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Category: Cues

Summer Learns An Alternative to Being the Fun Police

Summer Learns An Alternative to Being the Fun Police

Sweet little Summer
Sweet little Summer

I have mentioned before that my dog Summer is reactive. Reactive has come to refer to a dog who reacts strongly (and inappropriately in the human’s view), usually with an aggressive display, to some specific triggers. Some of Summer’s triggers are strange dogs (in some settings), strange men (in even more settings), delivery trucks, certain noises other dogs make, and rowdy play on the part of her housemates. The latter earns her the moniker of a “Fun Police” dog. She tries to stop the other dogs when they do things that bother her, and she is not very nice about it.

Continue reading “Summer Learns An Alternative to Being the Fun Police”
Using a Training Plan to Retrain Summer’s “Target”

Using a Training Plan to Retrain Summer’s “Target”

Summer's new hand touch
Summer’s new hand target

In our last episode, I shared how I messed up Summer’s hand (and object) targeting behavior six ways from Sunday. Now I will share the process of retraining it.

When you follow directions from a book, such as the Training Levels, a lot of the planning is done for you. So I get a little lazy about training plans. I can just check little boxes off in the books.  (A reminder: I  acquired all these errors when I was brand new at training and using a mishmash of methods. Wish I’d known about the Levels earlier.)   But it’s a good idea to always have a plan, and collect data on what you are doing. Since I now need to do a unique retraining plan suited exactly to my dog and her needs, I am going to make a plan and share it, then share how well it works.

Training Plans

Training plans can be as simple or as detailed as the situation demands. For this situation, where I am trying to get rid of several superstitious behaviors that often follow my cue for hand target, I am going to make a thorough plan, and share it here.

Here are two posts about training plans, both by great trainers.

I combined parts of both of these to design the categories for my plan. I also made a record-keeping spreadsheet in Google Docs, loosely based on Melissa Alexander’s. Hers is accessible through her post above.

My Training Plan

  • Goal: a clean touch of Summer’s nose to my hand, followed by her generalizing that to similar touches to different objects. I want verbal cue recognition (will do tests with objects, see below).  But she doesn’t have to wait for a verbal if I do the hand signal.
  • Description:  A clean clear touch of nose to hand or object. She can be in any position that will allow her to reach the hand or object. It doesn’t have to be a hard touch, just definite touch of nose. No drivebys, and no just whiskers. No teeth, no open mouth. Minimal paw lifts. I define minimal as: her paw can lift about an inch higher than normal if she is walking or trotting to the target. Getting her mouth closed and preventing paw whacks are essential. A little leftover paw action is OK with me.
  • Methods: Capture the touch, then shape a firmer touch if necessary. I want to make the picture as different as possible for Summer from the very beginning, including changing the hand signal and verbal cue. I will follow the progression in Level 1 Target in the Training Levels. I will start with me seated. Use Sue Ailsby’s hand position (see “new position” above). Start off with my left hand rather than right, which I have used more often for hand targets before. I’ll drop treats rather than handing them to her (encourages mouth/hand contact) or throwing them (builds excitement).
  • Cue: Verbal. In the case of hand touch, presentation of hand.  Cue discrimination: the ability to distinguish from Sit and Down on verbal alone. For this I will use a standalone object, since the presentation of the hand will always be more salient than the verbal. When to start with the cue: TBD.
  • Sessions: Up to three sessions per day of 10 treats.
  • Criteria for advancement: In the early stages of the hand touch, 95% or above. This is because my goal is to clean out the old superstitious behaviors. Also I have observed that Summer doesn’t mind lots of repetition. Later I will build in her looking me in the eyes before I will give the cue. This is because of her habit of staring at the food or my food hand.
  • Duration? Not for this project.
  • Distance? 15 feet to object, or about that much if chasing me.
  • Distractions? Maybe near the end. Put down a mat for her to go by as she goes to touch an object.
  • Position: Hand touch from all different directions. Object touch from different positions. I will limit to objects already in her sight, i.e., she doesn’t have to turn around to find it. However, I plan to “try it cold” by cuing a Touch when she is not expecting it and when there is an obvious object to touch.
  • Where: Start in my den. Do other rooms in house, back porch, back yard. Possibly go on to front porch.
  • Reliability: I want 95% free from superstitious behaviors. Response to cue itself 80-90%.
  • Comments and caveats: Since we have an ongoing issue with staring at food, I will chain in eye contact after she is getting some fluency.  She is more likely to do the undesired behaviors if she is excited and moving fast, so I will start with her standing still. Observation: she is quite likely to offer an undesired behavior after failing to meet criteria and doing a light touch on the first one, instead of offering a firmer touch. I will need to be creative and use positioning to avoid errors. Also I stated earlier that I don’t want to use negative punishment at all if possible. That means I don’t want to rely on pulling the target away from her if she is approaching it with her paw or an open mouth. I want to prevent those things from happening to begin with. I want to tell her through reinforcement what is working.
  • Future:  Duration. Mix up Zen and target. Learn to distinguish target cue from retrieve cue.

The difference between my old and new hand positions for target:

Notes about Future Steps

In the Training Levels, what follows the hand touch is:

  • Foot touch:  (Dog’s nose to human foot) Probably no problems here.
  • Wooden object: I’ll need to prevent teeth touches and grabbing by using a large, flat object, as described in the Levels (p 187) Need to watch for feet movement. How to discourage? Careful height of object. Experiment with stationary vs moving.
  • Plastic object: ditto.
  • Metal object: ditto.
  • Spot on wall: I’ll have to modify the instructions: I won’t use a post-it note or painter’s tape. (Watch the Targeting Mishaps movie to see why.)  I’ll draw or paint a target on a piece of poster board with non toxic paint. Start by holding the board. Shape touching the spot. When that is solid, get it onto the wall.

We have practiced all of the above behaviors before, but many incorrectly because of superstitious behaviors.

Session Planning

Session 1. I’ll sit in a chair. Treats on my right on a desk. Proffer left hand in position described by Sue. Correct iterations marked by Yes and drop (don’t throw) treat.

Link to video for email subscribers.

My Notes after the First Two Sessions

Wow, real life comes crashing in. So Summer did one touch/sniff, then the very next one she took all my fingers in her mouth. (A “bite” but very inhibited. Her teeth didn’t close.) I wasn’t ready for that at all. I was in the middle of saying “Yes” but aborted it. I was so surprised I just got up and turned off one of the cameras and took a break. In the meantime Summer heard me say most of “Yes” and was sniffing around looking for her treat, which I had made a split second decision about and didn’t give her.

Dang! An important goal for me is no negative punishment, but abruptly getting up and stopping a training session can be a big dose of that….

But the video taught me a lot. Both the times (yes, it happened again) Summer took my fingers in her mouth, I had presented my hand kind of flat. Must have looked like I was handing her a treat.

Besides the position of the hand, I need to make its presentation a little clearer (I don’t need to leave it halfway out there). Make it very clear: on/off. I’m still struggling a little with the hand position; that’s part of why I am so stiff. Also I’m trying to keep my body very quiet. A couple times I was too slow and she was already moving forward when I presented my hand.

I’m really really glad I counted reps and successes. I would have overestimated our success rate otherwise.

Also, I chose to go with 10 treats rather than 10 total iterations. 10 treats means 10 correct responses, but puts no limit on incorrect responses. Sometimes not advisable at the beginning. But even looking at the video I had a hard time deciding what “counted” as an iteration or not, so I’m glad I wasn’t trying to count while training.

Third and Fourth Sessions

We have already had our third and fourth sessions, although they’re not included in the movie. Our success rate got better and went up to 10 correct out of 13 both times, which comes to 77%. I tried to loosen up a little and move in Session 4 but I immediately got an open mouth from Summer. I’ll need to continue to be very conservative since movement on my part has typically triggered mouthiness on hers. There’s always a fine line between getting the behavior and not wedding it to a certain setup. I’ll do some other things to introduce some variety.

Here is my training tracker document. I’ll keep it up to date and publicly accessible.

Thanks for reading.

Now that it’s done, here is the whole series:

Also coming up:

Eileenanddogs on YouTube

6 Ways I Messed Up My Dog’s Targeting

6 Ways I Messed Up My Dog’s Targeting

Targeting done right! --credit Marge Rogers
Targeting done right! –credit Marge Rogers

Hand targeting is usually suggested as a great behavior for new clicker trainers since it is easy to get and easy to define criteria for.

I guess I didn’t read the brochure carefully enough because I messed up hand targeting for one of my dogs six ways from Sunday!

From time to time I share in the blog mistakes I have made in the past, Continue reading “6 Ways I Messed Up My Dog’s Targeting”

Level 1 Breakfast

Level 1 Breakfast

Those who have read for a while know that I use Sue Ailsby’s Training Levels to structure my training. For you new folks: go check them out! They are a great resource if you are training your dog on your own and could use great training tips and structure to what you are doing. Also for you new folks, since I’m showing a training video on this page, please read the Welcome post if you haven’t already, to know a little more about the focus of my blog and why I post videos that sometimes, ahem, show errors.

Following the Training Levels helps me keep going, be consistent, and remember to generalize, generalize, generalize. It helps me keep track of three dogs. It helps me figure out what to train when my mind is tired and blank. Plus I get the benefit of help from all the great trainers on the Training Levels Yahoo group.

A year or so ago on the Yahoo group, Sue mentioned using her puppy Syn’s breakfast a few days in a row to get a jump start on a certain behavior. Now, using a dog’s meals for training sessions is not at all a new idea for me. But frankly, I had rarely done it up to then, except with Clara. The reason was that I had gotten into a habit of using higher value treats for training first Summer, then Zani, in agility and other performance work.  That habit had carried over even into training at home in a non-distracting environment. Every task felt so very important; I didn’t want to devalue anything by using dry food.

But when I read Sue’s post that day, I thought wistfully that it would be so NICE if I could just use their breakfast or supper sometimes like other folks and not always have to dream up new good things for them to eat (and for me to cut up).

I thought maybe, just maybe, I could use the kibble for known behaviors and low key stuff. Since I was starting a project of rehabilitating Summer’s poisoned stay cue, I thought that might be a good candidate. I was going to need to do hundreds or thousands of reps, and they didn’t all have to be steak.

A blue box clicker and pile of dry kibbleSo I started thinking up some things each dog could do for some of their morning kibble each day. That’s when I found out that my dogs were now thrilled to work for kibble.

It turns out that those couple of years using high value treats got Zani and Summer addicted to the training game permanently. And Clara, well, she might work for cardboard. (Actually she would.)

Great! The kibble thing meant that finding the time and energy for training just got quite a bit easier for me. Set out part of a meal and do something with it.

I generally give them the meal part first. I rarely use my dogs’ entire meal for training, although they wouldn’t mind.  I have always wanted to stay mindful myself that many things in their lives are free, and that’s how I want it to be. (My practice about that predates Kathy Sdao’s great book, but she said it very well.) Also recently I have learned that dogs, just like people, probably learn better when their stomachs are not empty. Why after all these years did this only now occur to us? Anyway, I give them some of their meal ahead of time and take the edge off, before training.

So here I was, finally having what a lot of people have had from the beginning: dogs who work very happily for kibble. What was I going to do with it? I work outside my home, so doing a training session in the morning (for THREE dogs)  is still wedging something into a busy time. How could I make it easier on myself?

I took a page out of Lynn Shrove’s book. Lynn is the Empress of Level 1. Her dog Lily has an incredibly firm foundation, and I know it’s in part because Lynn does Level 1 behaviors over and over, everywhere, everywhen, with everybody. Check out budding trainer Bethany, age 7, working with Lily on sits and downs if you want to see adorable. Not to mention very practical on Lynn’s part.

So my version is the Level 1 Breakfast. Take a portion of everybody’s breakfast, and have a rapid-fire practice session of sit, down, target, come, and Zen. (Those are the behaviors from Level 1 in Sue Ailsby’s Training Levels.) We started off just doing it in normal places, in normal positions. All my dogs can use practice on verbal cues. None of them, for instance, is at 100% correct response of sit and down. Summer comes the closest, but you can see an outtake at the end of the movie where she has an incredibly creative response to the cue, “sit.”

I said rapid-fire above, because we are moving quickly, and because Level 1 behaviors don’t require duration, except up to 5 seconds for Zen. However, you will see me adding a second or two of duration now and then in the movie just to keep things mixed up.

We went on to more challenging situations, for instance, with me sitting or lying on the floor. And we found out quickly what needed some work!

Link to video for email subscribers.

So just from these couple of sessions I learned that the following things needed work:

  • Zani has a big space bubble around her and tends to do her behaviors a fair distance away. I need to practice more recalls right to my feet and hands and generally shape her into working more closely to me. The directions for this are right in Level 1.
  • I need to practice yet more collar grabs with Summer. She’s doing OK (better than Zani!), but her tail wag slows down a bit when I take her collar. I would love to get “delight” as a response.
  • Clara got a bit stressed when I switched abruptly from having her run to me for a hand target to cuing Zen. She responded properly but looked progressively more worried (paw lift, shrinking away). She was fine with Zen in other contexts, so I think the sharp transition was difficult.  I’ll practice more transitions and reinforce the Zen mightily.
  • When I was lying down, Summer, who actually knows her cues the best in that situation, fixated on my nigh pocket and hand with the treats and was actually bumping my hand with her nose. Major distraction. What a time for me to cue Zen! I put the treat on the floor right in front of her it was an immediate fail. Several things to practice about that!
  • Zani and Clara both had trouble sitting when I was lying on the floor, as is very common. I want to mention that for both of them I “helped” them by repeating the cue and adding another signal (verbal or hand, depending on what I had originally given). It would have been a  bad idea to continue to do this, because it would end up reinforcing their incorrect response. The proper thing to do, and what I did do subsequently, is work gradually down to that position and give them a history of success.

A sable dog is in motion, moving sideways and twisting her body. You can see just the legs of her trainer in the background.
Summer with a very creative response to “sit”

So that’s what we learned over the course of a couple of breakfasts. Now we are filling in the gaps.

Thanks for reading and viewing!

Coming up:

Eileenanddogs on YouTube

The Right Word: Reducing Errors in Verbal Cue Discrimination

The Right Word: Reducing Errors in Verbal Cue Discrimination

Sable colored dog leaps off a pink mat towards her female handler's outstretched hand
Summer releases on the correct cues

I’m an auditory person. I grew up in a whole family of musicians. I love language and sound and music of all sorts. For the first half of my life I lived almost exclusively in the company of musicians, and in the second half I have few musician friends. This second half has made me conscious of the ways we musicians are different!

At work, I’m the one who gets asked to check the voice mail when we can’t understand the name. When there is a strange noise, eyes turn to me for identification of it. I can almost always tell if someone can’t hear me well, and I can immediately tell if someone is not listening to me (these are very different!). I can also ignore visual stimuli very well if I am listening to someone or something. (With regard to visual skills, I’ve been told someone could come in and rearrange the furniture in my house and I wouldn’t notice….)

So naturally I am interested in my dogs’ perceptions of sound and verbal cues. Frequent readers will know that I am honest about my limitations and frailties as a trainer, so I think you all will believe me when I say that ironically I seem to have three dogs in training who all have rather low aptitude for verbal cues. I.e., it’s probably not just my limitations in this case. So we all have to work extra hard on words.

Verbal cue discrimination training, where you teach a dog to respond only to the correct word,  can be stressful for any dog. If not done with care, the dog can have a very high error rate, which is discouraging to many dogs. So I gave a lot of thought about how I could reduce that error rate.

In A Secret for Training Two Dogs I described my strategies for teaching one of my dogs to stay on a mat while I trained another. I briefly discussed my methods for releases. I have chosen to use each dog’s name, spoken in a certain tone, as an individual release. Dr. Patricia McConnell demonstrates this method in “Examples of Wait with Multiple Dogs.”  This post covers how I went about teaching the discrimination of each dog releasing only on her own cue.

Does She Know the Cue At All?

Most of us at some point discover that our dogs don’t know their verbal cues nearly as well as we think they do. Here’s an experiment for those who have puppies or inexperienced dogs and haven’t worked on this before. Try this if your dog is familiar with Sit and Down, but not Stand.

Cue your dog to sit. Then look at her just like you are giving her a real cue (be as convincing as you can) and say “(Your dog’s name), Purple.” Or some other word that doesn’t sound a bit like “Down” or any other cue she knows. Most dogs will promptly lie down.

It usually turns out that your dog  didn’t really know the word, “Down.” She didn’t need to, since whenever you have said something to her when she is sitting, you meant for her to down. So you can say anything and she will do it.

The transition from responding whenever “human-says-a-word” to learning to listen to the verbals can be difficult and stressful. That’s why I decided to apply the principles of reduced error learning.

Reduced Error Learning

I don’t use the term “errorless learning” because it is both impossible in real life situations and sets a depressingly high standard for most people (and also, I have to add, the most well known studies involved lab animals that were food deprived. I just don’t want to be associated with that). I wrote about this in Errorless Learning II. I have adopted Susan Friedman’s terminology of “reduced error learning” because I think it’s more realistic.

The original concept as promoted by Skinner is great. I do absolutely follow the practices of this kind of learning, which I would describe as “setting your dog up to succeed and to reduce stress in learning, including with creative manipulation of the training environment and props.”

An example of this is the process of  making the right choice easier at first during an olfactory discrimination, such as the cups game. If you are teaching your dog to foot target the inverted cup that covers a smelly treat, first you start with only that one cup. Encourage her to use her nose to smell the cup and treat. Let her repeatedly practice touching the cup with the  treat under it. Lift the cup and give her the treat each time.

To start the discrimination, you introduce a second cup without a treat, but you introduce it way over to the side where the dog can’t reach it. You gradually move it closer and closer while the dog is still touching the correct cup. In this way you have made the correct choice easy and the incorrect choice hard, and the dog is gaining a reinforcement history for touching the cup with the treat. Only after this process would you start mixing the cups up.

The opposite of this process would be to put out multiple cups with only one with a treat under it, and mix them up each time the dog gives a try. Even if your dog knew a foot target, there would be no clue as to which cup to touch. And even if it seems like it would be obvious for them to touch only the smelly cup, well, I’m here to tell you that my hound couldn’t do it, even when I made it much easier than a bunch of mixed up cups. With several cups, the failure rate is apt to be so high that many dogs will quit after a few attempts. This is the difficulty with trial and error learning.

Applying Reduced Error Learning to Cue Discrimination

Verbal cue discrimination means you teach your dog to respond only to the correct verbal cue and not other words. The way this is generally done is to repeat the cue for one behavior several times, and reinforce correct responses. (If you are not getting correct responses, you aren’t ready to work on cue discrimination.) After about four of these, say a completely different word instead. If the dog doesn’t do the behavior (yay!), or hesitates, quickly mark and reinforce.

Note that this is harder for the dog than firing off a bunch of different cues the dog knows. Because in this exercise the dog must be discriminating enough and confident enough to do nothing if the word is not a real cue. Plus, in so many situations we reinforce clicker dogs for guessing. The first time you practice this it can be like pulling the rug out from under the dog’s feet.

So how can we reduce stress and errors? In addition to choosing words to begin with that were very different from the correct cue word, I also chose to use at first a different tone of voice and/or volume for the cue. I took pains to make the non-cues as far away in the auditory sense as they could be from real cues.

Sand colored dog with black muzzle and tail stays on a pink mat, relaxed and with her mouth open, as her female handler says a nonsense word. She is supposed to stay unless she hears her personal release word.
Clara correctly stays on her mat when I chirp out a nonsense word

 

The Process

Since the whole point of individual releases is that one dog comes and the other/s stay put, I practiced with each dog by herself, going through the following steps to insure that she learned to respond to her own release cue and not the other dogs’.

Special note:  I heavily reinforce my dogs for being on their mats, and I don’t require them to move when I give the general release cue, “OK.” Because of this I incorporated a hand target and/or other body language at first to encourage them to move, then faded it. Others would probably not need to do this.

  1. With the dog on her mat, I called her with her release word followed by invitation to hand target or other body language that invited her to move.
  2. Then I called her with her release word without a hand target.
  3. Then I said a word that was very different from the dog’s release word and in a different tone (I blurted it out, high and squeaky). I reinforced her for not moving. If she got up, I quietly escorted her back to the mat, walking side by side with her to avoid using body pressure. (This hardly happened at all, which was one of my goals.) If the dog did get up, I made the non-cue word even more nonsensical. Quieter. Or perhaps I turned away. Anything I could think of to make it less cue-like. Once she started getting it: lather, rinse, repeat.
  4. I started interspersing the dog’s release word. I reinforced when she came, and for the other words, I reinforced when she stayed. If she stayed for her own release word, I beckoned her a little. If she came for another word, I quietly escorted her back to the mat as described above.
  5. I gradually worked into using a normal tone of voice for the non release words. I continued to reinforce for correct behavior/s, staying or releasing appropriately.
  6. The final step was to work in the other dogs’ release words to make sure the subject dog wouldn’t release on them. At this point I was saying all the words exactly the same way without helping the dog. The goal was that she released for her own and was steady for the others.

Link to video for email subscribers.

Outcome

This method worked very well for Clara and Zani. Clara in particular got it very fast, and I loved how she lay there very relaxed on the mat while I said the other dogs’ release words.

Summer had the hardest time. She alone started offering other behaviors for the non-cue words.  That meant that the first few times I used a non-cue word, I had to withhold reinforcement or else reinforce a random behavior performed on the mat. In most cases she tried her “rewind” trick, a backwards inchworm move. I figured out to reinforce very fast, before she was able to move, and we got through it.

But then after I got her to stay still on the mat through the non-cue words, she lost confidence about coming on her own release word. She was not getting the difference.

I did some extra sessions with Summer. After I reviewed the video I realized what the problem was. My squeaky cues were actually prodding her to action. She is a bit sound sensitive and I think they stressed her out a tiny bit. In any case she responded by trying something, anything. So I did the obvious, and instead of squeaky blurty non-cues, I said very quiet ones. That did the trick. I was able to raise the volume almost immediately, and she is catching up to the other dogs.

I’m getting close to my goal of having all my dogs present and unfettered while I train one, with the others reinforced for their self control on their mats!

Thanks for reading! Coming up:

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Retomar o significado: Generalização

Retomar o significado: Generalização

Para os meus leitores e seguidores portugueses.

Retomar o significado: Generalização (link)

Em Inglês

Obrigada Vitor Faibam e Claudia Estanislau pela ajuda na tradução para a versão portuguesa.

Small black and tan dog sits by her trainer. There is a fire extinguisher in the foreground.

Note to all my international readers and viewers: I will be happy to make more translations of this movie, if you want to help.  Thanks to Vitor and Claudia, if anyone wants to volunteer to translate, I can send a text document that has all the English from the movie, with spaces left for translation. It takes me only a couple of hours to change the text in the movie, and I can usually do it within a week or two of receiving the translation, depending on what else is in the queue. Hoping to get some takers!

And of course if you want to translate any other movie or post I would be flattered and will work with you on that.

Thanks for watching!

Obrigada por assistirem!

Coming up:

Eileenanddogs on YouTube

A Secret for Training Two Dogs

A Secret for Training Two Dogs

Tan and black dog lying down on a lavender mat
Clara on her mat during a difficult distraction

I think this is as close as I’ll ever come to a “how-to” blog. Here is my usual disclaimer: I am not a professional trainer and I have trained only my own dogs.

But there is a secret to training a dog to lie quietly on a mat, chair, or platform, unrestrained, while another dog is trained. I didn’t invent it. Sue Ailsby told it to me. I’m going to tell you the secret and discuss it conceptually. Once you get the concept, it all falls into place.

I will also put what I’m saying into practice and demo with my own dogs.

First, here’s what my dogs knew how to do before we started. I think these are the basic necessities.

Prerequisites

  1. The dog already knows how to stay on a mat or other station for 2–3 minutes while being reinforced.
  2. She can stay with some moderate distractions. Here are some examples. You can walk 20 feet away and back again. You can trot by her or jump up and down. You can drop a treat a few feet away. You can toss one away from her (like you were tossing it to another dog). You can walk right by her with a  toy in your hand. The dog must already have experience with distractions, because another dog in the room who will eventually get a lot of your attention is a huge distraction.
  3. You either have cues that are specific to each dog, or you can work something out as a way to get Dog A to stay while Dog B comes with you, and a way to release Dog A without releasing Dog B. Frankly though, they can learn part of this as you go along. I include some suggestions.
  4. She knows the other dog and neither is aggressive or overly obnoxious towards the other.

Here is what Sue Ailsby said that made it all fall into place for me.  Sue said that when you start, you need to concentrate on the dog who is learning to wait on the mat. Sounds obvious, right? But lots of people who go about this task the first time, including myself, do it exactly backwards. We start taking the active dog through her paces, and throw a treat to the dog on the mat every once in a while. This often does not work.

The other thing Sue said was to treat the dogs separately. Some people say to give the mat dog a treat every time the active dog earns one at first. Then thin the reinforcement down so that you give the mat dog a treat only sometimes when the other dog earns one.  (Emily Larlham does this in her excellent video on the subject.)

Sue recommends instead that each dog gets treats tied to what they are doing, so that the dog on the mat learns very clearly that she is getting reinforced for doing her job and it is not tied to what the other dog is doing. Sue’s method is a little harder for the human, but I think is very clear for the dogs. Each gets treated separately. (In reality, they frequently get treated in tandem, but I make a conscious effort to break the pattern as well.)

Dogs who live in households with other dogs learn very quickly that they don’t always get a treat when their sister does, and I think this is a good thing. So I like Sue’s method myself.

Cricket and Zani on mats in the kitchen. Good stuff tends to happen there!
Cricket and Zani on mats in the kitchen. Good stuff tends to happen there!

Showing the Dog She Is the Center of the Training

Here is how to apply what Sue said. We want to do everything we can to show the mat dog that she is the center of the training.

So first, ask yourself, when starting a training session with my dog, how does she know? Here is my own list.

  • I get out treats. A camera perhaps. (My dogs get very happy when they see me carry around the camera tripod.)
  • I often look in my Training Levels checkoff list binder.
  • I may gather some gear and props. A leash. A target object.
  • I take the dog I’m going to train by herself to a particular place. I have about 5 places in my house where I commonly train. If there are other dogs there, I crate them.
  • I look at that dog, talk to that dog, and generally orient my body towards that dog
  • I reinforce that dog. It if is a new or difficult behavior, I reinforce heavily.
  • I release the dog frequently or at least periodically (mini releases with the click; longer ones when we take a little break or set up for a new behavior)

All these things are what tell the dog that she is being trained. So to apply Sue’s recommendation,  I am going to get the “mat dog” to do all of these things, then bring in the active dog as a distraction.

How I Proceeded

  • I got out the treats as described above
  • I took Zani alone into my front room alone and cued to get her on mat.
  • I did a little mat training with some of the distractions I listed above.
  • Then I let Summer, the distraction dog, into the room but stayed focused on Zani and kept the treats coming.
  • When I started to do a few more things with Summer, I spoke quietly to her, trying to be as clear as possible that I was speaking to her alone.
  • I often turned my back on Zani to cue a behavior for Summer, then turned back to Zani and treated her.
  • With my back turned, sometimes I gave hand signals to Summer that Zani couldn’t see.
  • I started with Summer doing very easy, calm behaviors with minimal movement. I worked up to more movement, but kept a variety.
  • During our second session I did short duration behaviors with Summer, releasing her with “OK,” which is also Zani’s release word. I continued to be careful to speak directly but quietly to Summer. I treated Zani for staying every time I released Summer.
  • I did my best to be considerate of Summer, the active dog, who was probably getting less attention than normal when we train.

Releases

I started this project without having a completely clean system of releases for individual dogs. Ideally, I suppose I would have had that in place. There are several ways to go about this. Patricia McConnell, PhD, the eminent animal behaviorist, reported that her border collies could never learn individual releases from stays of the type, “Luke, OK,” because each dog would release on the “OK.” She instead taught them to release individually on a singsong call of their name (here’s her video demonstration). However, some people do direct separate cues to their dogs using their names. Emily Larlham who recommends this video as a prerequisite to her training multiple dogs video, demonstrates her dogs responding to individually directed cues, and she releases them separately in the latter video.

I have had moderate success with directing individual cues to my dogs without formally training that, just incorporating some habits into our day to day living. Like Dr. McConnell, I use a special version of their names to invite one to come with me and for the others to wait. But I actually think that teaching a dog to wait on a mat in the area while another is trained is a way of teaching the kind of differentiated individual response we are talking about. For me, there is some tolerance for error in that situation, as long as I don’t apply any penalty for a dog releasing when I intended the cue for another. It is neither as crucial nor as difficult as when you have a group of dogs all waiting to be cued to do the same exciting thing, such as go out the door.

Videos

The first video shows parts of Zani’s very first two sessions of staying on the mat while another dog is worked. I chose Summer according to my guideline #4 above. Clara could possibly be obnoxious to Zani if Clara is the working dog. We’ll work up to that.

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The second video shows Clara doing what is for her a very advanced version. (I taught her the basics when she was about a year old.) She is staying on her mat while I work up to a pretty rowdy game of tug with Zani. She gets up one time when I accidentally say “OK” while tugging with Zani (I say it twice! Knock head on wall!). But she corrects herself immediately. Her head is clearer than mine!

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What’s Next?

You probably noticed I didn’t switch the dogs back and forth. I plan to do that after each of my three dogs in training can successfully stay on their mat while I work either of the other two.

Sable dog on a mat on a sidewalk
Summer very pleased to be on her mat at an outdoor restaurant

The cool thing, though, is that once you can switch dogs back and forth fluently, Mr. Premack can come to visit (the Premack principle states that behaviors can reinforce other behaviors) and we won’t have to keep that high rate of reinforcement for the dog on the mat. Her major reinforcement for staying quietly on the mat will be the chance to be the working dog. I already take turns with my dogs in almost all training sessions; the major difference will be that they are now closed into crates or the next room. Soon they’ll be right there where the action is. It sounds like win/win to me.

I’ll let you know how it works out.

Update: I later successfully taught individual release cues. You can read about that in the following posts

Thanks for reading!

Copyright 2013 Eileen Anderson

Eileenanddogs on YouTube

Training Levels: Making it My Own

Training Levels: Making it My Own

One of the very cool things about Sue Ailsby’s Training Levels is that they are extremely structured but also completely individualizable.

The Levels provide a method of learning to communicate with your dog and teach her concepts, in the guise of being a handbook of training behaviors. But within this step-by-step method are a multitude of opportunities for the human to think through the benefits of a particular behavior for her own situation and environment.

A lot of these opportunities are in the final steps of the behavior and the “Comeafters.” Because I was involved in the production of the books, I recall that one of Sue’s or Lynn’s ideas for what to call the Comeafters was “Making it Your Own.” That has stuck with me.

I’ve learned to pay close attention to those opportunities, rather than breezing through and checking them off since I am already using some (possibly half-assed) application of them. In this post I am sharing two examples of planned, trained, individualized Levels behaviors that I’m pretty proud of.

Tan dog with black muzzle lying down in the grass looking expectant
Clara during her funny ear period already knew to lie down to get me to throw the ball

Level 2 Down Step 5: Default Down

A default behavior is one that the animal does automatically in some situation, but the term is really an arbitrary distinction. Default behaviors are cued just like every other behavior we train dogs to do. It’s just that the cues don’t come from our self-centered little mouths. They come from the environment, or sometimes from an action we take part in. I figure it’s all the same to the dog, or actually, the environmental ones are probably easier than trying to figure out the nuances of human speech and hand signals.

For example, although we work on this a lot, I could probably think of half a dozen situations where Zani would respond incorrectly to a verbal cue for a Sit. Verbal cues are really hard for her. But if I plunk her in front of an agility jump, she is not going to misunderstand and down or stand instead. The agility jump is a very clear cue.

Back to the down. Sue suggests a default down in the presence of kids and older people, when the human is talking on the phone, etc. Well, my feral dog Clara will probably not be in the proximity of children enough times in her whole life to train a default down, so that one is out. But since she is a bouncy jouncy easily aroused dog at home, down is a wonderful thing, and the more cues for it, the better.

I wrote a whole post on one of Clara’s cues for down: Get Out of My Face: Teaching an Incompatible Behavior.  In the post and video I describe and show how I trained Clara to lie down whenever I bend over or squat, instead of mugging my face. Worked a charm. And you can see another one in this post/video: Play with Your Dog: For Research. Clara knows to lie down to start our game with the flirt pole. She does the same with tug.

But Clara has yet another default down now. The way my house is laid out, I have two steps down into my den from the kitchen. Clara is in the den almost all the time. I have a gate across the top of the stairs. That means that those two stairs are favorite lounging and hangout areas for all the dogs.

Clara, being the high energy dog that she is (that’s putting it nicely) naturally leaps up and crowds up onto the stairs in front of the gate whenever I try to descend into the den. This is yet another situation in which I just need her to back off a bit. So I trained her to lie down on the den floor when I enter. One of the criteria is that it has to be on the concrete floor; not on the steps. That’s an easy distinction since the steps are elevated and carpeted. So we have a special verbal cue for this: “Concrete!” But I expanded this to a default behavior also. I wanted her to down whenever I came into the den. (If you are starting to think I have some sort of queen complex, you just don’t know this dog.) So the cue for that is my hand on the gate handle. Sweet!

Funny thing is, I haven’t thought up a practical default down for either of my other two dogs in training. They are much less, uh, demanding than Clara. But something will come to my attention sooner or later, I’m sure, since Sue has invited me to think about it.

Level 2 Focus Step 5: Use focus as proof that the dog is In The Game (think of a place you could use eye contact in your life)

OK, it’s Summer’s turn. This Step could have been an easy pass for Summer. I’ve been reinforcing extended eye contact for years with this dog. (In this video from four years ago she does flawless 30 seconds, then 40 seconds of eye contact. It’s right at the beginning.) There are a number of situations in which I already ask for it: going out any door being prime among them. She looks at me before I open the door, and reorients and looks at me again after we go through. She generally holds eye contact when I cue Zen. She stares at me for extended periods whenever she wants something, as well. I could have just marked that Step off.

But I try not to treat the Levels as something to race through, even though I like checking off boxes as much as the next person. So I held off and thought about it. Then the other day I noticed something. I taught Summer a puppy fetch a couple of years ago. Summer had zero retrieve instinct and I shaped it with patient coaching from Marge Rogers of Rewarded Behavior Continues. This is not a formal retrieve of any sort and certainly not a Levels retrieve. We don’t have a hold or any finesse with the delivery. It’s just a trick. But it’s relevant here.

This trick was the first thing I trained Summer while having a plate of food on the floor. I got into the habit of doing the plate thing for that behavior and not many others. And lo and behold, the other day I realized that not only was the plate of food part of the cue for the behavior, but she was drifting towards retrieving to the plate instead of me! How helpful of her to position herself closer to the food, to save me all that reaching around!

I experimented with moving the plate around, or eliminating it altogether, and found that she looked for it when she came back with the toy. So I quit using the plate for a while and got us back on track. But Summer is a great “food starer” and even after she delivered the toy, she would continue looking at my pocket or wherever the food was.

(By the way, for some dogs, the Manners Minder, a remote control treat dispenser, would be a great way to approach the food staring. Unfortunately, Summer is afraid of the grinding noise the MM makes when it jams, and since I can’t get it to jam on cue, I can’t desensitize her to it.)

That’s when I got the bright idea. This is one of Summer’s favorite behaviors. Sue says “Use Watch to tell your dog you’re about to do something, so pay attention now!” My throwing the toy definitely qualifies as “doing something,” and it’s something she really likes. So how about if I wait for or ask for eye contact before throwing the toy? Each time! In theory, the cue for the fetch would provide tertiary reinforcement for the eye contact, since the fetch is so fun for her.

So we started off. I learned right away that this was difficult for her. Apparently what she had been doing before when I cued–sniffing around, still thinking about food, had gotten the tertiary reinforcement. When I waited for eye contact before throwing, she could do it a couple of times, but it was spotty, and her enthusiasm for the trick went down. Oh oh. So I took the fetch out entirely. We had several days of sessions where I just asked for eye contact, marked and threw the treat, then waited for eye contact as she trotted back to me. Now we were on the right track! Turns out that when trotting up to me, Summer was most often looking elsewhere than my eyes. Even though in so many other situations, including competition heeling, she did look me in the eye.

Summer had already learned that eye contact was highly reinforceable in this situation
Summer had already learned that eye contact was highly reinforceable in this situation

I had worked eye contact in so many situations, but here was a new one.

Only after we had a good start on building her new behavior: looking at my face when she approached me, did I start asking for the fetch again. I would intersperse the two behaviors. Most often I would reinforce the eye contact on approach directly with a treat, but once every three or four times I would ask for the fetch instead.  After she got used to the alternation, this worked great.

Thanks, YouTube, for the best featured image from the video being one where she is looking at my hand!

Summer’s enthusiasim for the trick has returned, and she gives me eye contact to get me to do it. I think this is probably empowering for her as well. She knows the key to “make” me throw the toy. What do you think?

Bonus question: no prizes except fame and glory, but does anybody see the superstitious behaviors in the part of the video when I am in the rocking chair and we are working on eye contact alone? There are two separate ones. They fade as I start to mark the eye contact earlier.

I would love to hear about your dogs’ default behaviors. Got any interesting ones?

Coming up soon:

 

Eileenanddogs on Youtube: https://www.youtube.com/eileenanddogs

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:

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