of aversiveness in training is OK. I consciously fight that programming, and know many others who do.

I grew up as a trainer not perceiving dog body language. Like many of us, I did not notice the effects on my dogs of training methods, or I misunderstood them. I’m still working on changing my habits. I try to notice everything that is aversive to my dogs through observation. I mean everything. I am their caregiver and they can’t tell me. If “everything” sounds extreme, keep in mind that I am consciously trying to overcome a strong tendency in the other direction.

But I pay an even higher level of attention to my training methods. These are things I can control. If I use an aversive,  I need to have considerations beyond, is this working?

Example

When teaching a duration sit/stay, what do you do if the dog pops up into a stand before being released?

One approach based on positive reinforcement would be to lower the criteria for the dog. Pause a moment, get the dog to sit again (with a verbal cue if you are at that point), and increase the rate of reinforcement. Return to a generally shorter duration, smaller distance, or lower level of distraction, whatever you have been working on, and employ whatever method you have been using for graduating those. Work back up again.

Leaning in as a training method

Leaning in as a training method

Another common approach is to lean over the dog until she sits back down. If the trainer were at a distance from the dog, she would walk towards her and into her space first, then lean.

This is a negative reinforcement approach, with a probable element of positive punishment.

In negative  reinforcement, something is removed after a behavior, which results in the behavior happening more often.

In positive punishment, something is added after a behavior, which results in the behavior happening less often.

It is possible for both of these processes to occur as the result of the application and removal of the same aversive, in this case, body pressure/proximity. The dog’s behavior of standing up during a sit/stay is punished, and holding the sit/stay sitting back down again is negatively reinforced. (See below for addendum.)

When the handler leans over the dog, the behavior that “turns off” the pressure is the dog sitting back down. The pressure relief generally includes a well timed move backwards by the trainer.

Although two quadrants are involved, this method is generally characterized as one of negative reinforcement since a specific behavior has increased: duration sitting. If we solely punished the dog for standing, standing could decrease, but there could still be “flaws” in the duration sitting, such as the dog lying down or rolling over. Another common characteristic of negative reinforcement is duration of the aversive, and that is present here. The pressure continues until the dog sits; it’s not just a “zap” when the dog stands up.

In the range of possible aversives, body pressure is fairly mild. It doesn’t hurt or generally startle the dog. There are no “tools” involved. No touching, yelling, or nagging. I was surprised when first told that this method was aversive. We don’t always think of it that way, and that’s part of my point.

Justification

OK, it’s “Be careful time,” as my stepdad used to say.

Here are the first two definitions of “justification” from Dictionary.com:

1. to show (an act, claim, statement, etc.) to be just or right
2. to defend or uphold as warranted or well-grounded — Dictionary.com

Justification is not a dirty word. But if our goal at the outset is to justify a training method, I would say we are on the wrong track. Justify is often used as a euphemism for “excuse.” (That is listed as one of the synonyms at the same site.) Wouldn’t it be better to assess the method, analyze its pros and cons, and observe its effects?

What follows are a bunch of reasons one could present to justify the use of body pressure. Many of them are true, some are not. However, just because a statement is true does not mean that it can stand alone as a good reason to do something, or is even relevant.

Possible Justifications

  • Body pressure is natural. Dogs and humans both understand and respond to body pressure.
  • Dogs do it to each other.
  • It works.
  • It can work fast.
  • It’s not painful or startling to the dog.
  • Negative reinforcement happens all the time in life  (i.e. it’s “natural” too).
  • Using body pressure is not as bad as using [fill in the blank] method.
  • It’s really positive reinforcement because you are adding distance when you relieve the pressure.
  • Other people use aversives too, even if they think they don’t.
  • It clarifies the situation for the dog, making the wrong response instantly clear. Now they know what to do, and what not to do.
  • It is empowering. You give the dog a problem to solve, that the human is too close. The dog can figure out the solution and take action to rectify it.
  • If you use body pressure a number of times, you have to do less and less to get the dog to sit back down. You can get it down to a miniscule movement on your part or even just a look from you.
  • Quadrants analysis is just not applicable here.
  • It’s OK to use an aversive if you try everything else first.

These are all very, very common reasons offered for the use of aversives. The problem with all of them–true or false–is that they don’t address the possible down sides of the method.

Clara guards the sprinkler

Clara demonstrating the dogs use body pressure

What “Assessing, Analyzing, and Observing” Looks Like

What if, instead of leaping to a justification, we instead examined the ramifications of the method? Aversives are known to have fallout. Careful consideration means that you consider the possible negative outcomes of any method. If you are a trainer, you disclose these to your client.

The possible negative effects of using aversive body pressure fall into two categories: The effects on the dog, and the effects on the trainer.

Possible Fallout for the Dog

  • Using pressure from your own body is a form of (mild) coercion. If you want your dog to have completely pleasant and happy associations with your presence, you are risking putting a dent in those associations.
  • The sit/stay is no longer a purely joyful way for the dog to earn a goodie. You have added an “or else.” This is known as poisoning the cue.
  • The dog has learned avoidance pays off. Avoidance behaviors, once reinforced, are very persistent.

Possible Fallout for the Trainer

  • Methods such as this (when they work) are immediately reinforcing for the trainer. You get what you want instantly: the dog sitting back down. This could be positively or negatively reinforcing for the trainer or both.
  • Because they work so well, the human behaviors of applying and relieving pressure can become habitual and unconscious.
  • Because you don’t likely reinforce with food for a while after applying the pressure, so as not to create a behavior chain for the dog of popping up, sitting down, and getting reinforced, you are thinning out your positive reinforcement schedule right after finding out that it was probably too thin to begin with.
  • It creates a shortcut, a disincentive for doing the training patiently with positive reinforcement.

Careful consideration means weighing these possible negative outcomes against the perceived benefits of the method. And it means looking with an eagle eye for any adverse effects on the dog if we do choose such a method.

The Effects Vary

This example is straight from my experience. I did formerly use this method, and can honestly state that it was an incredibly hard habit for me to break. I probably have not broken the habit completely. Since dogs are so much more perceptive of small movements than we are, I imagine I am still doing it at times and don’t even know it.

How aversive this method is to any individual dog varies. Plenty of well known positive reinforcement trainers use the body pressure method for proofing stays (also for teaching dogs to back up). It’s not a terrible thing for most dogs, although you can definitely find some videos of it where the dogs are not happy.

Thinking of my own dogs, I would be ill advised to use this method on Zani, who is already incredibly pressure sensitive.  I would likely undo the work I’ve been performing to classically condition a positive emotional response to proximity and handling if I used my body to coerce behavior from her.

On the other hand, my dog Clara is so thrilled to be close to me in most circumstances that the method might not even work on her. It might not even be aversive. If it were a little aversive, and it did work, the long-term effects on her would probably be negligible. That’s my gut assessment, based on her personality and strong bounce-back ability. However, the effects on me would be just the same. If it worked, I would be reinforced for using it. How soon would it be before I used it on the wrong dog?

Assessing Methods

This way of thinking about one’s own training can be applied to methods that we learn about or that are presented by other trainers.

If someone is promoting a method that includes use of aversives, to me it is a danger signal if they enumerate justifications similar to the ones I listed and do not discuss the risks for the animal and trainer.

But What if My Dog Tries to Dash Out the Door into Danger?

Step in front of her. Grab her if need be. And see this post.

Regarding Comments

I would love to hear from others who have assessed aversive methods they used to use and have decided to do otherwise. Examples of the opposite type of story–”I tried everything but ended up using punishment”–are a dime a dozen.  So let’s tell the stories about consciously and successfully leaving the aversives behind. Ready, set, go!

Addendum

An astute reader pointed out that if the pressure is released after the dog sits, as I explicitly described, the stay itself is not being maintained by negative reinforcement. (That could be possibly be achieved by the human looming obnoxiously over the dog, but that’s not what I described.) If the dog does stay after the trainer releases the pressure, it could be because the popping up was positively punished, or from a generalized reduction in activity from the use of an aversive (passivity can result in or look like a stay). The positive reinforcement previously used could also play a part, but I think it is more likely that immediately after the pressure move, the dog is more affected by the aversive use. Thank you for the correction, and any errors here remain my own!

Coming Up:

  • The Girl with the Paper Hat Part 2: The Matching Law
  • Punishment is not a Feeling
  • Why Counterconditioning Didn’t “Work”
  • What if Respondent Learning Didn’t Work?

Eileenanddogs on YouTube

 

Posted in Behavior analysis, Escape/Avoidance, Human body language, Negative Reinforcement, Punishment, Terminology, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | 22 Comments

Is That “Smiling” Dog Happy?

Maybe, but maybe not!

We humans tend to get warm and fuzzy feelings when we see dogs “smile.”

It’s true that some dogs’ mouths open in a cute smile when they are relaxed and happy. But a dog with his mouth open could alternatively be panting from pain, stress, or fear.

Can we tell the difference?

The following pairs of photos show my dogs stressed (left column) and relaxed (right column). The dogs have their mouths open in all the photos.

The usual disclaimers apply. When you run across someone’s still photo with no context, you can’t fairly make assumptions. It might have been taken during the millisecond in which a dog changed his expression. It could be misleading for a dozen other reasons. Videos are better, but we still miss context and may lack knowledge about the particular dog. But in this case I can vouch for the emotional states of my dogs, and I believe they are accurately represented by the photos with recognizable indicators.

Mind the Mouth

What all these photos have in common is a common “tell” regarding the dog’s emotional state. Look at the corners of the dogs’ mouths, also known as the commissures. In all cases, they are drawn back and stretched tight in the “stress” photos. In most of those photos you can also see the muscles bunched up in that area.

The photos have other indicators of the dogs’ emotional states as well. For instance, three of the stress photos have what is called a “spatulate” tongue, also usually connected with stress. The dogs’ eyes are markedly different between the stressed and relaxed photos as well.*

 

 

 

I hope these comparison photos can help some folks figure out their own dogs’ facial expressions, and maybe overcome our wiring–which is very difficult–to assume that an open mouth means a happy dog. Please share this blog post wherever it might be useful. The photos may also be used for educational purposes if credit is given. I’d appreciate it if you would drop me a line through the sidebar contact telling me about the use.

You can see labeled versions of the “Clara stressed” photos (and many more) in my post Dog Facial Expressions: Stress. You also might be interested in my Dog Body Language Posts and Videos page.

Many thanks to Julie Hecht at Dog Spies for giving me the idea for this post. 

*Patricia Tirrell points out that the dogs’ brows are furrowed in most of the “stressed” photos as well.

Coming Up:

  • Let’s Talk about Using Aversives. I’ll Go First!
  • The Girl with the Paper Hat Part 2: The Matching Law
  • Punishment is not a Feeling
  • Why Counterconditioning Didn’t “Work”
  • What if Respondent Learning Didn’t Work?

Eileenanddogs on YouTube

Posted in Dog body language, Human and dog misunderstandings, Stress Signals | Tagged , , , , | 10 Comments

CARE for Reactive Dogs

CARE graphic

Wow! My friend Jennifer Titus has created a wonderful thing.

Website: CARE for Reactive Dogs

FaceBook Page: CARE for Reactive Dogs on FaceBook

CARE is an educational website that provides, free of charge, solid gold information on the protocols of desensitization/counterconditioning and differential reinforcement of incompatible behaviors.

These are tried, true, and gentle methods for helping reactive or fearful dogs. Because of our cultural bias towards punitive methods and because dogs exhibiting behaviors born out of fear are still seen by many as “challenging our authority,” these methods are still not well known by the general public. Positive reinforcement-based training is just now starting to leak into the culture in a semi-accurate way. (It’s been misrepresented plenty already!) Now we can go a step further.

The CARE site makes the information for helping our reactive dogs extraordinarily accessible and puts it together into easy-to-follow steps. I personally love it that Jennifer doesn’t use trendy, made-up words or obfuscate in any way; she uses the scientific terminology and helps the reader learn about it. And she is not repackaging information and claiming to have invented it. She is organizing known techniques into an easy to follow protocol. She uses various versions of “C.A.R.E.” as mnemonics.

The most important thing is to do the whole protocol as she presents it.  If followed exactly from beginning to end, it will change your dogs behavior, because that’s how these principles of behavior work.  It is very condensed, so be sure not to cherry pick. 

It’s great to have a skilled professional to help, and for some dogs it is imperative. But there are lots of people out there for whom help is really hard to find. I am here to say that pet owners can help their dogs using these methods.

Here is my own small example: an account of how I used DS/CC to help my little dog Zani overcome her fear of the elliptical training machine.

As many of you know, I have a much longer term project going on with my formerly feral dog Clara. It is absolutely magical to see the conditioned positive emotional response (+CER)  kick in. (Check the CARE site for a definition if you don’t know what a +CER is.) Now when we go to, for instance, a shopping center, instead of looking to me for the conditioners and reinforcers, she often chooses to hang out with her doggie friend, clamber into the lap of one of her human friends, spend as much time as she wants checking the pee-mail and other interesting scents, and even go into dog friendly stores for a quick look and sniff.  The protocol of DS/CC allows a completely organic transition to just plain enjoyment all sorts of new environments. Kind of like the whole world is becoming Grandma’s house.

So Clara says, go check it out and CARE for your dog!

Coming Up:

  • Let’s Talk about Using Aversives. I’ll go First!
  • The Girl with the Paper Hat Part 2: The Matching Law
  • Punishment is not a Feeling
  • Why Counterconditioning Didn’t “Work”
  • What if Respondent Learning Didn’t Work?

Eileenanddogs on YouTube

 

Posted in Classical conditioning, Desensitization and Counterconditioning, Dog training hints, Fear, Reactivity, Training philosophy | Tagged , ,

How Did The Aversive Get There? A Call for Honesty

I am mystified by one particular argument of those who use protocols for fearful or reactive dogs other than desensitization/counterconditioning (DS/CC). These other protocols often use negative reinforcement; if not that, then sometimes desensitization without counterconditioning; sometimes extinction; sometimes habituation.

People who practice these protocols intentionally expose their dogs to their triggers at an aversive level at times, as opposed to people who practice pure DS/CC, which is ideally practiced at a distance or intensity such that the trigger is not aversive to the animal.

The argument that bothers me is this:

It’s OK to expose the animal to a trigger at a potentially aversive level as long as we are not the ones who put the aversive there for them to be exposed to. We’re not adding an aversive; it’s already there.

I wrote a post a while back addressing this idea in part. I pointed out that for negative reinforcement protocols, the ethical and definitional difference is not about how the aversive got there. It’s whether the trainer chooses to put a contingency on the animal getting away from it. Do they ask for or wait for a certain behavior before retreating? Because that is a choice. If the dog gets close enough to the trigger that she starts showing stress, there is always the option of getting her humanely out of there, with no requirements on her behavior from the handler.

Where the aversive came from is ethically irrelevant, since the trainer makes a choice whether or not to use it, however it got there. Most would agree that such a use is an ethical choice, to be carefully considered.

So the fact that people are still mentioning this irrelevancy about “who put it there” seems like a lot of hand waving to shoo away the real issue: choosing to use an aversive.

But wait–in case it matters–how did it get there?

How It Really Got There

My hand, my voice, my phone.

My hand, my voice, my phone.

I have a formerly feral dog with whom I have been working for a few years, gradually getting her socialized to people, and making lovely progress with DS/CC.

Even though my goal is to keep the triggers (people, in her case) under the threshold of aversiveness, I realize that I am dealing with potentially aversive situations when we go out into the world. And I arrange for and seek out those situations for her sessions. For instance, I make phone calls at times to arrange for a controlled session with a person unknown or partially known to her.

If I do this and blow it and let her get too close or stay too long, I have exposed her to an aversive. How’d it get there? Me! Entirely through my choices! I arranged it. I deliberately sought it out with her. I made the phone call, drove my dog to the meeting place, and exposed her to the trigger. I added it to her environment, or added her to an environment where I knew it to be.*

People following any protocol generally arrange for triggers to be present in this way, including people, dogs, specific things like people on bikes or scooters, or other animals. So if someone is doing any type of exposure treatment, how can they claim that they are not responsible for the aversive being there? Did the Tooth Fairy bring it? Can their dog pick up the phone and drive the car?

It is not logical to claim to have nothing to do with the aversive being in the environment if you planned it, arranged for it, or sought it out in the first place. And that includes stealth sessions. If you are out there looking for triggers to use without their knowledge, you are still the one choosing to expose your dog to them. Finding = adding.

Empathy

You can probably detect that I find this irritating, but I seek to look at it in an empathetic way.

I have been reading some posts by Behavior Adjustment Training (BAT) practitioners in particular who express that they feel attacked and beleaguered by questions about negative reinforcement and humane training attached to their protocol. I get that they feel pushed into a corner.

I can empathize with that. Here is something you believe in, and people are asking difficult, pointed questions about it. Sure, anybody would be defensive. As a blogger, I have to deal with all levels of criticism. Even the most reasonable of criticism hurts.

There are people who react to these questions with dignity, though. They say yes, they are using negative reinforcement at times if they use certain protocols. They have thought it out, see good results, usually use other protocols as well, and are ultra careful about side effects. They don’t play like the presence of the aversive has nothing to do with them. Although I may not agree about all methods these folks use, I can appreciate their transparency and honesty about the science.

But it really worries me that there are still people who claim not to be responsible for getting the aversive into the environment. If they are trying to elude responsibility for that, even though it’s completely a side issue, what else are they willing to overlook, justify, or push out of their minds?

Thank you to all the people who do their best not to adjust the science (or even basic logical thinking) to justify their own preferences.

Coming Up:

  • The Girl with the Paper Hat Part 2: The Matching Law
  • Punishment is not a Feeling
  • Why Counterconditioning Didn’t “Work”
  • How Skilled are You at Ignoring? (Extinction Part 2)
  • What if Respondent Learning Didn’t Work?

Eileenanddogs on YouTube

* I am not confusing positive punishment and negative reinforcement, here. To use negative reinforcement, there has to be an aversive in the environment to be removed or escaped. We’re talking about how the aversive got there in the first place.

5/25/14 Addendum

This post is an urge to be honest about one aspect of the use of aversives.  I believe that all trainers, regardless of method, should be honest about their training choices and philosophy. You do it: own it. That’s the message in a nutshell. And I directed it to an argument that I believe does the opposite of “owning it.”

However, one of the common responses I have gotten over the past week  is comparisons of the ranges and setups of DS/CC protocols and those using negative reinforcement, often in an apparent attempt to minimize the differences.

I have previously provided a webinar and a movie on the differences and similarities of the major protocols for addressing fear in animals, with particular emphasis on their ranges and setups.

To review a few relevant points: Debating who starts further from the stimulus is a moot point.  No matter how far away you start, you are required to go into the aversive range for a negative reinforcement protocol to work.  In desensitization and counterconditioning you have no need to cross into the range of stimulus aversiveness in order to get effective results. In R-, aversive exposure is necessary. The protocol depends on it. In DS/CC, aversive exposure is by accident and hopefully rare. That is an important distinction between DS/CC and negative reinforcement-based protocols.

The other important distinction is that you can get a positive conditioned emotional response from DS/CC. With DS/CC and negative reinforcement there are two very different types of learning going on.

 

 

Posted in Desensitization and Counterconditioning, Escape/Avoidance, Extinction, Fear, Negative Reinforcement, Terminology | Tagged , , , , | 48 Comments

The Girl with the Paper Hat (Part 1 of 2)

Hat made out of folded newspaper

Once upon a time there was a girl who decided to teach her dog some tricks. She figured out that if she gave her dog something he liked after he did something she liked, he was liable to do the thing again. So she taught him some simple tricks using food and playing with toys as reinforcement.

She and the dog had so much fun that she found as she went along that he didn’t need to be reinforced with goodies as often; he started finding playing training games with her very fun in itself. But she still used food and play, especially with new stuff or very difficult things. He liked earning his “pay” and she liked giving it to him.

It didn’t occur to her to tell the dog what to do in words, since she knew he didn’t speak English like she did. But things worked out because he could almost always discern from context and her gestures what she wanted to work on.

She had a little platform the she used to teach him to pivot in a circle. He would put his front feet on the platform and walk around with his back feet and rotate. He got very good at this and soon could spin in both directions. As soon as he saw the platform he would run over to it and start to spin, although she could ask him to stop with a hand signal.

One day she decided she’d like to teach him a new trick using the little platform. She wanted him to sit on it. She got out the platform and he ran over and immediately started spinning. She laughed and signaled for him to stop and he did.

With gestures she got him up on the platform with all four feet within a few minutes, and it was easy from there to get him to sit.

sable colored dog has her front feet on an inverted yellow plastic basin, preparing to spin her rear end aroundThe next time they played training games with the platform, he ran over again and started to spin. But she indicated to him that she wanted him to get up on it and sit, and he soon did. Each time they trained, he spun less and sat faster, until one day he ran in and sat on the platform. She told him how smart he was and gave him a cookie.

Over the next couple of weeks she had him do lots of things on top of the platform, and didn’t ask him to spin. He would always run to the platform and sit on it to start.

Then she asked him to start spinning again. They worked on both things equally. After a little awkwardness at the beginning, he always figured out what she wanted.

One day she set out to train and got the platform out. Her dog ran in and then stood stock still next to the platform and looked straight at her. He seemed to be asking, “What are we going to do today?” She realized it would be nice for him if he knew which thing she wanted him to do that day, rather than always having to figure it out by trial and error.

She thought about it and realized she could create some way to let him know which trick she wanted to work on. She made herself a silly hat out of newspaper. From then on, every time she wanted him to get all the way on the platform, she wore the paper hat. When she wanted to work on spinning and pivots, she didn’t wear the hat.

It took only a few sessions for him to catch on, and thereafter he would immediately offer the right starting behavior depending on whether she was wearing the hat or not.

Question: What did the girl create with the hat?

Answer: A cue.

What’s the Point?

OK, I’m a little obsessed with cues. But I would really like to share my (admittedly limited) understanding with those who are newer at this than I am.

  • First, all sorts of things can be cues. If you don’t create a deliberate, explicit one, dogs will usually figure out what you want from contexual cues. Before the girl started using the paper hat, there were still lots of cues for the dog. But they were fluid and not systematically organized.
  • You might not even know what a dog’s cue actually is! Lots of times when we think the dog understands a verbal cue, they are cuing off something else entirely. Try this: put your dog in front of her crate (if you use one), point, and say, “Purple cow!” Some other time, get your dog in front of the crate, don’t point, but just look at it, and say, “Daddy long legs!” Dogs notice contextual cues brilliantly, and most will get into the crate in this situation. If you had proofed the living daylights out of your crate cue and had complete stimulus control over it, as long as those two phrases aren’t your real cues, the “proper” response would be for the dog to stand and look at you, waiting for further instruction because he knew you had spouted nonsense. But almost no one puts crate or mat behaviors on stimulus control, so most dogs who are conditioned to like their crates will leap in at the slightest hint that that might be reinforceable right now.
  • Conversely, think of a situation in which you always, without fail, ask your dog to sit (with or without a verbal cue). Get them in that situation and give your verbal for down, stand, or another behavior and see what happens. If you have worked very hard with your dog on the distinction between your verbal cues, your dog might do fine. But most will have a bit of hard time.
  • Finally, cues in training or the real world don’t have to be quick words or movements. The “Open” sign that stays lit up all day in a store window is a cue that says that you can go in the store and shop for a while. When you’re at a club, the music going on is a duration cue for people to dance. Most people stop when the music goes off. You don’t have to, but it’s more fun (reinforcing) to dance while the music is on. So a paper hat, left on, can be a cue that a certain type of training is going to happen and a certain family of behaviors will likely be reinforced.

Here is Summer in a situation where the contextual cues and something called the Matching Law conspire to make her fail to respond correctly to a verbal cue. (Stay tuned for Part 2 on the Matching Law.)

Link to the video for email subscribers.

Having clear cues is a way to be fair to your dog. Remember, a cue is an indication that a certain behavior, set of behaviors, or behavior chain, is likely to be reinforced. Having unclear ones defeats the purpose. Help your dog by being very clear about it!

Coming Up:

  • Punishment is not a Feeling
  • Why Counterconditioning Didn’t “Work”
  • How Skilled are You at Ignoring? (Extinction Part 2)
  • What if Respondent Learning Didn’t Work?


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Posted in Cues, Dog training hints, Operant conditioning, Positive Reinforcement | Tagged , , | 6 Comments