eileenanddogs

Category: Arousal

Preventing Dog Reactivity with a Barrier

Preventing Dog Reactivity with a Barrier

My back door opens onto an elevated wooden porch. There are ten steps down to the yard. The top of the steps provides a view into the neighbor’s yard, which can be a very interesting place. Clara runs there when anything might be happening, primed to react. In the picture above Continue reading “Preventing Dog Reactivity with a Barrier”

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.

She does not have the finesse of a dog who merely “splits” the other dogs away from each other, or tries to herd someone away. She is not any kind of peacemaker. What she does is dash into the middle of the play, growling , snapping, and even biting. Since the other dogs are typically already aroused, this is dangerous.

How About an Incompatible Behavior?

I have discussed the process of Differential Reinforcement of an Incompatible Behavior (DRI) before. This means you teach the dog, via positive reinforcement,  to do something that is incompatible with the original behavior whenever the triggering situation (antecedent) arises. I have examples of DRI in my post of examples of the steps of Humane Hierarchy, and in the post and video about teaching Clara an alternative to jumping up and mugging my face.

In the “Fun Police” example I have chosen to make it worth Summer’s while to come to me in the yard instead of trying to boss the other dogs around with her teeth. She can’t do those two things at the same time.  I reinforce her for coming to me, offering eye contact, offering a sit or down. Basically she hangs out with me having a mini training session instead of starting a fight.

Modifying a Problem Behavior

Clara (the blur on right) is mostly playing. Summer is not.
Clara (the blur on right) is mostly having fun. Summer is not.

Deciding how to intervene with a potentially dangerous behavior can be tricky. I did have some other choices. I could have used management and decided to keep the dogs separate. I have done that in the past with combinations of dogs who were incompatible and too volatile. This included keeping Summer and Clara apart when Clara was small, because I wasn’t sure Summer would grant her a puppy license. I could have worked on to desensitizing and counter conditioning Summer to the other dogs’ play, although it would be challenging because I can’t turn their play on and off and control the intensity or distance well. It would have had to be in the context of a whole program of work on her reactivity. Which–hey, I am doing anyway, with relaxation and confidence work with her, and sound desensitization–but in the meantime my dogs need to go outside.

If her aggression were more serious, I would have chosen the above options. But because her reactions were undesirable but not completely scary, and because I am always with the dogs when they are outside, instead I tried DRI. I became a treat dispenser for her if she would come over to me when they started to play. I called her to me the first few times, but it didn’t take long for her to realize the connection between “Clara and Zani playing” = “Easy training session for Summer.”

As I’ve mentioned before, Differential Reinforcement of an Incompatible Behavior involves extinction, not punishment, of the original unwanted behavior. Ideally that behavior gets no more reinforcement. I want to point out that in this example, I have not eliminated the potential for Summer to get reinforced by rushing in and snarling at the other dogs. That is one reason that this method would not be appropriate for lots of dogs. It worked fine for us though, because Summer appeared very glad to be taught something different to do, and because my other dogs are pretty tolerant (in case we had slipped up). Summer latched onto her new “job” very quickly, and it has been more than a year since she has shown even an inclination to intervene in the other dogs’ play. I believe she is glad not to have to be a cop anymore.

By the way, this also wouldn’t have worked if my passing out treats had interrupted the other dogs’ play. I like it that they play, and I don’t want to interrupt things when they are playing appropriately. But as it turns out, they know full well I am giving Summer treats, but continue to play because they enjoy it so much.

Link to the movie for email subscribers.

The Dominance/Punishment Model

When discussing possible methods above, I “forgot” to mention punishment. Oops. So let’s discuss the option just for a moment. Leaving ethical considerations for later, first let’s see how practical it would be.

Zani and Clara play about once a week. That’s once out of the fifty or so times per week that I go outside with my dogs. So I would either need to put a prong or a shock collar on Summer, keep a leash on her so I could give her a jerk, or–I know!! Get some of those bags or chains that certain franchises sell you to throw at your dog. I would have to stay ready to do something to Summer if the other dogs started to play and she launched into them. For that one time out of fifty.  My timing would have to be superb. If I threw something, I’d need to avoid scaring the other dogs. Not sounding too practical, is it? Maybe an air horn? Yelling wouldn’t do it. That would affect my other dogs at least as much as her, but it also wouldn’t function as much more than an interrupter. It would not be likely to decrease the behavior in the future, so it wouldn’t be punishment. Compare these gyrations to having treats in my pocket (which I generally do anyway), and calling her over to me to do a few behaviors when they start to play. Easy peasy. 

And the ethics. Need I even say that I can’t stand the thought of hurting Summer when she is already such an anxious dog? Her behavior is not some gleeful flouting of my authority. She’s trying to stop something that makes her nervous. We don’t need to be hurting or scaring dogs for any reason, and certainly not one who is reacting out of stress and anxiety!

Not a Recommendation

Finally, as successful as it was for me, please note that I am not suggesting this method to others with problems in multi-dog households.  I can’t make any recommendations on other people’s situations. This method was a good choice for me because I work with an excellent professional trainer who knows Summer well and has taught me some methods of reading her and dealing with her behavior. This solution would not be appropriate for every dog, and trying it could even be dangerous in some situations, for instance if a person’s carrying treats triggered resource-related aggression when the dogs were already aroused. My dogs are used to my carrying treats, and none is a serious food guarder.

The best advice you can get on the Internet if you have a dog who aggresses at your other dogs is to keep them separate, get off the Internet, and consult a professional trainer. Get some help.

The Pet Professional Guild has a page where you can search for a local force free trainer. Also, here is a list of Board Certified Veterinary Behaviorists in the U.S. and a few worldwide.

You know I love to hear from you about your own dogs. Got any examples of DRI or other interventions for obnoxious behaviors?

Coming up:

We get to play unmolested now!
Zani and Clara get to play unmolested now!

Eileenanddogs on YouTube

P.S. A reader speculated about something that brought up a great point (thanks Ann M.!), and that was whether Summer’s new calmness carried over to when the other dogs played when I wasn’t there. Great question, and an important one. The answer is that my dogs are completely physically separated when I am not there, so no play occurs. Between Summer’s reactivity, Clara’s sometimes overbearing behavior, and Zani being so much smaller, they are separated when I am not home, always within my earshot when we are in the house together, and completely supervised in the yard. I have not changed Summer’s emotional response enough to count on it carrying over.

Don’t Look Now! The Benefits of Window Film for the Household with Reactive Dogs

Don’t Look Now! The Benefits of Window Film for the Household with Reactive Dogs

Light can come in but they can't see out!
Light can come in but they can’t see out!

Do you have a reactive dog, or one who simply barks too much at things he sees out the window? And do you also care about how your house looks and value natural light ?

There is something you can do about it. Here’s my story, complete with a video of before and after behavior from the dogs.

The Barking Platform

I have a raised area on one end of my den that creates a nook by the window. I have had a day bed there as long as I’ve lived in the house. The day bed has always been a favorite dog hangout, with the added bonus that it lets them look them out the window.

Summer and Cricket barking at a pedestrian
Summer and Cricket barking at a pedestrian

Here is a picture from 2008, actually a still from a video of Cricket and Summer barking frantically at a pedestrian on my street. You can see the clip in the movie below.

The frantic barking (and pounding on the window panes by Summer) was a problem, although I didn’t realize it at the time. I felt like their ability to see out was valuable and a form of enrichment for when I wasn’t there. At least they could watch the world go by, I thought.

What I didn’t know was this:

  1. A lot of their barking was from fear, especially on Summer’s part. She didn’t like seeing dogs, cats, mail carriers, pedestrians, or bicycles. They made her nervous. She was barking to get them to go away.
  2. In Summer’s mind, it worked. Every creature, person, or machine that has ever been in front of my house has eventually left. A great percentage of those times, she was barking. Ergo, the barking got reinforced. That is clear because the barking has increased in frequency and intensity. Summer has since expanded her horizons to also bark at delivery trucks, the mail truck, and even pickups.
  3. Practice makes perfect. If my dog’s default response to seeing another dog through the window is frenzied barking, snarling, lunging, and banging on the window (as you can see in the movie), those habits could very well express when she sees dogs in person. Aggressive behaviors are being reinforced.
  4. I was unknowingly putting my smaller dog Cricket in danger. You can also see from the video that both dogs are quite frenzied. Although she never did in that situation, Summer could easily have redirected aggression onto Cricket. I was just lucky that it didn’t happen.

I didn’t know any of this then. But as I learned more about dog training and dog behavior, I realized that providing the dogs a barking platform was not ideal. As I became more aware of the detrimental affects, I managed the situation, not leaving them in that area unattended.

Then in 2011 came Clara, bringing the household up to four dogs. By that time I was keeping Summer and Cricket permanently separated.   I also kept Summer and Clara separated during Clara’s young puppyhood. And I kept Clara and Cricket generally separated as Clara got older. With this complex a situation, I had to use my whole house, and I couldn’t supervise all dogs at all times. And I knew one thing: I didn’t want Clara learning the “barking on the platform” routine. I worked proactively with classical conditioning to prevent her picking up Summer’s barking habits in general. See: “The Barking Recall” and “Classical Conditioning: Creating a Positive Response to Barking.”  I also knew I needed to do something about the window.

(Interestingly, Zani has remained uninterested in that activity and has not developed reactive habits. Yay, Zani!)

The terrible era of the bed against the wall
The terrible era of the bed against the wall

But I knew Clara would soak it right up. And the stakes are so high with her being feral. I didn’t want to do anything to feed reactive or aggressive behaviors, especially since I am working constantly to instill the opposite with her. So when she started getting old enough to be interested, I stripped the bed and propped part of it against the wall and part in front of the window. I don’t have many photos since it was unsightly and depressing, but here is one.

The Fix

Then Marge Rogers told me about window film. She had used a company called Decorative Films when she needed absolute privacy for a shower window. When she found out how completely effective it was in preventing visibility (even at night with shower light on), she thought of the possible applications for dogs. I took a look at the company’s website and was really impressed, but didn’t do anything for a while. Then a FaceBook friend (Hi Kim C!) posted about how easy it was, so I took the plunge. But instead of buying online, I decided to just get some window film at Home Depot.

That didn’t work out well for me, although it does for plenty of other people. I’m moderately handy, but I couldn’t get the stuff to stick right and it was a real mess. I asked Marge to grill her husband about the kind they got and some details about installation, and I decided to order some online. Cool thing: Decorative Films will send you up to five free samples! There are a lot of really beautiful ones, but I wanted to go for the most blocking possible, plus it’s a front window, so I got a really plain one. The name of the film I got is Clear Sand Blast.

Detail of window film
Detail of window film showing my little flaws

Another cool thing about the company is that you can buy the film in different widths. I got a skinny roll–12 inches wide–since I had multiple small panes to do. That was enormously helpful. I think the whole project took 4-5 hours (I cut 24 panes, even though I ended up installing only 18 of them). That includes washing the window panes and cleaning the frames.

And although it would have been easier with two people, I was able to apply the film by myself. The instructions and the tool kit you can buy for $2.99 are great. You can see from the closeup that I didn’t do a perfect job–there are some wee gaps between the film and the frame, and a few bubbles in the corners, but it looks good enough for me and gets the job done.

I decided to leave off the top row of panes because the dogs couldn’t see anything up that high, but I could see the trees and sky that way. I have the pre-cut pieces if I ever change my mind. I can also remove the existing film easily. It is well secured, but it  comes off easily and doesn’t leave anything gummy.

By the way, I am not affiliated with Decorative Films. Just a very, very happy customer.

Other Options and Resources

Emma Judson recommends Purlfrost for the UK folks.

And here are two other online companies I found in a casual search. They both feature film that stays in place by static cling, with no adhesive. But I have no experience with that. (And I suspect it might not have worked in Marge’s shower!)

Window Film World

Wallpaper for Windows

Also keep in mind that you can get similar products at Home Depot and Lowe’s in the U.S.

Finally, Tena Parker of Success Just Clicks, who provided one of the photos below, has two nice posts on window film and other ideas for helping reactive dogs in the home. Here they are.

Living with Reactive Dogs–Home Improvements

Resolving Window Reactivity–Part 2

The Proof

My poor deprived dogs can’t see anything out the window anymore. (That’s a still from the “before” part that you see in the video embed!)

Link to the movie for email subscribers.

Here are more pics by some friends who also are very happy with window films. Click on any image for a bigger version.

Management

Putting up window film doesn’t “cure” reactivity or aggression. It is management. But it prevents the dogs from practicing behaviors you don’t want, and getting themselves all worked up many times a day. Not to mention relieving the humans from a lot of barking! Even if you have a training plan regarding barking and reactivity, you will need to include management such as this to prevent practice of the behaviors.

Anybody have more tips for creating a lower stress environment for an anxious or reactive dog?

Coming up:

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

Contest! The Faces of Summer

Contest! The Faces of Summer

Summer with bedroom eyes
Summer with bedroom eyes

Just the other day I told a friend that I would never have a contest on my FaceBook page or here on the blog. It’s always presented as one of the number one ways to get people to Like, read, or visit your site. It seemed so tacky and pandering to do that just to get readers. I always figured that if I wanted readers (and I do, I do!), it was my job to be interesting, informative, or at least entertaining.

I still think that, but then something happened. I’ve been collecting photos of Summer’s face in different situations for a while, since she is so very expressive. I made them all into a gallery, and made a list of all the descriptions of the situations. I thought I’d ask readers if they could match them up.

Oops, it’s a contest! So I decided to go with it. So put on your observer hat and get ready to apply what you know!

Rules are below. The three top scorers (see rules below) will get their choice of either a print copy (not e-book)  of Alexandra Horowitz’ “Inside of a Dog: What Dogs See, Smell, and Know” or Grey Stafford’s “Zoomility,” mailed directly to them from DogWise.

Photos

Descriptions

Here are the descriptions for the photos, in random order.

  • First time she saw a TV
  • In costume
  • Looking for a varmint (squirrel, rat, possum, or turtle) (see comments for clarification)
  • Looking for a varmint (squirrel, rat, possum, or turtle)  (see comments for clarification)
  • Looking for a varmint (squirrel, rat, possum, or turtle)  (see comments for clarification)
  • Found a varmint (squirrel, rat, possum, or turtle)  (see comments for clarification)
  • Found a varmint (squirrel, rat, possum, or turtle)  (see comments for clarification)
  • After a varmint hunt
  • Sitting uncomfortably close to another dog
  • Has been fussed at
  • Late in day at agility trial
  • At the agility field
  • Watching petals float through the air
  • My mom has her arm around her
  • Playing with Zani
  • Playing with Zani
  • Guarding a Nylabone
  • Being held in my arms
  • During a thunderstorm
  • During a thunderstorm
  • Home from vet after serious illness
  • Asking to train
  • Doing agility sequence
  • Just a photoshoot in the back yard
  • On a road trip in hot weather
  • Waiting to check the back yard
  • Immediately after fence fight with new neighbor dog
  • On a fun outing
  • On a fun outing
  • At the fairgrounds on her mat at a dog show
  • Being petted

Don’t be daunted that there are so many! Give it a try even if you can guess only a few. If it’s so hard, it could be that someone who only gets half of them right could win.

How to Enter

To enter the contest, copy the above list into an email and put the number of the photo next to each description. Title the email “Contest Entry.” Email it to the name of this blog  @att.net. Got that? eileenanddogs at the domain name in the previous sentence. Please include your name in your email. If you have trouble with the email address, send me a message using the sidebar of the blog. I will acknowledge all entries, so if you don’t get an email back from me within 24 hours, try it again.

Rules

  • Please enter only once. (In the event that I have made some kind of error that affects your choice and it is discovered after you have entered, you may amend your entry pertaining to that issue.)
  • For the exact same descriptions that apply to multiple photos (mostly having to do with varmints), it doesn’t matter in what order you attach the photo numbers to the descriptions.
  • Please do not submit your entry  in the comments section of the blog (I will unpublish it if anybody forgets).
  • It’s OK to have discussions of the photos with each other in the blog comments, or on my FaceBook page, or anywhere. Just don’t post your list.
  • Check back in the comments and/or my FaceBook page in case I need to make any interim announcements. I will make the announcements both places.
  • The three winners will be the people who get all 31 right the fastest. Or failing anyone getting all 31 right the winners will be determined by who got the most right, and in the case of a tie, who got that number right first.
  • If you want to guess just for the glory of it and don’t want a prize, please say “decline prize” in your entry email.
  • If you don’t want your name announced if you win, please say so in your entry email.
  • I will notify winners by email as well as by announcing on the blog. At that time I’ll ask privately for your mailing address.
  • Deadline is 12:00 midnight on Thursday, January 31st, 2013, at Central Standard Time (Central Standard Time is GMT minus 6 hours).
  • I will announce the winners during the first weekend of February and publish the answers. I’ll publish the uncropped photos, with some commentary, sometime after that.

I hope this was fun!

Coming up soon:

The Perils of Premature Premack

The Perils of Premature Premack

Zani waiting at the back door
Zani waiting at the back door. Her reinforcement for this polite behavior is the opportunity to go outside.

Sacrilege!

Is it possible that in some cases, using the Premack principle in choosing reinforcement for our dogs is not the best choice? Can attempting Premack cause problems?1)*A technicality, but it’s important. Notice I haven’t said “Premack didn’t work.” That’s like saying that reinforcement didn’t work. Reinforcement is defined by its effects on future behavior. If the behavior didn’t increase, then there was no reinforcement. Likewise, you can’t say, “Premack didn’t work.” If what you tried didn’t reinforce the behavior, there was no Premack.

In my experience, yes. It can go wrong with some behaviors, with some dogs, and especially with some inexperienced trainers (yours truly takes a bow).

Premack’s principle states that more probable behaviors will reinforce less probable behaviors. In other words, you can use an activity the dog really enjoys to reinforce something that is ho-hum. You can reinforce a sit/stay with a tug session. You can reinforce sitting politely while the leash is attached with going for a walk. Premack is all about life rewards.

Premack is often suggested in situations when a dog really, really wants to do something, so much so that they are having a hard time with self control. My dog Zani loves little kids. If I wanted to apply Premack to this situation, I could use the opportunity to visit with them (if they were interested and it was OK with mom) to reinforce her walking calmly up to them without pulling. Visiting with children could be a more potent reinforcer than a a really good food treat for Zani. So the Premack principle can turn a distraction into a reinforcer. For my dog Summer, being brought close to children would be punishing. She’s nervous about them.

By the way, Premack applies to punishment, too. Many of David Premack’s experiments involved punishing a behavior by inducing the animal to subsequently perform an undesired behavior. We can think of examples of this easily in our life with dogs. If the only time we take a dog into a certain bathroom is to take a bath, and he hates baths (and we haven’t done anything to mitigate that), the behavior of walking nonchalantly into that bathroom with us will decrease.

There is one obvious answer to the question posed by my title. Premack is not a good choice when the behavior is never acceptable. For instance, my young dog Clara loves to pounce on and body slam my other dogs. She would love it if I allowed that, but of course I don’t. I teach incompatible behaviors and I interrupt it. And I try to give her opportunities for very physical play with me, with some firm ground rules.

But there is another situation in which Premack is not the best choice, and it can be hard to recognize, especially for pet owners and anyone who is trying to teach their dog without an in-person expert teacher.

In my experience, Premack may not be a good choice when the desired behavior triggers stress, arousal or a strong emotional response from the dog, or if the behavior results from these conditions.

Summer waiting at the back door
Summer waiting at the back door. What is wrong with this picture?

I think this can be an insidious problem, since behaviors and situations the dog gets really excited about are precisely what prompt people to recommend Premack. If you spend any time at all on dog training Internet discussion groups, you know that whenever someone describes something the dog is passionate about (squirrels) someone else is going to suggest using Premack. This advice comes as regular as clockwork. Give the dog contingent access to the squirrels.

I’ve gotten so I flinch every time I see those recommendations come rolling in. It may work out just fine. But the newbie trainer who is describing the problem may not have a correct assessment of the situation, and/or the skill to use the Premack reinforcer.

I can relate three personal experiences where Premack didn’t work out for me. And I mean, spectacularly didn’t work out. My own inexperience came into play in varying degrees, but that’s my point.

1. Reinforcing loose leash walking with a chance to run towards a squirrel, with my dog Summer. This was a disaster. I was brand new to training, but it seemed like such a good idea, made to order. What I didn’t know then was that Summer has a very high prey drive, is hyper vigilant, and very environmentally sensitive. I also didn’t know that I really needed to have taught her more about LLW itself (using food). But instead I jumped right into Premack. When we would see a squirrel I would require a few steps of LLW, followed by a quiet sit. Then I would release her and we would run together to the squirrel and she would lose her mind. When I got tired of circling the squirrel tree with her, I had to figure out a way to get her away. Her capability of going for a normal walk was completely gone by that point.

If you are going to allow the dog some kind of engagement with the environment as a reinforcer, I think there is a prerequisite to being able to make it work. You need a way to get them back, and it seems to me that you need to train this first. You need your dog to be able to recover from a potent emotional response fluently. These are challenging things to do, and usually not in place if you are having a big issue with distractions in the first place.

By the way, I used sniffing as a reinforcer for loose leash walking with moderate success with my dog Zani. I allowed stopping to calmly sniff as a reinforcer for walking nicely on leash. But in her case I had a little more experience than I had had when I tried it with Summer and the squirrels. I taught Zani a cue to go sniff, “Beagle!” And a cue to come back to my side, “With me!” I practiced the pair of behaviors in boring environments before taking it on the road, and I taught Zani the correct position for LLW to begin with with food.

2. Reinforcing Clara for not jumping up to lick my face by letting her lick my face on cue, with four paws on the floor. Ouch. Another newbie error on my part. It seemed like such a no brainer. I mean, if she is dying to jump up and get my face, that seems like a great candidate for Premack, right? Well in our case, wrong. I recently wrote a whole post about the face mugging problem and all the things I tried. I was well on my way to trying Premack when I thought to ask my teacher about it. She took a look at Clara, and said that her jumping up at my face did not look like a happy behavior. It was stress related. So even if I had succeeded in teaching her how to lick my face without the danger of breaking my jaw, I might have ended up with a situation like Summer at the door (see below).

3. Reinforcing sitting politely at the back door with going outside with Summer. This is a lovely method for two of my dogs, Zani and Clara. See Zani’s photo above. It is one of the most commonly recommended uses of the Premack principle in dog training. But again, it didn’t work for Summer. You would think that something she wanted so badly–to charge out into the yard checking for cats, squirrels, and other varmints–would cause a very prompt, snappy sit at the door. Not so. As you can see in the video, sometimes she can’t sit at all. And if she does sit,  she will not accept a treat. She is what is often called “over threshold.” She is anticipating what might be in the yard, and is having a big emotional response to that. She is also showing the fallout of years of conflict with me at the door. I didn’t cope with her behavior well, especially at first. I nagged her because I was completely oblivious to what was going on. I made the situation worse.

By the way, Zani is also at the door, and can be seen at 1:24 in the video in an exemplary calm sit, even though she is excited to go out, too. She is not drowned in excitement and stress hormones.

I fully acknowledge that a better trainer could have managed this situation better. She could have taught Summer first to be calm in the face of the potential excitement. Then worked up to using the Premack reinforcer when she could keep her wits about her. I should have aborted the project when my behavior was obviously stressing her out. But that’s my point. Premack is often recommended to beginners and to us non-professionals. And it can really backfire without some experienced eyes on what is happening. When I first started doing this years ago I had no idea why Summer’s sit was not more reliable. This method seemed to work for everybody else. To be perfectly frank, I read her body language as “sulky.” I thought she was being a bratty adolescent; moving slowly and giving me a dirty look because I didn’t let her out fast enough.

You might think that I would have run into a problem with her stress at the door just as badly if I had used food as the reinforcer for a calm sit. But using food diffuses Summer’s overexcitement, and doesn’t feed into it. (Many trainers have noted that food tends to have a calming effect when training behaviors, as opposed to using tug or other high arousal activities.) She has practiced her frozen shutdown, then running out in a frenzy for years now. But reinforcing a sit near the door with a high value food treat instead, and doing training sessions in this area of the house, are changing the potential reinforcement map in my favor. The excitement of the outdoors pales a little, which is good. She starts thinking of other ways she can earn the treat. Hmmm, how about reorienting to me after she goes through the door? Great!

Premack Successes

Let this post be a cautionary tale. But lest it appear that I am saying not to use Premack at all, let me mention some Premack reinforcers that have worked really well for me.

  • The two ball game: reinforcing Clara for releasing the ball by throwing another ball (this works with one ball, too, but was easier for me to teach with two)
  • Tug and flirt pole releases: reinforcing them with resumption of the game (I should mention that I don’t think I would have succeeded with this one without the help of my teacher, though)
  • Putting on the leash: gets reinforced by getting to go somewhere
  • Agility sequences: reinforced for Summer with play in the water hose
  • Loading into the the car crate: getting to go somewhere
  • Getting and staying in a down when I walk in the room with something in my hands: gets reinforced by getting to sniff what is in my hands (guess who: Clara)
  • Walking nicely on leash: reinforced by opportunities for Zani to sniff
  • Most behaviors: reinforced by eating food treats. Gotcha! Eating is a behavior. So really, everything is Premack.

I’m always discovering hidden genius in the Training Levels. Sue Ailsby talks about using Premack or life rewards plenty. She seems personally to be a master at transitioning to life rewards. But she uses food first. Using doors as an example: Level 1 Sit, Step 4: Dog sits by an open door. A whole Step dedicated to using food treats to teach the dog self control around a door. Level 3 Zen: this whole Level behavior is entirely about self control around doors, and you don’t send the dog charging out as a reinforcer once! Using food can diffuse the emotional potency of doors to the outside. It makes the door area just another training environment.

So now, almost 6 years into our relationship, Summer and I are spending a whole lot of time doing “silly dog tricks around doors.” To undo the problem I helped to create–with this particular dog–by trying to use the Premack principle first.

What about you all? Am I the only one who has made some poor Premack choices or implementations? And can anyone help me come up with a more general–or more specific–guideline for when Premack might not be the best idea? I don’t think I have ever seen this discussed online.

Thanks for reading!

Coming up soon:

 

Notes   [ + ]

1. *A technicality, but it’s important. Notice I haven’t said “Premack didn’t work.” That’s like saying that reinforcement didn’t work. Reinforcement is defined by its effects on future behavior. If the behavior didn’t increase, then there was no reinforcement. Likewise, you can’t say, “Premack didn’t work.” If what you tried didn’t reinforce the behavior, there was no Premack.
Get Out of My Face! Teaching an Incompatible Behavior

Get Out of My Face! Teaching an Incompatible Behavior

Ever since she arrived at my home at the age of 10 weeks, Clara has been a challenge.

One of her more problematic behaviors was her mugging of my face whenever it got within range. It happened all the time. How many times a day do you lean over your puppy, or lean over in her presence to pick up something off the floor? Most often something that she either dropped or shouldn’t have. Answer: a lot. Except not me, anymore, because she shaped me not to. If a strong, speedy puppy came barreling at your head every time you bent over, you might modify your behavior, too. So I do this embarrassing dance whenever I need to pick something up: distracting her, sneaking past, or trying to move REALLY FAST (which of course makes her all the more excited when she does catch me).

Young Clara mugging my face
Young Clara mugging my face

I took a stab at modifying her behavior early on, but I didn’t pick a viable method. What I did was treat it rather like a combination of a desensitization exercise and proofing a stay. I would put her in a sit stay and move over her very gradually, treating each movement. Slight lean, treat. Slight knee bend, treat. I did lots of sessions of this. Way too many for the good I got out of it. And while it may have helped somewhat with her being comfortable with those movements or the proximity of my face, it didn’t even begin to address the problem. I still had a small, then medium sized (then large, I admit it) puppy coming for me at the speed of light when I bent over. Because she wasn’t already in a stay to begin with. Duh.

Also sometime during her puppyhood I had another not so bright idea. I thought, Premack! Premack’s Principle states that more probable behaviors (bumping my face) can reinforce less probable behaviors (performing a sit stay when my face is close by). If she so strongly wants to lick and nuzzle and bump my face, wouldn’t that the ultimate reward for doing what I want first?

Does anyone see why this might not work, even if I could keep her from hurting me?

It was such a newbie error. I had never had a dog who got aroused this easily before. When your dog is excited, it is so easy to assume that she is happy. But the face licking is much more likely to be a stress and appeasement behavior.  I checked with my teacher, who knows Clara well and observed her. She said Clara did not look comfortable to her when doing the face seeking stuff. And that fits with the Clara I know, when I just stop to consider. She has a huge palette of appeasement behaviors and drops into those patterns at the drop of a hat.

So my idea was like saying to someone, “OK I see you bite your nails when you are nervous. Your reward after filling out this difficult form correctly is the opportunity to bite your nails.” OK, it might be just the thing. But a stress behavior like that has specific triggers, and is not always rewarding if those triggers aren’t there. After the form filling is done, the person may have no desire at all to bite their nails. In that case the chance to perform that behavior would not be reinforcing.

And that’s the reaction I got when I tried it with Clara. I got a good stay out of her, then knelt down and invited her to come lick my face. And got a big, fat “Huh?”

So the Premack experiment was short-lived. I should mention also that inviting a dog to come mug your face is, in many situations, not a good idea.  Lots of dogs are bothered by proximity of faces, and lots of bite incidents happen to people who thought their dog was fine with that kind of thing. And in any case, even if had worked it would have had the same problem as my desensitization approach. It didn’t address the problem directly because she was not already in a stay when my face approached.

So I quit and was basically living with it while I worked on things for which I got a better return on my time. One day I mentioned it to my teacher again while she was here at the house to work with Clara. I mentioned my gradual “stay” approach. She said she wouldn’t do it like that, instead, why not make bending over a cue to go to her crate? And in four repetitions of “new cue/old cue” little Clara was running to her crate when Lisa bent over.

In operant learning this is called “Differential Reinforcement of an Incompatible Behavior,” or DRI. It’s a widely used technique to get an animal (including a person) to stop doing something by making an incompatible behavior pay off really, really well. Clara cannot go straight to her crate and stay there and simultaneously leap up and mug a face.

Yargh, why didn’t I think of that? I said some rude things out of frustration if I recall.

But even then it didn’t make it to the top of my priority list. I played with it a couple if times, considering making bending over be a cue for crate or go to mat, but never got off the ground.

Clara still mugging my face

But I train Sue Ailsby’s Training Levels and one day there it was. Level 2 Down, Step 5. Teaching default cues. Is there a situation in which you would always like the dog automatically to lie down? Sue describes teaching a default down and stay when putting food dishes down, when meeting children or old people, or even when talking on the telephone.

Where do you need Level 2 Down? And the answer was obvious. Every time I lean over. I won’t always have a crate for her to go into, or a mat for her to get on. But by golly she can virtually always lie down. This finally gave me the incentive to do something about the behavior. So I used the New Cue/Old Cue method, as Lisa had done with the crate, and had the basic behavior in four iterations. (I think it went so quickly because it is much faster for a dog to go from a verbal to a body cue than the other way around.) After that it was just reminding her and expanding it into more difficult situations.

There are a few real life ramifications of my body cue for Clara’s down, and for once I may have thought them through. Mostly that if leaning over is a cue for down, I need to keep that in mind when practicing other behaviors, especially duration behaviors. If I have put her in a sit/stay and then lean over her, I have given her two conflicting cues. I can train her which one takes priority, but for now I’ll probably avoid that situation, while I’m strengthening the default down. If I were planning competition obedience with her or some other precise work where the difference between the two behaviors was crucial, I would need to choose another solution or else pay some keen attention to the discrimination/priority of the cues. But basically right now it is a very high priority to get her out of my face.

Anybody else have unusual cues for default behaviors? I’d love to hear about them.

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