I have learned a lot in the last three months. Yes, that’s how long it has taken for me to get Summer’s target behavior where I really wanted it.
Back in September I published a post about the many ways I had messed up Summer’s target behavior. I had lived with it a long time, but it really became a problem when I tried to use a target for distance behaviors because Summer kept biting it and trying to bring it to me.
So I decided to fix it “in public” and published a post with my training plan to fix the problems.
Here is the result!
I made a few changes to the training plan along the way, but not all that many.
My training tracker spreadsheet first had the following columns:
- number of reps
- number of correct reps
- correct reps as percent
- goal percentage
One of the first things I learned was that Summer was not the only one making correct and incorrect behaviors. I was sometimes marking the incorrect response! So I added two columns, one for my number of correct reps, and the other to express that as a percent. That made me clean up my act in a hurry, and pretty soon I was no longer marking incorrect behavior except once in a blue moon.
I also added a column for a moving average, to smooth out some of the noise in the graph and show the trends better. And just because I’m a nerd and I like that sort of thing.
Recall that one of the worst (out of six) problems we had was Summer’s biting the target, because of our retrieve work before we got target on cue.
I had picked a new hand position so as to change the picture completely for Summer, but my choice, which made it appear that I was holding a treat in my fingers, elicited even more teeth and biting from Summer at the beginning. (So ironic, since Summer is not at all a mouthy dog.)
After the first few sessions I came close to changing my hand position again because of all the teeth. But I decided to take the challenge and keep it. I really liked the touches I was getting from her.
Really, this was the hardest part and took the most time. It took a little more than a month of practicing only with my hand to get rid of the teeth. But I’m really glad I stuck with the new hand position because started getting much, much firmer and nicer touches from Summer than I ever had before.
After we got the hand touch, I tried transitioning to a target stick and that was disastrous. Bite city. The stick was a cue for the retrieve work we used to do. So I thought of an object that I could hold that she couldn’t bite. How about the back of a plastic plate?
So we did many reps with a plastic plate with a piece of blue painter’s tape on it. A good Internet friend points out that blue tape is nicely visible to dogs. After about a month of that, I brought my target stick back out (it also has tape on it), and held it flat on the back of the plate. By making an interim step (splitting), I was able to transition her to the stick without having teeth. This was a huge step, and a good one towards my practical goal of being able to send Summer to a freestanding target stick to touch.
Where We Are Now
Over the weekend I tested Summer on hand, plate, and target stick touches and we got 100% correct! Not only that, but her touches have still nice and firm and she is eager to do it. No more drive bys for sure.
You can see from the graph that I lifted from my tracking document that there are several dips in performance; those correspond to places where I raised criteria. But even counting those dips, her overall average was 86%. Keep in mind that my goal for percentage correct before proceeding each time was 95%, not the 80% that trainers typically shoot for before moving forward. You can see in the graph that we stayed on each step longer than we would have had to if that were our goal. It worked for Summer and me because neither of us minds repetition.
This graph covers 1,012 correct repetitions. Yes, you read that right. About 1,000 reps. Let that be a lesson. Try to train it right the first time!
Final Notes on Criteria and Method
I ended up changing one criterion from my original training plan. I had specified that I wanted Summer’s mouth to be closed. But I got visually confused when I saw her approach with an open mouth, then close it just before the touch. I decided that was her business whether she wanted to leave her mouth open, as long as she touched my hand or the object with her nose/muzzle and not her teeth. This worked out for us.
I wrote in my previous post that I wanted to avoid negative punishment if possible. I did end up doing it a few times. Sometimes we would get in this loop where she would do an unacceptable touch and when she tried again, one of the undesirable behaviors would pop immediately back in. So a few times when I got a bite or felt teeth, I not only didn’t give her the treat, I pulled my hand back and paused, with a little break in the action. This was always followed by a correct response from Summer. The penalty did seem to communicate very well that I wanted touches and not bites. I probably did it fewer than 10 times in our 1,000 reps.
At the time it seemed more kind than letting her try over and over again without getting reinforced (extinction). A more skilled trainer probably wouldn’t have had to do either (and certainly wouldn’t have taken 1,000 reps!)
Notes about Future Steps
What’s left, following the Training Levels, is a foot touch (her nose to my foot), then touching a Post-it or piece of tape on the wall, with the final goal of pushing a cabinet door closed.
I don’t anticipate a problem with the foot touch, but the wall thing will be a challenge because we have done lots of wall touches with her paw. But I know how to be patient, and so does Summer.
Some final tasks will be a duration touch, mixing up Zen and target cues, and finally distinguishing target and retrieve cues. And of course I’ll need to generalize every one of these things and take them on the road.
Thanks for reading! I would love to hear more retraining stories. I’m not the only one, am I?
By the way, now that it’s done, here is the whole series in one place:
- Part 1: 6 Ways I Messed Up My Dogs Targeting
- Part 2: Using a Training Plan to Retrain Summer’s Target
- Part 3: Summer Punches It!