The Missed Cue: Attack of the Zen Field

Eileen is seated on a short stool and Clara is lying on the floor. They are looking into each other's eyes. There are some training props on the floor.Up to this point, all of my Missed Cue videos have been set up. After I discover or suspect a hole in my dogs’ training I set them up in a situation in which I’m guessing they will fail, and record it as a teaching exercise. (I discuss why I don’t think this is a mean thing to do in the original post about missed cues: Dogs Notice Everything.)

But this one was not set up. It was during a normal training session. I thought I had the bases covered. And I had the camera running.

The behavior we were working on was Level 2 Go to Mat, Step 3 from the Training Levels books: Dog goes 5 feet to the mat and lies down. Clara has been getting on mats and being reinforced for that since the day she arrived. She can go to a mat on a verbal or hand signal from at least 20 feet away. She can stay on it for extended periods (20-30 minutes). She has a verbal cue, a hand signal, and two environmental cues to go to mat. She can do it when I run in circles around her, when the other dogs are excited, and in many other challenging situations.  So I really thought we had this covered. But when we are working on the Levels, we never skip steps. We train every step as if we’ve never done it before. You’d be amazed what we find out by doing that.

I was amazed today. We got to the Comeafter.  The Comeafter in this Step is to add a distraction. In the book, Sue talks about taking care in picking our distraction. And I thought I was being careful. I picked putting some food on the floor as our distraction. This is old hat for Clara. She has training sessions with plates of food on the floor, can do recalls past food, etc. She has very close to a default Zen during training. And this was only a 5 foot trip to the mat.

What could possibly go wrong?

(There is a synopsis of the following video at the bottom of this post.)

I managed to do exactly what Sue warns about in the book if you make a poor choice of distraction. I made Clara so crazy she wouldn’t go to the mat.

This problem is different from those shown in all the other Missed Cue videos. They involve generalization issues with behaviors for which the dog knows the cue in some environments/situations but not in others. This one is more like the conflict of two cues, one verbal, the other environmental. Clara certainly appears to understand what I am asking her to do and just can’t figure out how to reconcile it with other strong default instructions.

The more I think about it, the more understandable Clara’s behavior is as she shies away from the food and won’t/can’t go to the mat. We teach Zen by reinforcing the dog for moving away from the treat. That is a definable behavior, as opposed to “not eating the treat.”  And when we train it, most of us like to see the dog getting very distant from the treats, and we reinforce accordingly.

So how can I re-train this? Clara needs to know that she can pass close by the treats as long as she doesn’t eat them.

Also, why, in the second go round, does she not take the straight path I have made for her to go to the mat? She wouldn’t have to come within 2 feet of the treats. Anyone care to speculate about that? That part I don’t understand. I do note that in both cases she seemed to feel “safer” from the treats when I was standing near her.

I know we are not the only ones this has happened to. Sue has at least one photograph in the Levels book showing one a dog shrinking away from a treat on the floor. And Sharon Wachsler, a great service dog trainer, came up with a name for the thing that she modestly mentions lots of us have noticed: the Zen field. The Zen field is the invisible area around the treat that only the dog knows the boundaries of. Sharon is the only trainer I know though who deliberately manipulates the field during training: taking treats in and out of the field and extending the field by adding treats within it and changing its shape.

I am hereby asking for suggestions on how to retrain Clara to get closer to the treats, and not freak when she is asked to walk close by them.  In other words, we need to shrink the Zen field but retain its potency. Seriously, we need some suggestions. I have only one idea and it is very mundane. I bet some of you can come up with some clever ideas. I’ll choose whichever suggested method seems to fit Clara’s and my skill level the best and video the progress and results.

Discussions coming soon:

Synopsis of the embedded video 

The Missed Cue: Attack of the Zen Field

Scene 1: We see Clara having a training session with Eileen. Clara is practicing dropping a piece of knotted rope into a bowl, and there is a plate of treats close by on the floor.

Scent 2: We see Eileen calling Clara, who runs full speed past a plate of treats to Eileen.

Scene 3: We see Clara running to her mat with Eileen, but plopping down and staying without a verbal cue as Eileen continues running by and going out the back door.

Scene 4: We see Clara going to her mat and lying down on verbal cue from two different directions.

Scene 5: We see Eileen put some treats on the floor next to a mat, then verbally cue Clara to go to the mat. Clara looks at the treats and scoots a bit sideways away from the mat. She looks away, then looks back at the treats several times. Eileen changes her own position closer to the treats and cues mat again, and Clara slowly goes around and get on the mat, sniffing it as she does so.

Scene 6: A silly repeat of Clara shying away from the treats with animated flames coming from the treats and the music from the shower scene in Psycho.

Scene 7: Eileen again places treats on the floor near the mat, but this time on the other side, leaving Clara a clear path to the mat. When Eileen cues mat, Clara again slips off to the side and puffs with her mouth and circles around. Eileen encourages her to come to the other side (actually closer to the treats). Clara eagerly comes that way, then stops very short when she gets close to the treats. Finally Eileen puts her foot over the treats and Clara goes by and gets on the mat. Eileen is chatting reassuringly to Clara throughout this.

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Passionate amateur dog trainer, writer, and learning theory geek. Eileen Anderson on Google+
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7 Responses to The Missed Cue: Attack of the Zen Field

  1. LOL. I love the special effects.
    I’ve had to work on this, too (as you mention). I first noticed the problem specifically when Barnum was doing working walk next to my chair would suddenly go way out to the side or behind or the other side of my chair to avoid the zen field of a treat on the ground. I used hand targeting to get him to walk past or over it and clicked and treated for walking over/past it. Targeting was much easier for him than a sit or down near a treat, where he was very concerned about the zen field.
    I think the easiest way is to build distance with a strong positive cue, but instead of adding distance, you’re shrinking it. Hand targeting is probably Barnum’s strongest behavior. I use a lot of hand targeting, so that’s what I chose, but you might choose mat since that’s such a strong behavior for Clara normally.
    Example:
    Put a treat 15 feet from the mat, clue Clara GTM. If she goes, click and give her treat from hand. Nudge the treat on the floor a foot closer to the mat. Repeat. Keep repeating till the treat is next to the mat. You would also want to sometimes pick up the treat and move it to a different side, but still just as far. Over time, Clara learns she can go past it. You might want to also use a boring treat on the floor and reward her with a high-value one.
    I did this with retrieve — starting out with a dumbbell (an obvious retrieve object) and a treat at a great distance. Barnum was hesitant but when he was sure the zen field was far enough away, he got the db. Eventually I was able to put the db over the treats and then put treats around it, but we had to work up from that with distance.
    What do you think? Was this the idea you had in mind? Curious what others say.

    • I like the shrinking distance idea. It was the direction I was thinking, but you fleshed it out much better. Now I’ve heard everything: A new “D.” The challenge of shrinking distance. That idea is winning hands down in the suggestions I’ve gotten via email and YouTube by the way.

      I’m glad you mentioned that about switching sides randomly now and then. I like the targeting idea, too. That might get us out of some tight spots. Thanks for responding, Sharon.

    • Zombie says:

      That is such a clever idea! I would have never thought to build distance by SHRINKING it! I think this is just more proof that clicker trainers are creative and imaginative – at least when it comes to training. I’m going to keep this in mind for future reference.

      • Thanks! Somebody on the Training Levels list said wisely that the idea is to increase difficulty, and when dealing with distance that can go in either direction, depending on the situation.

  2. I keep trying to subscribe to your blog and am not able. Argh.

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