eileenanddogs

Category: Multiple dogs

When Management Succeeds

When Management Succeeds

“Management fails.”

Have you heard this saying? Did you understand completely what the person meant?

I’m going to explain it in some detail for those who aren’t familiar with the terminology or concept, then tell my own management story.

A woman is sitting on a bench, holding a small black and white terrier who is sitting very relaxedly in her lap. A larger tan dog is on the floor looking up at the woman. The woman is talking to the larger dog.
Clara offers a calm down behavior in the presence of Cricket

Management

In the dog training world, “management” means the things you have to do if you haven’t trained your dog in a behavior appropriate to a certain situation. Some examples:

  • If you have a dog who persistently jumps on guests to your home, and you solve the problem by always locking him in a back room when you have company, that’s management.
  • If you put up a baby gate instead of either teaching your dog not to go in a certain room, or teaching him how to behave in there safely, that’s management.
  • If you have two dogs who fight and you choose to separate them forever using doors and crates rather than doing counterconditioning and/or training them in behaviors which are incompatible with fighting, that’s management.

Management is not a bad thing. If you have ever had a puppy, you probably learned pretty fast to manage some things, or you wouldn’t have made it. You can’t teach them everything they need to know at once, so you control the environment to prevent certain problems.

Management is also very important as a background for training. If you had the jumping dog in the first example above and decided to train him to behave nicely around guests, you would continue the management during purely social visits from guests while you were also training the behavior in controlled setups. The management would prevent him from practicing the undesirable behavior. If he was still getting to practice that with guests some of the time, your training during the rest of the time would go nowhere.

So what do people mean when they say, “Management fails”?

I have always seen that remark in the context of the third example above, or a similar example involving a dog who is aggressive to humans. They mean that if the safety of one of your dogs, cats, or even a child depends on certain doors always being closed and 100% consistent behavior on the part of all the humans in the household, odds are that some day a human will mess up, the wrong creatures will get access to one another, and someone will get hurt. They are emphatically encouraging people not to depend on management alone when someone’s safety is at stake.

The alternatives to simply managing aggressive dogs are counterconditioning and training the dog/s (while simultaneously managing as described above), rehoming a dog, or euthanizing a dog (sometimes done in the case of high level aggression where the dog is deemed unadoptable).

Susan Garrett is well known for encouraging training rather than management. She suggests making conscious choices whether to train or manage for each situation, rather than letting managing the dog be a default. She points out that a trained dog, as opposed to one who has to be managed (read: controlled) all the time, can go many more places, do more things, and can generally have a more interesting life. But she has also shared that she has chosen to manage at least one common problem: dogs getting aroused and barking when the doorbell rings. She uses a special ring on her phone instead of a physical doorbell to let her know she has a visitor . She (so far) has chosen not to train a doorbell behavior.

By the way, Susan Garrett’s doorbell solution fits under what Susan Friedman calls “Antecedent Arrangements.” Even though some trainers might consider it “only management,” from the animal’s point of view, it is less intrusive than even training a new behavior with positive reinforcement. It is one of the mildest forms of behavioral intervention since the animal is not asked to change. The situational trigger is just removed. This works well when the human’s routine is easy to change.

So why am I even talking about this? Because I’m a little bit of a contrarian, that’s why. No actually, because I discovered that there can actually be overlap between management and training. I had never thought of that, since lots of people who discuss the two talk as if they are mutually exclusive. But in one situation, I thought I was “only” managing my dog but she got trained without my realizing it! I was able to stop managing* and everybody was still safe and happy. Here’s what happened.

Clara and Cricket

When Clara came into my life in July 2011, my little rat terrier Cricket was about 15 years old and already frail. Clara was the smallest dog in the house for about two days– 11.5 pounds to Cricket’s 12–but outgrew Cricket (and everyone else) very quickly. As Clara grew in size and confidence, I quickly made the decision to keep them separated. Cricket disliked most dogs anyway, was getting dementia and didn’t interact with them well, and would only grow more frail. My worry was never aggression from Clara, but that lethal, wagging tail of hers and her bouncy habits.

I already kept Cricket separated from one of my other dogs. I decided rather than try to train Clara to be calm and keep her distance from Cricket, I would just keep her separated too. If Cricket had been a younger dog and more a part of the group, I probably would have made a different decision. But what I did decide had a very interesting result.

There were two exceptions to their separation each day. When Clara first got up in the morning, we would rush through Cricket’s space on our way to the back door so Clara could go out to potty. Conversely every evening Clara came through on the way to going to bed in her crate in my bedroom.

On these trips through Cricket’s rooms, I did not seek to train anything. I just made sure Cricket was out of the way and/or made sure I walked between them. I may have body blocked once or twice, but definitely not as a rule. That’s something I consciously avoid.  I just planned Clara’s route and made it easy for her to leave Cricket alone. Clara was always intent on our destination, which helped, too.

After a couple of months I noticed something. Clara was consciously avoiding Cricket. Clara the Rude, who body slammed dogs for entertainment and responded quite reluctantly to my other dogs’ requests to be left alone! Amazingly, she did not bother Cricket and actually avoided her.

How did that happen?

We Are Always Training Our Dogs

OK, this is another truism, but it’s, ahem, true.  I confess the first few times I heard it, I thought it was rhetoric. Only later did I come to realize that it was meant much more literally. All animals learn and change their behaviors because of consequences. Whatever your dog does, it does because there is something reinforcing about it. Some things are intrinsically reinforcing, of course, but one of the first things a student of learning theory finds out is that we have been training our dogs to do many of the problem behaviors we complain about.

It is dead easy to train our dogs to whine to be let out of their crates, steal our socks (what fun for a puppy when a human runs screaming after it!), dodge away when we reach for their collars, countersurf, and mouth our hands. I don’t mean that we are purposely training these things (usually), but that our behavior is creating the consequences that shape their behavior whether we want it to or not.

So, what of Clara and Cricket? Although I carry treats on me most of the time, I didn’t give Clara a treat for staying away from Cricket. But twice a day we went by Cricket, with Clara at a good distance, on a trip to something good. In the mornings the trip was to the outdoors and potty time. In the evening the trip was to the bedroom and Clara’s crate and soft bed, which she liked from the day she got here. So those were mild and rather non-immediate reinforcers, but the important part is that they were utterly consistent. Nothing fun ever happened around Cricket. Clara didn’t develop any kind of a history of interaction with her. Cricket was for going by at a distance and getting to a good place, and that’s what Clara learned to do. Getting to the good place was the end of a behavior chain that included walking far away from Cricket.

The movie shows the marked differences between Clara’s behavior with Cricket, and her behavior with Summer and Zani.

Link to the movie for email subscribers.

Astute viewers may notice the big obvious lip lick and lookaway that Clara performs upon seeing Cricket coming down the hall in one clip, when Clara was a year old. Those are common stress signals for dogs.  It’s quite possible I got a little help at times from Cricket, who could be pretty intimidating to other dogs, with the “stay away” message. However, given Clara’s habitual non-response to such cues from other dogs, I think in the long run this played a pretty minor role. In their last year together, Cricket had advanced dementia, and didn’t appear to be giving off as much dog communication to anybody. The last clips in the movie show Cricket’s typical behavior at that point in her life. They were taken in late April 2013, one month before she passed on.

A tan dog has backed int a smaller black and rust hound mix and is pressing the smaller dog into the wall with her butt
Clara smooshing Zani into the wall with her butt on purpose

I also want to mention that the movie may give the impression that I let Clara run rampant over my other two dogs. She would certainly like to spend her life bashing into them and smooshing them into walls, but I intervene pretty successfully in that most of the time. However, I think applying some of the principles I learned from her behavior towards Cricket would be helpful in that regard. I am always doing what I can to help the dogs get along well.

If I get brave, I’ll write a second post about Clara’s interactions with Summer and Zani and how they have built her current behavior toward them.

I hope this strong lesson for me about subtle reinforcers and the strength of consistent habits will be helpful for some others. I’m really curious as to whether this has happened to other folks. Have you ever accidentally trained a really good behavior? I hope it happens to me again!

*Please, please do not misconstrue my remarks as encouraging people to stop managing a dangerous dog, or testing the waters to check whether something magical has happened from management. Mine was a unique situation. Most important, as I mentioned above, Cricket was not in danger from aggression from Clara, only from careless behavior that might knock her over. If aggression were the issue, Clara never would have been walking through Cricket’s space in the first place.

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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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 5 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.

Video link for email subscribers

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!

Video link for email subscribers

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

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