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Tag: eye contact

Training Levels: Making it My Own

Training Levels: Making it My Own

One of the very cool things about Sue Ailsby’s Training Levels is that they are extremely structured but also completely individualizable.

The Levels provide a method of learning to communicate with your dog and teach her concepts, in the guise of being a handbook of training behaviors. But within this step-by-step method are a multitude of opportunities for the human to think through the benefits of a particular behavior for her own situation and environment.

A lot of these opportunities are in the final steps of the behavior and the “Comeafters.” Because I was involved in the production of the books, I recall that one of Sue’s or Lynn’s ideas for what to call the Comeafters was “Making it Your Own.” That has stuck with me.

I’ve learned to pay close attention to those opportunities, rather than breezing through and checking them off since I am already using some (possibly half-assed) application of them. In this post I am sharing two examples of planned, trained, individualized Levels behaviors that I’m pretty proud of.

Tan dog with black muzzle lying down in the grass looking expectant
Clara during her funny ear period already knew to lie down to get me to throw the ball

Level 2 Down Step 5: Default Down

A default behavior is one that the animal does automatically in some situation, but the term is really an arbitrary distinction. Default behaviors are cued just like every other behavior we train dogs to do. It’s just that the cues don’t come from our self-centered little mouths. They come from the environment, or sometimes from an action we take part in. I figure it’s all the same to the dog, or actually, the environmental ones are probably easier than trying to figure out the nuances of human speech and hand signals.

For example, although we work on this a lot, I could probably think of half a dozen situations where Zani would respond incorrectly to a verbal cue for a Sit. Verbal cues are really hard for her. But if I plunk her in front of an agility jump, she is not going to misunderstand and down or stand instead. The agility jump is a very clear cue.

Back to the down. Sue suggests a default down in the presence of kids and older people, when the human is talking on the phone, etc. Well, my feral dog Clara will probably not be in the proximity of children enough times in her whole life to train a default down, so that one is out. But since she is a bouncy jouncy easily aroused dog at home, down is a wonderful thing, and the more cues for it, the better.

I wrote a whole post on one of Clara’s cues for down: Get Out of My Face: Teaching an Incompatible Behavior.  In the post and video I describe and show how I trained Clara to lie down whenever I bend over or squat, instead of mugging my face. Worked a charm. And you can see another one in this post/video: Play with Your Dog: For Research. Clara knows to lie down to start our game with the flirt pole. She does the same with tug.

But Clara has yet another default down now. The way my house is laid out, I have two steps down into my den from the kitchen. Clara is in the den almost all the time. I have a gate across the top of the stairs. That means that those two stairs are favorite lounging and hangout areas for all the dogs.

Clara, being the high energy dog that she is (that’s putting it nicely) naturally leaps up and crowds up onto the stairs in front of the gate whenever I try to descend into the den. This is yet another situation in which I just need her to back off a bit. So I trained her to lie down on the den floor when I enter. One of the criteria is that it has to be on the concrete floor; not on the steps. That’s an easy distinction since the steps are elevated and carpeted. So we have a special verbal cue for this: “Concrete!” But I expanded this to a default behavior also. I wanted her to down whenever I came into the den. (If you are starting to think I have some sort of queen complex, you just don’t know this dog.) So the cue for that is my hand on the gate handle. Sweet!

Funny thing is, I haven’t thought up a practical default down for either of my other two dogs in training. They are much less, uh, demanding than Clara. But something will come to my attention sooner or later, I’m sure, since Sue has invited me to think about it.

Level 2 Focus Step 5: Use focus as proof that the dog is In The Game (think of a place you could use eye contact in your life)

OK, it’s Summer’s turn. This Step could have been an easy pass for Summer. I’ve been reinforcing extended eye contact for years with this dog. (In this video from four years ago she does flawless 30 seconds, then 40 seconds of eye contact. It’s right at the beginning.) There are a number of situations in which I already ask for it: going out any door being prime among them. She looks at me before I open the door, and reorients and looks at me again after we go through. She generally holds eye contact when I cue Zen. She stares at me for extended periods whenever she wants something, as well. I could have just marked that Step off.

But I try not to treat the Levels as something to race through, even though I like checking off boxes as much as the next person. So I held off and thought about it. Then the other day I noticed something. I taught Summer a puppy fetch a couple of years ago. Summer had zero retrieve instinct and I shaped it with patient coaching from Marge Rogers of Rewarded Behavior Continues. This is not a formal retrieve of any sort and certainly not a Levels retrieve. We don’t have a hold or any finesse with the delivery. It’s just a trick. But it’s relevant here.

This trick was the first thing I trained Summer while having a plate of food on the floor. I got into the habit of doing the plate thing for that behavior and not many others. And lo and behold, the other day I realized that not only was the plate of food part of the cue for the behavior, but she was drifting towards retrieving to the plate instead of me! How helpful of her to position herself closer to the food, to save me all that reaching around!

I experimented with moving the plate around, or eliminating it altogether, and found that she looked for it when she came back with the toy. So I quit using the plate for a while and got us back on track. But Summer is a great “food starer” and even after she delivered the toy, she would continue looking at my pocket or wherever the food was.

(By the way, for some dogs, the Manners Minder, a remote control treat dispenser, would be a great way to approach the food staring. Unfortunately, Summer is afraid of the grinding noise the MM makes when it jams, and since I can’t get it to jam on cue, I can’t desensitize her to it.)

That’s when I got the bright idea. This is one of Summer’s favorite behaviors. Sue says “Use Watch to tell your dog you’re about to do something, so pay attention now!” My throwing the toy definitely qualifies as “doing something,” and it’s something she really likes. So how about if I wait for or ask for eye contact before throwing the toy? Each time! In theory, the cue for the fetch would provide tertiary reinforcement for the eye contact, since the fetch is so fun for her.

So we started off. I learned right away that this was difficult for her. Apparently what she had been doing before when I cued–sniffing around, still thinking about food, had gotten the tertiary reinforcement. When I waited for eye contact before throwing, she could do it a couple of times, but it was spotty, and her enthusiasm for the trick went down. Oh oh. So I took the fetch out entirely. We had several days of sessions where I just asked for eye contact, marked and threw the treat, then waited for eye contact as she trotted back to me. Now we were on the right track! Turns out that when trotting up to me, Summer was most often looking elsewhere than my eyes. Even though in so many other situations, including competition heeling, she did look me in the eye.

Summer had already learned that eye contact was highly reinforceable in this situation
Summer had already learned that eye contact was highly reinforceable in this situation

I had worked eye contact in so many situations, but here was a new one.

Only after we had a good start on building her new behavior: looking at my face when she approached me, did I start asking for the fetch again. I would intersperse the two behaviors. Most often I would reinforce the eye contact on approach directly with a treat, but once every three or four times I would ask for the fetch instead.  After she got used to the alternation, this worked great.

Thanks, YouTube, for the best featured image from the video being one where she is looking at my hand!

Summer’s enthusiasim for the trick has returned, and she gives me eye contact to get me to do it. I think this is probably empowering for her as well. She knows the key to “make” me throw the toy. What do you think?

Bonus question: no prizes except fame and glory, but does anybody see the superstitious behaviors in the part of the video when I am in the rocking chair and we are working on eye contact alone? There are two separate ones. They fade as I start to mark the eye contact earlier.

I would love to hear about your dogs’ default behaviors. Got any interesting ones?

Coming up soon:

 

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Just Try to Get It!

Just Try to Get It!

This is a fun little body language study. The consensus of the viewers is that Clara is a brat!

Here is some background about Clara and Zani and their play habits.  It’s pertinent to the interaction in the video. I’m rewriting this in 2021 after Zani passed away in late 2020.

Clara and Zani played together since Clara was tiny and Zani was 3 years old until Zani was about 10. They played only with complete supervision, especially after Clara got a lot bigger than Zani. Also there was Clara’s assertiveness, although Zani was no slouch in that department either. I interrupted them frequently and they learned to self interrupt.

They played frequently when Clara was a puppy and adolescent. They played chase, bitey face, wrestling, and steal the toy. Once Clara got bigger she learned to self-handicap in almost all the games. Clara would never catch Zani when they played chase, even though she was faster. She let Zani catch her, and then Zani would hurl herself on Clara. When they wrestled, Clara lay down and Zani chewed on her legs. Of the two, Zani used her mouth a lot more during play. Zani often snatched a toy away by stealth and when she did, Clara didn’t aggress about it. But Zani generally deferred if they were both going for a toy at the same time (as in the video).

Clara used to stare at Zani with a very erect posture (as in this video) often as a precursor to play. It was usually followed by her running and chasing Zani.

When playing alone, Clara frequently drops her ball and observes it. She has done this her whole life. She will drop it on a hill and let it roll, chase it down, then carry it up to the top and drop it again. She plays a similar game on a slanted board, pushing the ball up and watching it roll down again. She drops the ball in holes and pushes the ball under objects and reaches in to pull it out. This even morphed into a game where she would drop the ball, then Zani would pick it up and bring it to me, and I would toss it back to Clara.

My Interpretation of the Encounter

I tend to agree with the commenters that Clara made a bratty plan and I caught it on video. I haven’t seen another dog do what Clara is doing here, but it does seem that Clara is trying to get Zani to make a play for the ball, then making sure she doesn’t get it. I have seen dogs do things like that with a little less apparent planning: prancing around with a toy trying to get another dog to try for it, then darting away. It is also possible that Clara’s dropping the ball was initially a “nice” play invitation, or at least an experiment (as described above). “What will happen if I drop the ball?” But after she dropped it she could have changed her mind and taken steps to keep it in her possession. This would go along with behavior I have witnessed from her before. She will bring me a ball to throw, then can’t quite give it to me.

Regarding Clara’s stare and possible aggression concerns expressed by some commenters: my teacher always says, “Watch the other dog.” I do not see fearful behavior on Zani’s part. I see interest and yes, caution. To me, the thought bubble over Zani’s head is, “Is she about to be a jerk, or is this going to be fun?”  Zani lip licks when Clara approaches her head, and turns away as Clara pushes into her space, both stress signals. But right after that when Clara nudges the ball Zani makes a play for it. She turns sharply away as Clara grabs the ball, but walks casually after that.

Jean Donaldson describes something she calls a “consent test” that you can do when you can’t tell whether two dogs are both enjoying play. You restrain the suspected bully and see if the other dog attempts to continue to play. Often Zani continues to want to play when my observation is that Clara is being awfully rough or bratty. Zani and I have a deal though, that I will help her leave play with Clara anytime she wants, and she makes it very obvious when she is fed up and wants out.

On the evening I filmed this, the two dogs played on and off for 1–2 hours. After the filmed episode, Clara approached Zani with the ball several more times and dropped the ball on Zani’s back. (Didn’t get that recorded!) Zani got the ball on the rebound a few times. Zani did leave the area several times but would return after taking a break. At the time I originally wrote this, they were separated by an ex-pen and Zani was lying on her back, reaching her nose through the wires at Clara, who was gently batting at her with her paws.

I was always careful with dear little Zani.

Peek-a-Boo! A Hint for Training Eye Contact

Peek-a-Boo! A Hint for Training Eye Contact

Three dogs lying very close together, all with their eyes riveted on the person taking the picture
Some nice focus from Zani, Summer, and Clara

Here is a quickie hint for teaching eye contact from Sue Ailsby’s Training Levels.

This is from Level 2 Focus, Step 4 in the New Levels. After the dog has built up eye contact duration to a solid 10 seconds, Sue suggests several ways to change the scene and generalize the behavior. I liked her suggestion of teaching eye contact through a car window, but we are currently in the middle of the hottest summer in years, maybe ever.

I have French doors going from my front room to my kitchen, and not only that, they have a handy gap underneath that I can shoot treats through.

Here is a short video of Zani and me practicing eye contact through the French doors. It turns out the the panes in the French doors are a perfect way to get Zani to realize that it is her job to find my face and look into my eyes.

As usual, we started from scratch under the new conditions and it turned out to be completely necessary. This was a big change from what Zani already knew how to do.

If others want to try this, you don’t have to have a gap under the door. Just leave it propped open enough so that you can toss the treats through on the side.

Thanks Sue. It never would have occurred to me otherwise to do it through glass!

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