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

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

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

Turns out my dogs do know sit.

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

Continue reading “My Dogs Do Know Sit! A Hint for Training the Sit Stay”
My Dogs Don’t Know Sit!

My Dogs Don’t Know Sit!

What if your dog’s cue for a behavior is not what you think it is? Can you be sure—absolutely sure—that the dog really understands what you want?

That’s another place where punishment-based training can really go awry. How often are dogs punished for failing to perform when they just don’t understand? I think it’s much more often than most people realize.

My dogs are pretty good at sitting. But their cue for sit and stay is not what I intended it to be. Luckily I figured that out. I know exactly where the problem came from and how to fix it, should I decide to. And perhaps by sharing, I’ll help some others who might be in the same boat.

Zani-sitting-on-crate-widest

The Three D’s

Dog trainers often talk about the “three D’s” in training: duration, distance, and distraction. Each of these represents a set of challenges for the dog.

When working up a stationary behavior such as a sit/stay (or even a moving behavior such as walking on leash, but let’s limit the discussion to stationary behaviors for now), you need to gradually work up the length of time the dog can do it. That’s what we call duration.

But even if your dog can hold a sit/stay for 60 seconds while you are standing right there that doesn’t automatically mean she can do it if you park yourself 10 feet away. That’s distance. Distance needs to be specifically and gradually taught. It’s a challenge for several reasons. Principal among them is that for most dogs’ early training, the reinforcement usually happens right there on their person or close by. They will tend to follow you when you move away.

And even if your dog can hold her stay while you quietly stand 10 feet away from her there is another challenge. Distraction. Can she stay if you drop your treat bag? If another dog in the family trots by? If you go sit in a chair (surprisingly hard, since dogs often associate that with the session being over)? If the doorbell rings? If her best friend comes in the room? If you toss her favorite toy in her direction? You get the picture.

Most trainers train the three D’s in roughly the order above. Get a little duration first before introducing the other challenges. Then train distance, then distraction. (Distance is just a particular kind of distraction, anyway.) But what happens if you jump straight to the other challenges early on? You’ll see in the movie.

My Achilles Heel: Duration!

When teaching the very beginnings of duration, one usually silently counts seconds. There are different protocols for going about this, but the idea is to gradually lengthen the amount of time the dog stays in position without being released. With behaviors like holding a dumbbell, you usually have to start with increments of 10ths of a second to get that first bit of duration. With sits and downs, the dog can generally already perform the behavior for a second, maybe two, so you start there and work up.

I get terribly bored just standing there teaching duration, so my most common error as a trainer is starting to move around too soon. What has happened as a result is that my moving away has become part of the cue for “stay.” Oh-oh. If I don’t move, they don’t believe me. You can see that in the video.

Here’s how long each dog lasts on her sit/stay when I just stand in front of her.

  • Clara: 4 seconds until she breaks position to nudge my hand, and 4 more until she stands up.
  • Summer: 1 second until she goes into a down.
  • Zani: 1 second until she goes up into “sit pretty,” another 2 seconds until she goes into a down.

That’s pretty embarrassing. But also note in the video that when I move away immediately after giving the cue, they can hold their sits successfully through duration, distance, and distractions.  They can all last several minutes when I do that, with distractions including tug toys dropped in their vicinity, my walking around or actually leaving the room, and all manner of food placed out to tempt them. Again, their cue to stay is my movement much more than my verbal cue.

Edit, 2/9/16: In the movie, I dubbed in the word “Fail” when each dog broke her stay, to mark how fast that happened. A viewer’s comment caused me to realize it sounds like I’m using a No Reward Marker. I wasn’t. It’s only in the voiceover, not from the training session. And in case it’s not clear: the failure is never theirs. It’s mine.

Link to the movie for email subscribers.

What Did They Do Instead of Staying in a Sit?

Each dog switched to a behavior that had been recently and heavily reinforced. Summer went into a down on the rug. She had a tactile cue (soft surface under the butt) to perform her mat behavior.  Zani tried “sit pretty,” which we have been working on in that very place, before Cue giving pawtrying a down as well. Clara tried a stand, which we have also been working on in that area of the house.

It’s a beautiful example of the dogs’ reinforcement history taking over when they are unsure.  I didn’t give what to them has become the “real” cue for a sit/stay: for me to move away and start doing random things and providing distractions. So each dog gave up but each tried something different: what has most recently been reinforced in that context.

This kind of thing happens all the time. Frequently we don’t actually know what the cue is for the dog. And in the absence of that special cue, they revert to guessing and expressing their reinforcement history.  It is often a reason people think their dogs are “giving them the paw.” That’s very sad, since what the dog is doing is trying to get it right in the face of unclear instruction.

Contributing Factors

There were several other reasons for their failure to sit and stay. As I mentioned, reinforcement history contributes. A lack of confidence in verbal cues in general (because I don’t always work hard enough on cue recognition and stimulus control with them) is another. The fact that I generally encourage them to offer behaviors is yet another; they have nothing to lose from guessing. And finally, though I hate to mention this, I don’t use a “stay” cue. I’m not a good example of that practice, which can work perfectly well when one is clear about the cue to begin with! But adding in a “stay” could probably make up for some of my other frailties as a trainer.

Can They Really Not Do It?

Of course they can hold a sit/stay with me standing right there. I’ve mentioned before that I do a lot of my training following Sue Ailsby’s Training Levels. One of the early steps of sit/stay (Level 2 Sit) is to work up to 60 seconds when you are standing in front of the dog. All of my dogs have performed that stay many times, starting early on in our training relationship. But in the course of life, I don’t use that behavior much. I don’t ask my dogs to sit for long periods, especially with me standing right there. I use down much more often, so the sit/stay breaks down.

Summer Zani sit stay

But it takes only a few minutes to get that sit/stay duration back if I want it. Even in the course of filming the above “failures,” the dogs started working up their duration again. I could have a minute long sit/stay from every one of them after a couple of training sessions. But honestly, I’ll probably let it lapse again.

In case you would like to see a lovely “real life” sit/stay, here is Zani doing a short agility run (in which we won first place, I might add). Being parked in front of a jump standard is another clear cue for her to hold a sit/stay.

The Map of Reinforcement

I’ve mentioned my concept of the “map of reinforcement,” something I started to see once I learned and really internalized that behavior was driven by consequences. I wrote about this at length in my post, “What Dog Training Really Taught Me.” What the dogs tried instead of sitting and staying showed a map of what had been reinforced. And here’s something related: my dogs’ behavior is also map of my behavior. Yep. Whenever all three of my dogs have the same “failure,” it’s a pretty sure bet that it is something that I am consistently doing. An experienced trainer could look at the movie and know exactly what I did when training to cause my dogs to break their stays as they did. I know what I did, too. The fact that I don’t always fix stuff like that is perhaps why I’m a writer and not a dog trainer!

Care to share situations where you found out that the cue for the dog was not the cue you thought you were giving? And has anybody else done this particular silliness with duration behaviors?

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Copyright 2015 Eileen Anderson

Halfway Through Madeline’s 1,000 Treat Challenge: Clara is Relaxing!

Halfway Through Madeline’s 1,000 Treat Challenge: Clara is Relaxing!

Wait ’til you see this! Clara and I are halfway through our 1000 treats for Madeline Clark Gabriel’s  1,000 Treat Challenge and I couldn’t be more pleased with our progress.

The behavior I chose for Clara’s 1000 treats and structured training is Relax from Sue Ailsby’s Training Levels, Level 2.  As of this writing, we have had 14 sessions over 22 days, and used up 450 treats.

Clara is pretty relaxed!
Clara is pretty relaxed!

Sorry for the drab colors in the photos; I’ll do better for our grand finale when we hit 1000 treats.

If you haven’t seen the previous posts, here is the first one where I started the project, and here is my update after one week in. Or at the very least you might want to watch my “before” video.

To review my goals:

  • Clara can lie down on a mat and immediately be still without trying a bunch of behaviors first.
  • She will be moderately relaxed (not expecting a puddle of floppy dog yet). But no more quivering on the knife edge of expectancy. Things to look for: relaxation of facial muscles, especially in forehead. Slower respiration. Quiet tail. A shifted hip, if it is maintained that way and not just quickly offered.
  • Clara can maintain this moderately relaxed state on her mat for one minute.
  • Optional but hopefully: she can do this without staring at me.

We missed several days in the last couple of weeks, first because Clara had an acute GI problem (she’s fine now), then because I wasn’t feeling well and was too grumpy for these long sessions. But I am extremely pleased with our progress.

In the video this time I show a series of stills extracted from the video about a minute apart, and you can actually see Clara melting down into relaxation in time lapse. I am frankly amazed! Even while the session was going on I didn’t know we were doing that well! She settles down within 10 seconds of our beginning the session (no more throwing behaviors), and she is also cooling it with the eye contact. She is still looking at me, but is much more relaxed about it as far as I can tell (I’m making a point to not return eye contact).

Sometime in the last handful of sessions, Clara has started to get it about relaxing.

By the way, I don’t show it in the video, but Summer, in the crate, is getting some treats too. Having here right there may make it a little harder for Clara, but when we’re going through these periods where she is getting the lion’s share of my attention, I just have to do something for my other dogs.

I’m not going to film again until we get to 1000 treats. Since we have achieved my initial goals I am adding three more:

  • I would like the momentary excitement when she gets a treat to lessen.
  • I would like to see her brow unfurrow. That’s the last visible tightness in her body.
  • And while we’re at it, I would love it if she would close her eyes. I think it’s within our reach.

A little love fest after the session
A little love fest after the session

Here are some other folks who are writing about or filming the challenge:

If anybody else is blogging/filming, leave a comment and I’ll link to you here.

Coming up soon:

Eileenanddogs on Youtube: https://www.youtube.com/eileenanddogs

Madeline’s 1,000 Treat Challenge: Starting Week 2

Madeline’s 1,000 Treat Challenge: Starting Week 2

Clara on mat after one week of relaxation training
Clara on mat after one week of relaxation training

We are now starting Week 2 of Madeline Clark Gabriel’s  1,000 Treat Challenge.

If you are late to the party, be sure and read my original post, or at least watch my “before” video.

The behavior I chose for Clara is Relax from Sue Ailsby’s Training Levels, Level 2.  As of this writing, we have had 10 sessions over 7 days, and used up 285 treats. We’re making great progress.

To review my goals from last time:

  • Clara can lie down on a mat and immediately be still without trying a bunch of behaviors first.
  • She will be moderately relaxed (not expecting a puddle of floppy dog yet). But no more quivering on the knife edge of expectancy. Things to look for: relaxation of facial muscles, especially in forehead. Slower respiration. Quiet tail. A shifted hip, if it is maintained that way and not just quickly offered.
  • Clara can maintain this moderately relaxed state on her mat for one minute.
  • Optional but hopefully: she can do this without staring at me.

Here, one week in, we have all but the first. Our biggest hurdle is the very beginning when she first gets on the mat. Reinforced habits of attention die hard! But I think her progress is great.

To answer a reader’s question: I should have mentioned this the first time. What am I doing while this is going on? I have my head slightly averted and am looking off into the distance. I’m breathing evenly, have slightly droopy eyes, and I try to make slow, relaxed movements when I do move. I am not looking back at her. It looked like it in the first video since she stared at my face the whole time but honest, I have not looked into her eyes even once!

Speaking of staring at the face, here is a really nice resource for teaching relaxation on a mat that starts off with a way to get the dog to look down instead of looking at you. The beginning part didn’t work for me since Clara turned into the Wild Gobbler (I just couldn’t get those treats down slowly and calmly enough and it triggered the whole throwing behaviors thing again), but the rest of it is similar to what we are doing.  It is a really nice protocol. Nan Arthur of Whole Dog Training’s Relax on a Mat.

Interesting results of our training are leaking into real life. Now when Clara notices me watching her, she slows her tail, which is cute. As I show in the movie, she can now take a relaxed position in her crate, even when another dog is doing some active training right next to her. Also, she is definitely less aroused immediately after a session. I was going to film how quickly she goes from zero to 60 after being released, but today for the first time she didn’t do it! She just stood up, mugged my face a couple of times (losing that behavior would be too much to ask at this point), then solicited some petting. Yeah!

We still have a long way to go. I know Clara is not relaxed. She is lying quietly on her side. But what a start! And now I think we’re approaching the part where she gets bored to death, and I can watch for little relaxations. I’m already able to watch her more, now that she isn’t staring at me all the time. My job this week will be to start noticing all the little things. What are her tells? Since she’s got a short coat and bare belly it’s easy to watch her breathing. I’ve gotten a few sighs, and some slowdowns of her breath. I have noticed small relaxations in her back haunches. Sometimes her tail, instead of stopping stiffly, relaxes a bit. Maybe you good observers out there can give me some hints.

Here are some other folks who are writing about or filming the challenge:

If anybody else is blogging/filming (this means you, Liz; we want to see a little sight hound!) , leave a comment and I’ll link to you here.

Coming up soon:

Eileenanddogs on Youtube: https://www.youtube.com/eileenanddogs

Madeline’s 1,000 Treat Challenge

Madeline’s 1,000 Treat Challenge

Madeline Clark Gabriel of Dogs and Babies has a brilliant idea. She proposes to set aside 1,000 treats and train one behavior with planning and intent. I love this because I tend to be a little unfocused in training and pass out treats for good behaviors, cute behaviors, behaviors I vaguely like, etc. Madeline points out that a great thing about this Challenge is that it will be helpful to people (like me) who are profligate with their treats, and also to folks who are dubious about the whole food thing and tend to be stingy. What if every trainer took 1,000 treats, really concentrated, and spent them wisely on one behavior? I think the results would be wonderful!

Before anybody panics, 1,000 treats is not really a lot. (And nobody is making you do this challenge. I’m a nerd and I think it sounds fun, so I’m doing it!)  If you treat your dog for 50 reps of something every day (which you could do in three minutes if you chose the right behavior), you’ll get to 1,000 before two weeks are up. Depending on the size of your dog and the size of the treats, it might even be less than the amount of food they eat in one day.

Here are the steps, directly quoted from Madeline:

  1. Choose a behavior or skill you want your dog to perform better/differently
  2. Set aside 1,000 treats
  3. Over the course of two weeks, spend your 1,000 treats to practice and reinforce progress

Be sure and look at her picture of the bag of 1,000 treats. It is not as many as you think.

My Choice

Three things synchronized for me and I knew immediately how I would use my 1,000 treats. Clara is going to learn to relax.

OK, quit laughing. Maybe not completely. Relax, um, better-than-she-does-now.

Clara (8 months old) is not relaxed
Clara (8 months old in this photo) is not relaxed

As it happens, that behavior is coming right up in the Training Levels, Level 2. As it also happens, I had a lesson with my teacher just last weekend where she showed me how she would teach it to Clara. So it was the perfect storm. It was needed, I already got some instruction, and now I have some additional motivation.

This video shows what I would like to be able to do eventually, although I think it’s a little beyond this batch of treats. Watch how Reyna the young German Shepherd can go from tugging to collapsing into a puddle of dog on the floor on cue. Wow.

Goals

My goals at the end of the 1,000 treats are:

  • Clara can lie down on a mat and immediately be still without trying a bunch of behaviors first.
  • She will be moderately relaxed (not expecting a puddle of floppy dog yet). But no more quivering on the knife edge of expectancy. Things to look for: relaxation of facial muscles, especially in forehead. Slower respiration. Quiet tail. A shifted hip, if it is maintained that way and not just quickly offered.
  • Clara can maintain this moderately relaxed state on her mat for one minute.
  • Optional but hopefully: she can do this without staring at me.

These are modest. Notice I am not going for total relaxation. I don’t know if we can get there in this amount of time. Also, she can already lie on her mat for a minute, or 10 minutes, so it’s not about mat duration. But I want the quiet part to be much more automatic than it is now, and for her to begin to understand that that’s what we are going for, not just a stay. And I want to be able to sit right in front of her and not have her turn into a whirling dervish of offering behaviors.

Clara used to know how to relax!
Clara used to know how to relax!

Method

My teacher did a session with us over the weekend. Because I have tried halfheartedly to teach this previously and reinforced different relaxed positions, I ended up with a dog who flops around throwing her head down, spinning  around, lying on her back waving her legs in the air, etc. Really. It’s on the video. So my teacher, after working with Clara, suggested the following guidelines for us:

  • mark and reinforce her for stillness; the relaxation will follow
  • do not mark immediately after she moves, even if it is to a more “relaxed” position (because of what I have done before)
  • don’t worry if she is offering lots of eye contact for now
  • OK to mark as her tail slows

I would urge folks, though, to read Sue’s section on relaxation, because my plan is tailor made for my dog, and designed with the booboos I have already made in mind. Sue talks about capturing the moment when the “puppet string breaks” and the dog sinks just a little bit more into relaxation. Hopefully I’ll be able to do that after I have let Clara know that flopping into different “relaxed looking positions” is not what I want.

“Before”

Here is our “before” video, which shows the beginning and end of her third relaxation session, and includes some puppy footage including an excellent start when she was a baby, then one of my ill fated attempts from about six months ago.

I am pleased that at the end of the recent session, while not relaxed, her body is quiet. She is in a “sphinx down” with her head erect and she is staring at me, but she is still and I think her facial muscles are more relaxed than at the beginning. (This is actually what is featured above in the video preview.) And I got her tail to stop wagging! This is huge!

During parts of the session she lay on her side, but since I deliberately didn’t reinforce right away she didn’t stick with it and so returned to the sphinx down.

I hope to have a very different video to show in two weeks or so. I am not sure whether I will finish the 1,000 treats in two weeks, since with a duration behavior my rate of reinforcement will be dropping as I go along. But I’ll try to show what things look like after two weeks, and also at the end of the 1,000 treats if they don’t coincide.

Who else is in? Be sure and look at Madeline’s suggestions for behaviors.  My choice of a behavior is slightly oddball, but what else is new for me?

Thanks for reading, and I hope some of the rest of you give this a try. I think it will be highly rewarding, both for the dogs and the humans!

Coming up soon:

Eileenanddogs on Youtube: https://www.youtube.com/eileenanddogs

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