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Clara’s Novice Trick Title: 15 Tricks, 4 Informative Fails

Clara’s Novice Trick Title: 15 Tricks, 4 Informative Fails

To keep us both on our toes, I am starting to teach 10-year-old Clara every trick I can get my hands on that is safe for her and that she enjoys. Going to grab some online titles on the way (these are judged via video). Titles are reinforcing to me and often the requirements jolt me out of my training ruts.

These posts will be both here on Eileenanddogs and on my new blog: Teaching My Old Dog New Tricks. For now, my plans are that it will be the same material. If you don’t want to have to search for these among all the different topics on this blog, go to the new one because the tricks posts will be the only ones on there. There’s also a little intro that also gives a little more background about why I embarked on this project.

We started with our novice trick title for Do More With Your Dog. For this first go-round, I picked things Clara already knew and could do fluently. Hey, I wanted a little immediate reinforcement! But also, I was honest about it. When it turned out I was wrong about the fluency and she struggled with puppy pushups and a new target stick, we saved those for later. I could have gotten the behaviors well enough to pass the criteria for the test, but passing at all costs is not my goal. I want to do some good training. I don’t have to have everything on verbal cue (thank goodness) or stimulus control, but I want a modicum of understanding of the behavior. And the failures (see below) are so instructive about the flaws in my training.

I do aim to get better cue recognition along the way. I’ll be working on duration (with myself—Clara does whatever I ask of her!) as well.

A large part of my motivation is that Clara needs more enrichment in her life. Throughout these 10 years, I’ve learned that playing training games is one of her very favorite things. So here we go with every trick I can get my hands on.

Here’s the first batch.

Clara is virtually always this happy when training. This video earned Clara her Novice Trick Dog title with Do More With Your Dog. Thank you to Kit Azevedo for judging our video.

Training Errors

So far, the behaviors are mostly kindergarten behaviors—it feels like a stretch to refer to them as tricks. But a couple of them took some skill. The things I thought we could do that we couldn’t are far more interesting! Here’s a list of the things you can see on the following “Informative Failures” video. I’ll discuss them below after the video.

1. I make her break her stay on a cot by saying her name in a way that resembles our recall cue.

2. I forget to release her from her cot, she stays 60 seconds, and I don’t notice or reinforce.

3. We fail puppy push-ups.

4. We fall apart when I use a new target stick

5. (Not on video.) I cue her to jump, she takes me literally, and jumps into the jump instead of over it.

The following video is not quite funny enough to qualify as a blooper video, although I found some things amusing. But then, I always laugh a lot when we work together.

Reasons for Errors

The reasons for the “errors” that Clara made (I’m using scare quotes because they are not really her errors) are so clear to me. They are due to matching law effects and reinforcement history, both schedules of reinforcement and patterning on my part.

1. Breaking her stay when I say her name. People warn against using a dog’s name as a recall cue, and this is the reason. But it’s not usually a problem for us. I use a special tone and inflection for her recall cue (you hear it later in the video). It’s different from my normal way of speaking to her, but when she was staying on her cot, I inflected her name just enough to make her come to me. My bad.

2. Staying on her cot because I forget to release her. This isn’t a mistake at all, it’s a lovely success, except it would have been nice of me to reinforce her after that great stay while I was walking all around and setting things up. But no, I jumped right into cueing the next behavior.

3. Puppy push-ups. Here’s where it starts to get interesting. The puppy pushups chain consists of repeating the behaviors of sit, down, sit, down, sit, down, on cue. What half-way trained dog can’t do this? Answer: a dog whose trainer has been emphasizing stand on and off for the past two years and tends to ask her for a pattern of sit, down, sit, stand. My pattern overruled her recognition of the verbal cues. Not to mention that I usually reinforce 1:1 and I was asking for six without working up to it. Doh!

We could have pushed through this on the spot and gotten the requisite number of correct repetitions, but I’m choosing to go back and do some remedial work. I worked hard for that stand, but I don’t want it to overrule another behavior I ask for! And getting the verbal cues for sit, down, and stand distinct seems like a great idea!

One of these things is not like the others

4. The new target stick and “three-fers.” Clara has a strong nose-targeting behavior. She can target my hand, my foot, a target stick, a piece of tape on a wall, a cabinet or door. So what happened here? The first problem was reinforcement history. We have been practicing a directed retrieve for months now, so putting her mouth on something is right at the top of her “behaviors to offer” list. The second problem was that the target stick was much longer than the two others I usually use, so the visuals were wrong. The end was much farther from my hand. You can see her repeatedly targeting the place on the long stick that corresponds to the length of the sticks she is used to. Also, the end of the target stick was a round object that must look delectable to a dog who loves balls. But that doesn’t account for most of the errors. If those had been the only problems, we would have gotten 70–90% correct touches within a few minutes.

My biggest mistake was to start asking for three-fers. I’m stealing Sue Ailsby’s term of “two-fers,” that is, to ask for two reps of a behavior before marking and reinforcing. We’ve done plenty of that along with higher numbers of reps as well. The trick requirements for the video asked for three nose targets in different positions, so I absentmindedly started asking for them as a chain. <Insert record scratch sound effect.> Clara’s success rate because of the other problems was already too low. When I started asking for three touches for one reinforcer, i.e., not marking and reinforcing the first two, I put the targeting behavior on extinction. It wasn’t paying off, so she started trying a bunch of other stuff. This is a classic side effect of extinction: getting more variety in the behavior. It’s a side effect we sometimes gently and carefully use in shaping. But here it must have been frustrating. She couldn’t figure out the game we were playing because I changed too many variables. She’s such a good sport.

You can see in the video that there are three clean touches in a row at least once. But that was not representative of our performance, which had a low percentage of right responses for this simple behavior. So I’m going back to the drawing board on this one, just like puppy pushups.

5. Bar jump. This is not on the video, because some mistakes are too awful even for me to show. Even though Summer and Zani were titled agility dogs, the cue “jump” to them was background chatter. To them, the cue was being pointed toward an actual jump combined with my body language. But Clara learned the verbal cue “jump” back when we were working on the Training Levels. I use it occasionally, cueing her to jump over a narrow flower bed in front of the house when on leash.

So I forgot which dog I had. I lined Clara up before the bar jump, cued “Jump” and she jumped right where she was, doing exactly as I asked, and landed on the jump. This was especially bad because it’s a homemade jump with bars that don’t come off. She could have broken a leg by catching it between the two horizontal bars. She didn’t do that, and she didn’t injure herself in any way. But that horrifying scare was punishing for me. I don’t think I’ll get mixed up about that again.

It’s ironic that I am weak at teaching verbal cues, but I somehow taught a good one for “jump.”

Final Words

One of the reasons I’m writing up these details is that there are still people, many many people, who blame errors on the dog. That is like a different world to me now. How can I unlearn what I have learned about reinforcement history and the matching law? When I see Clara’s “mistakes,” I am looking at a map of my own training habits and flaws. Look at Clara in the videos. She wants to perform behaviors for food and fun. Her attention is riveted on me. She is eager. There is no reason on earth she would deliberately make a mistake, as some people claim their dogs are doing when being “disobedient.”

She is obedient to the laws of learning, as we all are. And the most important thing is that she loves these games, even with my warty training. As I improve my skills, she’ll enjoy this activity even more.

Copyright 2021 Eileen Anderson

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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