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Tag: Sue Ailsby’s Training Levels

“Testing Through” the Levels

“Testing Through” the Levels

The whole post in three words: Don’t do it. Start at the beginning.

I’ve mentioned before that I use Sue Ailsby’s Training Levels as a guide for training my dogs. The Levels comprise an organized method for teaching your dog. The behaviors are designed to build on each other and generalize as part of the process. They are carefully laid out, and the books suggest specific ways to teach each behavior without being doctrinaire about it. The method is great for new trainers, because the trainer builds skills through the process as well.

I am not the best example of a Levels trainer because I frequently dash off-course and train something else, but with each new dog I do use the Levels for my foundation, and they are always going on in the background. Right now all three of my dogs are working some Level 3 behaviors and we are still cleaning up some in Level 2.

I’ve been on the Training Levels Yahoo group since 2008. Just before discovering the Levels, I had been putting together my own prioritized list of behaviors to teach (with competitive agility as a big focus but also plenty of polite pet behaviors). I had been patching together some Susan Garrett and Leslie McDevitt and things from other sources. So when I discovered the Levels, I was in a quandary. I am a dedicated do-it-yourselfer and am constitutionally hesitant to take “someone else’s” structure and follow it. And I wanted something focused specifically on agility. But I also had enough sense to vaguely realize that Sue Ailsby might know a tiny bit more about how to put together a dog training curriculum than I did. (That’s sarcasm. Sue’s credentials are awesome.)

Adopting the Levels

So, after some generous guidance from Lynn Shrove, with whom I struck up an email relationship and who was very generous with her time, I decided to use the Levels for my training structure.

In an email conversation I described to Lynn how I was going through the lists of behaviors in the Levels to see where I should start with my dog, since she already knew a lot of them.

Anyone who is a dedicated Levels trainer is smirking right now.

Here’s how the conversation went.

Eileen: I’ve made a check-off sheet and am going through and testing Summer through the early behaviors in the Levels so I know what Level she is already at and where to start.

Lynn: (politely) You should think about starting at the beginning.

Eileen: But Summer knows that stuff already! She has titles in obedience and agility! She can do a two-minute sit/stay with distractions. She’s good at heeling. She got her Novice obedience title in three straight trials.

Lynn: (politely) Still, I really suggest you start at the beginning. The Levels are about learning how to teach your dog and they all fit together.

Eileen: But I’ve already been training her for two years! I don’t need to backtrack.

Lynn: (patiently) What would it hurt, though, to retrain according to Sue’s methods? You will probably pick up some stuff that you didn’t know was missing.

Eileen: (grudgingly and several days later) OK, I am starting from the beginning.

Lynn: Great! Let me know if you want to share training videos.

Eileen: (a few weeks later) Oh now I know why you told me to start at the beginning. Thank you!

Perhaps I wasn’t that gracious at the end, and perhaps it was more like months, but I’m pretty sure I did tell Lynn that she was right. Because she was.

Zani Demos a Level 1 Sit
Zani Demos a Level 1 Sit

Why to Start at the Beginning

Most humans hate to backtrack, or do anything that even feels like backtracking. Also, we are usually proud to have taught our dogs anything. Finally, we are impatient. We want to get to the new, fun stuff. So it’s perfectly natural that we should see a list of behaviors, think, “Oh great, my dog already knows some of those,” and decide to start somewhere in the middle, determining what she already knows by a quick test.

Here are some of the reasons why that is a really bad idea with the Training Levels.

  1. The Levels emphasize generalization. In many obedience schools, and just by natural inclination, we teach our dogs to do a behavior in one environment and do it the same each time. If my dog can sit in the kitchen when I am holding her food bowl in my hand (facing north), I may figure she “knows sit.” Or if she can sit in a line of dogs for one minute in an obedience ring (admittedly a challenge), I figure she can “do a sit stay.” Notice that in the conversation above I defended my dog’s knowledge of behaviors by citing her titles. This is very common when coming from that training background, but in truth, being able to perform a series of behaviors in an obedience ring has little or nothing to do with being able to do them in “real life.” Different skills entirely. My dog didn’t really “know” a sit-stay. All one has to do to test this claim is to put the dog or oneself in an odd or different position or with new distractions and ask for the same thing. I did this later. I have a series of movies about this in the blog post: Dogs Notice Everything. Check it out. When you start the Levels from the beginning, generalizing becomes second nature, and that’s a good thing.
  2. If you are new to clicker or marker training, you need to practice on the easier stuff more than your dog does! And Sue gives explicit instructions about this.
  3. Behaviors taught with aversives, even mild ones like pushing the dog’s butt down into a sit, are **not the same** as those same behaviors taught with positive reinforcement. They carry with them a burden of pressure and even fear. The Levels are taught with joy. And yes, behaviors taught that way can become reliable (the Levels are great at that too). If you have used aversives, or trained the behaviors “for praise,” or “without treats,” you especially need to start over. You may even need to change your cue words, since they probably have baggage from the “old way.” I changed the phrase I used for “leave it” because I originally taught it by saying “leave it” and pulling (honestly, jerking) my dog away from a treat on the floor, without any clue ahead of time what I wanted her to do. And here’s a whole post about a cue I changed much later in my dog’s life when I finally came to see the baggage it carried: “Replacing a Poisoned Cue.”
  4. Sue knows more than you do. In short, the problem is that you don’t know what it is that you don’t know. I can’t tell you what that is. But I can practically guarantee that unless you are a professional trainer yourself, there is something in those early instructions that will be a revelation to you. Probably a lot of “somethings.”

Real Life Example of Levels Generalization

Here is a movie I made back in 2010 of my then new dog Zani sitting on cue in the 15 different situations that Sue suggested in the “old” Training Levels, Level 1. There are plenty of warts in this training including consistently late clicks, but the cool thing is that even so, Zani could and did learn to sit on cue!

 Link to “Zani: Level 1 Sit” for email subscribers.

And remember, that was just Level 1 out of 7 in the old Levels.

Now take a look at the list for Level 1 Sit from the New Levels. The list is a little shorter now, but actually more challenging.

  1. Dog sits with the leash off.
  2. Dog sits in a different part of training room, facing a different way, with the leash off.
  3. Dog sits with a hand signal only.
  4. Dog sits with a hand signal in a different room.
  5. Dog sits with the leash on.
  6. Dog sits with the leash on with you sitting down, if you originally taught it standing up, or vice versa. If you’ve done it both ways already, you can kneel or hang off the edge of your bed.
  7. The dog sits by an open door (an inside door).
  8. The dog sits: during a TV commercial, when you open the oven door, when the doorbell rings, when you’re on the phone, when you’re putting on your coat, when you’re brushing your teeth, while you’re peeling carrots, while you’re putting on her leash and collar.

That’s part of what you miss if you skip Level 1 because your dog “knows sit.”

Oh, and one more thing about “testing.” If you go around testing your dog’s sit in lots of different situations in one morning, that doesn’t give you an accurate picture. Dogs will tend to repeat the last thing they got reinforced for when they are unsure. If you go to 40 different places in your house in sequence and ask for sits, well, you’ll probably get sits. That’s why when testing behaviors, Sue specifies to do it “out of the blue.” Meaning outside the context of a training session and without having recently worked on or asked for the behavior.

So there’s another reason. If you start in the middle, you may not even know how to properly test the behaviors. Take it from this inveterate skipper-arounder. Start at the beginning.

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© Eileen Anderson 2014                                                                                                             eileenanddogs.com

8 Common Dog Training Errors: Cautionary Tales

8 Common Dog Training Errors: Cautionary Tales

As the great trainer Bob Bailey says, training is simple but not easy. The principles are very simple and straightforward, but actually applying them in practice can be very difficult.

I’ve mentioned many times that I am not a professional trainer. But I hang out with some phenomenal ones. Plus, I am a student of life and tend to do lots of observation of myself and others. (What, you had noticed?)  And I don’t mind sharing my own errors if it can help somebody along.

Here are eight of the top booboos in dog training. All of which I have done myself, and many of them on camera! (And guess what, I have 15-20 more! You can expect more posts on this if people enjoy this one.)

And by the way, these are errors made by trainers who are using the most humane methods they know and can learn. The list would be much different if it addressed mistakes made by trainers who make heavy use of aversives. I don’t want to write that list right now!

What Can Go Wrong?

(1) Allowing the dog to rehearse the behavior you’re trying to eliminate. One of my trainer friends says this is the #1 problem she runs into with her clients. A client will say, “I bought my dog a bed for his crate and he chewed it. I bought him another one and he chewed it. I bought him another one and he chewed that one, too. I’ve bought him five beds and he’s chewed them all.”  That dog is getting really skilled at chewing beds, and has found a way to occupy himself in his crate.

If a dog has a problem behavior, it’s because that behavior has been reinforced. (Chewing is fun for dogs!) Usually not deliberately by us, but reinforced nonetheless. So we don’t tend to “count” it in our minds. But it’s just as if we had given the dog a cookie every time he chewed the bed, or jumped on the couch or whatever. But if we want to teach them to do something different, we also need to prevent those fun rehearsals of the “wrong” behavior and stop that reinforcement.

Desirable door behavior
Desirable door behavior

For example, you want to train your dog not to crowd up to the back door and rush out when you open it. That behavior is reinforced every time she does it if you immediately let her outside. When you start to teach polite door manners, you doubtless start the training with an “easier” door. You practice with an interior door, and work on the behavior  you want. You reinforce with food.

Undesirable door behavior
Undesirable door behavior–see the linked video–>

But in the meantime, every time you take your dog into the back yard to potty, she continues to crowd up to the back door and rush out when you open it. Getting outside is obviously a potent reinforcer and nothing has happened to stop that. To get the new behavior in place at the back door, you will have to prevent your dog from practicing the old one. That can be a challenge without using aversives, but can be done. With three dogs, our back door behavior is a work in progress, but those bad habits do on occasion get reinforced. And reinforcement “on occasion” is enough to keep them alive and well.

The classic example of rehearsed behaviors and conflicting reinforcers is walking on a loose leash. If you let your dog pull you, using the same gear you use when trying to teach loose leash, that behavior gets reinforced every time that pulling gets the dog where he wants to go, just as purely as if you had given him a cookie for it. That’s why trainers always tell you to cease walking the dog or at least use completely different gear if you must walk the dog, if you are simultaneously trying to teach leash manners. You are shooting yourself in the foot otherwise.

(2) Lumping. Lumping means failing to break the behavior you are trying to teach into small enough steps. For instance, you are teaching your dog to get on a mat and lie down. Your dog is beginning to understand your cue. You stand right next to the mat and give the cue. Dog lies down. You stand two feet away from the mat and give the cue. The dog goes to the mat and lies down. You put the mat in the corner of the room, go back to the center of the room with your dog, and give the cue. Your dog says, “Huh?” Lots of misunderstandings between humans and dogs could be ameliorated if we just took enough baby steps when teaching a behavior. Here is a post about lumping, with a video starring my dog Zani, who lets her disapproval of my behavior be known.

Small black and tan colored hound looking at her trainer with her mouth open. There is a piece of tape on the wall behind her.
Zani says, “Quit that lumping!”
Zani can sit on a crate
Sitting on a crate was Zani’s idea

(3) Neglecting to generalize cued behaviors. Dogs are great discriminators. They notice every little thing in the environment. It’s all pertinent to them. They are not as good as we are at generalizing. And it is very very hard for us to get that through our human heads.

If a dog knows “sit” when in the kitchen facing east, she may not know it while standing on the piano bench in your front room facing north. And she almost definitely won’t know it if you lie down on the floor next to her or stand on your head before giving the cue. All along you thought she was responding to your verbal cue, but she actually was responding to the fact that she was standing in the kitchen facing east, and you have a clicker and treats, and you said a word (which turns out that it probably could have been any word). All of that was actually her cue. I have several movies showing dogs who respond incorrectly to a cue because of the human failure (um, mine) to help them generalize.

And here’s my moment to plug Sue Ailsby’s Training Levels. The Training Levels are the best training program I have ever seen to build generalization into every step.

(4) And that leads to…not knowing what the dog’s cue actually is. It may not be what we think it is.  They are generally paying attention to our body language and props way more than we think. Almost all of us (border collie owners excepted, grin), think that our dogs understand verbal cues better than they actually do. I have lots of experience with this, having been blessed with two dogs who are probably less proficient than average at verbal cues. I have yet to teach them, despite many repetitions, some simple word discriminations that some breeds and individual dogs seem to pick up very fast. To really know whether your dog understands a verbal cue or not, you need not only to practice generalization, but get yourself out of the picture for the final exam. I have a fairly embarrassing post and video where I was trying to test my dog’s knowledge of the difference between her “crate” and “mat” cue. I didn’t realize until I saw the film that I was still cuing her with my body.

(5) Trying to train when dog is too stressed. Just about anybody who has gone to a dog training club has either done this or seen this. The dog is trying to take in this noisy, chaotic environment full of other people and dogs. Even if the dog is not scared of strange people or dogs, the noise and chaos make everything difficult. This is where it pays to know and observe your dog, and do some homework on dog body language.

It's not hard to tell if Clara is too stressed to train
It’s not hard to tell if Clara is too stressed to train

Here are some posts, photos, and videos of mine showing a stressed dog, a fearful dog, my own shut down dog, and some other shut down dogs. While some dogs can respond while stressed or fearful, a good teacher will help you work with your dog to get her comfortable in the environment before ever starting to teach “behaviors.” Most would agree that learning to be comfortable in a difficult environment is a more important lesson than learning to sit on cue. And it will really pay off in the long run.

(6) Not being aware of the dog’s responses. This is a more general version of #5. Once one starts learning about dog body language, it can be a revelation to watch videos of one’s own training sessions. You may learn that you are making your dog nervous when you ruffle his fur. Or that he ducks strongly away when you reach down to pat his head. You may learn that you are leaning far to much into your dog’s face. You may learn that you are unwittingly doing something to jazz up your dog when you are trying to teach a relaxed, duration behavior. Or like me, you may learn that your dogs are way more sound sensitive than you thought. (I had the camera on behind my back when I recorded this video.)

(7) Using a verbal cue too soon. I mean, we want to do it at the very beginning, and that’s exactly what not to do! It seems to be almost innate for us to assume that dogs do or “should” understand our own native human language. If you grew up in the “say ‘sit’ and push the dog’s butt down” generation, it is hard to imagine anything else. But remember, the word “sit” is a cue. It is a green light that says, “if you sit now, reinforcement is available.” But attaching that cue to the behavior is a latter step, not the first step. Chanting “Sit, sit, sit,” does not instruct your dog what to do. And doing the butt push move means that the first thing that Sit means is “Mom is about to push my butt down.”

The better way of looking at it, as Sue Ailsby describes it, is that we say to the dog, “That thing you are doing–we’re going to call it ‘Sit,’ OK?”

The first step is to get the dog sitting repeatedly. You can lure, capture, or shape. But it’s a good idea to keep your lip zipped and don’t let that cue come out. Some people say you shouldn’t use the cue until you are willing to be $100 that the dog will sit.

Here is a little video I made of Clara as a puppy. This is the very first time I had used a verbal cue for “down.” I had already gotten predictable and repeated downs by arranging the environment that way. Do you see how startled she is the first time I use it? It’s only the second verbal cue she has been exposed to. As far as she’s concerned, I have interrupted the game we were playing.

(Watching the video today makes me realize I know her better now. According to #6–watching the dog’s responses–I might have ended earlier. Her tail is wagging with a rather low carriage and she is working very hard for a wee one. She was more stressed than I would like.)

(8) Rate of reinforcement too low. “Rate of reinforcement” means the number of reinforcers per unit of time, for instance, per minute. When teaching a new behavior, and particularly to a dog who is new to training, it is desirable for the RoR to be very high. Dogs who know you have treats and are playing a training game but can’t figure out the rules of the game tend to get frustrated, lose interest, or even wander off. It is our job as trainers to arrange the teaching so that the pupil can have a high success rate and therefore a high rate of reinforcement.

Here’s a video of some behavior drills I did with three of my dogs. The highest rate of of reinforcement was in Zani’s first session: 12 treats in 43 seconds. That’s a treat about every 3.5 seconds, or 17 treats per minute. All of the other sessions shown came to a treat about every 5 seconds, which would be 12 treats per minute. Many of the behaviors had a little duration on purpose, so that’s not bad. I checked the video of puppy Clara I linked to in #7 above, and I delivered a treat about every 5 seconds in that one as well.

By the way, I made this list of booboos before I realized that I had examples of so many of them! How about you? Have any suggestions for my next post on this? Bonus points if you’ll step forward and show an example!

Other Resources

Here are a few other articles on common errors. I got a few ideas from them, but most of the above were from my own head and some trainer friends’ heads.

This post is part of a series:

Coming up:

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Dogs Leave it at a Higher Level: Zen on the Move

Dogs Leave it at a Higher Level: Zen on the Move

Pictures of dogs exhibiting self-control while covered with or surrounded by cookies, dog biscuits, or hot dogs are popular ways people Fame their dogs. You can see plenty of them on the Dog Faming FaceBook page. And here is Paisley doing a beautiful job in her entry for the Your Pit Bull and You Calendar Contest. (Go vote for some of those charmers!) Paisley is one of my current favorites, particularly since she doesn’t look stressed with the exercise. Don’t I see a tail in mid-wag? She knows exactly what to do, and also knows that she will be nicely compensated for her efforts!

Paisley the Pit Bull Leaves It!

At my house we’ve been working on a different kind of Zen lately, and although maybe it isn’t as photogenic, it’s a real challenge too.

I’ve mentioned before that I train using Sue Ailsby’s Training Levels. There is a step in Lazy Leash that incorporates Zen that I have been practicing with all of my dogs for several months. For my dogs, moving around while performing Zen is a real challenge.

Many training protocols use a treat on the ground as a distraction while teaching leash manners. It certainly has to be worked up to, since just keeping the leash loose at all takes all of the dog’s concentration at first.

Sue is so good at splitting out steps, and I love how she does the Zen/Lazy Leash combination.  Her steps involving the treat include:

  • Handler and dog stand with a treat directly in front of the dog, with the dog on leash. Handler takes one step away in any direction and returns. Practice duration and the person moving in different directions.
  • Handler and dog walk toward the treat on the floor and turn away before they get there.
  • Handler and dog walk past the treat on the floor.

The first step was no problem for any of my pups. Putting the leash on didn’t change the picture much from regular old “food on the floor” Zen. They were all OK with the second step, too. But oh man, the third. Clara and Zani are convinced the treat is going to jump out and grab them! I don’t have any trouble with them pulling towards the treat. However, both of them will sometimes tighten the leash when trying to get away from it!

I have mentioned before that many of us teach Zen at the beginning by reinforcing the dog for backing away from the “Zenned” item. So it can be a new concept for the dog that they it’s OK to be close to the treat–they just can’t eat it. I have some pretty cute footage of Clara trying desperately to keep her distance from a treat in my post Attack of the Zen Field. We have worked on it quite a bit since then and she has improved, but is still distrustful of that scary old treat.

I’ve been using this Step in the Levels as an opportunity to teach my dogs that they can actually go near the treat–as long as they don’t eat it (and in this case also maintain a loose leash).

Here is a short video of the results of that training. Summer is the pro from all the Rally practice we’ve done with treats and toys on the floor. Zani and Clara still have to work through some “cognitive dissonance,” as I teach them that it’s OK to go close to the treat. In short, the Zen is great, but if the dog runs behind me to get away from the treat, the loose leash doesn’t stay that way. But I’m super pleased with everybody’s progress.

Dog Faming: Zen on the Move

Link to the Zen on the Move video for email subscribers.

Other Zen Vids with Bragging Rights

Sniff Zen

Wheee–rabbit pee!

Zen Trap

Great treats popping up in unexpected places!

Zen Generalization: Hole in the Fence

Who says that training with positive reinforcement doesn’t hold up in real life? Get a load of this post!

Hole in the Fence Zen

Copyright 2013 Eileen Anderson

Summer, Clara and Zani, leave thrown kibble alone
Summer, Clara and Zani, leave thrown kibble alone
Level 1 Breakfast

Level 1 Breakfast

Those who have read for a while know that I use Sue Ailsby’s Training Levels to structure my training. For you new folks: go check them out! They are a great resource if you are training your dog on your own and could use great training tips and structure to what you are doing. Also for you new folks, since I’m showing a training video on this page, please read the Welcome post if you haven’t already, to know a little more about the focus of my blog and why I post videos that sometimes, ahem, show errors.

Following the Training Levels helps me keep going, be consistent, and remember to generalize, generalize, generalize. It helps me keep track of three dogs. It helps me figure out what to train when my mind is tired and blank. Plus I get the benefit of help from all the great trainers on the Training Levels Yahoo group.

A year or so ago on the Yahoo group, Sue mentioned using her puppy Syn’s breakfast a few days in a row to get a jump start on a certain behavior. Now, using a dog’s meals for training sessions is not at all a new idea for me. But frankly, I had rarely done it up to then, except with Clara. The reason was that I had gotten into a habit of using higher value treats for training first Summer, then Zani, in agility and other performance work.  That habit had carried over even into training at home in a non-distracting environment. Every task felt so very important; I didn’t want to devalue anything by using dry food.

But when I read Sue’s post that day, I thought wistfully that it would be so NICE if I could just use their breakfast or supper sometimes like other folks and not always have to dream up new good things for them to eat (and for me to cut up).

I thought maybe, just maybe, I could use the kibble for known behaviors and low key stuff. Since I was starting a project of rehabilitating Summer’s poisoned stay cue, I thought that might be a good candidate. I was going to need to do hundreds or thousands of reps, and they didn’t all have to be steak.

A blue box clicker and pile of dry kibbleSo I started thinking up some things each dog could do for some of their morning kibble each day. That’s when I found out that my dogs were now thrilled to work for kibble.

It turns out that those couple of years using high value treats got Zani and Summer addicted to the training game permanently. And Clara, well, she might work for cardboard. (Actually she would.)

Great! The kibble thing meant that finding the time and energy for training just got quite a bit easier for me. Set out part of a meal and do something with it.

I generally give them the meal part first. I rarely use my dogs’ entire meal for training, although they wouldn’t mind.  I have always wanted to stay mindful myself that many things in their lives are free, and that’s how I want it to be. (My practice about that predates Kathy Sdao’s great book, but she said it very well.) Also recently I have learned that dogs, just like people, probably learn better when their stomachs are not empty. Why after all these years did this only now occur to us? Anyway, I give them some of their meal ahead of time and take the edge off, before training.

So here I was, finally having what a lot of people have had from the beginning: dogs who work very happily for kibble. What was I going to do with it? I work outside my home, so doing a training session in the morning (for THREE dogs)  is still wedging something into a busy time. How could I make it easier on myself?

I took a page out of Lynn Shrove’s book. Lynn is the Empress of Level 1. Her dog Lily has an incredibly firm foundation, and I know it’s in part because Lynn does Level 1 behaviors over and over, everywhere, everywhen, with everybody. Check out budding trainer Bethany, age 7, working with Lily on sits and downs if you want to see adorable. Not to mention very practical on Lynn’s part.

So my version is the Level 1 Breakfast. Take a portion of everybody’s breakfast, and have a rapid-fire practice session of sit, down, target, come, and Zen. (Those are the behaviors from Level 1 in Sue Ailsby’s Training Levels.) We started off just doing it in normal places, in normal positions. All my dogs can use practice on verbal cues. None of them, for instance, is at 100% correct response of sit and down. Summer comes the closest, but you can see an outtake at the end of the movie where she has an incredibly creative response to the cue, “sit.”

I said rapid-fire above, because we are moving quickly, and because Level 1 behaviors don’t require duration, except up to 5 seconds for Zen. However, you will see me adding a second or two of duration now and then in the movie just to keep things mixed up.

We went on to more challenging situations, for instance, with me sitting or lying on the floor. And we found out quickly what needed some work!

Link to video for email subscribers.

So just from these couple of sessions I learned that the following things needed work:

  • Zani has a big space bubble around her and tends to do her behaviors a fair distance away. I need to practice more recalls right to my feet and hands and generally shape her into working more closely to me. The directions for this are right in Level 1.
  • I need to practice yet more collar grabs with Summer. She’s doing OK (better than Zani!), but her tail wag slows down a bit when I take her collar. I would love to get “delight” as a response.
  • Clara got a bit stressed when I switched abruptly from having her run to me for a hand target to cuing Zen. She responded properly but looked progressively more worried (paw lift, shrinking away). She was fine with Zen in other contexts, so I think the sharp transition was difficult.  I’ll practice more transitions and reinforce the Zen mightily.
  • When I was lying down, Summer, who actually knows her cues the best in that situation, fixated on my nigh pocket and hand with the treats and was actually bumping my hand with her nose. Major distraction. What a time for me to cue Zen! I put the treat on the floor right in front of her it was an immediate fail. Several things to practice about that!
  • Zani and Clara both had trouble sitting when I was lying on the floor, as is very common. I want to mention that for both of them I “helped” them by repeating the cue and adding another signal (verbal or hand, depending on what I had originally given). It would have been a  bad idea to continue to do this, because it would end up reinforcing their incorrect response. The proper thing to do, and what I did do subsequently, is work gradually down to that position and give them a history of success.
A sable dog is in motion, moving sideways and twisting her body. You can see just the legs of her trainer in the background.
Summer with a very creative response to “sit”

So that’s what we learned over the course of a couple of breakfasts. Now we are filling in the gaps.

Thanks for reading and viewing!

Coming up:

Eileenanddogs on YouTube

Wordless Wednesday: Bopping the Wall

Wordless Wednesday: Bopping the Wall

This is a video follow up to one of my more embarrassing posts: “Lumping It: A Public Service Announcement.” In that post I described, and showed in the video, how I repeatedly raised my criteria too quickly when trying to teach Zani to nose target a piece of tape that I first had in my hand but was working toward putting on the wall.

Zani bopping the wall
Zani bopping the wall. Sorry it’s blurry: that girl was moving fast!

Despite my errors, Zani is now doing a great job finding and touching tape and sticky notes on the wall, and enjoying doing so.

We have varied the objects: tape, sticky note, band-aid. We have varied the height a little but she doesn’t know yet that it is OK to get up on her hind legs to reach the target. That’s next!

Here is a link to the video for the WordPress email subscribers. 

Thanks for reading! Stay tuned for:

Eileenanddogs on YouTube

There is Hope: One Trainer’s Journey from Liverwurst to Kibble

There is Hope: One Trainer’s Journey from Liverwurst to Kibble

Recently on a dog training Yahoo group, a trainer wrote about needing to use hot dogs and lunch meat to train her dog. She was dismayed that her dog wouldn’t work for kibble. She asked the group if she was going to have to be cutting up hot dogs forever.

There were about 20 responses, all with suggestions for other high value treats that might be less messy or less expensive.

But, but, but…..that wasn’t the question! It was a great question! Not the old, “Am I going to have to carry treats forever?” question. (To which the answer is “yes” for most of us.) And not, “What are some good treats I can try?” Rather, it was, “Am I going to have to carry high value treats forever?”

I have an answer to this from personal experience.

I don’t have to anymore!

Screen Shot 2013-03-31 at 8.56.53 PM
Summer practicing “Lazy Leash” on the front porch for kibble

Not all the time, anyway. And that’s a huge improvement.

I have written about the value of treats before on this blog. In “Ant-Sized Treats” I described the experience I had when I learned that my treats were too small and hence not high enough value. I want to reiterate that the point of that post is not to prescribe a certain size or value of treat, but to urge everyone to pay attention to their dog, observe what works and doesn’t, and ignore prescriptions such as “eraser sized” or “the size of your little fingernail.” Your dog might need them bigger, or could be fine with them even smaller. You just need to observe to find out. I don’t want you to waste as much time as I did because I followed somebody else’s prescription and stuck with it for a long, long time, thinking my dog was just a little hopeless.

That experience built in some habits for me of using high value treats. This did wonders for both Summer’s and Zani’s agility performance, and made both of them, and Clara when she arrived, really enjoy our training sessions at home.

I have read many times, and even passed on to others, the recommendation to let dogs work for part of their kibble. But ever since I upgraded my dogs’ performance from lackluster, I had unconsciously written off that option for us. Rewarded behavior continues, right? I mean my own behavior! I was reinforced by great performances from my dogs when I gave lots of high value stuff. Why would I change? So instead of using part of their kibble, I habitually used higher value stuff. I decreased their meals when necessary to avoid over feeding.

Then one day on the Training Levels list I read a post by Sue Ailsby about how she was using part of her puppy Syn’s meals every day to teach a certain behavior and how fast it was going. I don’t know what was different for me that day; why I finally considered it. But for some reason I found myself wondering if there was a behavior for which kibble would get a good performance from my dogs. I was rehabbing Summer’s sit stay at the time, and I decided trying kibble couldn’t hurt. I mean, it’s a STAY, right? I loved the idea of not having to cut up treats Every. Single. Time. we trained.

I tried it and Summer stayed interested and motivated. I tried it on Zani. I tried it on Clara (who I had always figured, correctly, would work for about anything). Before I knew it  I was having daily training sessions with all three of them for part of one or both of their meals. Man, my treat life got easier!

Screen Shot 2013-03-31 at 8.57.11 PM
Zani staying away from food on the ground and keeping the leash lazy on the front porch for kibble

Hey folks, my dogs now work for kibble! With drive, motivation, and pizzazz! And I can prove it!

The following video shows Summer and Zani performing several of the Steps from Level 2 Lazy Leash from Sue Ailsby’s Training Levels. We had already practiced these in every room of my house, on my back porch, and in the back yard, and in the front room with the door open. But the front porch was still a big leap. And it was quite exciting out there, with joggers, neighbor dogs in their front yards, and next door neighbors out and about.

(Link to embedded video for email subscribers)

You really need to read the other post to get what a big deal this is. Summer is (was!) a hard dog to motivate, and has some behavioral issues that make lots of things extra hard for her. She is hypervigilant and anxious about quite a few things. Zani has a very steady temperament, but is a mix of breeds that are infamous for their independence and, er, hobbies. (She’s probably beagle, dachshund, JRT.) She’s also extremely friendly, so human distractions are very potent for her as well, just for a different reason.

Summer and Zani both now work with me in almost any environment with great attention for much lower value treats. Classical conditioning, transfer of value: whatever you want to call it, it happened to us. (Susan Garrett calls it “Being the Cookie.”) Working and partnering with me is a major focus of both of their lives and a major source of fun.

I no longer have to carry around the liverwurst, baby food, and tuna omelette that it took to get us to this point. Kibble, Natural Balance roll, and the occasional goldfish cracker will do. They still get high value stuff too though; I want their lives and training to be fun and interesting.

The last thing I want to do is let training get humdrum and for their performance to slide down into disinterest. I am not taking this new state of affairs for granted! I usually use the high value treats for brand new behaviors, high distraction environments, and behaviors that take a lot of energy expenditure. (For instance, when Summer and I went to the Rally Obedience trial last week I had not a kibble on me. Performing there was devilishly hard for her. I had salmon dog food in a squeeze bottle, baby food, and Natural Balance roll.) But sometimes they get the special stuff just as a nice surprise.

Clara works happily for kibble as well. (Clara would probably work well for cardboard.) But I also made a video of her doing something very challenging, incredible, actually, for kibble.

(Link to embedded video for email subscribers)

I know there are plenty of others out there with dogs that are a challenge to motivate. Here is a ray of hope. If you are currently having to use salmon or gorgonzola cheese or some other exotic, expensive, or messy treat: Keep with it. Do whatever it takes to build value for the activity for your dog. I think it’s safe to say that the more you do, the more likely you may not have to  forever.

Thanks for reading! Stay tuned for:

 

Eileenanddogs on YouTube

But How Do I Tell My Dog She’s Wrong?

But How Do I Tell My Dog She’s Wrong?

Syn
HUNTER SYNC or SWYM at DRAGONAIR getting her Apprentice Water Dog title and making the right choice with gusto.

This is a common question for beginning clicker trainers. First we learn the rudiments of marker training: that if we mark and reinforce the behavior we want, it will increase until we can eventually put it on cue.

But at first most of us feel like we are doing only half our job. We have been telling the dog when she does something right. That’s great! Hardly anybody disagrees with doing that. But it seems to us that we also need to explain to her what is wrong.

How can she really understand what’s right if she doesn’t know what’s wrong? Whether it is purely cultural or a primate thing, as some have suggested, it is deeply imprinted in us humans that pointing out mistakes, which can have a punishing effect, is essential to teaching and learning.

First of all, many studies have shown that it is not necessary for an animal to make mistakes, much less be told about them, to learn a behavior to fluency and extreme reliability. Also, I have already written about the research that shows that mixing reinforcement and punishment is actually detrimental to learning. (You can read Jean Donaldson’s magnificent rant on the subject here.)

But my point in this post is much more “nut and bolts.” Let’s take Josephine the Average Trainer, who may be a beginner and in any case is not conducting her training in a Skinner box (an environment that can block out any extraneous environmental events and help make training very “pure”). Josephine’s dog is probably making a fair number of errors. So the question is, why not punish them somehow? The punishment doesn’t have to be harsh, and clicker trainers generally support the thoughtful use of negative punishment, where something the dog wants is taken away after they perform an undesired behavior. Wouldn’t that speed things up by making the process ultra clear? Increase the right stuff and decrease the wrong stuff, all at the same time?

Watch this video and come back. Pay special attention to what happens at 0:45 – 0:48 and especially 0:56 – 1:01.

First, wasn’t that phenomenal? That is Sue Ailsby and her young Portuguese Water Dog Syn. Sue is the author of Training Levels: Steps to Success, in my opinion the best book available for someone training a dog on their own. In the space of one short training session, Sue teaches Syn to stand, to hold the stand for a few seconds’ duration, and to maintain the stand while being touched. Sue shared with me that the session before editing was about 10 minutes long, with some of that time being spent on Syn’s learning process and part of it dealing with the issues that always come up when you try to film something.

Sue made the video for the Training Levels Yahoo group. Some members had questions about teaching a stand. One of the things Sue is showing is that you don’t have to wait and capture the action of standing up; you can click while the dog is already standing and they will quickly learn that that position pays off.

But what I love about the video is that it shows a clicker-savvy dog learning from the click and from the absence of the click what pays off. That’s right. Absence of a click was all Syn needed to understand right away that downs and sits (and putting paws on stools) were not what Sue wanted in this session. Nothing else was necessary.

Absence of a click is generally agreed to employ extinction, another way animals and humans can learn. Extinction means not reinforcing a behavior that has been previously reinforced. It too can be an aversive process. But I think most of us would agree that Sue’s just waiting for Syn to try something else (especially since trying stuff is itself a behavior that has been reinforced) is a pretty darn painless response to Syn’s mistake. For most dogs with most trainers it would be the least aversive response by the human.

The video helped me put something together in my mind. Trainers who train primarily with positive reinforcement often say that most trainers who rely on punishment are announcing their lack of skill. Folks, this is not just rhetoric, and this video with a highly skilled trainer demonstrates that. Syn can learn from the lack of click so quickly because Sue’s timing is good. If instead of Sue we had someone a lot less skilled (like me), they would likely have clicked a handful of behaviors they didn’t want, and perhaps failed to click some really good stands. That would mean that the percentage of good information the dog was getting would be much lower. She would then be much more likely to choose the “wrong” behavior. And when that happens is when most of us are tempted to use punishment.

I don’t know about you all out there, but this video inspires me to work harder on my timing. And in the meantime, remind myself that even with errors on my part, just marking what is right, to the best of my ability, will work. We just may not be as fast as Syn and Sue.

Thanks for reading! Stay tuned for:

Eileenanddogs on YouTube

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

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:

 

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

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