eileenanddogs

Month: May 2015

“Good Sit!”

“Good Sit!”

Summer Zani sit stay

Here is a quiz. Let’s say someone says, “Sit,” to a dog, intending the word as a cue.

  1. What part of speech is the word, “Sit”?
  2. Then, what part of speech is the same word if we say, “Good sit!” afterwards?

That was a trick.

If we were talking to a human who speaks the same language we do, the first “Sit” could be an imperative or command verb. The second “Sit” would be a noun.

But neither of those, while grammatically correct, applies to training a dog. Dogs are not humans. “Sit” is something else entirely to them.

In dog training based on positive reinforcement, “sit” is a discriminative stimulus. To the dog it is not a word. It is not English. It is not eligible for grammatical analysis. It is an antecedent, in this case a specific sound that comes to indicate that reinforcement is likely available for the act of sitting. (I include the word “likely” because sometimes we don’t reinforce every single sit.)

Examples of other discriminative stimuli for dogs are hand signals we give them, auditory cues such as whistles, and all sorts of things in life that act as cues that certain behaviors will be reinforced. These life events are not necessarily deliberate actions by us, and may not even be known to us. I wrote about some in my post called, “16 Behavioral Cues That I Didn’t Train (But Are Still for Real).”

So if “Sit” is a discriminative stimulus, what is “Good sit”? I’ll get there. First I need to talk about this problem with words and meanings.

I Can’t Get It Out of My Head

We humans have an enormous problem to overcome when we use words as cues. When we hear the sounds that comprise the word “Sit,” in whatever language we speak, we can’t divorce the meaning of the word “Sit.” We generally pick verbal cues that are descriptions of the behaviors they apply to. Convenient for us, but unfortunate for the dogs. We can’t help but think they understand the cues as language.

Sometimes we pick more colorful words for cues for our amusement or because the standard word is inconvenient. My friend Marge’s cue for her dog Zip to sit is, “Senta,” the Portuguese word for sit. “Sit” was too close to his name, plus she didn’t want to spend his life sputtering out, “Zip, sit!” And although he’s a Portuguese Water Dog, she didn’t pick “Senta” because he innately understood it. He doesn’t. She picked it because it’s fun, clear, and didn’t resemble any of her other cues.

I have a couple of fun cues. I use “Yoga” to cue Zani into the bow position (downward dog, get it?). I use “Rewind” to cue Summer to do a funny little backwards crawl/scoot. But hey, I’m a human, so I still hear these as words, with meanings. Not just a group of sounds. (And of course, the “funny” part has to do with their meanings…just can’t get away from that, can we?)

The Curse of Knowledge

This inability to get the meanings of words out of our heads on behalf of our dogs is an intra-species example of the “curse of knowledge.” This refers to a situation where someone who knows something (in this case the human) can’t imagine not knowing it. Here is a link to a good synopsis of a famous study, “tappers and listeners,” about the curse of knowledge.

In the tappers and listeners study, one person in a team of two would tap out the rhythm of a well-known song. The other person had to guess the song. The listeners could guess correctly only about 2.5% of the time. But get this: the tappers predicted that the listeners would know the answer 50% of the time.

The tappers heard the song in their heads as they tapped, and couldn’t put themselves accurately in the place of the listeners, who were only hearing tapping. Even the most empathetic of us can’t turn off the songs in our own heads.

In dog training, we are the tappers and the dogs are the listeners. It’s worse though, because not only do they not know all these meanings and subtexts that are there for us, they are not capable of knowing most of them. Yet they read situations so well and are typically so attuned to us that they give the impression of knowing these things in the same way we know them. They have their own geniuses, but it is not likely that any dog understands language and grammar as we do.

By the way, I am not the first to tell about the “tappers and listeners” study with regard to some characteristics of dog training. Kathy Sdao describes it and even demonstrates it in her DVD “What Not to Err.” My friend Marge incorporates it into her orientation for beginning clicker trainers.

“Good Sit!”

OK, I finally made my way back around to this phrase. You can easily find dozens of websites that instruct you to say, “Good sit!” after your dog sits. Probably some of you have been instructed to do that. I have. I was told the following by an obedience instructor: “You should say, “Good sit” after your dog sits so they will know what it is they did right.”

This assumes that the dog can follow the leap from “Sit” as a noise meaning that sit will be reinforced, to “Sit” as a noun, modified by “Good.” This makes no sense. It only makes sense in our twisted world where verbal cues unfortunately have meanings that correspond to the actions we attach to them.

Here is an example that I hope demonstrates the faulty logic of “Good sit.”

The starter's pistol is a discriminative stimulus.
The starter’s pistol is a discriminative stimulus. Photo credit: Stewsnews on Flickr. License at bottom of the page.

The starter’s pistol going off is a discriminative stimulus for people who run track. It indicates that pushing off the starting block and starting to run will likely be reinforced. So please envision this. A runner is practicing her starts. Today the coach is using a real starter’s pistol so she’ll get used to it. The coach fires the pistol, and the runner makes an excellent start. She runs a few yards, stops, and turns back. The coach says, “Good…” and BANG! fires the pistol in the air again. The runner startles and says, “Why did you fire again? I’m not ready! I’m not even in the block.” The coach says, “I was telling you that you made a good…” BANG! and fires the pistol one more time.

With this example, we can clearly see that that the cue is not the same as the action. The coach means to tell the runner that she made a good start. **BANG** is not a description of the action of start. It’s just the cue that indicates a certain action will be reinforced. Likewise, “Sit” is the noise that indicates to a dog that sitting will be reinforced. It does not somehow “mean” that action to the dog.

Frankly, I can keep this in my head only for short periods. It slides away so easily.

It’s Not Harmless

Some might say, OK, it doesn’t mean what we think it does, but it doesn’t hurt anything to say it anyway. Well yes, there are worse things. But using, “Sit” as part of a praise phrase is not a desirable practice.

First, you are repeating the cue when the dog is already doing the behavior. This dilutes the one-to-one pairing of the cue and the action, diminishing the power of the cue. It also adds more chatter to the training session, creating more verbiage for the dog to sift through to try to catch words that might be cues. Or to learn to ignore them. Finally, I believe we need to do everything possible to understand the dog’s point of view. Choose cues thoughtfully. Make sure they all sound different. Use them consistently, and only for that purpose. What if, instead of words in English (or your own native language), you had to use a randomly assigned color flash card or a complete nonsense phrase for every cue? Wouldn’t they be kind of hard to remember? That’s the position our dogs are in. They have to use brute memory on cues.

That last reason is the big one. Saying, “Good sit!” every once in a while or even regularly does little harm to the dog in the grand scheme of things. I’m sure I do half a dozen things to my dogs that are more confusing than that. The harm is to us as trainers. It keeps us entrenched in the belief that dogs understand language the same way we do.

If you are going to praise, far better to say, “Good!” or “Good girl!” or “Good dog!” And to say the same thing consistently. If you say it regularly before you give the treat, you are also building up a nice little conditioned reinforcer. But that’s a post for another day!

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License for starting line photo.

Link to original starting line photo.

 

Go Sniff! Then Please Come Back!

Go Sniff! Then Please Come Back!

Please share this post whenever you see someone suggest to an inexperienced trainer that she use sniffing as a reinforcer on walks.

Summer air scenting keep 3
Summer air sniffing

Hey. You know that thing that seems like the perfect solution to problems with your dog when walking on leash? It’s not a free ride after all.

Let’s say you are a beginner trainer struggling with teaching loose leash walking. Your dog is very tuned into the environment, and the thing he is most interested in is sniffing. So when you ask for advice on the Internet, it is pretty much guaranteed that several people are going to chime in with the same suggestion: use sniffing as the reinforcer!

It sounds perfect, right? Sniffing, i.e. access to odor, is a powerful motivator for most dogs and an obvious candidate to use for reinforcement. But unfortunately for us amateurs, it takes some finesse to use it. I know this from hard experience.

What’s the Problem?

The problem is that if you release a dog to sniff, you need a way of getting him back. He has already told you with his behavior that access to sniffing interesting odors is massively interesting, more so than the treats in your pocket. So if you let him sniff, then what? You have the same problem you had to begin with, only worse: your dog is all excited about the environment and can’t focus on the task of leash walking.

If your dog is a beginner at this, the problem is worse. You are asking him to learn a difficult skill, keeping the leash loose and walking with you in a connected way. But you are also letting him run around sniffing with you following behind on a sometimes tight leash. How do you keep the criteria clear?

Most of the time a non-fearful dog’s difficulty with loose leash walking boils down to some of the following:

  1. The dog is too excited to focus on the difficult task of walking on a loose leash;
  2. The dog didn’t get enough practice walking at his person’s side in less interesting environments; and/or
  3. The item (food, toy) the trainer is trying to use as reinforcement doesn’t have enough value.
This is probably stress sniffing
Zani is probably stress sniffing

(I am excluding fearful dogs, because their issues can be different. Sniffing may not be for the purpose of information or entertainment. It can be a displacement behavior, a sign of stress. In this post I’m discussing dogs who are not anxious, just intensely interested in the odors around them. Be sure you know which it is for your dog.)

Let’s see if releasing the dog to sniff will likely solve the above problems.

  1. Dogs who are too excited to focus. If you get a few steps of nice walking on a leash from such a dog, and release him to sniff, will sniffing “get it out of his system” and allow him to come back to you, ready to focus and work? Probably not. If the dog couldn’t focus in the first place, allowing a sniff session will probably not fix that.
  2. Dogs who haven’t gotten enough practice in less interesting environments. If he didn’t get enough practice in your training room or back yard, a sniffing session is not going to magically give him the skills to return to you and have good leash manners.
  3. Dogs for whom the reinforcer is not sufficient. If your reinforcer was not strong enough to get the dog’s attention in the first place, how could it work to get him back when you have released him into happy sniff land?

What Happens When You Try It

Here’s what probably happens when you try the sniff thing without adequate background work. You get a few steps of nice walking, and then you release your dog to go sniff. You follow him around a bit. When you decide it’s time to move on, you say, “Let’s go, ” or a similar cue.

Your dog will keep sniffing. You say it again. Still sniffing. You finally pull on your dog’s leash to get him to come with you. Depending on how deeply interested he was in the smell, he may come now, or he may wait until you pull even harder.

If the environment is so fascinating, and you’ve cued him to go dive into it, how will you humanely get him back?

You might be one of the lucky few with a dog who thrives on doing stuff with his human.  One or two of these pulls from you and he’ll get it that he is supposed to quit sniffing and come back to you, and will do so in the future. But if you had that kind of dog, you probably wouldn’t be losing him to the environment in the first place, right?

Pulling him to you if he fails to respond is employing an aversive. Depending on the dog, it can vary from mild to extreme.

In positive reinforcement-based training, cues are opportunities for reinforcement.  We train so that there is no need for an “Or else.” And incidentally, pulling on a dog’s leash to enforce a “come” cue is exactly the behavior that was used in the graduate thesis from University of North Texas on so-called “poisoned cues.” The dog in the study responded in a completely different way to the cue that included the possibility of this type of forced compliance than to the cue that was trained with positive reinforcement only.

Pulling on your dog’s leash to get him to walk with you is aversive but not the end of the world. It probably happens to most trainers at one time or another. (It’s a good reason to attach the leash to a harness rather than a collar.) But if it happens most every time you cue the dog to go sniff, you are shooting your training in the foot. Dragging your dog around is one of the problems you were trying to solve to begin with.

The Solution: Practice, Practice, Practice

The solution is straightforward, if not exactly easy. You need to practice not only the loose leash walking in less stimulating environments, you also need to train the heck out of your “return to me” cue with positive reinforcement. And you will need to reinforce it on walks, at least some of the time. You can’t leave the food at home.

Elderly Cricket's sniffing on walks was no problem
Elderly Cricket’s sniffing on walks was no problem

It can be difficult to emulate the real life scenario of an enticing odor. If you are in a low-distraction environment, there probably aren’t many novel odors there. So there’s a gap between practicing the cue when your dog is standing around with not much else to do, and practicing it when he is enticed by something.

actually succeeded fairly well with this with Zani, my little hound mix, and now I’m practicing with Clara. Some of you will remember my post on when not to work on loose leash walking. I’m pleased to say that Clara handles being around people and dogs on walks so well now that we have “graduated” from counterconditioning and are working on loose leash walking.

Allowing my dog to get what she most wants is important to me. Here are some of the ways I worked on our “Let’s go” cue. I bridged the gap between low-distraction practice and real life situations in several ways. You can see these in the movie as well.

  1. I started off by practicing indoors with Clara both on and off-leash. She learned to reorient to me when I cued, “Let’s go!” I often turned and ran after giving the cue, both to make it both more challenging and more fun.
  2. I have a closed-off room in my house that contains dog food, chew toys, and other interesting stuff. Odor heaven. In training I allowed Clara to go in. After a moment I called her out and reinforced her generously for walking away with me.
  3. I put synthetic rabbit pee on a piece of cardboard and taped it to the floor. Clara got a reward if she responded and left it at my cue. (You’ll see in the movie, though, that it was only enticing the first time. That was a lot of trouble to go to for just one repetition.)
  4. I scattered kibble on the floor or ground, let Clara start eating it, then gave her the “Let’s Go!” cue and rewarded generously when she left the kibble behind. This is a good corollary to what we are asking dogs to do when we ask them to leave enticing smells.
  5. And that leads to–Zen (“leave-it.”) Any kind of leave-it exercise is good practice for this.

Someone is sure to suggest sending the dog back to the odor or out to sniff again as a reward. That’s a great thing to do–sometimes. But you can’t use it as a reinforcer every time with most dogs. If you never reinforce at your side, you risk gradually sucking the value out of walking with you. Nope, most of us just can’t get away with leaving the food or toys at home.

Link to the movie for email subscribers.

One More Decision

If you watch dogs who are having a good time sniffing, they don’t just stand still and put their heads down to the ground for a moment. They follow where the odor takes them. If free to do so, many dash back and forth, run, walk, back up, make sudden u-turns, and stop just as suddenly. Our dogs are generally much faster and more agile than we are. As long as your dog is on leash you will be in the position of having to curtail some of the fun. How far into the neighbor’s yard may he go? How close can he get to their cat? You will have to assess how much these limitations frustrate your dog, and make sure that using sniffing as a reinforcer under these conditions is worth it to him.

Anybody have any sniffing odor as reinforcement stories? I’d love to hear about them.

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© Eileen Anderson 2015                                                                                                                               eileenanddogs.com

6 Myths about Positive Reinforcement-Based Training

6 Myths about Positive Reinforcement-Based Training

Positive reinforcement-based training is subject to a lot of misunderstanding and misrepresentation. Many people genuinely don’t understand how it works, and others seem to deliberately misrepresent it. Some of these misunderstandings and misrepresentations are very “sticky.”  Misunderstandings, straw men, myths—call them what you will, Continue reading “6 Myths about Positive Reinforcement-Based Training”

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