Just a Trick?
“Crossing over” is a phrase dog trainers use to refer to the act of giving up training that uses aversives and changing over to training that uses principally positive reinforcement: becoming a Humane Hierarchy trainer, a force-free trainer, or a clicker trainer. (We have lots of phrases to describe ourselves.) Folks who have made this change (and those who never trained traditionally) will attest that this is more than just a different set of skills. It is a change of world view, and it runs counter to the emphasis on and acceptance of punishment in our culture. For many of us, it is not an easy thing to do. Social and technical support are both very important.
My friend Marge Rogers is a crossover trainer who crossed over with no local mentor, although she would credit her wonderful dog Chase, as well as books and internet resources. She wanted to change the way she trained and she needed to do it on her own. She came from a competitive obedience background. She decided, brilliantly, to throw off everything she knew, put her obedience goals temporarily on hold, and train her dogs to do tricks.
Here’s what she told me:
- Teaching tricks improves mechanical skills like observation and timing.
- Teaching tricks helps trainers learn to create training plans and break down behavior (cognitive skills).
- It helps develop critical thinking skills. (How different are the skills for teaching dust the coffee table or blow bubbles in water than teaching drop on recall?)
- There is no pressure for the handler. Or the dog.
- Trick training encourages creative thinking and problem solving.
- Trick training give immediate feedback for the handler (via the dog’s behavior).
- There is no handler baggage.
- And the best reason for teaching tricks – you’re not burdened by the curse of knowledge for stuff you’ve never trained before. No old habits to unlearn. In short: it’s the perfect way to become a better trainer.
P.S. You can make your own chicken camp.
Marge is referring to Bob Bailey’s well known chicken camps where trainers learn to hone their mechanical skills. This picture is the outcome of one of her personal “chicken camps,” where she taught her Rhodesian Ridgeback Pride a high leg lift to emulate taking a pee (he normally squatted to pee, by the way). She shaped that leg lift all the way up from a twitch.
Marge’s trick skills resulted in her fame as the “Ridgeback lady” on YouTube, who featured her Rhodesian Ridgebacks in videos such as these:
By the way, Ridgebacks have a reputation among traditional trainers as being an untrainable breed.
Many was the time that Marge exhorted me to train tricks. I generally declined, saying that it’s all tricks (true, but perhaps evading her point a little bit), and that I had my hands full with polite pet behaviors and agility (also tricks!)
So a funny thing happened. Recently I broke down and trained my dogs a couple of tricks. It was supposed to be just for the heck of it, but two of the tricks immediately became very useful.
Marge says, “That figures!”
1) Sit Pretty. I’ve been teaching little Zani to “sit pretty.” We went slowly, so she could build up her abdominal muscles, but she really took to it. What’s a more classic “trick” that sitting up? Adorable but useless, right? But no sooner did we have a few seconds’ duration than it came in incredibly handy.
I’m teaching all my dogs to sit or stand on the bathroom scale by themselves. I thought I would have to manipulate the dogs’ feet a little bit so that I could see the readout. But Zani solved that problem by offering her “useless” trick.
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If I were Marge, though, I’d probably teach the dogs to curl their tails around as well, so they didn’t brace any of their weight on them if they were on the floor. That’s a little more than I have the patience for, though. I’ll just elevate the scale if I need to.
2) Leg weaves. I don’t remember why I decided to do this, but I taught Clara how to weave through my legs. Let me be frank: I think that is one of the silliest behaviors ever. Even when the most accomplished freestylers do it, it’s mostly a “yawn” from me.
But as soon as I taught Clara the rudiments, I discovered something. It’s fun! No wonder people do it. Clara and I both enjoyed it, although I’m sure we looked even dorkier than average. And no, I’m not sharing a video!
The added benefit of this one is a little harder to describe, but no less real. Clara is a very “touchy” dog. She likes to lean against me, touch me, cuddle, and be as close as she can. So she loved the leg weaves. She got to be right “inside” my personal space. And darned if she didn’t make up a new game: she comes and weaves her way through my legs when I am sitting down, just for fun. Kind of like a very large, pushy cat. She clearly likes the sensation.
I couldn’t get a shot of the actual weaving when I was sitting down, but here she is walking under my leg and pressing against my foot. See how she is pushing toward me in both photos?
So Clara and I have not only discovered a new way to play one-on-one that needs no toy or prop. With a little finesse, I could even use it as a reinforcer. But right now, it’s just another way to have fun with my dog.
So thanks Marge, for urging me to train pure “tricks,” but they keep turning out to be useful! Or was that part of what you were trying to show me all along….?
- Punishment is not a Feeling
- Why Counterconditioning Didn’t “Work”
- How Skilled are You at Ignoring? (Extinction Part 2)
- What if Respondent Learning Didn’t Work?