eileenanddogs

Month: January 2013

Safety Behaviors: Down at a Distance and Recalls

Safety Behaviors: Down at a Distance and Recalls

These behaviors may save a dog’s life someday.

Today I practiced two of our three main safety behaviors: coming when called, and dropping and staying at a distance. We left Zen, the third, for another day.

Clara downs on a hand signal
Clara downs on a hand signal

Down on a hand signal is a Level 1 behavior in the Training Levels, although the one we are currently practicing is not the hand signal that Sue presents there. This is one that I added because I wanted something that my dogs could see at a great distance: putting my hand straight up in the air. It was much harder to teach than the downward descending hand signal though. I think it’s hard because 1) it’s hard for my dogs to make a motion in the opposite direction from my hand (the source of food, after all) and 2) I had to start with a  little bit of distance or they couldn’t see the signal without looking straight up. So maybe it’s not Level 1 after all, even when we’re close together. But we are taking it through the Levels just like every other cue.

It’s important to me, so we have been working on it a lot. We have practiced it in all accessible rooms of the house and started in the back yard a few days ago.

My goal for the behavior is for the dog to freeze in place and collapse down instantly on seeing/hearing my cue. This could save a dog’s life if, for instance, she had gotten loose and was on the other side of a busy street from me.

You’ll see me lump a bit when working with Summer, but maybe not as much as it appears. We do a session of New Cue/Old Cue using the hand signal then the verbal since it’s been a while since we practiced the distance down on the yard. As we are practicing I am moving backwards. But the distance doesn’t exactly add difficulty, at least at the distances at which we are working. Since she learned distance sits and downs in the old levels, she grasps that at much farther distances. I’m moving back in part to find the sweet spot where it is easiest for her to see. But still, I probably shouldn’t be moving around while reminding her of a cue.

As for recalls: we practice them religiously. I enjoy them because they’re fun, and also because I’m lazy about certain things. Recall is a behavior for which I don’t even have to think about stimulus control (see definition and discussion of that here)  or fading to  intermittent reinforcement.  So unless my dog breaks a stay, she gets reinforced for coming to me virtually every time, and we both like that.

Clara Running
Clara coming when called

I have at least three recall cues. One of them I used to call my “informal recall cue” until Wendy, one of the teachers in Susan Friedman’s course, pointed out that a cue is a cue, and “informal” doesn’t have much meaning. So off with that label and I’ll explain it. The cue is “are you ready to come in?”. I reinforce it intermittently with food, but there are other reinforcers present or imminent. I use it when I would like it if they would come in pretty soon, kind of like a three minute warning. But there’s plenty of reinforcement just around the corner. Generally coming back in the house with the group is reinforcing by itself. We might do something interesting, and they often get a piece of kibble for coming when I use that cue.

In the movie you’ll see Zani, little champ, responding to this casual recall cue like Rin Tin Tin. I don’t think it’s the power of the intermittent schedule as much as the fact that she saw the camera tripod, smile.

My second recall cue is “puppy puppy puppy,” which I use when I’m not sure the dog will come or if I don’t have huge reinforcement available. I don’t use that in this video. The third cue is each dog’s name, called out in a singsong tone. That is their hugely reinforced cue. Because of the special tone, I don’t seem to create any confusion by using their names. It doesn’t sound the same as when I use their name to get their attention or to precede another cue.

I love Summer’s recall. Clara and Zani are enthusiastic and both naturally speedy. But Summer puts the most heart into it. Her recall always reminds me how far she and I have come.

What behaviors are important to you? What are the most fun?

Coming up soon:

“Errorless” Learning

“Errorless” Learning

Addendum, 2/9/13. Please be aware that there are some historical inaccuracies in this post, mostly related to the origin of the method and term Errorless Learning. The mistakes affect some of my conclusions as well. Please read Errorless Learning II if you read this post, or instead of reading this post. –Eileen

You will never hear me say, or see me write, “It’s only semantics.” I grew up in a family full of passionate readers, English and education majors, and teachers. Not to mention musicians, who are often quite obsessed with passionate about language as well.

Semantics is very important to me because it deals with whether or not we understand each other. Here is part of the definition from Wikipedia: “It [semantics] is often used in ordinary language for denoting a problem of understanding that comes down to word selection or connotation.” In other words (ha ha), if I use a word or phrase and it means one thing to me and to you it means something very different, we instantly have a communication problem, and we may not even know it.

That is the context in which I offer this post. Don’t worry, I’m going to make it to dog training, and there are actually some dog training hints in here.

Zani beginning the shell game
Zani beginning the shell game

There is a newish catch phrase going around the science-based dog training community: “errorless learning.” I am seeing more and more usage of the term, and reading pieces that equate it with the ultimate humane training. I think a lot of folks have picked up the phrase and are using it to mean setting your dog up for success in a general way. I’m aware of some others who associate it with training with positive reinforcement only. Some use it to indicate that they do not use No Reward Markers. (If an error happens in the forest and no one says anything, did it really happen? Sorry.)

But actually the phrase is not new at all. It refers to a specific teaching methodology that has been well investigated by research.  I am going to describe the original research on so-called errorless learning, some subsequent research, and explain why I think the term is currently being misused and perhaps wrongly proposed as a goal in our companion animal training.

Initial Research about Error Free Learning

Skinner box

Herbert Terrace published, “Discrimination learning with and without ‘errors’,” in 1963. The experiments were performed on pigeons in Skinner boxes. The discrimination behavior taught to the pigeons was to peck on an illuminated key for a food reward when the key was lit internally with a red bulb and not peck when the key was illuminated with a green bulb.

At the beginning of the experiment, the key (in the darkened enclosure) was lit bright red. Apparently it is easy to get birds to peck on a colored, illuminated key, and importantly, they generally will not peck a dark key. The pigeons got reinforced for pecking on the brightly lit red key. The key went dark between trials and no reinforcement was available.

The birds were divided into four groups.  After the birds had a period during which the key glowed red and during which they got food rewards for pecking it, the color and brightness of the key were changed according to four different protocols. For the pigeons who learned the discrimination the fastest, called the “early progressive” group,  the procedure was as follows: early in the experiment, after a “dark” period, the key was illuminated at an extremely low level with the green bulb, and no reinforcement was available when the birds pecked at it. (But mostly they didn’t.) This was alternated with periods where the key was illuminated bright red, and the pigeons were reinforced for pecking it. The duration and intensity of the green light were very gradually  increased from a dark key of 5 seconds duration to a bright green key of 3 minutes duration. In short: the key morphed from completely dark to bright green so gradually that to the pigeons it remained “unattractive” to peck.

For the three other groups of pigeons, there were variations in how early the green key was introduced, and whether it was introduced gradually or at full intensity at the very beginning.

The pigeons in the “early progressive” group had an amazingly low error rate. They pecked at the green key well under 1% of the time.

This technique is the ancestor of what we often do nowadays in teaching a discrimination. If I want my dog to touch her paw to a cup with food under it and ignore another cup, I will first have only the desired cup present. I’ll reinforce some iterations of touching that cup. Then when I first introduce the second cup (which is empty) I may put it in an inconvenient place for the dog to touch it and only gradually bring it physically closer. In other words I will make it easy for the dog to be right, sneak in the “wrong” cup so that at first it is just part of the background, and raise the challenge very gradually.

But before we adopt Terrace’s term of errorless learning to apply to such techniques, let’s look at some differences between what he did and what we do–and are even willing to do–with our pets. Here are some of the primary differences between his training situation and ours with our pet or performance dogs:

  • The pigeons were food deprived. They were kept at 80% of their normal body weight for a period starting two weeks before the start of the experiment to the end of the experiment. This is very common in such experiments.
  • The pigeons were isolated in a Skinner box during the experiments.
  • White noise was played to block external sound.
  • The light intensity and duration on the keys were controlled with great precision by an electrical unit.
  • The birds had not been taught anything before.
  • Although it is not stated in the paper, it is fair to assume that the birds had no particular relationship with humans other than being handled; they were not pets.
  • The birds were being taught only one behavior (this is a crucial point).
  • There was no proofing. The birds were not challenged to perform the behavior under any other conditions. It’s fair to assume the behavior wasn’t generalized.

Again, the error rate of the highly controlled birds (only in the early progressive group) was less than 1%.

From the above points, it appears that impressively low error rate was possible at least in part because of the technology available to the experimentors and the extreme control over experimental conditions that was possible for them. We don’t generally have rheostats to gradually change the intensity of lights, or little trucks to drag in the “wrong” object in increments of exactly half an inch.

You Can’t Do This At Home, But…

The conditions under which the pigeons were trained cannot be emulated by the average trainer, for technological reasons, reasons related to environmental control, and also humane reasons.

But I wanted to show how that method is relevant to some teaching strategies we use with our dogs. I made a video of the descendant of Terrace’s method as applied to scent discrimination: the Shell Game. In the video I am teaching Clara to tap only a jar lid that has a treat under it. My goal was to demonstrate the method of sneaking the “incorrect” lid in from the side while the dog is happily bopping the food filled one.

As usual, I got more than I bargained for. For starters, I utterly failed at sneakiness. You’ll see. We survived that. But in addition, I got some interesting footage of Clara making an “error” pretty early on (tapping the wrong lid), which was probably because of my clumsiness and bringing it in too fast. However, although different dogs react differently, making this error appeared to help teach her more about the game. See what you think.

Mine is not a tutorial video. If you want to teach your dog the Shell game, here’s a really nice tutorial by Donna Hill. She uses a different method of helping her dog succeed, and does a beautiful job as usual. By the way, in my video Clara was standing in for Zani and it was her first time ever playing the game. All the paw flailing she did (including belting and grabbing me a few times) was because we’ve been spending quite a bit of time shaping a trick with a lot of paw movement. It took her a while to get that out of her system and figure out the new game. That’s another difference between training in the lab and at home. Whatever else has been reinforced recently or richly will likely creep into the new thing you are working on.

What you see in my video, however clumsily done, and what many people seem to mean by “errorless learning, ” is helping the animal to be right. Terrace’s work went far beyond making it easy for the pigeons to be right, however. Because of his use of technology and the controls available in a laboratory, he made it very, very difficult for the birds to be wrong. Is this a good thing?

Would You Even Want To? The Big Drawback of that Huge Success Rate

OK, so what if we could achieve that kind of low error rate while still being kind to our animals, and let’s further assume that we were able to teach it to fluency in a real life environment. Are there any other problems?

Yes. Back to the pigeons: what if later we needed them to peck the key when it was green instead? Biiiiig problem.

Discrimination Reversal Following Learning without “Errors” by Marsh and Johnson in 1968 demonstrated that pigeons taught to peck a red key and ignore a green one, using Terrace’s method, could not, even after five days, be induced to learn a new behavior of pecking the green key.

For most things we want to teach our dogs, that would be a huge problem.

Granted that there are some behaviors and tasks in the dog world that are standalone, in the sense that you would not be likely to teach a conflicting behavior. Diabetic alert dogs come to mind. As I understand it, they learn to react to one and only one odor for their working lives. (Correct me if I’m wrong, folks.) Cadaver search dogs. Perhaps some other types of search dogs, but not all.

But in the service dog, pet and performance dog worlds, it seems to me that these kinds of needs are rare. Most people teach their dogs both sit and down. Agility and herding dogs aren’t taught left turns only. They learn left and right. Service dogs typically learn to both push and pull, use left and right. They have to be ready to pick some stuff up and not even touch other stuff.

Anyone who has trained a dog, for example, to raise her right paw, got that fluent, then taught her to raise her left paw, is familiar with the period of frustration the dog goes through when the familiar behavior no longer pays off. I have a post related to that about the mini extinction bursts that our dogs undergo in shaping exercises. The research tells us that if we had trained the right paw raise errorlessly (a difficult challenge), the dog’s frustration when trying to learn the left paw raise would greatly increase.

The pigeons learned only to do one thing, and the exercise did not teach them problem solving skills or how to play other training games with humans. And it blew their little minds when they were asked to do something else.

This is the biggest reason I do not have errorless learning as a goal for my dogs, nor do I use the term for the teaching strategies I use and admire. Taking a long view, training them to do one thing using something close to Terrace’s method could set them up for tons of stress and frustration later.

Learning What’s Wrong to Learn What’s Right

It’s a little bit out of style to emphasize the importance of your dog knowing what the wrong behavior is. It smacks of corrections and punishment based training. But as clicker trainers say, the lack of a click is information. In my video, because I lumped a bit and moved the second lid into the picture so fast, Clara made an error fairly early on. Her error consisted of tapping the empty lid. She tapped it a couple of times, got no treat, sniffed and licked it, then proceeded to the correct lid and tapped it. She then ignored the “wrong” lid from then on in that session. I think she learned something really important. There are lids with nothing under them! She is going to have to use her nose to figure it out. It seems to me that learning that at this point was not at all harmful for this dog.

Let’s Add to the Terminology Confusion: Applications to Human Learning

Errorless learning is used very successfully in operant conditioning programs for autistic children. But the process is quite different, since we primates mimic so easily and often we can understand and follow verbal instructions. From this website comes a good definition:

[Errorless learning]: The use of instruction designed to prevent errors or incorrect responses. Typically prompts (artificial cues that provide assistance to the learner about the correct response) are presented so that an individual engages in a behavior that is being targeted. Once the individual is engaging in the behavior appropriately, then these prompts are faded or removed slowly and systematically so that the correct behavior is made with few or no errors.

Here is a lovely little video that shows that technique.

But think about whether we could apply that method to dog training. The child is learning to perform the initial task through either the verbal instruction, mimicking the hand movement of the teacher, or both. Neither of those are available to us with dogs. If the behavior is new, they don’t already know the verbal cue. And although there seems to be some small evidence of dogs learning by mimicry (of other dogs), you can’t take your average dog, put your hand on an object, then expect them to put their paw on it just like you did.

Aggression

Back to the birds. Terrace later claimed as a by-product of some later experiments that pigeons trained using a trial and error method rather than his “errorless” approach showed aggressive behavior when pecking the wrong key produced no reinforcement. The article is “Behavioral contrast and the peak shift: effect of extended discrimination training” and is available in full online. In that work and in a later study he claimed that these behaviors were not present with his “errorless” cohort.

I have heard this used as an argument for “errorless” learning for dogs. Our dogs might get enraged and aggressive if they make too many mistakes, so we need to absolutely minimize by any means possible the number of mistakes they make. But again, there are big differences in the training environment between the lab and training our dogs at home. Our training is relationship based. And a big part of the job of the human trainer is to monitor the emotional state of the dog as evidenced by its behavior and adjust the task accordingly.

Also, later research did not replicate Terrace’s results; i.e. the aggressive responses were also found in subjects who learned via the “errorless” methods. See Rilling: Extinction Induced Aggression. To me, for the dog to undergo some momentary frustration in small doses seems better than to get a big dose later.

Conclusion

In short: I think the methods used in the original “errorless” learning would be inappropriate, and in some cases inhumane to use on our pets, and the method by which the pigeons learned a discrimination behavior appeared to impede further learning.

I understand why people use the term. They want to clarify that they are doing their best to make the training experience fun and successful for their dog, and to emphasize that their approach is humane. Maybe there is a better way to say that!

Dr. Susan Friedman uses the term, “Reduced error learning.” To me it is more accurate, and doesn’t carry the baggage of Terrace’s term.

As trainers who use learning theory, we know the value and sometimes the difficulty of getting terminology right. And we understand that discussion is a lot more straightforward when everybody has general agreement on terminology. So from what I have learned here, I am encouraging folks to not morph a term that has a scientific, historical meaning into something a bit different, and especially not to attach a glamour to it because it sounds so nice.

I’m all for making it easy for our animals to be right in order to initially learn the behavior, then very gradually raise the difficulty. Of course! That is a basic tenet of effective, humane training. But it seems to me that striving to get an extremely low error rate can have a very high price.

Anybody have any examples of standalone behaviors that would profit from strict errorless methods? I’d love to know. Also, please note that I did not do a complete literature survey on errorless learning. It’s a large topic. Maybe I missed something important. If I did, please tell me!

Thanks for reading!

Coming up soon:

Contest! The Faces of Summer

Contest! The Faces of Summer

Summer with bedroom eyes
Summer with bedroom eyes

Just the other day I told a friend that I would never have a contest on my FaceBook page or here on the blog. It’s always presented as one of the number one ways to get people to Like, read, or visit your site. It seemed so tacky and pandering to do that just to get readers. I always figured that if I wanted readers (and I do, I do!), it was my job to be interesting, informative, or at least entertaining.

I still think that, but then something happened. I’ve been collecting photos of Summer’s face in different situations for a while, since she is so very expressive. I made them all into a gallery, and made a list of all the descriptions of the situations. I thought I’d ask readers if they could match them up.

Oops, it’s a contest! So I decided to go with it. So put on your observer hat and get ready to apply what you know!

Rules are below. The three top scorers (see rules below) will get their choice of either a print copy (not e-book)  of Alexandra Horowitz’ “Inside of a Dog: What Dogs See, Smell, and Know” or Grey Stafford’s “Zoomility,” mailed directly to them from DogWise.

Photos

Descriptions

Here are the descriptions for the photos, in random order.

  • First time she saw a TV
  • In costume
  • Looking for a varmint (squirrel, rat, possum, or turtle) (see comments for clarification)
  • Looking for a varmint (squirrel, rat, possum, or turtle)  (see comments for clarification)
  • Looking for a varmint (squirrel, rat, possum, or turtle)  (see comments for clarification)
  • Found a varmint (squirrel, rat, possum, or turtle)  (see comments for clarification)
  • Found a varmint (squirrel, rat, possum, or turtle)  (see comments for clarification)
  • After a varmint hunt
  • Sitting uncomfortably close to another dog
  • Has been fussed at
  • Late in day at agility trial
  • At the agility field
  • Watching petals float through the air
  • My mom has her arm around her
  • Playing with Zani
  • Playing with Zani
  • Guarding a Nylabone
  • Being held in my arms
  • During a thunderstorm
  • During a thunderstorm
  • Home from vet after serious illness
  • Asking to train
  • Doing agility sequence
  • Just a photoshoot in the back yard
  • On a road trip in hot weather
  • Waiting to check the back yard
  • Immediately after fence fight with new neighbor dog
  • On a fun outing
  • On a fun outing
  • At the fairgrounds on her mat at a dog show
  • Being petted

Don’t be daunted that there are so many! Give it a try even if you can guess only a few. If it’s so hard, it could be that someone who only gets half of them right could win.

How to Enter

To enter the contest, copy the above list into an email and put the number of the photo next to each description. Title the email “Contest Entry.” Email it to the name of this blog  @att.net. Got that? eileenanddogs at the domain name in the previous sentence. Please include your name in your email. If you have trouble with the email address, send me a message using the sidebar of the blog. I will acknowledge all entries, so if you don’t get an email back from me within 24 hours, try it again.

Rules

  • Please enter only once. (In the event that I have made some kind of error that affects your choice and it is discovered after you have entered, you may amend your entry pertaining to that issue.)
  • For the exact same descriptions that apply to multiple photos (mostly having to do with varmints), it doesn’t matter in what order you attach the photo numbers to the descriptions.
  • Please do not submit your entry  in the comments section of the blog (I will unpublish it if anybody forgets).
  • It’s OK to have discussions of the photos with each other in the blog comments, or on my FaceBook page, or anywhere. Just don’t post your list.
  • Check back in the comments and/or my FaceBook page in case I need to make any interim announcements. I will make the announcements both places.
  • The three winners will be the people who get all 31 right the fastest. Or failing anyone getting all 31 right the winners will be determined by who got the most right, and in the case of a tie, who got that number right first.
  • If you want to guess just for the glory of it and don’t want a prize, please say “decline prize” in your entry email.
  • If you don’t want your name announced if you win, please say so in your entry email.
  • I will notify winners by email as well as by announcing on the blog. At that time I’ll ask privately for your mailing address.
  • Deadline is 12:00 midnight on Thursday, January 31st, 2013, at Central Standard Time (Central Standard Time is GMT minus 6 hours).
  • I will announce the winners during the first weekend of February and publish the answers. I’ll publish the uncropped photos, with some commentary, sometime after that.

I hope this was fun!

Coming up soon:

2013 Pet Blogger Challenge

2013 Pet Blogger Challenge

Thank you to Go Pet Friendly for the Pet Blogger Challenge. I’ve never participated in one of these before, but here goes. I look forward to learning about some blogs that are new to me through this challenge, and I hope my responses here are worth the electrons used to transfer them.
But first, pictures of my wonderful dogs, for those who haven’t seen them.

Three dogs lying very close together, all with their eyes riveted on the person taking the picture
Some nice focus from Zani, Summer, and Clara
Cricket looking beautiful, 2006
Cricket (RIP) just looking beautiful, 2006

1. When did you begin your blog?

In July, 2012.

2. What was your original purpose for starting a blog?

I want to help dogs and their owners have happier lives together. I wanted to share my successes and failures with dog training with others who might benefit. I’m in an odd existential position, with no credentials yet a moderate amount of knowledge of learning theory and passionate ongoing contact with great trainers. I don’t feel comfortable dishing out a lot of advice on discussion lists, but I have opinions, hopefully fact-based,  on so many things, and I’ve got moderately good writing skills and quite a bit of experience writing.

Before I started my blog I went around frustrated a lot of the time with what I read on the Internet, because I had these passionate opinions and nowhere to put them. I don’t deal well with strife and didn’t want to have endless arguments on discussion lists. I would spend way too much time writing a post then either not post it, or post it and be nervous for days about the responses. Having my own home on the Internet gives me a place to flesh out these thoughts, include videos, and bibliographic references.

I have also always had a strong  belief that people learn best seeing dogs who do not already know a behavior. I felt like I could do demonstrations of a typical naive dog with a moderately inexperienced trainer (me!), and let people see what both success and failure looked like.

3. Is your current purpose the same?

Absolutely.

If so, how do you feel you’ve met your goals?

Writing has reawakened my passion for teaching. I love having a voice again, and the potential of helping dogs and their owners everywhere. I can say I’ve met my goals because of the feedback I get from readers. I am reaching just the people I hoped to reach, and many report back that my posts have helped them.

4. How often do you post?

I post about six times a month, an average of 1.5 times a week.

5. Do you blog on a schedule or as the spirit moves you?

I don’t keep a schedule. I blog “as fast as I can.” At this moment, for instance, I have 50+ partially written posts and/or just titles saved and ready to be fleshed out. So I don’t have a dearth of material.

If you don’t publish on a schedule, why? How do you think your decision affects your audience? How do you know when a topic is “post-worthy?”

I don’t ever want to compromise quality just to get something out. I know that some readers like the predictability of a schedule, but in this day of RSS feeds and FaceBook promotion, anyone who wants to know when I post has multiple ways of doing that. And I’m thrilled that people actually do!

My posts often have multiple supporting resources, so I can’t just dash them out. One post this year had a blog post, a home-made informational video that took weeks to get right, a resource page with a second by second analysis of  10 minute YouTube video (done with coordinated assistance from other observers), and a resource page with 12 other YouTube videos in contrasting pairs, two of which were made by other trainers (thank you!) specifically for the page. As I recall, I interrupted that work at least twice to publish another post.

As for “post-worthiness,” I post when I feel like I have something unique to offer, and when my writing muse demands it. I don’t write purely instructional posts for the most part, since I don’t have credentials or a lot of experience. So I probably wouldn’t write a post on, for example, resource guarding and what to do about it. But if I have interesting footage of my dogs resource guarding things from each other, I might post it with some commentary, in the interest of promulgating study of dog body language.

I have made one straight-on instructional video which I will blog about sometime. It is on teaching a dog to back up without using body pressure. I did it specifically because at the time I couldn’t find a single video on YouTube that didn’t use body pressure and I felt it really needed to be shown that you don’t have to walk or wave something in your dog’s face to make them back up. That’s the same impetus for my blogging. The strong feeling that “why hasn’t somebody said this?” or “why hasn’t somebody shown how to do it this way?”.

Before I ever studied Search Engine Optimization and discovered the Google Keyword tool, I would search Google and YouTube on the topics that I was interested in before I published, just to make sure that I was presenting valuable information that had not been overworked before. And when I find a niche like that, and feel like I am capable of speaking intelligently on it, I am absolutely driven to do so.

6. How much time do you spend writing your blog per week? How much time visiting other blogs? Share your  tips for staying on top of it all.

I probably write from 3-10 hours a week, and spend an equal time working on the videos that almost always accompany my posts. I read other blogs from 15-30 minutes a day, but I am a fast reader and can cover quite a bit of ground. I can’t stay on top of it all, but I prioritize, prioritize, prioritize. The one thing I try not to do is slack off on the training of my own dogs.

7. How do you measure the success of a post and of your blog in general (comments, shares, traffic)? Do you look strictly at the numbers, or do you have a way of assessing the quality of those interactions?

I love big numbers as much as anybody, but when someone writes in and says thank you and that my post really helped, THAT for me, is success. Even if it’s just one person.

8. If you could ask the pet blogging community for help with one issue you’re having with your blog, what would it be?

Right now I just don’t have any issues. Life is good. How about, “Read mine and I’ll read yours!” I give everything that comes my way a chance.

9. What goals do you have for your blog in 2013?

To gain more readers through word of mouth, and to maintain the passion I have for the project now. Blogging has given my work with my dogs a focus and a platform, and I absolutely love it.

Thanks for asking!

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

I have pages on my blog for more about me and more about my dogs. 

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Copyright 2013 Eileen Anderson

The Perils of Premature Premack

The Perils of Premature Premack

Zani waiting at the back door
Zani waiting at the back door. Her reinforcement for this polite behavior is the opportunity to go outside.

Sacrilege!

Is it possible that in some cases, using the Premack principle in choosing reinforcement for our dogs is not the best choice? Can attempting Premack cause problems?[1]*A technicality, but it’s important. Notice I haven’t said “Premack didn’t work.” That’s like saying that reinforcement didn’t work. Reinforcement is defined … Continue reading

In my experience, yes. It can go wrong with some behaviors, with some dogs, and especially with some inexperienced trainers (yours truly takes a bow).

Premack’s principle states that more probable behaviors will reinforce less probable behaviors. In other words, you can use an activity the dog really enjoys to reinforce something that is ho-hum. You can reinforce a sit/stay with a tug session. You can reinforce sitting politely while the leash is attached with going for a walk. Premack is all about life rewards.

Premack is often suggested in situations when a dog really, really wants to do something, so much so that they are having a hard time with self control. My dog Zani loves little kids. If I wanted to apply Premack to this situation, I could use the opportunity to visit with them (if they were interested and it was OK with mom) to reinforce her walking calmly up to them without pulling. Visiting with children could be a more potent reinforcer than a a really good food treat for Zani. So the Premack principle can turn a distraction into a reinforcer. For my dog Summer, being brought close to children would be punishing. She’s nervous about them.

By the way, Premack applies to punishment, too. Many of David Premack’s experiments involved punishing a behavior by inducing the animal to subsequently perform an undesired behavior. We can think of examples of this easily in our life with dogs. If the only time we take a dog into a certain bathroom is to take a bath, and he hates baths (and we haven’t done anything to mitigate that), the behavior of walking nonchalantly into that bathroom with us will decrease.

There is one obvious answer to the question posed by my title. Premack is not a good choice when the behavior is never acceptable. For instance, my young dog Clara loves to pounce on and body slam my other dogs. She would love it if I allowed that, but of course I don’t. I teach incompatible behaviors and I interrupt it. And I try to give her opportunities for very physical play with me, with some firm ground rules.

But there is another situation in which Premack is not the best choice, and it can be hard to recognize, especially for pet owners and anyone who is trying to teach their dog without an in-person expert teacher.

In my experience, Premack may not be a good choice when the desired behavior triggers stress, arousal or a strong emotional response from the dog, or if the behavior results from these conditions.

Summer waiting at the back door
Summer waiting at the back door. What is wrong with this picture?

I think this can be an insidious problem, since behaviors and situations the dog gets really excited about are precisely what prompt people to recommend Premack. If you spend any time at all on dog training Internet discussion groups, you know that whenever someone describes something the dog is passionate about (squirrels) someone else is going to suggest using Premack. This advice comes as regular as clockwork. Give the dog contingent access to the squirrels.

I’ve gotten so I flinch every time I see those recommendations come rolling in. It may work out just fine. But the newbie trainer who is describing the problem may not have a correct assessment of the situation, and/or the skill to use the Premack reinforcer.

I can relate three personal experiences where Premack didn’t work out for me. And I mean, spectacularly didn’t work out. My own inexperience came into play in varying degrees, but that’s my point.

1. Reinforcing loose leash walking with a chance to run towards a squirrel, with my dog Summer. This was a disaster. I was brand new to training, but it seemed like such a good idea, made to order. What I didn’t know then was that Summer has a very high prey drive, is hyper vigilant, and very environmentally sensitive. I also didn’t know that I really needed to have taught her more about LLW itself (using food). But instead I jumped right into Premack. When we would see a squirrel I would require a few steps of LLW, followed by a quiet sit. Then I would release her and we would run together to the squirrel and she would lose her mind. When I got tired of circling the squirrel tree with her, I had to figure out a way to get her away. Her capability of going for a normal walk was completely gone by that point.

If you are going to allow the dog some kind of engagement with the environment as a reinforcer, I think there is a prerequisite to being able to make it work. You need a way to get them back, and it seems to me that you need to train this first. You need your dog to be able to recover from a potent emotional response fluently. These are challenging things to do, and usually not in place if you are having a big issue with distractions in the first place.

By the way, I used sniffing as a reinforcer for loose leash walking with moderate success with my dog Zani. I allowed stopping to calmly sniff as a reinforcer for walking nicely on leash. But in her case I had a little more experience than I had had when I tried it with Summer and the squirrels. I taught Zani a cue to go sniff, “Beagle!” And a cue to come back to my side, “With me!” I practiced the pair of behaviors in boring environments before taking it on the road, and I taught Zani the correct position for LLW to begin with with food.

2. Reinforcing Clara for not jumping up to lick my face by letting her lick my face on cue, with four paws on the floor. Ouch. Another newbie error on my part. It seemed like such a no brainer. I mean, if she is dying to jump up and get my face, that seems like a great candidate for Premack, right? Well in our case, wrong. I recently wrote a whole post about the face mugging problem and all the things I tried. I was well on my way to trying Premack when I thought to ask my teacher about it. She took a look at Clara, and said that her jumping up at my face did not look like a happy behavior. It was stress related. So even if I had succeeded in teaching her how to lick my face without the danger of breaking my jaw, I might have ended up with a situation like Summer at the door (see below).

3. Reinforcing sitting politely at the back door with going outside with Summer. This is a lovely method for two of my dogs, Zani and Clara. See Zani’s photo above. It is one of the most commonly recommended uses of the Premack principle in dog training. But again, it didn’t work for Summer. You would think that something she wanted so badly–to charge out into the yard checking for cats, squirrels, and other varmints–would cause a very prompt, snappy sit at the door. Not so. As you can see in the video, sometimes she can’t sit at all. And if she does sit,  she will not accept a treat. She is what is often called “over threshold.” She is anticipating what might be in the yard, and is having a big emotional response to that. She is also showing the fallout of years of conflict with me at the door. I didn’t cope with her behavior well, especially at first. I nagged her because I was completely oblivious to what was going on. I made the situation worse.

By the way, Zani is also at the door, and can be seen at 1:24 in the video in an exemplary calm sit, even though she is excited to go out, too. She is not drowned in excitement and stress hormones.

I fully acknowledge that a better trainer could have managed this situation better. She could have taught Summer first to be calm in the face of the potential excitement. Then worked up to using the Premack reinforcer when she could keep her wits about her. I should have aborted the project when my behavior was obviously stressing her out. But that’s my point. Premack is often recommended to beginners and to us non-professionals. And it can really backfire without some experienced eyes on what is happening. When I first started doing this years ago I had no idea why Summer’s sit was not more reliable. This method seemed to work for everybody else. To be perfectly frank, I read her body language as “sulky.” I thought she was being a bratty adolescent; moving slowly and giving me a dirty look because I didn’t let her out fast enough.

You might think that I would have run into a problem with her stress at the door just as badly if I had used food as the reinforcer for a calm sit. But using food diffuses Summer’s overexcitement, and doesn’t feed into it. (Many trainers have noted that food tends to have a calming effect when training behaviors, as opposed to using tug or other high arousal activities.) She has practiced her frozen shutdown, then running out in a frenzy for years now. But reinforcing a sit near the door with a high value food treat instead, and doing training sessions in this area of the house, are changing the potential reinforcement map in my favor. The excitement of the outdoors pales a little, which is good. She starts thinking of other ways she can earn the treat. Hmmm, how about reorienting to me after she goes through the door? Great!

Premack Successes

Let this post be a cautionary tale. But lest it appear that I am saying not to use Premack at all, let me mention some Premack reinforcers that have worked really well for me.

  • The two ball game: reinforcing Clara for releasing the ball by throwing another ball (this works with one ball, too, but was easier for me to teach with two)
  • Tug and flirt pole releases: reinforcing them with resumption of the game (I should mention that I don’t think I would have succeeded with this one without the help of my teacher, though)
  • Putting on the leash: gets reinforced by getting to go somewhere
  • Agility sequences: reinforced for Summer with play in the water hose
  • Loading into the the car crate: getting to go somewhere
  • Getting and staying in a down when I walk in the room with something in my hands: gets reinforced by getting to sniff what is in my hands (guess who: Clara)
  • Walking nicely on leash: reinforced by opportunities for Zani to sniff
  • Most behaviors: reinforced by eating food treats. Gotcha! Eating is a behavior. So really, everything is Premack.

I’m always discovering hidden genius in the Training Levels. Sue Ailsby talks about using Premack or life rewards plenty. She seems personally to be a master at transitioning to life rewards. But she uses food first. Using doors as an example: Level 1 Sit, Step 4: Dog sits by an open door. A whole Step dedicated to using food treats to teach the dog self control around a door. Level 3 Zen: this whole Level behavior is entirely about self control around doors, and you don’t send the dog charging out as a reinforcer once! Using food can diffuse the emotional potency of doors to the outside. It makes the door area just another training environment.

So now, almost 6 years into our relationship, Summer and I are spending a whole lot of time doing “silly dog tricks around doors.” To undo the problem I helped to create–with this particular dog–by trying to use the Premack principle first.

What about you all? Am I the only one who has made some poor Premack choices or implementations? And can anyone help me come up with a more general–or more specific–guideline for when Premack might not be the best idea? I don’t think I have ever seen this discussed online.

Thanks for reading!

Coming up soon:

 

Notes

1 *A technicality, but it’s important. Notice I haven’t said “Premack didn’t work.” That’s like saying that reinforcement didn’t work. Reinforcement is defined by its effects on future behavior. If the behavior didn’t increase, then there was no reinforcement. Likewise, you can’t say, “Premack didn’t work.” If what you tried didn’t reinforce the behavior, there was no Premack.
Get Out of My Face! Teaching an Incompatible Behavior

Get Out of My Face! Teaching an Incompatible Behavior

Ever since she arrived at my home at the age of 10 weeks, Clara has been a challenge.

One of her more problematic behaviors was her mugging of my face whenever it got within range. It happened all the time. How many times a day do you lean over your puppy, or lean over in her presence to pick up something off the floor? Most often something that she either dropped or shouldn’t have. Answer: a lot. Except not me, anymore, because she shaped me not to. If a strong, speedy puppy came barreling at your head every time you bent over, you might modify your behavior, too. So I do this embarrassing dance whenever I need to pick something up: distracting her, sneaking past, or trying to move REALLY FAST (which of course makes her all the more excited when she does catch me).

Young Clara mugging my face
Young Clara mugging my face

I took a stab at modifying her behavior early on, but I didn’t pick a viable method. What I did was treat it rather like a combination of a desensitization exercise and proofing a stay. I would put her in a sit stay and move over her very gradually, treating each movement. Slight lean, treat. Slight knee bend, treat. I did lots of sessions of this. Way too many for the good I got out of it. And while it may have helped somewhat with her being comfortable with those movements or the proximity of my face, it didn’t even begin to address the problem. I still had a small, then medium sized (then large, I admit it) puppy coming for me at the speed of light when I bent over. Because she wasn’t already in a stay to begin with. Duh.

Also sometime during her puppyhood I had another not so bright idea. I thought, Premack! Premack’s Principle states that more probable behaviors (bumping my face) can reinforce less probable behaviors (performing a sit stay when my face is close by). If she so strongly wants to lick and nuzzle and bump my face, wouldn’t that the ultimate reward for doing what I want first?

Does anyone see why this might not work, even if I could keep her from hurting me?

It was such a newbie error. I had never had a dog who got aroused this easily before. When your dog is excited, it is so easy to assume that she is happy. But the face licking is much more likely to be a stress and appeasement behavior.  I checked with my teacher, who knows Clara well and observed her. She said Clara did not look comfortable to her when doing the face seeking stuff. And that fits with the Clara I know, when I just stop to consider. She has a huge palette of appeasement behaviors and drops into those patterns at the drop of a hat.

So my idea was like saying to someone, “OK I see you bite your nails when you are nervous. Your reward after filling out this difficult form correctly is the opportunity to bite your nails.” OK, it might be just the thing. But a stress behavior like that has specific triggers, and is not always rewarding if those triggers aren’t there. After the form filling is done, the person may have no desire at all to bite their nails. In that case the chance to perform that behavior would not be reinforcing.

And that’s the reaction I got when I tried it with Clara. I got a good stay out of her, then knelt down and invited her to come lick my face. And got a big, fat “Huh?”

So the Premack experiment was short-lived. I should mention also that inviting a dog to come mug your face is, in many situations, not a good idea.  Lots of dogs are bothered by proximity of faces, and lots of bite incidents happen to people who thought their dog was fine with that kind of thing. And in any case, even if had worked it would have had the same problem as my desensitization approach. It didn’t address the problem directly because she was not already in a stay when my face approached.

So I quit and was basically living with it while I worked on things for which I got a better return on my time. One day I mentioned it to my teacher again while she was here at the house to work with Clara. I mentioned my gradual “stay” approach. She said she wouldn’t do it like that, instead, why not make bending over a cue to go to her crate? And in four repetitions of “new cue/old cue” little Clara was running to her crate when Lisa bent over.

In operant learning this is called “Differential Reinforcement of an Incompatible Behavior,” or DRI. It’s a widely used technique to get an animal (including a person) to stop doing something by making an incompatible behavior pay off really, really well. Clara cannot go straight to her crate and stay there and simultaneously leap up and mug a face.

Yargh, why didn’t I think of that? I said some rude things out of frustration if I recall.

But even then it didn’t make it to the top of my priority list. I played with it a couple if times, considering making bending over be a cue for crate or go to mat, but never got off the ground.

Clara still mugging my face

But I train Sue Ailsby’s Training Levels and one day there it was. Level 2 Down, Step 5. Teaching default cues. Is there a situation in which you would always like the dog automatically to lie down? Sue describes teaching a default down and stay when putting food dishes down, when meeting children or old people, or even when talking on the telephone.

Where do you need Level 2 Down? And the answer was obvious. Every time I lean over. I won’t always have a crate for her to go into, or a mat for her to get on. But by golly she can virtually always lie down. This finally gave me the incentive to do something about the behavior. So I used the New Cue/Old Cue method, as Lisa had done with the crate, and had the basic behavior in four iterations. (I think it went so quickly because it is much faster for a dog to go from a verbal to a body cue than the other way around.) After that it was just reminding her and expanding it into more difficult situations.

There are a few real life ramifications of my body cue for Clara’s down, and for once I may have thought them through. Mostly that if leaning over is a cue for down, I need to keep that in mind when practicing other behaviors, especially duration behaviors. If I have put her in a sit/stay and then lean over her, I have given her two conflicting cues. I can train her which one takes priority, but for now I’ll probably avoid that situation, while I’m strengthening the default down. If I were planning competition obedience with her or some other precise work where the difference between the two behaviors was crucial, I would need to choose another solution or else pay some keen attention to the discrimination/priority of the cues. But basically right now it is a very high priority to get her out of my face.

Anybody else have unusual cues for default behaviors? I’d love to hear about them.

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