I think one of the hardest steps for people who cross over to positive reinforcement-based training is learning how to get a dog to start performing a behavior.
If we have experience with mild force-based methods, such as verbally telling the dog to sit, then pushing his butt down, or even if we have done lots of luring, it’s hard to imagine how to explain to a dog what we want them to do without taking one of those actions. It’s even harder to believe that he will do it repeatedly without a lot of chatter on our parts.
Getting a dog to do something over and over without saying a word is quite easy once you know how. But it’s very hard to explain to someone who has never done it or seen it. I have seen countless questions about it on social media, and even after it is described to questioners, the videos they subsequently post usually show them struggling to understand the concept. They speak verbal cues long before the dog understands the connection of the cue and the behavior, then wait impatiently for the stunned dog to do something. Then they go through all sorts of gyrations to get the dog to do stuff. They also frequently startle their dog, are too loud, use pressure-ful body language, and do other things that cause the dog to not have a good time.
I feel OK pointing this out because I have done all of the above. Some of them you will see in the videos below.
I recently ran across this series of videos I posted when Clara was a puppy that documents the first five sessions of teaching her “down.” I thought they might be helpful to people who are not familiar with the process of getting behavior.
It’s not exemplary training, but that’s one of the points of my blog. The process is robust, and dogs are very forgiving. I show my mistakes, and hopefully how I solve the problems I create. One of the four videos shows a miserable failure of a training session, but it’s a good lesson and also pretty funny. Clara is a little stressy in some other sessions. But I do a few things right, too, and they might be helpful as well.
The two things I believe the videos demonstrate fairly well are a way to “get the behavior,” i.e. get a dog started on and repeating a behavior, and how to start adding a verbal cue.
My go-to method for getting and training basic behaviors from a dog I live with is capturing. It helps me build great habits since it makes me watch for my dogs to do something I like, and it is generally fun and very low stress for the dogs, too.
When you set up a training session based on capturing a behavior, antecedents are especially important. There are three types of antecedents: cues, setting factors, and motivating operations. Cues signal that a certain behavior is likely to be reinforced. Setting factors make the behavior easier to do. Motivating operations provide an impetus for the animal to do it. You can modify the environment and situation through these methods to make the behavior you want easy for the dog to do and hence more likely.
In the case of lying down, I had already reinforced baby Clara for lying down on mats I have scattered around my house as “parking places” for dogs. I have entirely hardwood, tile, and cement floors, so the comfort of a mat on the floor is already an antecedent that sets the scene for the dog to sit or lie down. The mats are both cues for lying down, because of the reinforcement history tied to them, and also setting factors. Lying down on them is more comfortable than on the surrounding floor. I didn’t use a motivating operation, but an obvious one would have been to do the sessions after Clara had exercised and was a little tired. To me that’s a little bit of overkill; I’d rather have an alert puppy and use other ways to make lying down likely. So I used a mat to “jump-start” Clara to start offering downs.
If you don’t use mats in your house, you could take your pup to the place where it is most likely she will lie down. Perhaps her bed (or your bed!). Or you can do the “bathroom” trick. Go into the bathroom with the pup, have a bathmat down, and wait around and be boring until she lies down out of sheer boredom.
(Capturing a down is not ideal for little dogs who hate to lie down. It can be because of the surface, or because they don’t feel safe in that position, or a combination of reasons. You probably already know if you have one of those dogs. Some of them will do the “bridge” approximation like Cricket in the photo.) Capturing could work if you can get them somewhere where they are very comfortable and relaxed, but you might want to use a different force free method instead, like shaping or luring a few repetitions. )
Applying the Cue
This is the other thing that is very hard to comprehend when you come from a traditional training background. We think we need to tell the dog what to do, then make them or get them to do it. To truly cross over, we need to let go of that idea completely and do things the other way around.
One way to help yourself get over the hump is to think of the cue as a label. (This is not technically correct, but it is a stepping stone away from the idea of a “command.”) As Sue Ailsby puts it, our message to the dog and in our heads can be, “That thing you are doing—we are going to call it ‘Down.'”
Again, almost everybody wants to talk first. Most of us have an unconscious belief that the dog understands the trainer’s native human language. And they are so good at reading us that they appear to understand much more language than they actually do.
One way that helped me finally get it that the “meaning” of cues is for us and us alone, was to see the silly cues people sometimes give to behavior. You don’t have to call a sit “Sit.” You could call it “triangle” or “rocket” or “forbart” and it would work equally well as a cue for the dog, if you taught it properly. And in fact, doing that—training a trick and giving it a nonsense cue—is an excellent way to see things a little more from the dog’s perspective. We operate from the meaning of the word. They have to go by pure sound recognition and memory.
The usual method of beginning to teach a cue is to get the dog doing the behavior repeatedly and consistently, then start saying the cue just as, or a hair before they perform the behavior. You’ll see that below in Session 4 in the video. My timing is not perfect. I do it just a tiny bit early the first time, but luckily Clara, though startled, downs anyway.
The Training Sessions
What follows are five training sessions combined into four videos. I’ve put a little explanation before each one.
In order go get Clara “thinking about downs” I start with her on a mat. Then as quickly as I can I take away the mat but work in the same place. I look at her expectantly and she tries it! After she is doing it repeatedly I move us to a different place.
First I do some review repetitions in the original location. Then I make a series of mistakes. I take Clara out in the back yard, and it is probably too soon for that more distracting environment. I make it worse by switching to a lower value treat (thinking that it will be easier to see in the grass) she doesn’t even like. Oh oh! The session goes south. Then I even try to continue after she gets worried about a noise.
Sessions 3 & 4 (on same video)
In Session 3 we work inside again and I have her complete attention. She starts offering me a little duration, so I alternate with feeding her in position and tossing the treat to reset. Note that she is always free to get up after I click, but she sometimes chooses not to.
In Session 4 I start adding the cue as she is in the process of going down. As I mention in the video, she doesn’t “know” the cue yet; it’s just a noise that is happening in the training session. In retrospect I am not pleased with her demeanor in this session; she looks stressy and isn’t having much fun. Insensitive trainer!
In the second part of Session 4, we review “Sit.” If you do one behavior exclusively, especially with a pup, it tends to overshadow everything else. She did know the verbal cue for Sit pretty well, so we did a few successful reps. She was a little perkier, but I still went on at least one rep after she was saying it was time to quit.
In this final session, she is offering downs fast and furious so I add the cue again. I think it’s interesting that she actually startles the first time I give the cue (plus I was a tiny bit too early). She looked up and said, “Huh?” Then tried lying down. This session went on a tiny bit too long as well.
I’m always learning as a trainer and I think I am better now at gauging my dogs’ happiness with our activities and judging how long we should go on.
All Grown Up
I’m very grateful that even though Clara has such a short coat, she does not mind lying down on hard surfaces, as many smaller dogs do. Ahem—Cricket—ahem—Zani. It is a strong default behavior for her and we use it all the time.
A Note about Crossover Dogs
One of my pet peeves is training videos made with dogs who already know the behavior. That is not exactly the case here, but I do realize that Clara has a jump start compared to a lot of dogs, my own crossover dog included.
If your dog is coming from a training background where trying things out has not been encouraged, it will likely take longer for her to catch on to the methods I am describing here, but she probably will eventually. All animals are wired to notice what makes good stuff come their way (as well as what predicts bad stuff). Clara’s readiness to offer behavior is greater than that of dogs who have not been reinforced for that, so naturally things go pretty quickly. I reinforced behaviors of hers I liked from the first day she came in my house, without setting up any formal “training.”
But capturing can also be a good way to start with a crossover dog. You can use some of the dog’s meal calories during the day by tossing him a good treat when he is doing something you like. In her book Plenty in Life is Free, Kathy Sdao describes a protocol she calls SMART x 50, which she suggests as a way to jump-start a healthy training relationship with a dog that is not based on a paradigm of making them “work” for everything. When I first got little Zani, who had been cared for but not trained in her previous home, she lit up with excitement when she realized she could perform behaviors that earned her treats during everyday life.
OK folks, do you capture? Am I the only capturing fiend? I would love to hear how you set about making desired behaviors more likely, when capturing or using any other method.
- What’s an Antecedent Arrangement?
- Solving a Training Problem with Antecedent Arrangements
- 16 Behavioral Cues that I Didn’t Train (But Are Still for Real)
© Eileen Anderson 2015