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Tag: training errors

The “Invention” of Cues in Training

The “Invention” of Cues in Training

Hat made out of folded newspaper

Once upon a time, there was a girl who decided to teach her dog some tricks. She figured out that if she gave her dog something he liked after he did something she liked, he was liable to do the thing again. So she taught him some simple tricks using food and play as reinforcement.   

As she went along, her dog started finding playing training games lots of fun in and of themselves. But she still used food and play. He liked earning his “pay” and she liked giving it to him. She didn’t see any reason to stop.

This girl was unusual in that she didn’t try to tell her dog what to do in words. She realized what is not obvious to so many of us: he didn’t speak English. Things worked out just fine because he could generally discern from context and her gestures what she wanted to work on.

She used a little platform to teach him to pivot in a circle. He would put his front feet on the platform and walk around with his back feet and rotate. He got good at this and soon could spin in both directions. As soon as he saw the platform he would run over to it and start to pivot, although she could ask him to stop with a hand signal.

Continue reading “The “Invention” of Cues in Training”
6 Common Dog Training Errors

6 Common Dog Training Errors

oops written on a yellow road traffic sign. There are so many dog training error s to fix!

Some of my most popular posts are about common training errors. It seems that I have an infinite supply, and I’m willing to use myself as a naughty example. New errors keep popping into my consciousness (and my training) all the time.

In this post I’m going to focus on two main categories of errors: problems with criteria, and problems with food handling. Can you identify with any of these? Continue reading “6 Common Dog Training Errors”

Accidental Punishment

Accidental Punishment

The various outcomes of our shaping sessions, punishment notwithstanding
Can you guess which dog got accidentally punished during a shaping session?

I charged straight into a positive punishment scenario by accident recently.

I’ve been somewhat in the training doldrums lately, probably because I am putting so much energy into finishing my book. I have several training activities that I fall back on when I don’t have much energy. They are fairly unchallenging for me (read: I can’t mess them up too badly) but still fun for the dogs. Even those have been hard to do lately.

But the other day I had some time and energy and decided to play a shaping game with each dog. We don’t shape that often, but they all enjoy it, and it gives their minds a good challenge.

Two of the dogs, Summer and Zani, used to have a default backing up behavior that they would offer in excess whenever I set up shaping games. This was my fault: my shaping setup resembled my backing up setup too much. They had similar setting factors, if you want to get technical about it.  I managed to get the dogs unstuck a while back with some carefully arranged object interaction sessions. (It’s easier to get the idea to go forward instead of backward if there is something to go forward **to**.)

So I decided to set up an object interaction session again. I set out a target stick, a plastic lidded box, and a laundry basket with a plastic dumbbell in it. I put the plastic box on top of one of their mats so it wouldn’t skid around.  I had an idea of a behavior for each dog, but was also willing to decide on the fly if someone did something unexpected.

Clara’s Shaping Session

Clara’s session was easy. The dumbbell in the laundry basket was for her: she loves to pick things up. I stood about 15 feet from the array of objects and it took Clara only a few clicks/treats to get over there. I stayed at a distance. This helps the dogs learn that the reinforcement zone is not always right on me, and also sets me up to practice my treat tossing.

It didn’t take much to get Clara over to the basket and looking in. The basket wanted to skid on the floor so I did go over there and brace it, at which time Clara was happy to put her two front feet in. Then I shaped her into picking up the dumbbell. This is normally very easy, but it was a slight challenge with her front end in the basket and back end out. A good time was had by all.

Summer’s Shaping Session

Summer is my super-duper shaper, which is interesting since she is my crossover dog. Crossover dogs are often reluctant to offer behaviors, but what can I say? Summer got over it. And turned out to be a creative genius when it came to thinking up stuff to do. But this session didn’t require a virtuoso performance. I shaped her to go to the target stick, which I had put behind the other stuff. She still got to it in a minimum of clicks. I needed to make more of a challenge, so I put the stick in the laundry basket with the dumbbell. She needed to hop in the basket to nudge the stick, and that she did. She’s great about getting in things.

Zani’s Shaping Session: Punishment Happened!

You knew it would be Zani, right? My easy dog/problem child.

So I had intended the plastic box for her. She’s done quite a bit of perch work and enjoys it. No big deal. We messed around a bit: she investigated the target stick and the laundry basket. Finally she noticed the box. She was directly facing me, with the box between us, and put her two front feet up on it. Yay! Click, toss the treat. Then she got on again! Ditto. On the third time, I had a sudden thought to treat in position rather than tossing the treat to reset her. So as she was placing her feet on the box, I charged right over there straight at her. She’s my pressure sensitive dog. She backed off the box in shock and scooted backwards, though she did collect the treat I had hastily thrown.

I retreated back to my area, but would she approach the box again? Nooooo. So I quickly went back to rewarding other behaviors. About 15 treats later, she was willing to go to the box again. I didn’t charge at her. It took about 5 more treats to get her putting her feet on the box.

Wanta Play Behavior Analysis?

Four quadrants of operant conditioning
Four processes of operant conditioning

OK, here we go. We could do at least two different analyses, because not only did a behavior decrease with positive punishment, but a behavior increased/maintained as a result of my aversive high speed approach too! I’ll leave that one as an exercise for interested commenters. Let’s go over the punishment.

We always start with the behavior that changed. What was it? Zani putting her feet on the box. Increase or decrease? Decrease. Can we identify why? Pretty sure it was my running full tilt at her. Why did she put her feet on the box in the first place? We were having a shaping session and there was a box there. So the ABC looks like this:

  • A. Antecedent: There’s a lidded box on the floor
  • B. Behavior: Zani puts her two front feet on top of the box
  • C. Consequence: Eileen abruptly runs straight at her
  • Prediction: Zani putting her feet on the box will decrease

Did the behavior decrease? Oh yeah it did! Zani loves to get on things and has been reinforced plenty for it. She had just gotten in the groove of offering “box” behaviors but stopped offering them after I charged at her and didn’t interact with the box again for quite a while. That’s a decrease. There was also a decrease in her behavior in general. She got tentative and ever so slightly shut down after my barging into her space.

Why is it called “positive” punishment? Remember that positive and negative in operant learning terminology refer to whether a stimulus is added or taken away. In this case Eileen charging at Zani was an added stimulus.

So How Bad Was It?

Positive punishment is the learning process that we pretty much try to avoid at all costs. So how hard should I be knocking my head against the wall?

As usual, we ask the dog, and we do this by observing her response. Did we see side effects? Referring to the list on my post “7 Effects of Punishment,” we probably got small doses of # 1, avoidance, and #4, apathy. It remains to be seen whether we will see any avoidance of me outside of training, but I could easily see her getting sensitized about my approaching her. During the session I saw a decrease in behavior from her in general, which could fit under #4. Luckily, this was only over a brief period. Zani started offering behaviors again, and then was getting back on the box willingly (i.e., no pressure from me) within about two minutes. Susan Friedman points out that when an animal has a large reinforcement history and “trust account,” the animal can typically handle life’s little unpleasantnesses well. So this probably wasn’t a horrendous tragedy.

On the other hand, I have worked very hard to pair my approaching and entering Zani’s space with good stuff since she is sensitive to body pressure. We play games where I invite her to enter my own space as well, especially when I am standing up directly facing her. That’s just hard for her, polite little dog that she is. So chalking up another “Eileen is a boorish clod and she scares me sometimes” experience was not ideal. Even just that one time may set us back just a bit in the work I do to make her comfortable with me. In other words, there is a good chance that there is some fallout of the avoidance type, though it may be subtle.

The side effects of punishment listed are generally overt behaviors. There’s also the basic issue that it can scare or hurt an animal. Whatever the animal’s behavioral response, that’s not a good thing.

So how to think about this? I don’t think being alarmist is helpful. Yes, I punished my dog, but it’s over and done with and wasn’t a tragedy (even from Zani’s point of view, I’m pretty sure, which is the one that counts). But neither do I think this is the kind of thing to brush off.  It set us back just a little bit. Zani might be a little extra wary with me in certain situations for a while. I’ll have to work that much harder to make approaching her in various ways into a happy thing.

Accidentally running up in my dog’s face is not something most people would design as a deliberate punishment. People who do use positive punishment in training would probably be amused that I am even classifying it as such. But one of my points is that even such a benign-sounding action can have fallout. Why use punishment to decrease one behavior when it will simultaneously create problems with others? You are left always trying to fill a leaky jug.

And Zani, though sensitive, has a pretty solid temperament and is used to my ways. What if I had been working with a fearful dog or even one who was new to me? A mishap like this could have meant a setback of days or weeks.

Anyone want to share their own accidents? I’m not asking for true confessions about deliberate aversive use. Plenty of us have those in our histories. Let’s talk about that another time. I’m more interested in the boo-boos. I bet I’m not the only one….

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Copyright 2015 Eileen Anderson

See My Successes; See My Failures

See My Successes; See My Failures

I wrote in my first post that one of the things I have to offer the world is a window into my mistakes as a beginner trainer. Last week I posted an update on the smashing success of my feral dog Clara (which I can’t really take credit for; most credit goes to my teacher).

So today I’m going to show you something that didn’t work with one of my other dogs, at least not how I expected it to. I think it may be very helpful to some people, as I made an extremely common error. I don’t enjoy these pictures and videos of my dear little Cricket showing stress signals, but perhaps publishing them can help some other people and their dogs.

Counterconditioning Failed?

This post is for all the people who “tried counterconditioning and it didn’t work.” There are myriad mistakes people make with this procedure, but mine was one of the most common.

When she was about 14, I started giving my little old dog, Cricket, a treat every time just after I picked her up. I did it for the rest of her life. How come she didn’t start liking being picked up? That’s how it works, right?

The concept of desensitization/counterconditioning (DS/CC) is that we pair the scary thing, called the trigger, with something the dog loves, like some meat. That’s the counterconditioning part. Whenever the dog perceives the trigger, out comes the meat. The desensitization part means that we start with a version of the trigger that isn’t scary.  That’s right. The procedure progresses much more quickly if you start with a non-scary presentation. This usually means farther away (sometimes very far) but there are other ways to dilute the intensity of an exposure, depending on what exactly is triggering the dog’s fear.

With a dog who is scared of moving cars, for instance, you could start at a large distance away from the cars. You do the pairing thing when cars come by until your dog not only isn’t bothered by the cars, but starts looking for them because they predict goodies. Then you would do the same thing a little closer. Lather, rinse, repeat. Alternatively if the big problem is the movement, you could start a bit closer with one stationary car, and have a helper drive the car, at first very slowly and for very short distances, in similar controlled exposures. The more details you can tease out about the fear, the better you can aim your graduated exposures at the trigger.

The following posts have sample lists of this gradual exposure process that is involved in desensitizing to a scary or unpleasant stimulus:

Are you back? Good. So, counterconditioning can be done without these gradual desensitization exposures but it is less likely to be effective. If you leave out them out, you will likely start at a point where your animal is already bothered by the trigger. Replacing feelings of fear and anxiety with a positive conditioned emotional response can sometimes be done, but it takes a lot more time and may never be effective as when desensitization is involved.

My Case Study

So, to Cricket’s problem with being picked up. Take a look at this picture. I am reaching for her. Her body language shows classic stress. She is leaning back, away from me. Her ears are way back, almost 45 degrees from normal. Her eye is rolling and you can see the white (whale eye). She is doing a huge lip lick. Look at her tight little jaw muscles, too. And she is about to raise her right paw.

Cricket's feelings about being reached for are pretty clear
Cricket’s feelings about being reached for are pretty clear

As I said above, I started giving Cricket a treat immediately after I picked her up, as soon as I had her in my arms. I was extremely consistent about it. Over time, her stress at being picked up abated **somewhat**. But it did not disappear.

Why Didn’t Counterconditioning “Work”?

The problem was that Cricket’s discomfort was not limited to the event of being picked up. You’ll see in the movie that she was visibly upset long before I touched her with my hands. You can see her stress response as I walked towards her and leaned over.  She even appeared to consider punching me with her muzzle when I finally grabbed her.

To properly countercondition a dog to being picked up, we have to use desensitization as well. We need to start with versions of the triggers that are non-aversive, plus we need to make sure we work on every aspect of the situation. If the dog is uncomfortable being approached, having a human stand close, and being leaned over and reached toward, each one of these needs to be treated with DS/CC, And all should start with a version that is not uncomfortable to the dog, that is,  under the threshold of stimulus aversiveness.

Link to the video for email subscribers. 

Oops! But it Worked After All

The title of this post was actually a little tricky. My attempt at counterconditioning Cricket to being picked up didn’t work. She remained uncomfortable with being walked at directly, being leaned over, being reached at, and being picked up as long as she still had her marbles. (In truth, she stopped being bothered by these things when she had advanced dementia, but that was definitely not due to my counterconditioning attempt!)

However, something did get counterconditioned. Once again, the sequence was to walk over to her, lean down, reach out, grab her around the abdomen, and pick her up. Then I would immediately give her a treat. If I was carrying her for a while, I would give her another treat from time to time.

I miss the closeness of my little Cricket
I miss the closeness of my little Cricket

I counterconditioned Cricket to being held. The instant the picking up process was finished, her head would whip around to look for her treat. And she remained quite happy with being held and carried around for the rest of her life.

Full Disclosure

I did realize what the problem was well before Cricket died. I chose not to try DS/CC on the other triggers because by that time, I already had to pick her up and carry her probably a dozen times a day. One of the principles of successful DS/CC is that you do the pairing every time the action is performed; you never perform the action without the treat. Also you work on one action at a time. That simply was not feasible. But I was faithful with her treat after being picked up. Her discomfort abated somewhat, and she was already anticipating her treat when she was in the air, coming up to be held.

It was a lesson learned for me though, and Zani, whom I may need to pick up a lot as she gets older (we are working on it now), will profit from it.  Another lesson for me was start early with all husbandry behaviors!

Whenever we think the science doesn’t work as predicted, examining our own actions and techniques is a great place to start.

Anybody else have any educational failures? Man, dog training is sure like that for me. The dogs are like little maps of all my mistakes!

Related Posts and Resources:

I will be making a movie in the future on the specific topic of counterconditioning a dog to being picked up. In the meantime you can get an idea of the first steps of a handling protocol from this movie of mine, or this movie by Chirag Patel of Domesticated Manners about teaching a dog to wear a muzzle. Neither video is an exact match for how we would start out if teaching a dog to like being picked up, but you can get the idea of starting at the very beginning, rather than lumping all the steps together.

YouTube

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The Girl with the Paper Hat

The Girl with the Paper Hat

Hat made out of folded newspaper

This post has been updated and re-released here

Once upon a time there was a girl who decided to teach her dog some tricks. She figured out that if she gave her dog something he liked after he did something she liked, he was liable to do the thing again. So she taught him some simple tricks using food and playing with toys as reinforcement.

She and the dog had so much fun that she found as she went along that he didn’t need to be reinforced with goodies as often; he started finding playing training games with her very fun in itself. But she still used food and play, especially with new stuff or very difficult things. He liked earning his “pay” and she liked giving it to him.

It didn’t occur to her to tell the dog what to do in words, since she knew he didn’t speak English like she did. But things worked out because he could almost always discern from context and her gestures what she wanted to work on.

She had a little platform the she used to teach him to pivot in a circle. He would put his front feet on the platform and walk around with his back feet and rotate. He got very good at this and soon could spin in both directions. As soon as he saw the platform he would run over to it and start to spin, although she could ask him to stop with a hand signal.

One day she decided she’d like to teach him a new trick using the little platform. She wanted him to sit on it. She got out the platform and he ran over and immediately started spinning. She laughed and signaled for him to stop and he did.

With gestures she got him up on the platform with all four feet within a few minutes, and it was easy from there to get him to sit.

sable colored dog has her front feet on an inverted yellow plastic basin, preparing to spin her rear end aroundThe next time they played training games with the platform, he ran over again and started to spin. But she indicated to him that she wanted him to get up on it and sit, and he soon did. Each time they trained, he spun less and sat faster, until one day he ran in and sat on the platform. She told him how smart he was and gave him a cookie.

Over the next couple of weeks she had him do lots of things on top of the platform, and didn’t ask him to spin. He would always run to the platform and sit on it to start.

Then she asked him to start spinning again. They worked on both things equally. After a little awkwardness at the beginning, he always figured out what she wanted.

One day she set out to train and got the platform out. Her dog ran in and then stood stock still next to the platform and looked straight at her. He seemed to be asking, “What are we going to do today?” She realized it would be nice for him if he knew which thing she wanted him to do that day, rather than always having to figure it out by trial and error.

She thought about it and realized she could create some way to let him know which trick she wanted to work on. She made herself a silly hat out of newspaper. From then on, every time she wanted him to get all the way on the platform, she wore the paper hat. When she wanted to work on spinning and pivots, she didn’t wear the hat.

It took only a few sessions for him to catch on, and thereafter he would immediately offer the right starting behavior depending on whether she was wearing the hat or not.

Question: What did the girl create with the hat?

Answer: A cue.

What’s the Point?

OK, I’m a little obsessed with cues. But I would really like to share my (admittedly limited) understanding with those who are newer at this than I am.

  • First, all sorts of things can be cues. If you don’t create a deliberate, explicit one, dogs will usually figure out what you want from contexual cues. Before the girl started using the paper hat, there were still lots of cues for the dog. But they were fluid and not systematically organized.
  • You might not even know what a dog’s cue actually is! Lots of times when we think the dog understands a verbal cue, they are cuing off something else entirely. Try this: put your dog in front of her crate (if you use one), point, and say, “Purple cow!” Some other time, get your dog in front of the crate, don’t point, but just look at it, and say, “Daddy long legs!” Dogs notice contextual cues brilliantly, and most will get into the crate in this situation. If you had proofed the living daylights out of your crate cue and had complete stimulus control over it, as long as those two phrases aren’t your real cues, the “proper” response would be for the dog to stand and look at you, waiting for further instruction because he knew you had spouted nonsense. But almost no one puts crate or mat behaviors on stimulus control, so most dogs who are conditioned to like their crates will leap in at the slightest hint that that might be reinforceable right now.
  • Conversely, think of a situation in which you always, without fail, ask your dog to sit (with or without a verbal cue). Get them in that situation and give your verbal for down, stand, or another behavior and see what happens. If you have worked very hard with your dog on the distinction between your verbal cues, your dog might do fine. But most will have a bit of hard time.
  • Finally, cues in training or the real world don’t have to be quick words or movements. The “Open” sign that stays lit up all day in a store window is a cue that says that you can go in the store and shop for a while. When you’re at a club, the music going on is a duration cue for people to dance. Most people stop when the music goes off. You don’t have to, but it’s more fun (reinforcing) to dance while the music is on. So a paper hat, left on, can be a cue that a certain type of training is going to happen and a certain family of behaviors will likely be reinforced.

Here is Summer in a situation where the contextual cues and something called the matching law conspire to make her fail to respond correctly to a verbal cue. (Stay tuned for Part 2 on the Matching Law.)

Link to the video for email subscribers.

Having clear cues is a way to be fair to your dog. Remember, a cue is an indication that a certain behavior, set of behaviors, or behavior chain, is likely to be reinforced. Having unclear ones defeats the purpose. Help your dog by being very clear about it!

Coming Up:


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Copyright Eileen Anderson 2014

 

 

 

Summer Punches It

Summer Punches It

Targeting a plate with élan
Summer targets the plate so hard that her muzzle slips upwards. And look, her mouth stays closed!

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!

What Happened

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:

  • date
  • criterion
  • number of reps
  • number of correct reps
  • correct reps as percent
  • goal percentage
  • comments

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?

Putting the spoon against the plate made it less tempting to bite
Putting the spoon against the plate made it less tempting to bite

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.

Link to the video for email subscribers.

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:

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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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Using a Training Plan to Retrain Summer’s “Target”

Using a Training Plan to Retrain Summer’s “Target”

Summer's new hand touch
Summer’s new hand target

In our last episode, I shared how I messed up Summer’s hand (and object) targeting behavior six ways from Sunday. Now I will share the process of retraining it.

When you follow directions from a book, such as the Training Levels, a lot of the planning is done for you. So I get a little lazy about training plans. I can just check little boxes off in the books.  (A reminder: I  acquired all these errors when I was brand new at training and using a mishmash of methods. Wish I’d known about the Levels earlier.)   But it’s a good idea to always have a plan, and collect data on what you are doing. Since I now need to do a unique retraining plan suited exactly to my dog and her needs, I am going to make a plan and share it, then share how well it works.

Training Plans

Training plans can be as simple or as detailed as the situation demands. For this situation, where I am trying to get rid of several superstitious behaviors that often follow my cue for hand target, I am going to make a thorough plan, and share it here.

Here are two posts about training plans, both by great trainers.

I combined parts of both of these to design the categories for my plan. I also made a record-keeping spreadsheet in Google Docs, loosely based on Melissa Alexander’s. Hers is accessible through her post above.

My Training Plan

  • Goal: a clean touch of Summer’s nose to my hand, followed by her generalizing that to similar touches to different objects. I want verbal cue recognition (will do tests with objects, see below).  But she doesn’t have to wait for a verbal if I do the hand signal.
  • Description:  A clean clear touch of nose to hand or object. She can be in any position that will allow her to reach the hand or object. It doesn’t have to be a hard touch, just definite touch of nose. No drivebys, and no just whiskers. No teeth, no open mouth. Minimal paw lifts. I define minimal as: her paw can lift about an inch higher than normal if she is walking or trotting to the target. Getting her mouth closed and preventing paw whacks are essential. A little leftover paw action is OK with me.
  • Methods: Capture the touch, then shape a firmer touch if necessary. I want to make the picture as different as possible for Summer from the very beginning, including changing the hand signal and verbal cue. I will follow the progression in Level 1 Target in the Training Levels. I will start with me seated. Use Sue Ailsby’s hand position (see “new position” above). Start off with my left hand rather than right, which I have used more often for hand targets before. I’ll drop treats rather than handing them to her (encourages mouth/hand contact) or throwing them (builds excitement).
  • Cue: Verbal. In the case of hand touch, presentation of hand.  Cue discrimination: the ability to distinguish from Sit and Down on verbal alone. For this I will use a standalone object, since the presentation of the hand will always be more salient than the verbal. When to start with the cue: TBD.
  • Sessions: Up to three sessions per day of 10 treats.
  • Criteria for advancement: In the early stages of the hand touch, 95% or above. This is because my goal is to clean out the old superstitious behaviors. Also I have observed that Summer doesn’t mind lots of repetition. Later I will build in her looking me in the eyes before I will give the cue. This is because of her habit of staring at the food or my food hand.
  • Duration? Not for this project.
  • Distance? 15 feet to object, or about that much if chasing me.
  • Distractions? Maybe near the end. Put down a mat for her to go by as she goes to touch an object.
  • Position: Hand touch from all different directions. Object touch from different positions. I will limit to objects already in her sight, i.e., she doesn’t have to turn around to find it. However, I plan to “try it cold” by cuing a Touch when she is not expecting it and when there is an obvious object to touch.
  • Where: Start in my den. Do other rooms in house, back porch, back yard. Possibly go on to front porch.
  • Reliability: I want 95% free from superstitious behaviors. Response to cue itself 80-90%.
  • Comments and caveats: Since we have an ongoing issue with staring at food, I will chain in eye contact after she is getting some fluency.  She is more likely to do the undesired behaviors if she is excited and moving fast, so I will start with her standing still. Observation: she is quite likely to offer an undesired behavior after failing to meet criteria and doing a light touch on the first one, instead of offering a firmer touch. I will need to be creative and use positioning to avoid errors. Also I stated earlier that I don’t want to use negative punishment at all if possible. That means I don’t want to rely on pulling the target away from her if she is approaching it with her paw or an open mouth. I want to prevent those things from happening to begin with. I want to tell her through reinforcement what is working.
  • Future:  Duration. Mix up Zen and target. Learn to distinguish target cue from retrieve cue.

The difference between my old and new hand positions for target:

Notes about Future Steps

In the Training Levels, what follows the hand touch is:

  • Foot touch:  (Dog’s nose to human foot) Probably no problems here.
  • Wooden object: I’ll need to prevent teeth touches and grabbing by using a large, flat object, as described in the Levels (p 187) Need to watch for feet movement. How to discourage? Careful height of object. Experiment with stationary vs moving.
  • Plastic object: ditto.
  • Metal object: ditto.
  • Spot on wall: I’ll have to modify the instructions: I won’t use a post-it note or painter’s tape. (Watch the Targeting Mishaps movie to see why.)  I’ll draw or paint a target on a piece of poster board with non toxic paint. Start by holding the board. Shape touching the spot. When that is solid, get it onto the wall.

We have practiced all of the above behaviors before, but many incorrectly because of superstitious behaviors.

Session Planning

Session 1. I’ll sit in a chair. Treats on my right on a desk. Proffer left hand in position described by Sue. Correct iterations marked by Yes and drop (don’t throw) treat.

Link to video for email subscribers.

My Notes after the First Two Sessions

Wow, real life comes crashing in. So Summer did one touch/sniff, then the very next one she took all my fingers in her mouth. (A “bite” but very inhibited. Her teeth didn’t close.) I wasn’t ready for that at all. I was in the middle of saying “Yes” but aborted it. I was so surprised I just got up and turned off one of the cameras and took a break. In the meantime Summer heard me say most of “Yes” and was sniffing around looking for her treat, which I had made a split second decision about and didn’t give her.

Dang! An important goal for me is no negative punishment, but abruptly getting up and stopping a training session can be a big dose of that….

But the video taught me a lot. Both the times (yes, it happened again) Summer took my fingers in her mouth, I had presented my hand kind of flat. Must have looked like I was handing her a treat.

Besides the position of the hand, I need to make its presentation a little clearer (I don’t need to leave it halfway out there). Make it very clear: on/off. I’m still struggling a little with the hand position; that’s part of why I am so stiff. Also I’m trying to keep my body very quiet. A couple times I was too slow and she was already moving forward when I presented my hand.

I’m really really glad I counted reps and successes. I would have overestimated our success rate otherwise.

Also, I chose to go with 10 treats rather than 10 total iterations. 10 treats means 10 correct responses, but puts no limit on incorrect responses. Sometimes not advisable at the beginning. But even looking at the video I had a hard time deciding what “counted” as an iteration or not, so I’m glad I wasn’t trying to count while training.

Third and Fourth Sessions

We have already had our third and fourth sessions, although they’re not included in the movie. Our success rate got better and went up to 10 correct out of 13 both times, which comes to 77%. I tried to loosen up a little and move in Session 4 but I immediately got an open mouth from Summer. I’ll need to continue to be very conservative since movement on my part has typically triggered mouthiness on hers. There’s always a fine line between getting the behavior and not wedding it to a certain setup. I’ll do some other things to introduce some variety.

Here is my training tracker document. I’ll keep it up to date and publicly accessible.

Thanks for reading.

Now that it’s done, here is the whole series:

Also coming up:

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6 Ways I Messed Up My Dog’s Targeting

6 Ways I Messed Up My Dog’s Targeting

Targeting done right! --credit Marge Rogers
Targeting done right! –credit Marge Rogers

Hand targeting is usually suggested as a great behavior for new clicker trainers since it is easy to get and easy to define criteria for.

I guess I didn’t read the brochure carefully enough because I messed up hand targeting for one of my dogs six ways from Sunday!

From time to time I share in the blog mistakes I have made in the past, Continue reading “6 Ways I Messed Up My Dog’s Targeting”

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?

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