Training Levels: Making it My Own

One of the very cool things about Sue Ailsby’s Training Levels is that they are extremely structured but also completely individualizable.

The Levels provide a method of learning to communicate with your dog and teach her concepts, in the guise of being a handbook of training behaviors. But within this step-by-step method are a multitude of opportunities for the human to think through the benefits of a particular behavior for her own situation and environment.

A lot of these opportunities are in the final steps of the behavior and the “Comeafters.” Because I was involved in the production of the books, I recall that one of Sue’s or Lynn’s ideas for what to call the Comeafters was “Making it Your Own.” That has stuck with me.

I’ve learned to pay close attention to those opportunities, rather than breezing through and checking them off since I am already using some (possibly half-assed) application of them. In this post I am sharing two examples of planned, trained, individualized Levels behaviors that I’m pretty proud of.

Tan dog with black muzzle lying down in the grass looking expectant

Clara during her funny ear period already knew to lie down to get me to throw the ball

Level 2 Down Step 5: Default Down

A default behavior is one that the animal does automatically in some situation, but the term is really an arbitrary distinction. Default behaviors are cued just like every other behavior we train dogs to do. It’s just that the cues don’t come from our self-centered little mouths. They come from the environment, or sometimes from an action we take part in. I figure it’s all the same to the dog, or actually, the environmental ones are probably easier than trying to figure out the nuances of human speech and hand signals.

For example, although we work on this a lot, I could probably think of half a dozen situations where Zani would respond incorrectly to a verbal cue for a Sit. Verbal cues are really hard for her. But if I plunk her in front of an agility jump, she is not going to misunderstand and down or stand instead. The agility jump is a very clear cue.

Back to the down. Sue suggests a default down in the presence of kids and older people, when the human is talking on the phone, etc. Well, my feral dog Clara will probably not be in the proximity of children enough times in her whole life to train a default down, so that one is out. But since she is a bouncy jouncy easily aroused dog at home, down is a wonderful thing, and the more cues for it, the better.

I wrote a whole post on one of Clara’s cues for down: Get Out of My Face: Teaching an Incompatible Behavior.  In the post and video I describe and show how I trained Clara to lie down whenever I bend over or squat, instead of mugging my face. Worked a charm. And you can see another one in this post/video: Play with Your Dog: For Research. Clara knows to lie down to start our game with the flirt pole. She does the same with tug.

But Clara has yet another default down now. The way my house is laid out, I have two steps down into my den from the kitchen. Clara is in the den almost all the time. I have a gate across the top of the stairs. That means that those two stairs are favorite lounging and hangout areas for all the dogs.

Clara, being the high energy dog that she is (that’s putting it nicely) naturally leaps up and crowds up onto the stairs in front of the gate whenever I try to descend into the den. This is yet another situation in which I just need her to back off a bit. So I trained her to lie down on the den floor when I enter. One of the criteria is that it has to be on the concrete floor; not on the steps. That’s an easy distinction since the steps are elevated and carpeted. So we have a special verbal cue for this: “Concrete!” But I expanded this to a default behavior also. I wanted her to down whenever I came into the den. (If you are starting to think I have some sort of queen complex, you just don’t know this dog.) So the cue for that is my hand on the gate handle. Sweet!

Funny thing is, I haven’t thought up a practical default down for either of my other two dogs in training. They are much less, uh, demanding than Clara. But something will come to my attention sooner or later, I’m sure, since Sue has invited me to think about it.

Level 2 Focus Step 5: Use focus as proof that the dog is In The Game (think of a place you could use eye contact in your life)

OK, it’s Summer’s turn. This Step could have been an easy pass for Summer. I’ve been reinforcing extended eye contact for years with this dog. (In this video from four years ago she does flawless 30 seconds, then 40 seconds of eye contact. It’s right at the beginning.) There are a number of situations in which I already ask for it: going out any door being prime among them. She looks at me before I open the door, and reorients and looks at me again after we go through. She generally holds eye contact when I cue Zen. She stares at me for extended periods whenever she wants something, as well. I could have just marked that Step off.

But I try not to treat the Levels as something to race through, even though I like checking off boxes as much as the next person. So I held off and thought about it. Then the other day I noticed something. I taught Summer a puppy fetch a couple of years ago. Summer had zero retrieve instinct and I shaped it with patient coaching from Marge Rogers of Rewarded Behavior Continues. This is not a formal retrieve of any sort and certainly not a Levels retrieve. We don’t have a hold or any finesse with the delivery. It’s just a trick. But it’s relevant here.

This trick was the first thing I trained Summer while having a plate of food on the floor. I got into the habit of doing the plate thing for that behavior and not many others. And lo and behold, the other day I realized that not only was the plate of food part of the cue for the behavior, but she was drifting towards retrieving to the plate instead of me! How helpful of her to position herself closer to the food, to save me all that reaching around!

I experimented with moving the plate around, or eliminating it altogether, and found that she looked for it when she came back with the toy. So I quit using the plate for a while and got us back on track. But Summer is a great “food starer” and even after she delivered the toy, she would continue looking at my pocket or wherever the food was.

(By the way, for some dogs, the Manners Minder, a remote control treat dispenser, would be a great way to approach the food staring. Unfortunately, Summer is afraid of the grinding noise the MM makes when it jams, and since I can’t get it to jam on cue, I can’t desensitize her to it.)

That’s when I got the bright idea. This is one of Summer’s favorite behaviors. Sue says “Use Watch to tell your dog you’re about to do something, so pay attention now!” My throwing the toy definitely qualifies as “doing something,” and it’s something she really likes. So how about if I wait for or ask for eye contact before throwing the toy? Each time! In theory, the cue for the fetch would provide tertiary reinforcement for the eye contact, since the fetch is so fun for her.

So we started off. I learned right away that this was difficult for her. Apparently what she had been doing before when I cued–sniffing around, still thinking about food, had gotten the tertiary reinforcement. When I waited for eye contact before throwing, she could do it a couple of times, but it was spotty, and her enthusiasm for the trick went down. Oh oh. So I took the fetch out entirely. We had several days of sessions where I just asked for eye contact, marked and threw the treat, then waited for eye contact as she trotted back to me. Now we were on the right track! Turns out that when trotting up to me, Summer was most often looking elsewhere than my eyes. Even though in so many other situations, including competition heeling, she did look me in the eye.

Summer had already learned that eye contact was highly reinforceable in this situation

Summer had already learned that eye contact was highly reinforceable in this situation

I had worked eye contact in so many situations, but here was a new one.

Only after we had a good start on building her new behavior: looking at my face when she approached me, did I start asking for the fetch again. I would intersperse the two behaviors. Most often I would reinforce the eye contact on approach directly with a treat, but once every three or four times I would ask for the fetch instead.  After she got used to the alternation, this worked great.

Thanks, YouTube, for the best featured image from the video being one where she is looking at my hand!

Summer’s enthusiasim for the trick has returned, and she gives me eye contact to get me to do it. I think this is probably empowering for her as well. She knows the key to “make” me throw the toy. What do you think?

Bonus question: no prizes except fame and glory, but does anybody see the superstitious behaviors in the part of the video when I am in the rocking chair and we are working on eye contact alone? There are two separate ones. They fade as I start to mark the eye contact earlier.

I would love to hear about your dogs’ default behaviors. Got any interesting ones?

Coming up soon:


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About eileenanddogs

Passionate amateur dog trainer, writer, and learning theory geek. Eileen Anderson on Google+
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2 Responses to Training Levels: Making it My Own

  1. Murielle says:

    Hello Eileen,
    Wonderful demonstration…
    About the superstitious behaviors, It seems that Summer still watches to your hands once, at the beginning of the rocking chair sequence. And afterwards, I notice what could be a light head nod.
    Am I right?
    When I train my two airedales, if I’m not working specially on eye contact, most of the time they rother watch my hands, my pocket as soon as I’ve clicked. If I delay the treat, Haby watches me with reprobation, but she watches me. It’s much more difficult for Heliott.
    Would it be a good idea to click a good behavior only if there is an eye contact at the end?

    • Murielle, welcome and how nice to see you here! Congratulations! You win fame and glory for guessing at the superstitious behaviors, and guessing right. I have blogged about Summer’s head nod here. It is the very first thing I taught her (accidentally) with the clicker, trying for eye contact. And for the second one, looking at the hands was not what I was thinking about, but you are absolutely right. That qualifies as a superstitious behavior as well. (For those unfamiliar with the term, superstitious behavior is nothing against the dog, but against the trainer. It means we have accidentally reinforced something and the dog has come to believe that it is a required part of the behavior.)

      So actually, with your noting of the looking at the hands, there are three. The third one is Summer backing up. It is always the first thing she offers when we are shaping and it creeps in whenever she is unsure about what we are doing.Both the backing up and the head nod faded away when I started marking earlier in the eye contact behavior, thank goodness.

      I wish my friend Marge would chime in here, since she very successfully incorporates eye contact into almost everything she trains her dogs. But my thoughts about your dogs, especially Heliott, is that since it it hard for him or her, tacking it onto other behaviors as a new criterion would be too frustrating. As you go through the Training Levels it comes right up in Level 2 (Focus) and after you have done all those exercises, the dogs will have a lot more eye contact in their experience and it will be easier for them to incorporate it into other things. Summer has been doing the Levels for a long, long time, both the old and new, so I felt OK in adding eye contact to trigger a difficult behavior.

      Thanks so much for commenting!

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