eileenanddogs

Author: eileenanddogs
Passionate amateur dog trainer, writer, and learning theory geek. Eileen Anderson on Google+

Replacing a Poisoned Cue

Replacing a Poisoned Cue

A woman reaching down and shoving her hand in the face of a stuffed dog, as if to tell it to stay. This became a poisoned cue.
“STAY!”

Originally published in December 2012; expanded and revised for 2019. The video in this post was featured at Tate Behavioral’s ABA Conference in October 2019 by Dr. Megan Miller.

A poisoned cue is a cue that is associated with both reinforcing and aversive consequences. Poisoned cues were probably the norm for a period in some types of training, and still are common. If you tell your dog to “sit” and he gets a cookie if he sits but gets a push on the butt or jerk on the leash if he doesn’t, then “sit” is a poisoned cue. The term was coined by Karen Pryor.

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Stimulus Control, Or Why Are There Seven Shoes on the Table?

Stimulus Control, Or Why Are There Seven Shoes on the Table?

retrieving items over and over indicates lack of stimulus control
What happens when you don’t have retrieve on stimulus control?

This is an update of a post published on December 16, 2013.

I’ve mentioned before that I’m not very good at stimulus control. I’ve included in this post a great video from when Clara was younger that demonstrates that embarrassingly well.

Stimulus control in training is all about response to cues, and goes like this. Given a behavior:

Continue reading “Stimulus Control, Or Why Are There Seven Shoes on the Table?”
The “Invention” of Cues in Training

The “Invention” of Cues in Training

Hat made out of folded newspaper

Once upon a time, there was a girl who decided to teach her dog some tricks. She figured out that if she gave her dog something he liked after he did something she liked, he was liable to do the thing again. So she taught him some simple tricks using food and play as reinforcement.   

As she went along, her dog started finding playing training games lots of fun in and of themselves. But she still used food and play. He liked earning his “pay” and she liked giving it to him. She didn’t see any reason to stop.

This girl was unusual in that she didn’t try to tell her dog what to do in words. She realized what is not obvious to so many of us: he didn’t speak English. Things worked out just fine because he could generally discern from context and her gestures what she wanted to work on.

She used a little platform to teach him to pivot in a circle. He would put his front feet on the platform and walk around with his back feet and rotate. He got good at this and soon could spin in both directions. As soon as he saw the platform he would run over to it and start to pivot, although she could ask him to stop with a hand signal.

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Herrnstein’s Matching Law and Reinforcement Schedules

Herrnstein’s Matching Law and Reinforcement Schedules

Chocolate cookies on a cookie sheet. The baker may do other activities while the cookies are baking as long as she shows up at the right time. Her behavior follows the matching law.
When we bake cookies, some reinforcement is on a variable interval schedule.

Have you heard trainers talking about the matching law? This post covers a bit of its history and the nuts and bolts of what it is about. I am providing this rather technical article because I want something to link to in some other written pieces about how the matching law has affected my own training of my dogs.

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It’s Not Painful. It’s Not Scary. It Just Gets the Dog’s Attention!

It’s Not Painful. It’s Not Scary. It Just Gets the Dog’s Attention!

This is the short version of this post. Here is the longer version.

Some dog trainers who use tools such as shock, prong, or choke collars, or startle the dog with thrown objects or loud noises, claim that these things are done only for the purpose of “getting the dog’s attention.” They may further insist that the dog is not hurt, bothered, or scared.

Others, while well meaning, use a special sound or a “No!” to get their dogs to stop doing something. Not the worst thing in the world, but these people will try to argue you to the ground, insisting that the noise or word is “neutral.” They’ll say that it doesn’t carry any aversive effect, that it “just gets the dog’s attention.”

If only! This sounds like the Holy Grail of dog training. It’s the Magical Attention Signal! It can get your dog’s attention, get him to do something, or stop doing something, all rolled into one. You don’t have to use those pesky treats or toys, and it certainly doesn’t hurt or bother the dog!

Gosh, who wouldn’t want that? Life would be so easy with the Magical Attention Signal!

Unfortunately, the Magical Attention Signal is utter nonsense.

I have another version of this post in which I analyze the possibilities of the so-called Magical Attention Signal using learning theory. Feel free to check it out. Or read forward and get the story through some straightforward analogies.

Glumph

Imagine that you and I don’t share a common language or culture. But a friend in common has dropped you off to stay at my house for an afternoon.

You are looking around the house. You come into the bedroom and start looking through my jewelry box. I look up and casually say, “Glumph.” In my language, that means, “Please don’t bother my stuff; why don’t you go look around in the next room.” But you don’t know that. It was just a nonsense sound to you, so you keep looking through the jewelry. “Glumph” perhaps got your attention for a moment, but nothing else happened. It was a neutral stimulus. Now here’s where it gets interesting. What happens next?

Scenario 1: The “Neutral” Attention Signal

So what if nothing else happens besides my saying, “Glumph” every so often? If the jewelry (or my mail, or my wallet) is interesting, “Glumph” will not get your attention. In fact, the more I say it (staying in a neutral tone), the more it becomes part of the background. You habituate to it, and it loses even the tiny bit of attention-getting power it may have had at the beginning through novelty.

Outcome: “Glumph” is a neutral stimulus and doesn’t work to get attention.

Scenario 2: The Raised Voice

This is one of the likelier scenarios. After my first statement of “Glumph,” I say it again, but this time I raise my voice. I really need to interrupt you from going through my things! This time you are startled and you stop. Oops, the host is mad!

“Glumph” is now more effective. But how is it operating? It is interrupting you either because it is intrinsically startling, or because you know that yelling humans are more likely to harm you.

Outcome: “Glumph” is an interrupter operating through fear or threats.

Scenario 3: Taking Action

This is the most common scenario in dog training. What do I do after I say “Glumph,” conversationally to you, and you don’t stop what you are doing? I yell “Glumph,” I jump up, and physically stop you from going through my jewelry. I might do this a number of ways. Even though I’m upset, I might take you very gently away from my jewelry. Or I could do something less gentle. I could grab your hands or whack them. I could close the lid on your fingers. I could yell in your face. I could push you away. I could hit you.

So what does “Glumph” mean now? You will likely pay attention the next time I say or yell it. Because it means at the very least (the gentle scenario) you are going to lose access to the thing you are enjoying. But most likely you will have learned that my yelling “Glumph!” is a precursor to something unpleasant happening to you.

“Glumph” has become a punishment marker, and can operate as a threat.

A neutral stimulus by itself has no power, and the dog will habituate to it. If a word or noise works reliably to stop behaviors, it is not a neutral stimulus. It doesn’t just “get the dog’s attention” in a neutral way. It works because it is either intrinsically unpleasant or predicts unpleasantness.

Outcome: “Glumph” scares the dog or predicts something painful, scary, or otherwise unpleasant.

But Wait: There are Positive Interrupters!

Yes, thank goodness. There is a positive reinforcement based method for getting your dog to stop doing stuff. You can condition a positive interrupter.

Here’s a video by Emily Larlham that shows how to train a positive interrupter. Here’s a post about how I conditioned yelling at my dogs to be a positive thing for them—and it ended up having a similar effect.

But the thing is, the people who have conditioned a positive interrupter will tell you so. They can tell you the systematic process they went through to create it. They created it before they ever used it, not in the middle of difficult situations. They will emphatically not claim that their cue is a “neutral, attention-getting stimulus.” They know better. They implemented positive reinforcement.

 

No Magical Attention Signal

If someone says that Tool or Method A, B, or C is designed to “get the dog’s attention,” ask what happens next. Once they get the dog’s attention, how do they actually get the dog to do something or stop doing something? Also, ask them what happens if the first implementation of the tool fails to get the dog’s attention.

Many promoters of aversive methods in dog training don’t want to say that they hurt or scare or startle or nag or bully dogs. And our mythology about dogs is so strong that most of us want to believe them. Hence, the lure of the magic signal that works all by itself, with no other consequences. I hope this post will bolster your “nonsense detector.” Behavior is driven by consequences. If no change in consequences occurs, there is no reason for a behavior to change.

A woman with her back partially to the camera is sitting on a lawn. There is a wooden fence in the background. Three dogs are lying down nearby, all looking into her eyes.
Attention in the backyard, achieved with positive reinforcement

 

Copyright 2017, 2018 Eileen Anderson

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Tricks for Frozen Dog Treats

Tricks for Frozen Dog Treats

I am all about efficiency. You could also say I’m lazy. Also, my freezer is usually stuffed full.

So rather than freeze whole filled food toys for three dogs, I use several gadgets that let me freeze things separately. Then I can put frozen dog treats (of all sorts—just look!) into food toys for a quick treat for the dogs that they can enjoy for a few minutes.

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What is Summer Saying? Observing a Bark

What is Summer Saying? Observing a Bark

Summer mid bark keepWhen I filmed Summer barking using the slow motion function of my video camera, I was mostly curious in an analytical sort of way. What could I see when I slowed everything down?

I didn’t realize that I would find the footage so touching.

Slow motion filming is helpful because dog body language is so very fast. A dozen things can happen while we are just trying to process one. Much of it is so fleeting that we never see it at all.

Summer has a very expressive face, and she’s a worrywart. When you see her two little barks in slow motion, the extent of her anxiety is clear.

In day-to-day life with dogs, this is the kind of behavior that can be annoying. You are trying to read, watch TV, or go to bed, and the dog starts fussing because, for instance, the neighbor dropped a board on his back porch. You almost feel like the dog is doing it to annoy you.

But seeing something like this makes things very clear. No, she’s not a princess. No, she isn’t attention mongering. She’s just worried.

I’m glad I have been able to start working with Summer again. I’m afraid her anxiety took a back seat during Clara’s first couple of years in the household, since Summer could function in the world and had people and dog friends, and Clara had only me. Now that Clara is doing so well, the pendulum can swing back. I have been working on some of Summer’s triggers at home and already seeing progress. I’ll be writing about that some more soon.

In the meantime, you can check out how expressive two little barks can be.

 

Link to the video for email subscribers.

What do you see when your dog barks? Does it vary?

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Fooled by the Foobler? A Review

Fooled by the Foobler? A Review

If you have a small dog with little experience with food toys and who is not prone to chewing hard plastic, the new toy called the Foobler might be the very thing for him.

If you have a larger dog, a determined dog, one who thrives on chewing hard plastic, or most important, a dog who has a lot of experience with food toys, I have some cautions about the product.

That’s right. I’m recommending the Foobler for dogs who are new Continue reading “Fooled by the Foobler? A Review”

How My Dogs Play

How My Dogs Play

A medium sized tan dog with a black muzzle and tail stands, looking at another dog. the other dog is smaller, mostly black with rust color on her legs and head, and is doing a play bow.

Here’s an “Almost Wordless Wednesday” for you. Just a short movie showing Clara and Zani playing.

Even wholesome dog playing can be scary to people who aren’t familiar with it. Dogs growl, snarl, and mouth each other so fast and hard that you are sure they are doing damage. But many dogs, sometimes the most unlikely pairs, work out ways to play that are pretty safe and fun for both parties concerned.

In this clip you will see hackles raised (Clara), lots of snarling and screaming (Zani), and lots of so-called displacement behaviors from both dogs (look-aways, lip licks, ground sniffing). Yet what I see in the main is wholesome and fun play. I show some of the things I like about it in the movie: Clara’s self-handicapping, how they take breaks and vary their play, and how they negotiate the end of play and bleed off any built up tension. (Try to see when one of them first decides it’s time to quit. I’ll give my opinion in the comments if anyone wants to discuss.)

Throughout the clip, my third dog, Summer, is sitting quietly in front of me. I have trained her to do that instead of being the Fun Police, and intervening aggressively in the other dogs’ play. She got a treat right after the clip ended.

Enjoy!

 

Link to the movie for email subscribers. 

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“Testing Through” the Levels

“Testing Through” the Levels

The whole post in three words: Don’t do it. Start at the beginning.

I’ve mentioned before that I use Sue Ailsby’s Training Levels as a guide for training my dogs. The Levels comprise an organized method for teaching your dog. The behaviors are designed to build on each other and generalize as part of the process. They are carefully laid out, and the books suggest specific ways to teach each behavior without being doctrinaire about it. The method is great for new trainers, because the trainer builds skills through the process as well.

I am not the best example of a Levels trainer because I frequently dash off-course and train something else, but with each new dog I do use the Levels for my foundation, and they are always going on in the background. Right now all three of my dogs are working some Level 3 behaviors and we are still cleaning up some in Level 2.

I’ve been on the Training Levels Yahoo group since 2008. Just before discovering the Levels, I had been putting together my own prioritized list of behaviors to teach (with competitive agility as a big focus but also plenty of polite pet behaviors). I had been patching together some Susan Garrett and Leslie McDevitt and things from other sources. So when I discovered the Levels, I was in a quandary. I am a dedicated do-it-yourselfer and am constitutionally hesitant to take “someone else’s” structure and follow it. And I wanted something focused specifically on agility. But I also had enough sense to vaguely realize that Sue Ailsby might know a tiny bit more about how to put together a dog training curriculum than I did. (That’s sarcasm. Sue’s credentials are awesome.)

Adopting the Levels

So, after some generous guidance from Lynn Shrove, with whom I struck up an email relationship and who was very generous with her time, I decided to use the Levels for my training structure.

In an email conversation I described to Lynn how I was going through the lists of behaviors in the Levels to see where I should start with my dog, since she already knew a lot of them.

Anyone who is a dedicated Levels trainer is smirking right now.

Here’s how the conversation went.

Eileen: I’ve made a check-off sheet and am going through and testing Summer through the early behaviors in the Levels so I know what Level she is already at and where to start.

Lynn: (politely) You should think about starting at the beginning.

Eileen: But Summer knows that stuff already! She has titles in obedience and agility! She can do a two-minute sit/stay with distractions. She’s good at heeling. She got her Novice obedience title in three straight trials.

Lynn: (politely) Still, I really suggest you start at the beginning. The Levels are about learning how to teach your dog and they all fit together.

Eileen: But I’ve already been training her for two years! I don’t need to backtrack.

Lynn: (patiently) What would it hurt, though, to retrain according to Sue’s methods? You will probably pick up some stuff that you didn’t know was missing.

Eileen: (grudgingly and several days later) OK, I am starting from the beginning.

Lynn: Great! Let me know if you want to share training videos.

Eileen: (a few weeks later) Oh now I know why you told me to start at the beginning. Thank you!

Perhaps I wasn’t that gracious at the end, and perhaps it was more like months, but I’m pretty sure I did tell Lynn that she was right. Because she was.

Zani Demos a Level 1 Sit
Zani Demos a Level 1 Sit

Why to Start at the Beginning

Most humans hate to backtrack, or do anything that even feels like backtracking. Also, we are usually proud to have taught our dogs anything. Finally, we are impatient. We want to get to the new, fun stuff. So it’s perfectly natural that we should see a list of behaviors, think, “Oh great, my dog already knows some of those,” and decide to start somewhere in the middle, determining what she already knows by a quick test.

Here are some of the reasons why that is a really bad idea with the Training Levels.

  1. The Levels emphasize generalization. In many obedience schools, and just by natural inclination, we teach our dogs to do a behavior in one environment and do it the same each time. If my dog can sit in the kitchen when I am holding her food bowl in my hand (facing north), I may figure she “knows sit.” Or if she can sit in a line of dogs for one minute in an obedience ring (admittedly a challenge), I figure she can “do a sit stay.” Notice that in the conversation above I defended my dog’s knowledge of behaviors by citing her titles. This is very common when coming from that training background, but in truth, being able to perform a series of behaviors in an obedience ring has little or nothing to do with being able to do them in “real life.” Different skills entirely. My dog didn’t really “know” a sit-stay. All one has to do to test this claim is to put the dog or oneself in an odd or different position or with new distractions and ask for the same thing. I did this later. I have a series of movies about this in the blog post: Dogs Notice Everything. Check it out. When you start the Levels from the beginning, generalizing becomes second nature, and that’s a good thing.
  2. If you are new to clicker or marker training, you need to practice on the easier stuff more than your dog does! And Sue gives explicit instructions about this.
  3. Behaviors taught with aversives, even mild ones like pushing the dog’s butt down into a sit, are **not the same** as those same behaviors taught with positive reinforcement. They carry with them a burden of pressure and even fear. The Levels are taught with joy. And yes, behaviors taught that way can become reliable (the Levels are great at that too). If you have used aversives, or trained the behaviors “for praise,” or “without treats,” you especially need to start over. You may even need to change your cue words, since they probably have baggage from the “old way.” I changed the phrase I used for “leave it” because I originally taught it by saying “leave it” and pulling (honestly, jerking) my dog away from a treat on the floor, without any clue ahead of time what I wanted her to do. And here’s a whole post about a cue I changed much later in my dog’s life when I finally came to see the baggage it carried: “Replacing a Poisoned Cue.”
  4. Sue knows more than you do. In short, the problem is that you don’t know what it is that you don’t know. I can’t tell you what that is. But I can practically guarantee that unless you are a professional trainer yourself, there is something in those early instructions that will be a revelation to you. Probably a lot of “somethings.”

Real Life Example of Levels Generalization

Here is a movie I made back in 2010 of my then new dog Zani sitting on cue in the 15 different situations that Sue suggested in the “old” Training Levels, Level 1. There are plenty of warts in this training including consistently late clicks, but the cool thing is that even so, Zani could and did learn to sit on cue!

 Link to “Zani: Level 1 Sit” for email subscribers.

And remember, that was just Level 1 out of 7 in the old Levels.

Now take a look at the list for Level 1 Sit from the New Levels. The list is a little shorter now, but actually more challenging.

  1. Dog sits with the leash off.
  2. Dog sits in a different part of training room, facing a different way, with the leash off.
  3. Dog sits with a hand signal only.
  4. Dog sits with a hand signal in a different room.
  5. Dog sits with the leash on.
  6. Dog sits with the leash on with you sitting down, if you originally taught it standing up, or vice versa. If you’ve done it both ways already, you can kneel or hang off the edge of your bed.
  7. The dog sits by an open door (an inside door).
  8. The dog sits: during a TV commercial, when you open the oven door, when the doorbell rings, when you’re on the phone, when you’re putting on your coat, when you’re brushing your teeth, while you’re peeling carrots, while you’re putting on her leash and collar.

That’s part of what you miss if you skip Level 1 because your dog “knows sit.”

Oh, and one more thing about “testing.” If you go around testing your dog’s sit in lots of different situations in one morning, that doesn’t give you an accurate picture. Dogs will tend to repeat the last thing they got reinforced for when they are unsure. If you go to 40 different places in your house in sequence and ask for sits, well, you’ll probably get sits. That’s why when testing behaviors, Sue specifies to do it “out of the blue.” Meaning outside the context of a training session and without having recently worked on or asked for the behavior.

So there’s another reason. If you start in the middle, you may not even know how to properly test the behaviors. Take it from this inveterate skipper-arounder. Start at the beginning.

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