Category: Making mistakes in dog training

Teaching a Dog to Station While Another Dog Works

Teaching a Dog to Station While Another Dog Works

A tan dog is lying on a green cot while a white dog with brown ears sits on a low platform next to her. Both dogs are looking at something to their left that we can't see.

Lewis and I have achieved two of my personal holy grails of dog training. He can both wait quietly in another room while I train Clara, and he can station successfully in the same room while I train her. Hallelujah!

The effects of these abilities are far-reaching. Since the end of December 2021 when I got Lewis, I have spent most of my training time with him. That means that Clara, my stalwart, lovely Clara, hasn’t been getting as much fun training time with me. I’ve been exhausted from training and managing Lewis. And she loves to train. As you might remember, we were working on her trick titles, ahem. We haven’t stopped, though. We’ve been working on finding lost objects and keeping her other trick behaviors alive. But we’re not working every day as we did before.

A tan dog with black ears, tail, and muzzle is lying on the floor looking seriously at the camera
Imagine these eyes gazing at you every time you go to train the other dog

Lewis came to me with a huge Fear of Missing Out. As far as I can tell, he doesn’t have symptoms of separation anxiety or isolation distress. But he had been in a state of deprivation, living in a vet clinic for crucial months of his puppyhood. He suffered from that and learned a huge palette of demand behaviors as well.

For months, I couldn’t do something so simple as leaving him in the den while I took Clara into another room to trim her nails for five minutes. He would yell and rattle the gate. And sometimes get it open, dammit. Talk about great reinforcement.

But he has learned, over almost five months, that he will get a turn. He will get some . Not every time, but enough to make it worthwhile. (Clara would like me to remind you that he’s been getting more of everything for months.)

I am not great at precision training, but if you need patience and a slow, gradual progression, I’m your person.

Training Two Dogs

I wrote a blog post on training multiple dogs a few years ago, and I still follow that method. The principle of teaching one dog to wait while another gets the active training is very simple. I learned it from Sue Ailsby. When you are training a dog to wait on a mat or other station while you work with another dog, train the waiting dog. Don’t focus on the active dog and give the waiting dog a treat now and then, or even every time you treat the active one. Give the waiting dog more attention, more reinforcement. When you do something with the working dog, start with very little movement and immediately turn back to the waiting dog and reinforce. As you progress, build up to more movement and object interaction by the working dog and continue to reinforce both dogs richly.

The high rate of reinforcement for the waiting dog won’t be forever. You can spread out your schedule later and lower the value of the treats once they learn that in the big picture, they’ll get a turn. And getting to work can become the biggest reinforcer of all.

I haven’t found the videos where I started this with Lewis. But here is one of my old videos starring Zani where I take a methodical approach to teaching this behavior. The video below shows my latest triumph: Lewis waiting nicely on a Klimb platform while I take Clara through some very active training—getting on and in objects. This was a long time coming.

Three things about this movie.

  • Sorry about the crappy camera angle; I almost cut him off.
  • I think Lewis fusses as I cue him to lie down on the Klimb because he doesn’t know how to do that yet with his front feet stationary, and there’s not much room behind him. He figures it out.
  • Clara has a bandage on her left front paw because of a raw spot on the side of her foot and she is holding it up (superstitious behavior) even more than usual. It doesn’t hurt her to use her paw; I think the bandage feels weird.

Next, I’ll teach Lewis to hold his position while I give Clara an object to hold, then finally while I play tug with her. This will be a challenge. Lewis can hardly bear it when Clara has something; whatever she has, he wants.

Zen/Leave It/Impulse Control with Two Dogs

Leaving available stuff alone is a lifesaving skill for dogs.

People have various reasonable criticisms of the terms impulse control and self control but I’m OK with them. They have precise definitions in behavior science. If I had a criticism, it would be that environment controls behavior. The “self” isn’t controlling behavior, but consequences and history of consequences are. But whatever we call the behavior, we can teach dogs, with positive reinforcement, to leave an available goodie alone for extended periods if we start gradually and make it worth their while.

Methods for teaching dogs to leave available food alone are becoming more and more positive reinforcement-based . Marge Rogers and I no longer use approaches based on extinction and negative punishment. There are no periods where the animal tries and can’t get the food as part of the training plan. That creates unnecessary frustration. Dogs don’t have to try to get it and fail in order to learn to leave the food alone.

Instead, I’ve learned from Marge to teach eye contact and fade in visible food as a distraction. Then extend “this food is just a distraction” to other behaviors. The presence of food finally becomes a cue to reorient to me and do fun stuff. To be honest, when I teach the behavior, I inevitably make a couple of fumbles. So there may be some negative punishment involved if I progress too fast, they go for the food, and I prevent access. That’s a mistake on my part; I’m not a perfect trainer. But I’m getting better at this low error approach.

A white dog with brown ears is lying on the floor with his front end on a tan mat. He is offering eye contact to a human we can only partially see. Human has her hands visible and closed.
Lewis is offering eye contact in the presence of two closed handfuls of food

I started with eye contact, then fading in food in my hands, then moving the food around. Then, once Lewis had the basic idea, I transitioned to teaching him to ignore food on the floor (no eye contact required). He now pauses and looks at me even in real life when I drop something by accident. Another Hallelujah.

A woman in a red shirt and black pants leans over and drops a toy in front of a white dog with brown ears who is lying on a mat.
We work on leaving dropped toys alone, too

In the video, we are working on dropped food. The dogs are on platforms but I’m not requiring a particular behavior on there. I start by placing food on the floor, then work up to dropping it and having it bounce around. Note that the presence of Clara makes the stakes higher for Lewis. There’s another dog who could get the food!

You’ll also see an error on my part where I progress too quickly for Lewis—too many kibbles coming straight at him too fast. When that happens, I don’t even try to keep him from the food. He gets reinforced for the wrong behavior—jumping down to grab the food. But I’m not worried; I can keep the matching law on my side.

I do have a verbal cue for leave it: “Pas,” the French word. I picked it years ago because I had taught Summer “Leave It” with corrections and needed an un-poisoned phrase. I sometimes feel a little silly using it (and people think I am saying “paw”). But I can say the short word with the plosive consonant very quietly and the cue is very recognizable. I think I picked a good word, after all. (Thank you, Lynn Shrove, for suggesting it. I haven’t forgotten!)

I practice dropping treats so much, though, that staying away from them becomes a default behavior for all my dogs. In most situations, I don’t need the cue.

When I have time to dig through my series of Lewis videos, I’ll post more of the steps we took for the behaviors in the videos above. But in the meantime, if I can do it, especially with Lewis, I bet you can do it with your dog, too. Please know that I understand how taxing it is to have to devote all sorts of time to the “hard” dog while the patient dog just has to be patient. The good news is that this is usually a fixable problem.

It’s such a relief to include Clara in most training sessions again.

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Photo Outtakes

Copyright 2022 Eileen Anderson

That One Leftover Negatively Reinforced Behavior

That One Leftover Negatively Reinforced Behavior

It took only four pieces of kibble to fix a problem I’ve had for about eight years.

Long ago, I sought to stop using body pressure to move my dogs around in space. This was a conscious and serious effort. For me, and for my dogs, using body pressure was not a benign endeavor. You can see two of my very early YouTube videos about it. Negative vs. Positive Reinforcement and Teaching a Dog to Back Up without Using Body Pressure.

Maybe it’s because I have had a fair number of scaredy or sensitive dogs, but I have seen the fallout of using body pressure so frequently. And I don’t want my person to be something a dog avoids! I want them to be comfortable with me, to approach me, to move into my space, and not flinch or flee if I move gently into theirs. I want them to have pleasant associations with my physical presence.

But from the title, you can see I didn’t completely succeed. There was one last behavior I taught with R-.

I’m not talking about the accidental ways R- creeps into our lives with our dogs and even into our training. That probably still happens sometimes without my knowing it. And I’m not talking about things like letting a dog leave a training session, which may be a planned choice but still represents a mistake on my part. I’m talking about a deliberate choice I made to apply pressure to get an escape behavior. Yes, reader, I did it.

How We Got There: Arranging Dogs on the Bed

Clara didn’t get “sleeping in the bed” privileges until she was almost two years old. That didn’t have to do with her behavior. It was the reality of having a household with four dogs, one of whom (Summer) really wanted to take out another (Cricket). I had a size 300 crate on my bed for Summer, Cricket and Zani were loose on the bed, and I didn’t have room for Clara the hulk. She slept as she had from the first night in my house, in a crate on the floor right next to my place on the bed.

A large bed with a dog crate on top of it with a brown dog in the crate. There is a smaller black and white dog loose on the bed. There is a lump under the covers where another dog is lying.
Summer in the crate, Cricket up by the pillows, and Zani under the covers in the foreground

I dismantled that whole setup after Cricket died in 2013. I moved Summer’s crate to the floor (she still slept there most of the time). Clara got bed privileges and never left. I’ll never forget her first night. She planted herself right up against my leg and didn’t move all night. Anthropomorphizing just a little: she seemed incredulous at this development and stayed still as if not to blow the opportunity. She has never once gotten off the bed at night unless she was about to be sick.

The Unwanted Behavior

A black and tan dog rests her head on the bed covers and looks seriously at the camera
I’m pretty sure this photo from August 2013 was Clara’s first night getting to sleep on the bed

So what was Clara’s undesirable behavior on which I used negative reinforcement? Was she bullying other dogs? Being noisy? Trying to play or otherwise making trouble at night? No. It was that every night as I was getting ready to go to bed, she got in bed before me in my exact place. She got right up against my pillow and made herself comfortable right where I planned to sleep. Every. Single. Night.

So every night when I was ready to go to bed, I needed Clara to move.

Years before, in another context, a trainer I respected told me that while she let her dogs get on her bed and sleep with her if they liked, she never used treats on the bed. She said the bed was rewarding already and hanging out on the bed was a privilege. Also, she discouraged play on the bed because she wanted it to be a place for relaxation.

I took these words to heart, probably out of the context in which she originally meant them. No treats, no play on the bed. Check.

The result: I left myself with no potent positive reinforcement methods to move my dog. And it didn’t occur to me to try a hand target, for instance, and reinforce with petting and sweet talk. Or I could have made some other area on the bed extra enticing with fluffy blankets. Neither of these would probably have worked against “that special spot” but I wish I had at least tried.

How I Used Negative Reinforcement

Every night I made Clara move over by saying, “Move,” and nudging her or pushing into her space. I did this knowing it was not in concert with my ethics, but I couldn’t think of any alternatives. I wasn’t forceful about it, but R- is R-. You can get avoidance with a tiny stimulus. And in the typical progression of negative reinforcement, Clara started moving away earlier in my behavioral sequence, before I even said anything. All I had to do was walk toward my place on the bed and she leaped up and out of the way. (She never stopped getting there in the first place.)

I didn’t like this. It made me sad for my dog to see me coming and move away as if I had prodded her with a stick. That’s the thing about R-. I wasn’t even touching her at this point. I didn’t have to. She saw the precursor, which had become the (aversive) cue to move, and she moved. And the move was recognizable as a move away from something unpleasant. It didn’t have the look of a happy, positively reinforced behavior.

This has bothered me for freaking years: my beloved friend springing out of the way as if I were a danger to her.

What I’m Doing Now

Enter Lewis. Nothing like a new dog in your life to make you rethink things.

The first couple of nights, Lewis chose to sleep in a dog bed on the floor. Then he got up on the bed with Clara and me. Then he moved close to me and started to snuggle.

Then he decided he wanted Clara’s current place right next to my head and upper body. He is an ambitious little guy, and whatever Clara has, he wants. It was not OK with me for him to bump her out of her place, but Clara wasn’t assertive enough to stand her ground. I was going to have to move a dog around on the bed again.

So I thought about it for two seconds and decided the “No food on the bed” rule was going to go. I took the ridiculously easy option of grabbing four pieces of kibble from a jar, getting Lewis’ attention, and tossing two of them where I wanted him to go. Then I used the other two to bring Clara next to me (her usual spot) when he was out of the way. (Neither of them resource guards kibble.)

Instead of a dog looking up at me worriedly as I approached, I had two cheerful faces looking up at me. “Here come our last two treats of the day. Where are you going to toss them?”

One Other Change

Lewis’ arrival brought another change: my bed is now covered with chew items and toys. I see two Nylabones, a water buffalo horn, one of those hard tree roots, three stuffed toys, one unstuffed toy husk, and a piece of cardboard. Obviously, the “Bed is only for sleeping” rule has gone away as well. (All chews have risks; I’m not making recommendations for anyone else’s dogs.)

This means there are other forms of reinforcement available for Lewis besides comfort and cuddling. So when I direct him away from my spot, I’m not sending him to a desert. I toss the kibble toward one of his favorite items. He may settle there, or he may return to cuddle against my legs. His choice.

A white dog with red ears and red freckles is curled up on a colorful blanket
Lewis doesn’t look too unhappy with his “second choice”

Fallout

No aversive is too small to be concerned about. I know of a dog who started growling and snapping at his owner when she brought out the Scotch tape to work on the “hide your face” trick. I know of another who became dangerously aggressive after his owner used a squirt bottle on him. I even know of one who started biting the family after being removed bodily from the couch, quite similar to my issue.

Clara has never been aggressive, lucky for me. The fallout for us was the avoidance. Her positive conditioned emotional response to me was damaged. Probably only in a small way, since there were so many pleasant experiences on the other side of the scale. But I really don’t want any of my dogs to see me coming and think, “OMG, better move!”

The Reason for This Post

I imagine I’ll get some horrified responses from fellow positive reinforcement-based trainers at my admission of recently using negative reinforcement to get a behavior. But this is not a new admission. Here’s a post where I listed situations in which I may have used it. I don’t condone it; in fact, I hate the insidiousness of it, and I always strive to figure out a better way. As I improve as a trainer, I can eradicate it and make things more fun for my dogs.

But I also expect the opposite reaction, that the issue is ridiculous and beneath consideration. “She wrote a whole post about how sad it was that her dog had to move over!” These readers may say my dogs need to toughen up or even that I am letting them dominate me.

But my reasons for the post are bigger than that one small behavior. One reason was to share that I took something too literally and didn’t think for myself. That is a mistake I make as a non-professional. I just don’t have the breadth of experience to avoid misapplying things as “rules.” The other, more practical reason for sharing is that I—and all of us—can always reconsider a training technique. Nothing should be below scrutiny.

I regret using my body as something to avoid.

Clara and Lewis

I’m glad Clara now gives me an eager look when I approach the bed at night, waiting for her pieces of kibble. (Kibble! That’s all it took!)

And Lewis doesn’t always vie for her place now. He waits next to the bed to see where I will throw his kibble. Sweet!

And the irony: Lewis is not a sensitive soul. I never tried it, but I’m pretty sure from other experiences that he wouldn’t have yielded to my body pressure at all. He is a master at getting suddenly limp and very heavy.

I’m glad for both of them I finally used my brain and stopped listening to a voice from long ago.

A white dog with red ears and red freckles is sitting on a maroon rug next to a bed, looking up at the camera
Lewis waiting for his directional kibble

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Copyright 2022 Eileen Anderson

Clara’s Stand Disaster and Why She Still Hops

Clara’s Stand Disaster and Why She Still Hops

tan dog with black muzzle stands on all four feet on a mat
This calm stand happened during a time when we weren’t working on it, of course

I considered titling this post “Eileen’s Stand Disaster,” but I thought that might be too confusing. Clara was the one standing, but the disaster part was definitely on me.

Thousands of people worldwide have used Susan’ Garrett’s fun method for teaching the stand and gotten fabulous results. I wasn’t one of them, but I blame myself, not the method.

The method is to have the dog in heel position in a sit, and to use a hand target above the dog’s head

Continue reading “Clara’s Stand Disaster and Why She Still Hops”
My Dogs Do Know Sit! A Hint for Training the Sit Stay

My Dogs Do Know Sit! A Hint for Training the Sit Stay

Tan dog performing a sit stay in front of a woman standing right in front of her
Clara performing a sit stay. My stance is odd for a reason. Keep reading!

Turns out my dogs do know sit.

About two years ago, I wrote a post called, “My Dogs Don’t Know Sit!”. I described how my dogs couldn’t hold a sit stay when I stood still right in front of them. I analyzed the problem, and my conclusion was that part of the cue for them to stay was actually my walking away from them.  This was probably because I added distance too soon when originally training the stay. I ended up with the perverse situation that my dogs would hold their stays if I walked around, jogged, dropped treats, or left the room, but not if I stood still. All three of them responded this way, so it was clear that I was the problem.

Continue reading “My Dogs Do Know Sit! A Hint for Training the Sit Stay”
Now Switch! Prompting the Dog to Change Feet When Scratching a Nail Board

Now Switch! Prompting the Dog to Change Feet When Scratching a Nail Board

I’ve been using a nail board (custom-made by Bob Rogers–thanks Bob and Marge!) with all three of my dogs for a few years now. I use it as an adjunct to trimming and Dremeling, and the dogs enjoy getting part of the kibble in exchange for scratching.

This isn’t a how-to post; it’s mostly another “Do as I say, not as I do,” post. In other words, I’m going to tell you about a mistake I made. Continue reading “Now Switch! Prompting the Dog to Change Feet When Scratching a Nail Board”

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