Tag: Clara

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

You Have to Stop! Interrupting Unwelcome Puppy Play Toward an Older Dog

You Have to Stop! Interrupting Unwelcome Puppy Play Toward an Older Dog

A tan and black dog lies on the grass holding a ball and a brown and white puppy runs toward her

Or: The Magic Buffalo Tug

In my post about the challenges of living with and training Lewis, I mentioned that the worst problem we faced was his hassling Clara to play. We’ve made some progress.

When he first came, his most frequent behavior toward her was humping. I remember telling Marge Rogers I had removed him or called him away dozens of times in a day. The humping diminished, thankfully. He does it far less frequently and less intensely and will happily dismount when I call him away.

But the next phase was tougher. A more troublesome problem emerged. Instead of humping, Lewis initiated play with Clara dozens of times a day. Sounds nice, right? No. First, she didn’t want to play dozens of times a day, but she is too retiring to tell him off convincingly. Worse, his methods of initiating play included: 1) growl the meanest sounding play growl imaginable and chew on Clara’s face and neck relentlessly; 2) bite her tail and pull; 3) bite one of her hind legs and hang on; and 4) in the yard, body slam her with no warning at top speed. But since every once in a while she did want to play, she put his rude behavior on a variable ratio reinforcement schedule, which increased his natural persistence.

I’ve seen Clara tell Lewis emphatically NO only twice. Once was when his food toy had escaped under the couch and he considered swiping hers. She gave a strong warning bark right in his face and he backed off instantly. She did something similar with a toy she really wanted one day when he made a play for it. But otherwise she has been a pushover. Even when she responds to his chewing on her with growls and unfriendly chomping, he reacts as if she is not serious—and she doesn’t prove him wrong. So I needed to intervene.

Management

Early on, I wasn’t able to get Lewis’ attention to interrupt him out of play or attempted play. He was lost to the world. Both of them were; I couldn’t even get Clara’s attention when she was into it. So once he started, I had to physically remove him if Clara didn’t want to play. That’s why he (still!) wears a harness and often drags a leash: so I can remove him or prevent him from launching at her. I’m not proud of this, but I have to protect my other dog.

I’m well aware of the risks of dogs playing while wearing collars or harnesses. Life with dogs is full of calculated risks and this is where I fall on this particular risk. Clara wears only a breakaway collar and we are working toward one for Lewis. But she is far less likely to chew on him than he is to chew on her.

Back to the problem at hand. I realized that my management method of physical interruptions hadn’t diminished the problem behavior at all. We always hope, right? So I started thinking about what else to do. Crating or otherwise separating him, other than using the tether, was not an option then.

Two Resources

When I considered how else to address the problem, two things came to mind. First, Kiki Yablon posted on Instagram a video of using a structured tug game to teach a lab puppy not to bite at flapping garments and other objects. Second, I remembered something I’ve heard Marge say many times, that when she has a puppy in the house she always has treats in one pocket and a toy in the other.

A toy! I always have treats in a pocket, but I’ve rarely carried a toy. But I liked Kiki’s approach of using toy play as an alternative to play-driven behavior, and had Marge to encourage me. So I bought the tiniest tug toy I could find at Clean Run. I wanted it to be a novel toy, and it needed to be small enough to fit in my pocket. Enter the buffalo tug.

Behavior Chain

From the first, I worried about creating a behavior chain. If the tug play was attractive (and you’ll see how much Lewis delights in tug) and the only way he could access it was by bothering Clara, then guess what was going to increase? Bothering Clara. So I gave it a few tries on the first day but consulted with Marge quickly before I created a problem.

The first time I whipped out the tug toy to lure him away from Clara, it was like a bolt of energy shot through him. He was thrilled out of his mind. He raced to me and we played for a minute or two, then I traded him a couple of pieces of kibble for the tug toy. He has a very good “out” cue already, but I liked the kibble trade for this situation.

Closeup of a brown and white puppy's face as he grips a tug toy
Lewis with the buffalo tug

So I learned I had a powerful tool, something that competed with his favorite reinforcer, poor Clara. Even on that first day, he would advance on Clara, then turn and look at me. “Well? Where’s the tug?” This was both good and bad news. Good because he was stopping before grabbing her. Bad because it could lead to a chain and increase the Clara-bothering. I texted Marge so I wouldn’t create a worse problem.

Punishment

You may wonder why I haven’t mentioned punishment. I do use negative punishment from time to time. But in this case, it would be as a timeout, removing either him or Clara from the situation quickly, contingent on his undesirable behavior. But removing him from the action would be a whopper of a punisher for him. He’s got a giant case of Fear of Missing Out. I never knew how bad that could get. And removing Clara with a clear contingency (“she’s leaving because you were being a jerk”) would be hard-to-impossible. I do separate them to protect her. But I don’t see the management actions I take decreasing the behavior. I would much rather concentrate my efforts on preventing him from doing it in the first place.

Tweaking the Plan

Marge helped me add three tweaks.

  1. I asked for a behavior or two before tugging. I had his full attention, and he was happy to do anything to get the tug. The behaviors he had on cue at the time were sit, down, eye contact, hand target, and go to mat. He defaulted to sit since he already knew to sit to start a game. But I switched it up and asked for different things.
  2. Once he could turn his attention to me instead of jumping Clara, at times I reinforced with food instead of tug. Tugging is what allowed me to get his attention so quickly though, so I still used tug most of the time.
  3. Most important: I produced the tug toy at other times. It was vital that attacking Clara was not the only way for him to get access to such an attractive game. I didn’t want to get clobbered by the matching law. So I also whipped out the tug sometimes when he just came up to me and gave me eye contact or sat. I liked the idea that he could just come and ask me in those ways (rather than grabbing my arm or walloping Clara). I also just popped it out randomly.

Here’s a video from two days after I started using the pocket tug. I was about to interrupt the play because Lewis getting rough and obnoxious. But at that moment he interrupted himself and reoriented to me. Tug game on!

Unexpected and Expected Effects

OK, a professional trainer could have predicted these, but I didn’t.

Tan dog and brown and white dog are chewing on a hairy tug toy together
“Sharing” the buffalo tug
  1. Clara wanted the tug. Of course she did. Why do I always make these plans as if there isn’t another dog in the mix? So of course I had to let her have it, both to play tug with and to chew on. She is the reason there is no long hair left on our tug (see the photo below). And sometimes she and Lewis played with the tug together. This sounds a little like I shot myself in the foot, and perhaps I did, but he was much nicer when they played with an object than if it was just tooth and claw. That’s one way I ramp down their play anyway: get a toy in the mix.
  2. The day I introduced the tug toy and forever after, I could instantly get Lewis’ attention merely by saying his name, no matter how intensely they were playing. Sweet! This added to the safety of the household. I need my dogs to be able to ramp down after they have ramped up. I had already been interrupting their play a lot and encouraging them to do so, but the tug supercharged my ability to get their attention and tone things down.
  3. I became even more of an entertainment center for Lewis. This is a mixed blessing for me, of course, but it’s great to get his focus when I need it.
  4. As hoped, providing him lots more mini-sessions of play during the day seemed to reduce his need to pester Clara. It’s hard to say, because she also started to say no a lot more often and more convincingly. But a combination of approaches switched his play focus more to me (and the neighbor dogs—more on that another time!).
A small, well chewed tug toy made of buffalo hide
The enticing buffalo tug after weeks of heavy use and recreational chewing

Where Things Stand

These systems are working well. Clara and I have figured out several ways to dissuade him. Besides the buffalo tug method, there’s a mat next to my place at the kitchen table she can get on; it’s hard for him to access her there. Sometimes I’ll cue her into a crate or she’ll get in on her own. Clara and I sometimes go off to another room of the house (not contingent on a play attempt, just as a planned activity). This is a big deal because formerly, Lewis’ FOMO would have made him scream. He is learning that he gets a turn.

I wish I could say I’ve solved the problem and Lewis only approaches Clara with respect and finesse. Bwa-ha-ha-ha, if only! These are living creatures, and I’m dealing with a strongly driven behavior on Lewis’ part. But play behavior can be shaped, and I hope he can figure out some ways that work better than ramming folks like a violent cartoon character.

I’ll close with this recent clip of Lewis playing with some balls and **not** slamming Clara, who gets to chew on hers in (comparative) peace.

Copyright 2022 Eileen Anderson

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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 Tricks: Treat on Nose, Carpet Roll, & Paws in Box

Clara’s Tricks: Treat on Nose, Carpet Roll, & Paws in Box

Yes, Clara has a piece of kibble on her head

Clara and I are learning so much! Here is a quick trick update with a couple of videos.

Treat on the Nose Trick

We are taking the treat on the nose exercise nice and slow. I can now put a piece of flat kibble on the top of Clara’s head for a second or two. I’ll work up to an actual dog biscuit.

There are lots of aspects to the trick.

Continue reading “Clara’s Tricks: Treat on Nose, Carpet Roll, & Paws in Box”
The Best Thing I Ever Taught My Dog

The Best Thing I Ever Taught My Dog

Bold claim, eh? But almost 10 years later, I think I am safe making it. Clara learned other things, like how to be around people other myself, that were more important. But those things were either trained directly by or supervised by my phenomenal trainer. This one I thought up and executed myself, and it has paid off ever since.

Continue reading “The Best Thing I Ever Taught My Dog”
What You Reinforce is What You Get

What You Reinforce is What You Get

A tan dog with black muzzle is looking out from between two wooden steps. Her mouth is open and she looks very happy. Next to her on the step is a beaten up yellow tennis ball.
Clara and her ball

Bob Bailey said, “What you click is what you get.” There is a lot of wisdom in this simple remark. Among other things, it emphasizes to me that we don’t always realize exactly what we are marking and reinforcing, but the animal always does. Or rather, the animal’s actions reflect it.

Since I rarely use a clicker, my version is, “What you reinforce is what you get.” This is still a challenge to keep in mind sometimes. I tend to fail at holding my criteria steady, and it shows in the overly wide range of behaviors I tend to get from my dogs. Plus, putting something on an intermittent reinforcement schedule (reinforcing it inconsistently) makes the behavior really persistent. Not a good idea to do that to a behavior you are trying to get rid of!

So let’s see what that all this looks like. I’m going to share with you all one of my bumbles. I have a video where I can show first what I reinforced purposefully (and successfully). Then I show the dog doing what I subsequently reinforced carelessly. It happened to be very close to the behavior I had been trying to fix in the first place. My dog shaped us almost back to where we started!

I wrote in my crossover story that a turning point for me was when I learned that an animal’s behavior is a map of what has been reinforced. (Punished too, now that I think of it.) You can see the changing landscape in the movie.

Letting Go of the Ball

Clara is my first truly ball crazy dog. I love it. It’s so fun to see that pure passion; how completely thrilled she is about playing ball. She loves it so much, actually, that she has a rather hard time giving it back, even though she lives for me to throw it. She loves both chasing a ball and having a ball.

Eileen is seated on a short stool and Clara is lying on the floor. They are looking into each other's eyes. There are some training props on the floor.
Clara practicing “put it in the bowl”

I published a movie last year, Retrieving to a Container, about how I solved her problem of reluctant releases. I did this with the help of my trainer friend and also a great YouTube tutorial. I trained Clara to fetch the ball and drop it in a container instead of putting it in my hand, which was so very hard for her. (She will fetch just about anything else in the world to hand, from paperclips to poop,  just not a ball. With the ball, she approaches since she really does want me to throw, but then she usually does that head dodge thing when I reach out. Just c a a n ‘ t quite give it up.)

I could have stopped everything and worked hard and gotten a ball fetch to hand, but the container thing was an elegant solution that would also build us a new foundation behavior. And it removed most of Clara’s conflict about releasing the ball.

I tried teaching my other dogs as well, and Zani took to it right away. So now I had two of them who would drop things into a container.

Zani has a knack for getting in on the fun, wherever it is. So when I would get out the rubber balls and the container, she started barging in on Clara’s game. Clara is good natured about things like that, and I’m a sucker, so now there were three of us. Zani started to pick up the ball if Clara dropped it short of the bucket. Zani would grab it, drop it in the bucket, and I would give her a treat. (Told you I’m a sucker. She even got me to feed her.)

Experienced trainers are smiling now. With Zani’s help, I exactly undid the behavior I had trained. Clara and I play with two balls, so I can throw the second immediately when she delivers the first. The throw of the ball reinforces the previous behavior. So when she started dropping the ball short of the bucket and letting Zani finish the job, she still got reinforced by another throw. It didn’t matter that I was waiting for the ball to hit the bucket, since she wasn’t performing that part of the sequence. So she reverted to her natural behavior of tossing the ball down in anticipation when she got within a few feet of me.

How Eileen’s Behavior Got Shaped

So what about me? Did Clara cause my behavior to change through reinforcement? Yes. Her actions were shaping my behavior. She got me to do two different things. First, when I was holding the container, if she dropped the ball a time or two I got in the habit of reaching out with the container before she let go. I was doing the natural human thing of “catching” the ball with the bowl, rather than being a statue. I got reinforced for doing that since it saved the time of either of us messing around trying to pick it up off the ground. So in this way I also started taking over some of what “should” have been her job, and she got reinforced (again!) for not coming quite all the way to the container. By inches this time, but it only takes that much to miss.

A tan dog with black muzzle and a red ball in her mouth is rushing toward a woman sitting down with a white plastic bowl in front of her. The woman is holding a similar red ball in her right hand, completely covered, and out of sight of the dog.
Take a look at my right hand

Second, she also shaped me to put the second ball out of sight when she approached. Again, she’s so ball crazy that she had a very hard time taking her eyes off the ball I was about to throw long enough to put her own ball in the container. I could have started working on her self control around balls, but instead I  fell into the short cut of putting the other ball out of sight when she approached. This improved her accuracy at the container.

Where to Go From Here

All this makes me sound incredibly sloppy, but I’m going to defend myself a little. First of all, this is recreation. There are some things I put lots of energy into getting just right. Zen. Recalls. Mat work. I am even decent at being moderately precise, as in competitive obedience and Rally. So I cut myself a little slack when we are talking about something that is not life and death important. (Clara disagrees about that assessment, grin.)

Second, with multiple dogs you tend to make little compromise decisions all the time. It was a big plus in my mind that I could play with Clara and Zani at the same time, bizarre as the game was. My bottom line was for them to have a good time and me to be able to not work very hard.

However, the problem with being sloppy in any training situation is that one is changing criteria on the dog.

Changing criteria is unfair without using  clear cues for the different behaviors expected. That’s what cues are for. In this situation, with a different dog from Clara, my behavior might have been more of a problem. Clara is resilient and adaptable, especially when there is a ball involved. When I firmed up my criteria it took her less than a minute to switch from dropping the ball a few feet from me back into taking some care to drop it into the bucket. But it did take a little extinction burst. I try not to get in the habit of creating those!

So in the course of filming and writing about this, I have decided how to fix this situation in a way that hopefully will be more fair to Clara than the current mishmash, and still let Zani participate. I’ve realized Clara is very close to understanding the two different criteria for when Zani is there and when she isn’t.  I can do something to make it even more clear which criterion we are using. I’ll go back to sitting down when I play with her by herself. I think that change, plus Zani’s absence, would make for pretty clear situational cues that it she is in charge of getting the ball into the container.

Link to video for email subscribers.

Also, my friend Marge has challenged me to address self control for Clara around balls. So stay tuned. Finally, for extra credit: why is Zani hanging around me so close when she is part of the game?

And how about you? Have your dogs shaped your behavior? Have you noticed anything amusing that you have been reinforcing? Or noticed slippage into a different behavior as you relax criteria?

Thanks for viewing! Coming up:

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Copyright © Eileen Anderson 2015

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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 Ex-Pen Garden

The Ex-Pen Garden

How about something light and pleasant to get ready for the weekend!

One of my life goals has always been to have a big vegetable garden. And when I got my own place I did it.

These are low res photos because hey, it was 2001. Scroll over an individual photo for the caption. Click it to enlarge (a little). See the nifty little fence my friend designed and helped me build?

That was my garden in 2001. I expanded it in 2004.

My garden in 2004
My garden in 2004 with a cameo by Gabriel, my late rat terrier mix

But all that was before I had agile dogs. Summer and Zani could both happily jump the fence but I left it there and did garden some. Then this happened.

Link for email subscribers.

That’s 11-week old Clara climbing a fence made of chicken wire and PVC, inserting her little paws in the holes in the chicken wire. I pulled the fence down the next day, since it had gone from useless to dangerous.

As a formerly feral puppy, Clara had all sorts of unexpected skills which she demonstrated with confidence.

So now my garden looks like this. I.e., mostly fallow and overgrown except a couple of leftover herbs and perennials, and being used as a dog playground.

My non garden in 2013
My non garden in 2013

Kind of like a weedy desert out there….

But this year I realized something. Exercise pens can keep dogs out as well as keep them in. Voila: the Ex-Pen Garden.

Ex pen with dogs outside, plants inside!
Ex pen with dogs outside, plants inside!

Introducing the Ex-Pen Garden!
I can cover it easily when hardening off plants

Ex-Pen Garden showing baby pepper plants
There they are:  baby pepper plants

I’ve got five hot pepper plants in there now: a jalapeño, a poblano, a serrano, and two habaneros, and a basil plant. Plus I have another ex-pen. I can expand! It was REALLY nice to plant something!

Of course what has created a decent barrier for dogs (two of them really could jump it but so far are not motivated to try) has turned out to be a magnet for the neighborhood cats. More on that in a future post.

Release the hounds!
Release the hounds! (That was a 50 foot group stay, in case you thought there was no training in this post!)

Thanks for viewing! Coming up:

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But What if Your Dog Runs Out Into Traffic?

But What if Your Dog Runs Out Into Traffic?

A traffic light with three colored bulbs: red, yellow, and green. The red light is lit up.
Stop. It’s not safe to proceed.

Anyone who spends any time on FaceBook reading the arguments between trainers who train mainly with positive reinforcement and those who don’t has seen this question. Just lately I have seen three different versions of it:

  1. But what if your dog runs out into traffic? Are you going to save him by throwing cookies at him?
  2. But what if your dog runs out into traffic? You’re going to pull on the leash. That’s negative reinforcement and the same as using a shock collar.
  3. But what if your dog runs out into traffic? If you grab him that could cause stress, and I thought you’re supposed to be 100% stress free?

Continue reading “But What if Your Dog Runs Out Into Traffic?”

7 Great Benefits of Flirt Pole Play for You and Your Dog

7 Great Benefits of Flirt Pole Play for You and Your Dog

Two Dogs’ Experiences with the Flirt Pole

If you have been following the blog, you may have seen that young Clara is an absolute maniac for the flirt pole. It is right up there with playing ball in her list of favorite things.

a tan dog is stretched out at her whole length, chasing a toy on a rope attached to the end of a pole
Clara stretching out to get the toy

I waited quite a while before introducing Clara to the flirt pole because teaching “release the toy” was a real struggle with her when we played tug and ball. I had visions of her getting overly excited and breaking the flirt pole by pulling on the toy endlessly.

Continue reading “7 Great Benefits of Flirt Pole Play for You and Your Dog”
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