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Tag: clicker training

Stimulus Control, Or Why Are There Seven Shoes on the Table?

Stimulus Control, Or Why Are There Seven Shoes on the Table?

retrieving items over and over indicates lack of stimulus control
What happens when you don’t have retrieve on stimulus control?

This is an update of a post published on December 16, 2013.

I’ve mentioned before that I’m not very good at stimulus control. I’ve included in this post a great video from when Clara was younger that demonstrates that embarrassingly well.

Stimulus control in training is all about response to cues, and goes like this. Given a behavior:

Continue reading “Stimulus Control, Or Why Are There Seven Shoes on the Table?”
Dog Training Basics: Getting the Behavior

Dog Training Basics: Getting the Behavior

Tan puppy with black muzzle is lying on a navy blue bath mat and looks serious

I think one of the hardest steps for people who cross over to positive reinforcement-based training is learning how to get a dog to start performing a behavior.

If we have experience with mild force-based methods, such as verbally telling the dog to sit, then pushing his butt down, or even if we have done lots of luring, it’s hard to imagine how to explain to a dog what we want them to do without taking one of those actions. It’s even harder to believe that he will do it repeatedly without a lot of chatter on our parts.

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Stimulus Control, Or Lack Thereof

Stimulus Control, Or Lack Thereof

 

retrieving items over and over indicates lack of stimulus control
What happens when you don’t have retrieve on stimulus control?

This post was updated and republished on January 31, 2019.

I’ve mentioned before that I’m not very good at stimulus control. I’ve included in this post a great video from when Clara was younger that demonstrates that really, really well.

Stimulus control in training is all about response to cues, and goes like this:

  1. The behavior occurs immediately when the cue is given.
  2. The behavior never occurs in the absence of the cue.
  3. The behavior never occurs in response to some other cue.
  4. No other behavior occurs in response to this cue.

Pride, the Rhodesian Ridgeback, sitting pretty
Pride, the Rhodesian Ridgeback, sitting pretty on cue

This means, for example, if I have trained the behavior, “Sit pretty,”:

  1. When I say, “Sit pretty,” the dog immediately sits up with his front feet in the air.
  2. He doesn’t ever do that unless I cue it.
  3. He doesn’t do it if I cue something else like down or stand.
  4. He doesn’t down or stand when I say, “Sit pretty.”

Most everybody’s first question is about #2. If this were a natural dog behavior like lying down, he would still do it at other times, right? Sure. And although I’ve seen some discussions about that, I don’t know in what situations it would be a “violation” of stimulus control for the dog to lie down without a cue from a human. The common answer is to append “in a training session” to the above rules. But how do we expect a dog to draw a line between “training session” and “not a training session”? And aren’t we training for real life? Do we say that behaviors like sit and down are never on true stimulus control? Probably.

You may choose not to reinforce downs that you don’t cue, but they are reinforcing to a dog who wants to rest and relax. We can’t help that.

For most trainers, there is a period where we are teaching cue recognition and stimulus control where we do not reinforce uncued behaviors. After that is taught, though, we may change the rules a bit in real life.

There are behaviors for which one needs strict stimulus control. I have a friend with a service dog. “Gigi” has a special setup so she can do the equivalent of calling 911 if my friend falls down. Falling is actually the cue. My friend needs absolute stimulus control on this behavior because it is completely not cool if Gigi “offers” hitting the call box at any other time.

My dogs are not like Gigi. Or more to the point, I am not as skilled a trainer as my friend.

Lack of Stimulus Control

Three dogs bored
Even a gate doesn’t stop them from offering eye contact

If you put aside Rule #2 and reinforce your dogs for uncued behaviors, you get dogs who offer behaviors frequently.

One of the stereotypes of clicker trained dogs is that they offer behaviors all the time.  Dogs trained with positive reinforcement tend to do stuff. And they’ll go wild with offering stuff if their people reinforce it. But it doesn’t have to be that way all the time. You can have a dog who is a virtuoso shaper and completely unafraid to offer behaviors, but who has also learned when that pays off and when it doesn’t.

We can set up some environmental cues and change our own behavior to let a dog know when we don’t want a bunch of offered behavior.

I do have those crazy behavior-offering dogs. If my dogs come running up to me in the yard for no reason to check in—I like that! They’ll usually get something from me. If I walk through a room and someone is lying nicely on a mat, they’ll get a treat.

I also reinforce offered eye contact. It usually comes along for the ride with other behaviors. Reinforcing this in real life means I have dogs who sit and stare at me.

I am OK with the results of this, but some people wouldn’t be. If you are regularly going to reinforce uncued behaviors, then you’d best be willing to do so even when it’s inconvenient. Because it’s just not fair to change the rules on your dog without warning.  If you do that, you can put behaviors into extinction. This is unpleasant for the dog and doesn’t serve our overall training goals well.

My dogs are good at chilling since one of the offered behaviors I reinforce is lying down with relaxed muscles. This is nicely incompatible with trying a bunch of stuff to get my attention. I don’t mind tossing a treat around every 10 minutes while I’m working at the computer. But if we are really out of sync and they are tuning up to bug me to death, I just use management. I get behind a gate.

One of these days I may set up a cue for “The Bar is Closed.” There are a couple of situations in which I never reinforce my dogs and they have learned that perfectly.

In the following movie, the bar was definitely open. I was reinforcing Clara’s offered retrieves, and you can see the amusing outcome.

Link to the movie for email subscribers.

About the Behavior in the Movie

Clara brought me this rusty nail

I’ve reinforced Clara for “trading” since she was tiny. But she started it. She always had a tendency to bring me things. I liked that, so I reinforced it. Still do. It means when she has something dangerous, I can immediately get it from her with no stress. This is a good thing since everything goes in her mouth.  She was an outrageous chewer when younger, so I managed very tightly about this then.

When Cricket was alive, Clara was limited to only half the house most of the time. Clara was just under 2 years old when Cricket died in May 2013, and it seemed appropriate to open things up a bit after that. It went very well. About the worst thing that happened was that Clara snitched napkins off the table to chew up. I was careful where I put food, so she didn’t develop a counter-surfing habit. She did have certain items of my clothing—a hat in particular—that she kept a constant eye out for. But almost everything she picked up other than napkins she brought straight to me. She still does this, “busting” herself for picking up contraband.

There are good reasons to do the opposite, by the way. Some people teach a default “Leave It.” What if there is someone in your household who is prone to dropping pills or leaving sharp tools around? Then reinforcing a dog for picking random things up in her mouth and bringing them to you is not a good idea. But it has been a good choice for us, I think. You can see the rusty nail Clara brought me above. If she hadn’t, she would have been chewing on it in the yard.

By the way, the movie shows pretty impressive distance behavior. Clara was bringing items to me clear from the back of the house!

Does your dog have any behaviors on good stimulus control? Or any behaviors with an embarrassing lack of stimulus control, as mine do?

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Copyright 2014 Eileen Anderson
Updated 2018

Teaching A Dog to Back Up

Teaching A Dog to Back Up

Would you like to see how to teach a dog to back up without walking into them? Today I’m featuring a video I made about that in 2011 that is quite popular on YouTube, but that I have never shown here.

A brown and white rat terrier is looking eagerly up at her human
Rat terrier Kaci says, “Train me!”

The video features the “channel” technique to teach backing up. You build a little channel out of furniture or household items, get your dog to go to the front of it by throwing a treat up there, then capture (click/treat) their backing up when they back out. This is only a good technique if your dog doesn’t mind small spaces. (Wait until you see my little demo dog! Kaci the rat terrier is fearless and very “in the game.”)

Continue reading “Teaching A Dog to Back Up”
Superstitious Behaviors in Dog Training

Superstitious Behaviors in Dog Training

Definition of a Superstitious Behavior: Accidentally or unintentionally reinforced behavior where a behavior is reinforced but the reinforcement occurred by random chance instead of in accordance with a specific contingency.   —From the Association of Animal Behavior Professionals glossary

My little black cat Arabella never brought me bad luck

I wrote when I started this blog that I was going to share my mistakes in the hopes of helping others learn. Here are some nice big embarrassing ones regarding superstitious behaviors, but at least they date mostly from my earlier training days. Hopefully you, or any beginning trainer, can benefit from the lessons I learned the hard way.

The Terminology

B.F. Skinner first described superstitious behaviors in experiments with pigeons in 1948. He set a feeding mechanism to trip at variable intervals that had nothing to do with the actions of the pigeons. The pigeons nonetheless started repeating behaviors that had been “accidentally” marked and reinforced by the feeder.

The term “superstitious behavior” now refers to any behavior that is accidentally reinforced. A couple of the behaviors in this post stretch the definition. But even if they aren’t technically superstitious, they are nonetheless accidental or at least poorly trained on my part.

Summer’s Nod

When one of my agility buddies encouraged me in 2008 to start using a clicker, I didn’t know that I should practice timing. I didn’t know that there were mechanical and observational skills involved. A clicker seemed like a fun thing and I had heard that dogs got motivated and enjoyed it. So I also didn’t know that it would be wise to start with a behavior that involved only gross motor movements.

Uh oh.

The very first behavior I actually got with a clicker was a head nod, even though I was trying to click for eye contact. I realized this after working on this a few weeks with Summer. Summer would move her head to look at me and I would click. I clicked the eye contact but apparently also clicked the nod.  Strangely, the nod drifted to the period after the click and before treat delivery. The sequence went: eye contact, click, head nod, treat. The nod, immediately preceding the food, accordingly got a ton of reinforcement. Even though she did learn (despite me) that I was trying to teach eye contact, the head nod remained.

Four years later, I still get little nods from Summer. Interestingly, she doesn’t offer it in shaping sessions. When it comes back, it returns in its old place between the marker and the treat when I have just clicked her for something else. This is an example of a superstitious behavior.  And it turns out that I am really good at creating those!

It has faded some over the years, but I found a couple of examples. Want to see?

Zani’s Weave Poles

The following is a behavior that would have been very difficult to teach, had I intended to do so.

In the course of teaching Zani agility weaves using the two by two method, I would tend to mark with a “yes” the moment she made the turn between the last poles. This was the moment I was absolutely sure she was going to complete the behavior correctly. That’s a natural time to mark. But early on in our training, she did a few little jumps through the last pair of poles. I marked, and you can see what happened.

But what is most fascinating is that she does it only when I am on her right side. When I am on her left, she doesn’t do her “jump thing” between the last poles. I speculate that since she is very spatially sensitive, she is less likely to hurl herself out of the weaves when I am close to where she will emerge. Or perhaps I just didn’t mark the exit as much when we practiced on that side.

Clara’s Circles

Those first two behaviors are pretty cute. This behavior of Clara’s that I accidentally reinforced is rather unfortunate.

Clara has always been pushy. When she was about three months old I started a training project of reinforcing her for walking a few feet away when I was interacting with another dog. I started off with the other dogs in crates and was very systematic about it. I drew lines on the floor for my own benefit so as to keep consistent criteria about Clara’s distance from the other dogs. We did lots and lots of sessions where she would walk away a few steps and reorient at some distance.

It would have been better if I had taught a default down or Go to Mat, or at least thrown the treat away from our immediate area. I ended up unintentionally reinforcing a circling behavior. She would walk a few steps away, turn and reorient at the desired distance. I marked the turn way too often, when what I wanted for her was just to back off. But the “backing off” was not a well-defined behavior, even with my lines on the floor. So I ended up clicking an observable behavior, and that was when she turned back to me. Dang.

What is so unfortunate about this is that the circling either morphed into a stress behavior or it was one already. Because I have seen a lot more of it ever since those sessions. Clara tends to do it when I don’t mark a behavior that she expects to be marked. She will immediately whirl around, usually counterclockwise, then often retreat to a mat.

It is impossible to tease apart how much of this is due to all that early reinforcement, and how much of it is a natural stress behavior for her. I do wish I hadn’t trained so many 180 and 270 degree turns when she was young. When I set out to teach her spinning as a trick, it was dead easy, but I gave that a second thought and decided not to use that trick.

Cricket, Too

I even taught superstitious behaviors with Cricket. I tried to train a paw lift as a “wave” trick, but then it started occurring in her “sit” position as a superstitious behavior. Once it started, I kept accidentally reinforcing it. She almost never put her left foot down when she sat for me again. I didn’t know enough at the time to fix the problem I had created.

The way I first taught the behavior was not great either. A friend had suggested holding a treat in my hand and clicking Cricket for pawing at it, then fading the hand and treat. Such a bad idea in so many ways. Reinforcing an enthusiastic digging terrier for pawing at my hand? Ouch.

How To Avoid Training Superstitious Behaviors

I wish I could give some succinct, pithy advice that could keep other newish trainers from doing this. When choosing what behaviors to teach and how to teach them,  it takes experience to learn to predict the ramifications.

Here are the best suggestions I have.

  • Answer a few questions. Is there a persistent extra behavior that is happening when I train this behavior? What’s going to happen if that extra behavior sticks around? How can I get rid of it? If I’m training a trick—might this extra behavior or the trick itself turn up where I don’t want it? Might it interfere with behaviors that are actually more important to train?
  • Video yourself. If you don’t have a teacher, you can learn a lot by recording your training sessions, and if you are brave, showing those recordings to online friends if you don’t have a teacher or local training buddy. People can give much better counsel if they actually see what you and the animal have been doing. Most of us humans could use a lot of work on our observation and description skills. Cameras do a lot better job for a lot of us.
  • Get expert advice. I didn’t have a teacher to ask when I taught most of the behaviors I’ve described here. A professional would have seen most of my mishaps in an instant and showed me how to head them off.

A Success!

One thing that I got right: I started training that “backing up the stairs or wall” trick that was going around a while back. Zani just loved it and started getting good at it. It was great for hind end awareness.

But then one day when we were practicing our two on, two off agility contacts, she overran them and happily backed up into position. That would be a fault in many agility venues. I immediately stopped training the trick. A more experienced or patient trainer could certainly have both behaviors, but sometimes I realize my limitations. The risk wasn’t worth it to me.

Here is one more superstitious behavior Clara and I collaborated on. This is an example of something that is cute when a puppy does it, but can get pretty tiresome in a grown dog. Of course it’s still cute, but who wants their fingers licked Every. Single. Time. They go to open a crate door?

OK folks, please tell me I’m not the only one who trains silly behaviors by accident. Does anybody want to say what they have done? Or are you all perfect?

(Here’s a link to a one minute video that shows all five behaviors, to make my humiliation complete.)

Many thanks to Joyce Loebig for suggestions that improved this post!

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Copyright 2012 Eileen Anderson

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