eileenanddogs

Month: January 2016

Trick Training Bloopers

Trick Training Bloopers

Zani cross paws
Zani and I succeeded quickly with the “cross your paws” trick

I decided a while back to teach my dogs to cross their paws as a trick. I followed the instructions on one of Emily Larlham’s excellent videos: Dog Tricks Tutorial: Cross Your Paws. But I didn’t end up making the neat, quick progression shown in the movie when I tried it with my dog Summer.

I think that besides my rather clumsy training, it is just not a very natural behavior for her. I used a target, and when I finally got the behavior (sometimes), it took a long time before she would repeat it consistently. That’s very unlike most other training experiences I’ve had with her. That created a vicious circle, since one of my weaknesses as a trainer is that I am slow to raise criteria. So between the two of us we stayed at interim behaviors way too long.

One of our problems was that she kept creeping forward. Emily’s dogs stay tidily in their down position and daintily move only their paws. (And actually, so did my Zani, to whom I taught this behavior much more quickly). But Summer was perennially creeping forward or hurling herself after her moving paw and heaving sideways.

Another favorite of hers was to correctly cross her paw over, then instantly remove the bottom paw and scoot one body width to the side. I reinforced that one way too much as well. My reasoning: Well, she is crossing her paw!

I’ve said before that I had an epiphany about my dogs’ behaviors being a “map of reinforcement.” These outtakes show that in a microcosm. All these behaviors that Summer covers–and she is really good at variety–have gotten reinforced somewhere and somehow. You will see her target various parts of my body: my hand, foot, and leg. That’s because at some point I decided that if she was using the correct paw and reaching over the other one, it was OK if she targeted me a couple of times instead of the little coaster I was using. BIG mistake on my part. You’ll also see her enthusiastically whack with the wrong foot (that was not recently reinforced, but certainly has been before), and do a lot of general foot movement. You’ll even see her “give up” and put her head down on her paws. But as despondent as that looks, that’s actually an offered behavior as well.

All the outtakes make for an amusing video (except that being targeted with extended nails hurts) but there’s a lesson here. If you don’t raise criteria fast enough and instead reinforce all these approximation behaviors too often, this is the kind of thing you get. I’m working on a post about the Matching Law, but suffice it to say at this point that dwelling on intermediate steps and reinforcing approximate behaviors a lot means those behaviors are going to stick around. It will take that much longer to clean them out of the final behavior.

No Reinforcement?

This video doesn’t show me reinforcing Summer. That’s because I edited together a bunch of “mistakes” that I had finally stopped reinforcing. But don’t worry. My rate of reinforcement was generally very high. And when you think about it, that makes sense. It was high, and directed inappropriately a lot of the time. She wouldn’t be trying all this stuff otherwise.

I have tons of footage of her doing it right and getting food reinforcers. But it made for a more entertaining video when I included only the bloopers.

Training Hint

If you use a target for this behavior, it may be hard to fade. The dog is concentrating on hitting the target; the tactile sensation of crossing the paws (which is really what we want) is overshadowed. My friend Yvette Van Veen of Awesome Dogs suggests using a lightweight target (like a piece of paper) and actually putting it on the dog’s paw (the one that will end up on the bottom). Clever!

What about the rest of you who trained this trick? What method did you use? How did the progression go?

Related Posts

Using a Training Plan to Retrain Summer’s “Target” This is another example of my having reinforced a bunch of approximations and sloppy versions of a behavior. But then I cleaned it up.

Welcome/Bloopers. My very first blog post with my original blooper video.

Copyright Eileen Anderson 2016

Eileenanddogs on YouTube

My other website: Dog Dementia: Help and Support

The Dog Decides What Is Reinforcing

The Dog Decides What Is Reinforcing

“The dog decides what is reinforcing.” Positive reinforcement trainers frequently say that to their human students.  What they mean is that people can easily be mistaken about whether something constitutes reinforcement. For instance, we may think praising or petting our dogs are reinforcers, but if they do not cause behavior to increase or maintain, they are not.

Dogs don’t sit down and make cognitive “decisions” about reinforcers; that’s just a semantic shortcut. But their subsequent behavior is what tells us whether something is a reinforcer or not. If you give your dog a piece of chicken each time she sits and she sits more, yep, that chicken is reinforcing. If instead you give her a few gentle taps on the head when she sits and she doesn’t sit more, or only sits a little more, then that tap is not a reinforcer, or is a very weak one. She might even sit less, in which case the head tap is punishing.

It’s not only newbies who need this reminder. It’s very easy to get it stuck in one’s head that something ought to be a good reinforcer. Sometimes it takes a while for our powers of observation to kick in and tell us, for example, that no, popcorn is just not reinforcing for this particular dog.

The way we tell whether something is reinforcing is to look for an increase in the relevant behavior.

Dogs Summer and Clara have determined that broccoli is not reinforcing and might be aversive.
It’s pretty obvious that broccoli stems are not potential reinforcers for either of these dogs

The Dog Decides Whether “Special” Collars are Aversive

Some trainers who use aversive methods, particularly prong and shock collars, are starting to use a similar phrase with the result of further muddying the waters about aversives. Just to be sure, let’s review the meaning of aversive stimuli, or aversives.

Paul Chance, in Learning and Behavior, 7th edition, defines aversives as:

Stimuli the animal would avoid, given the option.

"The Dog Decides." Photo shows a brown dog being sprayed with water from a garden hose. Her mouth is open, tail is up, and she is very happy.
A spray of water would not be aversive for Summer

That’s a straightforward definition. But I have now started to read remarks from trainers who use prong and shock collars seeking to defend their use by saying that “the dog defines what is aversive.”

Uh.

That is true. But the implication that such collars can work without being aversive is dead wrong.

Shock and prong collars work via positive punishment and negative reinforcement. They can be used to punish unwanted behavior (positive punishment). They can also be used to coerce desirable behavior (negative reinforcement). If you need a brush-up on this terminology, check out my post: Operant Learning Illustrated by Examples. To counter some of the common BS about aversive use, you can also check this post out: It’s Not Painful. It’s Not Scary. It Just Gets the Dog’s Attention!

So yes indeed. The dog decides what is aversive. And just as with reinforcement, the way we determine whether something is aversive is to see if it changed behavior, in this case via positive punishment or negative reinforcement. We also may see fallout from the use of aversives. 

If the dog “decides” that a shock or prong collar is not aversive, that collar will not work to change behavior. It’s as simple as that.

Why Bother with These Definitions?

People write about this stuff a lot on Internet articles, comment sections, and discussion groups. I read a fair amount of it. I have a drive to clarify things and an urge to get people using a common terminology. I personally learn a lot by writing about it. I also want to persuade people, in an up-front and honest way, to consider and perform more humane training.

I’m aware of the research that says that even rational arguments can backfire and make people more entrenched in their beliefs. I frequently consider whether I should even write these pieces. But the people who are dedicated to using aversive tools are not my audience. The thousands reading on the sidelines going, “Hmmmm” are.

I get positive feedback from those people. I also get lots of positive feedback from trainers who use my articles to help explain concepts to their students who are learning about positive reinforcement-based training in real life. That feedback, knowing that my articles are useful in the sense that I intend them, is positive reinforcement for me. So I continue.

Related Posts

Copyright Eileen Anderson 2016

Join Me on DogRead!

Join Me on DogRead!

I am privileged to have been invited to be a featured author on the Yahoo group DogRead, the original cyber book club. I’ll be answering questions about my book, Remember Me: Loving and Caring for a Dog with Canine Cognitive Dysfunction, from January 16th through 31st.

Come join us! If you aren’t already a member of DogRead, you can request membership at its Yahoo Groups homepage: Dog-Related online Book Club w/Authors.

Remember Me 3dI’ve set a 10% discount on my book in all markets worldwide from today until January 26, 2016. You can purchase it here: Remember Me? Loving and Caring for a Dog with Canine Cognitive Dysfunction.

We’ll also be discussing canine cognitive dysfunction in general, but remember: CCD is a medical problem. No one can diagnose a dog over the internet, especially me. In my book I advise people in 27 different places to check with their vets! But we can talk about how best to live with our senior dogs, how to enrich their lives, and we can give each other moral support about the inevitable hard questions that arise.

Hope to see you in the DogRead group! Thank you so much to DogRead for inviting me, and to Dogwise for sponsoring the group.

Eileen Anderson and Cricket, a rat terrier with canine cognitive dysfunction
My dear rat terrier Cricket had cognitive dysfunction but had a good life to the very end

More About My Book

 

Copyright Eileen Anderson 2016

Pet Blogger Challenge 2016

Pet Blogger Challenge 2016

2016

Thank you to Go Pet Friendly for the Pet Blogger Challenge. This is the second time I’ve participated. I did the Challenge in 2013 when I had only been blogging for about 6 months. Now that it’s been 3 1/2 years, I feel like doing it again!

I look forward to learning about some blogs that are new to me through this challenge, and perhaps reaching some new readers in my little corner of the dog training world.

Join the Pet Blogger Challenge Jan 9th, 10th and 11th

1. How long have you been blogging? And, for anyone who is visiting for the first time, please give a quick description of the subject of your blog. I started blogging in July 2012, so I have been at it for 3 1/2 years now. My blog is about living with and training dogs, with an emphasis on sharing my experience as a serious amateur positive reinforcement trainer. I love writing about learning theory and spreading the word that we don’t have to hurt or scare our dogs to train them.

2. What is the one thing that you accomplished during 2015, either on your blog or because of it, that made you most proud? That’s easy. I finished my book on Canine Cognitive Dysfunction and got the Kindle version out! Writing and especially publishing the book is a direct result of my experience as a blogger. I have gained confidence in my ability to put my ideas out in public and cope with the very large and sometimes critical audience on the internet. Much of that confidence is a result of interaction with my lovely, loyal readers. Thank you all!

3. Which of your blog posts was your favorite this year and why? My favorite was probably “But It Worked for MY Dog!” I think it’s so important for people to realize that promoting an idiosyncratic or aversive training method is not good practice.

4. A common theme from last year’s challenge was that many of us wanted to increase the size of our audiences. Whether or not we intend to monetize our blogs, it seems we’d all like to reach more people. It feels good to know that we’re connecting with others, sharing a laugh or supporting a cause, and it’s motivating to see those numbers grow! What is one thing you’ve done in the past year that has brought more traffic to your blog? I am curating on Pinterest, and I’ve started to see the beginnings of a nice little referral source. Pinterest works well for me because the boards break things into topics so nicely, and I like having an organized place to stash my stuff for my own benefit as well.

5. Which of your blog posts got the most traffic this year? Why do you think it was so popular?  The post in 2015 that got the most views was “Before You Share That “Cute” Dog and Baby Picture.” I think it was popular because 1) the positive reinforcement training community is full of people who are trying to get the message out about the potential dangers of certain kinds of interactions between kids and dogs; and 2) I didn’t single out any particular individual or story. The post was not controversial in that it didn’t criticize any individual, beyond the use of a still from a public domain video.

6. What is one blog that you read religiously – other than your own – and what makes you such a devoted reader?  How about three? Dog Charming by Sonya Bevan, Awesome Dogs by Yvette Van Veen, and Fearful Dogs Blog by Debbie Jacobs. I love Sonya Bevan’s writing because she is so gentle and empathetic with dogs without being smug about it. Very understated, yet clear with her message. I fell in love with Yvette Van Veen’s writing a year or two back when she wrote a stunner of a blog about shock and doggedly, tirelessly, and logically answered every commenter who tried to argue with her. For weeks. And Debbie Jacobs has a genius for metaphor and humor and gets the right messages out about fearful dogs in ways that dog owners can understand and implement.

7. What resources do you rely on to enhance your technical, writing, photography, social media, or other skills that improve your blog? I’m a techie so I use lots of WordPress plugins and do things like convert popular posts into pages and use canonical tags to send the reader from one to the other while avoiding duplicate content demerits from Google. I read about SEO all the time and title and tag my posts very carefully. I draw the line at seeding in too many keywords–I don’t go beyond what will serve the text. I purposely write on learning theory topics where I can likely shoot to the top of the search engine results. For example, here’s the Google search for What’s an Antecedent Arrangement? I have positions 1, 2, and 8.

8. What is the best piece of advice you can offer other bloggers? Don’t start off with product promotion and sponsorship. You will never escape. It will mold your attitude, your writing and affect the tons of tiny decisions you make as a writer. Start writing because you have something to say. Sure, you can monetize without compromise, but take a long view. Build your voice and your audience first. Do that well and you will have a loyal following.

9. What is your vision for your blog in 2016? Do you have specific goals? I am going to be “booking a blog,” that is, putting together some similarly themed posts into a book. So I’ll be writing some posts specifically to fill in the blanks. (The topic is a secret for now!) Other than that, I’ll just keep doing what I’m doing. I enjoy it so much.

10. You have the attention of the pet blogging community – is there one blogging challenge you’d like help with, or one aspect of your blog that you’d like input on? I would love to talk to other people who host their own WordPress sites and talk about our favorite plugins. Am I a nerd or what?

Copyright Eileen Anderson 2016

Credit for 2016 graphic: Freebie from Canstock Photo. Thanks!

The Dog’s Choice (Choice: Part 2)

The Dog’s Choice (Choice: Part 2)

This is a followup to my previous post, “Not All ‘Choices’ Are Equal.”

“Choice” has become such a warm fuzzy buzzword that I hesitate to use it anymore. Yet it stands to reason that animals in our care benefit from being able to make choices and act on their environments. In this post I will try to go beyond the reflexive “Yay, choice is good!” response and apply some questions. Are all choices good? How much choice can we really give our dogs? What does it look like when we do? Is there a down side?

As I wrote in my previous post about choice, a lot of writing on this topic involves choices that are vague or not well described, or are not free choices at all. For instance, giving the dog the choice to leave a training session (when there are few other interesting activities in the room) is technically a forced choice, although it is essential to humane training.1)Giving the dog the choice to leave when there are other fun things to do is a free choice, but one that many—not all—trainers avoid offering. Think of the standard instructions for training a puppy or new dog. “Limit distractions.” I think we are well past the era where we should be awarding brownie points for letting the dog leave. That’s basic decency, good training, and necessary feedback for the trainer.

Even shock trainers and others who use negative reinforcement can legitimately use the language of choice. Many talk about the dog having the power and the choice to avoid the aversive when performing correctly. Yes indeed. For instance, a dog can choose to take action to avoid shock, as far as it understands how to do so, or it can suffer. If the dog understands the system (debatable at times), it does have a choice. I don’t see how giving this kind of choice is laudable, though.

My goal with choice is to give my dogs choices between multiple nice things. In other words, I want to offer free choices involving positive reinforcement and allow the dogs to exercise choice whenever safely possible. Deciding when that is feasible is a challenge, because there is a downside, as I’ll discuss later.

Training Limits Choice

Going through the trash is a choice I generally prevent my dogs from making
In this photo, Summer and Clara are exercising choices I usually prevent

Before I get into listing the small ways I have figured out to offer my dogs choices, here’s a caution. When we train dogs to live in our households, that training consists of limiting and heavily influencing choices. As my teacher often says, much of her job consists of teaching dogs not to be dogs. Dogs have a whole palette of natural doggie behaviors that range from inconvenient to gross to dangerous—to us or to them. So make no mistake: training and behavior modification involve limiting choices. Even management involves removal of choices. When I put my small kitchen garbage can inside a latched cabinet under the sink, I am removing the dogs’ choice to knock over the can and go through the trash, which every one of them would dearly enjoy.

Interestingly, errorless learning (aka reduced error teaching), believed to be extra humane because it involves very little extinction and hence less learner frustration, is the most limiting of choice of all. We just can’t say that more choice is always good for our companion animals. The situation is much more complex than that.

We must also beware of appeals to the naturalistic fallacy. If someone announces that letting dogs make choices and do what comes naturally will solve all sorts of problems, beware. When left to their own devices, dogs can make really bad choices. Both downright dangerous ones and ones that are incompatible with life with humans. They are predators with mouths full of teeth and the mental faculties of, perhaps, human toddlers and they don’t usually arrive house trained. Most will eat cat poop and roll in dead things. Many have greeting behaviors so over-the-top they could injure humans. They aren’t born understanding the difference between their chew toys and our precious heirlooms. So yes, we curtail their choices so they can live with us according to our standards. Many of us in turn try to give them back as many fun activities and choices as we can.

The following examples of giving my dogs choices are rather non-dramatic, but all took some thought on my part and a certain “letting go” of control. One of my goals is to show how some of these choices can be in opposition to what we normally consider good training practices.

Offering Pleasant Choices

One of the easiest ways to give my dogs multiple pleasant choices in real life is to take them out into the back yard on a nice day. Perhaps this is obvious, but bear with me. There are several activities they all enjoy, and some natural variety in enrichment that I can’t offer them indoors. (Note that the yard has a privacy fence, so both the choices of leaving and of seeing outside the fence have been removed.) They can sniff, dig, eat grass, roll in things, watch birds, occasionally chase critters, bask in the sun, play in water, play with each other, “help” me garden, play a game with me, come check in with me for a quick treat, or just hang out.

That’s what happens in our unstructured time. I got to wondering what it would be like if I gave them more choices in our structured play or training. I was able to experiment with this because they are all adults, cooperative, and we have strong bonds. Raising a puppy is all about establishing that bond and yes, limiting choices. If we are thoughtful about it, we can set choices up for puppies too, but that would look a bit different from what I am about to describe.

I started to make a point of observing times when my dogs wanted to choose something that was outside our normal rule structure for training or play. Here are some examples and their pros and cons.

Scavenging Treats

Zani is a born scavenger and extremely persistent. One day during a training session a treat rolled under the couch where she might have been able to get it. I have trained her to work under that type of distraction. Instead I waited while she went for it. Going after scavenge-able treats is a fascinating challenge and a lot of fun for her. So I let her do it, being aware that I was allowing her to make a withdrawal from her “training focus” account. It’s a big account, and I can build it back up again.  I can’t say that her focus improved afterwards, which would be a fun “happily ever after.” It was just a interlude in the session, one that she chose to take and I permitted. Caution: This would not be advisable for dogs in many situations, such as service dogs in training, or any dog with whom you are struggling with focus.

Choosing the Bed Instead of the Bath Mat

I reinforce my dogs for lying on a mat in the bathroom while I shower in order to get them accustomed to the noises and actions of water running. Clara ate quite a few of her meals from a food toy in the bathroom during her early years.

After Cricket died and Clara got access to the bedroom and was allowed on the bed, she started to spend lots of her free time there. Interestingly, she would choose to go lie on the bed while I showered instead of hanging out in the bathroom for some guaranteed treats. I could have summoned Clara to the bathroom and closed her in with me for more “practice” being next to the shower, but instead I loosened up the system to see what would happen.

The other dogs shifted around. Zani (food hound extraordinaire) took up position on the bath mat while I showered. Summer, who likes her personal space but also wanted the treats, would lie down just outside the bathroom door. I reinforced both of these actions. Clara would go to the bedroom and lie on the bed. I did not reinforce that. (I’m not generally going to give a dog a treat for getting on the bed!) She came to understand very quickly that there were no treats available for that choice. Yet she stuck with it. She valued the comfort more than a few pieces of kibble.

Keeping the Ball

As I’ve written before, Clara loves to play ball and we play the “two ball game” where she fetches one into a container while I throw another. But Clara doesn’t always have a lot of stamina. Her energy level went down when she was sick with Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, and also she overheats easily so we go easy at it, especially in the summertime.

Nonetheless, I would get annoyed when I would throw the ball three times, she would fetch it back, then on the fourth time she would run to me but just stand there holding the ball and not release it. There I was standing there doing nothing, getting irritated. We were supposed to be playing ball.

Then I thought, “This game is for her and she is making a choice. She is clear on how the system works: release the ball and I will throw the other one. If she chooses not to, how can I adjust my own behavior to honor that and not get frustrated?”

So I started working in my yard while we played ball. Whenever Clara brought me one ball and released it, I would throw the other. If she went off and played by herself, I kept working. If she came to me and didn’t release the ball, I kept working. Lo and behold, Clara loved this! She would take a little break, then come back to play some more. I got wise and set up her little pool to give her another choice, and she also would run get in the pool with her ball for a while. Sometimes Zani would choose to join and I would throw the second ball for her. Clara got to choose the pace of her game and what components went into it. I wished I hadn’t been so goal driven about it before. This was quite pleasant for everyone!

The video shows the relaxed game we ended up with when I let Clara and Zani set the pace and choose their moves.  There is nothing dramatic to see in this video, and that’s kind of the point. But it took me some consideration to figure out that this could work.

Link to the video for email subscribers.

Keeping the Tug Toy

I also tried the choice thing with Zani. Zani loves to tug, but I used to have a bit of a problem with her playing keep-away and running off to play or chew by herself. I limited her choices in the usual ways recommended by the great sportsdog trainers. “Make yourself so enticing that playing with you is more fun.” “Put the dog or the toy on a leash.” “Set yourself up so you are placed naturally where the dog will tend to take the toy.” “Leave if the dog decides to play without you.” All these are methods designed to strongly influence the dog’s choice. What worked the best for me was the first one—to be more fun.

Zani started bringing the toy back to play most of the time, but not always. I got to wondering, “What would it harm to let Zani go ahead and play with that toy by herself a little bit? We are not preparing for a competition. She can’t lose it in my small yard.”

So I tried it the next time we were practicing agility sequences. About every third or fourth time I would purposely throw the toy way beyond my position and cheerlead Zani as she ran around with it. She obviously loved the feeling of that toy in her mouth and loved having possession of it. And after a couple of zooms around the yard, she would usually bring it back to tug again.  Caution: This practice would not generally be advisable if you were working with a puppy who didn’t know how to play with a person and whose sole goal in life was keep-away. You don’t want to add to the “run away” account. Instead, you could develop the play relationship first, and then perhaps loosen up a bit later. And seriously, limit the pup’s choices for a while with one of the methods I mentioned above.

The Dog Might Create a New Game

Offering dogs free choice can have interesting results. One night a few months ago I decided to offer all the dogs a session on the nail board. They scratch their nails down and earn treats for that. They all enjoy it.

Clara with ballWe had just come in from outside and Clara was holding her rubber ball. This is a rare privilege. I can’t let her have it very long because she chews it up. (Yep, another forbidden choice!) She was lying quietly with her ball, not chewing yet because she was still winded from playing. I let each of the other dogs do the nail board first while Clara rested with her ball.

I then asked Clara if she wanted to do the nail board. She came over, still holding her ball. This was a quandary for her. She didn’t want to put the ball down, and didn’t know how to do her nails while holding it. She stood around for a while, then put the ball at the top of the angled board, and released it so it rolled down. Then she ran and got it. (This was yet another version of her “Gravity Game.”)

The next time she came back she also released the ball onto the board. I marked with a “yes” and gave her some kibble. Then she ran and got the ball and did it again. This was more fun for her than scratching her nails so we continued to do this for a while. Then she took her ball and went and lay down again. She knew she could continue earning kibble, but chose to stop and enjoy her ball instead. And I was fine with doing her nails another day.

The Price of Choice

As I said, these are non-dramatic examples. But most had to be carefully considered. There are some well-known, successful trainers out there who work more free choice into their training. But for us mere mortals it can mean playing with fire. Giving dogs multiple simultaneous choices for positive reinforcement invokes the Matching Law. If squirrels are always reinforcing, and working with you is sometimes reinforcing, which is the dog statistically more likely to choose?

I think that’s why people tend to highlight their forced choices instead. Yes, my dog can leave the training session! Yes, I let my dog avoid the scary thing! These are not choices between positive reinforcement opportunities. They are highly stacked decks with generally predictable results. But free choices, choices where multiple options offer positive reinforcement, are tricky.

Training involves a process of limiting choices. I believe we need to be honest about the strictures we put around our dogs’ lives. And allowing too many choices about important behaviors can undo training. That balance is not as simple as it might seem.

I am interested in the choices you folks offer your dogs, how you do it, and whether you find that they come with a price. Please comment!

Related Posts

Copyright Eileen Anderson 2015

Notes   [ + ]

1. Giving the dog the choice to leave when there are other fun things to do is a free choice, but one that many—not all—trainers avoid offering. Think of the standard instructions for training a puppy or new dog. “Limit distractions.”
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