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Shaping and Stress

Shaping and Stress

Zani rolling over in a shaping session that we both enjoyed

This is an expansion of a post about a possible cause of stress in shaping that I sent to the Training Levels Yahoo group.

Shaping involves extinction. That is, ceasing to reward something that has been repeatedly rewarded. In the real world, for humans and observably for other animals, that is stressful. The classic examples are when an elevator stops coming when the button is pushed, or when a candy machine just sits there after you put in the correct change and push the button. What usually follows? In the elevator case, repeated pushing of the button. Harder, faster. With the candy machine, all that, and possibly pounding, shaking, yelling. If you think about an animal’s behavior being tied to survival, something suddenly not working anymore is a danger signal. Oh oh, this place or this method that I was relying on no longer provides food. I’m going to have to start all over again and find somewhere or something else.

We are taught that when we suddenly stop rewarding something that a dog has been rewarded for, to be ready for an extinction burst. That is, the behavior rises in frequency and intensity before it fades away. Extinction is not fun for the dog in this circumstance! It is frustrating.

OK, back to shaping. When we shape, we are introducing tiny little extinctions over and over again. That’s how we get successive approximations to the final behavior.  “Fido, THAT behavior is not getting paid for anymore, it is up to you to figure out something that is.”

When I see the really great trainers shape, there is another characteristic besides their ability to detect the tiniest behaviors and differences in behaviors to reinforce. Another skill is that they are constantly watching the animal’s demeanor, as much as its actual movement, and are responding to that. They can keep that extinction process as gentle as possible and keep the animal trusting that the world hasn’t come to an end when they stop clicking for something. And of course these two skills go together. Seeing and responding to the tiniest movements does tend to keep the rate of reinforcement high.

Also they think empathetically. There is a clinically proven human tendency (the “curse of knowledge”) to assume that when we have something visualized or auralized in our heads, that the others around us automatically will see it, hear it, understand it quickly. Great teachers learn that this isn’t the case. And great shapers keep in mind all the time that the animal may not have a CLUE to what they themselves have so clearly in their heads.

Finally, with our pet, service, and performance dogs (i.e. dogs who live with us) it comes down to the trust account. It needs to be very high for some animals to enjoy shaping as much as we ourselves might. They have to trust us that the lack of a click, and a little extinction, is not the end of the world.  I will admit to making mistakes about this. Shaping is so cool; it’s like being handed a shiny new toolbox with all sorts of fun things inside. I’m a pretty empathetic person but I will tell you that I have gotten overexcited about this tool and plowed on through signs of big frustration from my animals. I have recordings that I will probably never show anyone else of shaping sessions I did very early on with both Zani and Clara. They went on for several minutes. We got to our goal (MY goal). But neither dog was having fun after the first minute or so. They were showing stress and frustration. Zani was whining. Clara was spinning, which is her superstitious and stress related behavior. I was pressing on towards the goal insensitively.

Another thing to keep in mind is that the shaping process is usually reinforcing–to the human! Shaping is incredibly cool! We dangle it in front of trainers who are considering “crossing over.” Look what you’ll get to do with your dog! Many of us need to be careful about going overboard.

Just like any other activity, some dogs are going to intrinsically enjoy shaping more than others. But we are trainers, right? If using shaping is important to us, we need to find ways to make sure it is fun for the dog. A little stress may be a good thing in life, but if an animal is chronically averse to training activity we like, it’s time to do something about it. We probably need to gentle down the extinction process. And mind our trust accounts.

A few thoughts on how to do this:

  • Watch the dog and get to know her signals.
  • Pay attention to how long you are waiting if you are withholding the click. That’s when the extinction stress can build up.
  • Start with very short sessions: just a few clicks.
  • Be willing to stop before achieving a pre-ordained goal (This is a hard one! We tend to be so goal oriented.)
  • Have an environmental cue that lets the animal know when you are shaping and when you aren’t.
  • My friend Lynn says, Teach it! Think of it from the learner’s point of view.
  • Lynn also says do little sessions of “shaping nonsense.” Make sure both you and the dog approach it as a game.
  • Don’t do like I did with Zani and start shaping with a brand new rescue dog just because you can. I wish I had built up our trust a little better before doing that.

Here are my three submissions to ShapeFest 2012 a few months ago. I’m pleased with my dogs’ demeanor in all of these. Clara is still the most serious,  but showed only a few little stress signs. Her main stress behavior is a counterclockwise spin. She does a couple of spins starting at 2:20 but it’s hard to tell how much is stress and how much is just a behavior she is trying. Since her pace is not frenetic, my guess it that they were mostly offered behaviors.

Shaping Zani to roll over

Shaping Summer to mount a platform, using playing in the hose as the reinforement

Shaping Clara to do a distant paw touch

I bet some of you out there have some other suggestions about making sure shaping is fun. Care to share?

Discussions coming up:

  • Is It Really Just a Tap? (shock collar content)
  • “Errorless learning”
  • Canine Cognitive Dysfunction

Thanks for reading!

Video Examples for Teachers

Video Examples for Teachers

Several people have told me that they use some of my videos as examples for their students. On this page I have grouped together the posts I think would be most relevant for teachers and trainers. I will add to the page as I create new posts and movies that fall into this category. Please feel free to link to this page, any posts, or any videos that are helpful to you.

Blog Posts with Videos

Dogs Notice Everything  A series of videos showing dogs failing to respond or responding incorrectly to cues for a variety of reasons. Specifically intended as a response to folks who call their dogs “stubborn” or accuse them of “giving me the paw.”

My Dogs Do Know Sit! A Hint for Training the Sit Stay A followup to an earlier post where I showed a problem with how I taught the sit-stay. But the problem wasn’t so bad after all. This post has a tip for human body language during stays, and the video has a demo.

Allergy Shots for Dogs: How I Made them the Best Thing Ever  My own system for helping my two allergic dogs not care much about the potentially painful shot because of the routine around it and their special treats.

Automatic vs. Socially Mediated Negative Reinforcement This is not really a training video, but it models what I think is an important conceptual difference about negative reinforcement: automatic vs. socially mediated. (Hint: socially mediated is the type we use in training. In a number of ways, it’s not the same as what we encounter in real life.)

Preventing Dog Reactivity with a Barrier  How a simple piece of cardboard prevented a lot of over-aroused behaviors from Clara.

Tossing Cookies: Delivering Treats and Toys in Dog Training  Some ways to practice food and toy tossing skills.

My Dog Isn’t Food Motivated…Or Is She? A simple demonstration that shows how all dogs are motivated by food to some degree, and a discussion of the common misunderstandings about that.

Get Out Of My Face! Teaching an Incompatible Behavior  How I taught Clara to perform a default down whenever I bent over, instead of mugging my face.

Lumping it: A Public Service Announcement An example of raising criteria too fast and the effect it has on the dog.

Superstition Ain’t the Way  A selection of superstitious behaviors I have accidentally taught my dogs. In some you can actually see the behavior develop.

What You Reinforce is What You Get An example of not holding to criteria, and letting the dog “un-train” the behavior I trained.

Classical Conditioning: Creating a Positive Response to Barking How I classically conditioned Clara to have such a positive response to another dog barking that she never joins in, just reports to me for her goodies.

The Barking Recall Clara’s classically trained response to another dog barking is so strong that she will run from the bottom of the yard into the house to report in whenever it happens.

Summer Learns an Alternative to Being the Fun Police  Summer learns to come to me instead of harassing the other dogs when they play.

Miracles Can Happen: Summer’s Good Behavior Generalizes Summer reports to me when there is a big, noisy dog visiting at the neighbor’s house. She has generalized her response to the rowdy play of my other dogs to a new situation.

Dog Interrupted: The Value of Reorientation Summer can now interrupt her own barking to come seek me out to check in.

But How do I Tell My Dog She’s Wrong? A post that features a video with Sue Ailsby and her young dog Syn learning stand with duration and stand for exam. It clearly demonstrates Syn learning from the lack of a click.

The Right Word Work on verbal cue discrimination, using the principles of reduced error learning.

A Little Heavy on the Body English  An example where I was trying to test a verbal cue discrimination between the behaviors of going to mat and going to crate. However, when it came to the test, you could see that I am obviously still giving physical cues.

Replacing a Poisoned Cue How I rehabilitated Summer’s poisoned “Stay” cue. The video show her stress signals resulting from the earlier cue and her progress with the new cue which had only positive associations.

Operant Learning Illustrated by Examples Just what it says. A movie demonstrating the four processes (quadrants) of operant learning. A stuffed dog generally stands in when the example includes an aversive.

A Secret for Training Two Dogs Step by step instructions for training multiple dogs, with video examples. The secret is to realize that the harder job belongs to the dog that is “waiting,” not the active dog.

The Right Word: Reducing Errors in Verbal Cue Discrimination Teaching individual release cues methodically with the goal of few errors and high precision.

Release Me! Demonstration of the individual release cues discussed in the previous post and movie.

Teaching a Dog to Back Up without Using Body Pressure  A brief post and video tutorial on using the method where a dog goes into a channel between objects and you mark when they back out. I made this movie after watching the truly awful methods commonly used for teaching dogs to back up, and because I was unable to find another video demonstrating this particular method to jump start shaping backing up.

Bootleg Reinforcement The definition and an example of bootleg reinforcement, followed by an intervention that ends up being very enriching for the dog.

Go Sniff! Then Please Come Back! In order to use sniffing as a reinforcement on walks, there are some prerequisite skills the dog needs. The post discusses the need for skills and describes them. The movie demos some exercises to develop the skills.

Clara Relaxes: Video Progress I put together a page with my three videos showing Clara’s progress as I taught her to relax. They can be used as a success story (in my opinion), but also to demonstrate the effects of some common mistakes in training.

Dog Training Basics: Getting the Behavior This post talks about how to get initial behaviors that one can reinforce. It has four embedded videos that show my process of teaching my then-puppy Clara the “down” behavior from the very beginning. There are plenty of errors, and I comment on them.

8 Common Dog Training Errors: Cautionary Tales Description and video portrayal of some of the easiest mistakes to make in training a dog. This is one of my most popular posts of all time.

7 Common Dog Training Errors: More Cautionary Tales Description and video portrayal of more easy mistakes to make in training a dog. This is also a very popular post.

6 Common Dog Training Errors More easy mistakes to make in training.

YouTube Videos (no blog commentary so far)

Negative Reinforcement vs. Positive Reinforcement  I show an example of a behavior I taught (long ago) using body pressure and the stressful effects on the dogs, then reteach it with positive reinforcement and show a dramatic difference.

Kongs for Beginners How to introduce food toys to inexperienced dogs by starting off very easy.

Intermediate Kongs Slightly more difficult Kongs.

I hope these are useful. And by the way, I take requests for videos. If it is humane, in my dogs’ and my capabilities, and won’t hurt our training in the long run, I’ll try it. I don’t mind being a bad example if it isn’t too humiliating and if it can help some people.

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.
Eileen and Clara training

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

© Eileen Anderson 2015                                                                                                                               eileenanddogs.com

Superstitious Behaviors in Dog Training

Superstitious Behaviors in Dog Training

Definition of a Superstitious Behavior: Accidentally or unintentionally reinforced behavior where a behavior is reinforced but the reinforcement occurred by random chance instead of in accordance with a specific contingency.   —From the Association of Animal Behavior Professionals glossary

My little black cat Arabella never brought me bad luck

I wrote when I started this blog that I was going to share my mistakes in the hopes of helping others learn. Here are some nice big embarrassing ones regarding superstitious behaviors, but at least they date mostly from my earlier training days. Hopefully you, or any beginning trainer, can benefit from the lessons I learned the hard way.

The Terminology

B.F. Skinner first described superstitious behaviors in experiments with pigeons in 1948. He set a feeding mechanism to trip at variable intervals that had nothing to do with the actions of the pigeons. The pigeons nonetheless started repeating behaviors that had been “accidentally” marked and reinforced by the feeder.

The term “superstitious behavior” now refers to any behavior that is accidentally reinforced. A couple of the behaviors in this post stretch the definition. But even if they aren’t technically superstitious, they are nonetheless accidental or at least poorly trained on my part.

Summer’s Nod

When one of my agility buddies encouraged me in 2008 to start using a clicker, I didn’t know that I should practice timing. I didn’t know that there were mechanical and observational skills involved. A clicker seemed like a fun thing and I had heard that dogs got motivated and enjoyed it. So I also didn’t know that it would be wise to start with a behavior that involved only gross motor movements.

Uh oh.

The very first behavior I actually got with a clicker was a head nod, even though I was trying to click for eye contact. I realized this after working on this a few weeks with Summer. Summer would move her head to look at me and I would click. I clicked the eye contact but apparently also clicked the nod.  Strangely, the nod drifted to the period after the click and before treat delivery. The sequence went: eye contact, click, head nod, treat. The nod, immediately preceding the food, accordingly got a ton of reinforcement. Even though she did learn (despite me) that I was trying to teach eye contact, the head nod remained.

Four years later, I still get little nods from Summer. Interestingly, she doesn’t offer it in shaping sessions. When it comes back, it returns in its old place between the marker and the treat when I have just clicked her for something else. This is an example of a superstitious behavior.  And it turns out that I am really good at creating those!

It has faded some over the years, but I found a couple of examples. Want to see?

Zani’s Weave Poles

The following is a behavior that would have been very difficult to teach, had I intended to do so.

In the course of teaching Zani agility weaves using the two by two method, I would tend to mark with a “yes” the moment she made the turn between the last poles. This was the moment I was absolutely sure she was going to complete the behavior correctly. That’s a natural time to mark. But early on in our training, she did a few little jumps through the last pair of poles. I marked, and you can see what happened.

But what is most fascinating is that she does it only when I am on her right side. When I am on her left, she doesn’t do her “jump thing” between the last poles. I speculate that since she is very spatially sensitive, she is less likely to hurl herself out of the weaves when I am close to where she will emerge. Or perhaps I just didn’t mark the exit as much when we practiced on that side.

Clara’s Circles

Those first two behaviors are pretty cute. This behavior of Clara’s that I accidentally reinforced is rather unfortunate.

Clara has always been pushy. When she was about three months old I started a training project of reinforcing her for walking a few feet away when I was interacting with another dog. I started off with the other dogs in crates and was very systematic about it. I drew lines on the floor for my own benefit so as to keep consistent criteria about Clara’s distance from the other dogs. We did lots and lots of sessions where she would walk away a few steps and reorient at some distance.

It would have been better if I had taught a default down or Go to Mat, or at least thrown the treat away from our immediate area. I ended up unintentionally reinforcing a circling behavior. She would walk a few steps away, turn and reorient at the desired distance. I marked the turn way too often, when what I wanted for her was just to back off. But the “backing off” was not a well-defined behavior, even with my lines on the floor. So I ended up clicking an observable behavior, and that was when she turned back to me. Dang.

What is so unfortunate about this is that the circling either morphed into a stress behavior or it was one already. Because I have seen a lot more of it ever since those sessions. Clara tends to do it when I don’t mark a behavior that she expects to be marked. She will immediately whirl around, usually counterclockwise, then often retreat to a mat.

It is impossible to tease apart how much of this is due to all that early reinforcement, and how much of it is a natural stress behavior for her. I do wish I hadn’t trained so many 180 and 270 degree turns when she was young. When I set out to teach her spinning as a trick, it was dead easy, but I gave that a second thought and decided not to use that trick.

Cricket, Too

I even taught superstitious behaviors with Cricket. I tried to train a paw lift as a “wave” trick, but then it started occurring in her “sit” position as a superstitious behavior. Once it started, I kept accidentally reinforcing it. She almost never put her left foot down when she sat for me again. I didn’t know enough at the time to fix the problem I had created.

The way I first taught the behavior was not great either. A friend had suggested holding a treat in my hand and clicking Cricket for pawing at it, then fading the hand and treat. Such a bad idea in so many ways. Reinforcing an enthusiastic digging terrier for pawing at my hand? Ouch.

How To Avoid Training Superstitious Behaviors

I wish I could give some succinct, pithy advice that could keep other newish trainers from doing this. When choosing what behaviors to teach and how to teach them,  it takes experience to learn to predict the ramifications.

Here are the best suggestions I have.

  • Answer a few questions. Is there a persistent extra behavior that is happening when I train this behavior? What’s going to happen if that extra behavior sticks around? How can I get rid of it? If I’m training a trick—might this extra behavior or the trick itself turn up where I don’t want it? Might it interfere with behaviors that are actually more important to train?
  • Video yourself. If you don’t have a teacher, you can learn a lot by recording your training sessions, and if you are brave, showing those recordings to online friends if you don’t have a teacher or local training buddy. People can give much better counsel if they actually see what you and the animal have been doing. Most of us humans could use a lot of work on our observation and description skills. Cameras do a lot better job for a lot of us.
  • Get expert advice. I didn’t have a teacher to ask when I taught most of the behaviors I’ve described here. A professional would have seen most of my mishaps in an instant and showed me how to head them off.

A Success!

One thing that I got right: I started training that “backing up the stairs or wall” trick that was going around a while back. Zani just loved it and started getting good at it. It was great for hind end awareness.

But then one day when we were practicing our two on, two off agility contacts, she overran them and happily backed up into position. That would be a fault in many agility venues. I immediately stopped training the trick. A more experienced or patient trainer could certainly have both behaviors, but sometimes I realize my limitations. The risk wasn’t worth it to me.

Here is one more superstitious behavior Clara and I collaborated on. This is an example of something that is cute when a puppy does it, but can get pretty tiresome in a grown dog. Of course it’s still cute, but who wants their fingers licked Every. Single. Time. They go to open a crate door?

OK folks, please tell me I’m not the only one who trains silly behaviors by accident. Does anybody want to say what they have done? Or are you all perfect?

(Here’s a link to a one minute video that shows all five behaviors, to make my humiliation complete.)

Many thanks to Joyce Loebig for suggestions that improved this post!

Coming Soon

Copyright 2012 Eileen Anderson

A Little Heavy on the Body English

A Little Heavy on the Body English

Part 3 of  Dogs Notice Everything (The Missed Cue)

This is really the opposite of a missed cue. The dogs are understanding the cues beautifully, but these are cues I’m consciously trying not to give!

Around the time I made the Missed Cue videos, I got very interested in cue discrimination in general and worked on teaching Summer and Zani the difference between the verbal cues for Crate and Go to Mat. Since it is so easy to teach these with hand and body cues, my dogs didn’t really know the verbals, although I used them regularly. So I took a stab at teaching the discrimination and made a video of our progress. The methods in the movie are not bad, but my test of the results leaves quite a bit to desired.

In the spirit of the blog, I present the embarrassing part of the video, where I attempt to test Zani’s knowledge of the verbal cues. The whole point is to refrain from giving any physical indication of which item I want them to go, and I fail utterly at this.

To complete my embarrassment, I’ve turned off the sound for this short clip. Even a human can tell which behavior I am cuing by my body language every time. I not only fix my gaze on the object, but I turn my body slightly in that direction. And dogs are probably 10 times better at noticing those things than we are.

It wouldn’t have been so bad if it hadn’t been the whole focus and point of the training!

Does Your Dog REALLY Understand a Verbal Cue?

In case you want to test whether your dogs know a verbal cue, here’s Donna Hill of Vancouver Island Assistance Dogs showing how to do it correctly.

I’m making a goal for myself to teach some cues well enough to pass this test. The first step by itself,  teaching the dog to respond while I am out of sight, could be a challenge. This skill has to be taught gradually as well. Since my dogs can respond to some cues at a distance I’m hoping we have a good start on this.

Anybody else aware of cuing their dog without knowing it? It’s so easy to do. Want to share?

Discussions coming soon:

Thanks for reading!

Copyright 2012 Eileen Anderson

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