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Tag: training errors

Three Behaviors I’m Tempted to Punish, and Why I Don’t

Three Behaviors I’m Tempted to Punish, and Why I Don’t

Whoa there, friends. Don’t misquote me. Before I go any further, I want to clarify that I am talking about negative punishment.

Negative punishment is the kind where you remove something the animal wants when they do an undesired behavior. (That’s where the “negative” comes from. Something is being removed. Check out my post on the four processes of operant learning if you want to learn more.) The dog lunges for the toy in your hand; you make it inaccessible. The dog learns that lunging makes the toy go away.  If you are consistent and there are no other influences involved, lunging behavior will decrease.

Clara goes for the toy...
Clara goes for the toy…
Toy goes away
Toy goes away

So I’m not talking about hurting my dogs. But I am talking about trying to squelch behavior.

Most clicker trainers find the use of negative punishment ethically acceptable in at least some situations. It is considered most useful and acceptable when paired with positive reinforcement. In the above example, you could hold the ball out of reach (or put it away in a pocket) until the dog stopped lunging. The instant the dog did an acceptable behavior, such as sitting quietly, you could whisk the ball out and toss it to the dog. These pairings of consequences can teach the desired behavior very quickly. (Still, I try not to do them as a first choice. Contrary to popular belief, and certainly counterintuitively, animals don’t have to learn what the “wrong” behavior is or get punished for it in order to perform the right one consistently.)

However, I also believe there are times when even negative punishment is clearly unfair. And I can define “fair” in behavioral terms. Fair in this case is when criteria are clear and the reinforcers (or punishers) are consistent. Unfair is when they are not.

It is a problem that negative punishment is so easy to learn to dole out. It can become habitual. And dang, sometimes it feels so good to just get the dog to stop whatever it is. Punishment is reinforcing to the punisher in that way. I don’t pretend to be immune.

So here are my three examples. The things I am refraining from punishing. See if you agree.

The Groan

So a couple of years ago I was at a nice shopping mall with my friend. I had Zani with me and my friend had her dog. We were standing on the pavement chatting. Zani must have been offering behaviors and had failed in getting my attention. I surmise this because after a while I looked down and she was lying flat on her side on the cold pavement, with her eyes cutting up at me. As if to say, “Is this enough to get your attention?” I took a picture that very first time. Here it is.

Zani's first "flounder"
Zani’s first “Flounder”

I have intermittently reinforced that behavior and have it halfway on cue: “Flounder!” It has remained what it always was: an extreme form of down. Her “ultra-down.” As if Zani thinks, “If down doesn’t work, let’s try this!”

Flounder
Public domain image of a flounder

In keeping with this bid for attention, which I was OK with thus far, I started hearing this little groan when she would flop down. I knew immediately this was trouble. If it got reinforced, I was going to get groaned at in addition to being floundered at. I became super diligent about not reinforcing the Flounder if I had heard her groan first. But I was too late. I think that at the beginning she was groaning softly enough that I didn’t hear it, and that sometimes I still don’t hear it.  Or perhaps at times I have reacted directly to the groan and possibly reinforced it by turning and looking at her. I must have accidentally reinforced Flounders that started with a groan because, guess what, groans are increasing!

This happens most often in the kitchen while she is on her mat while I cook. So now the scenario is that she might have been lying on her mat quietly for 10 minutes, and I feel like I really ought to reinforce such nice behavior, but, uh, did she groan first? I can’t remember. I hope she doesn’t remember either and I give her a treat.

At this point when I hear her groan, I have to hold myself back from picking her up and taking her out of the room. (This would be an attempt at a timeout; negative punishment in the form of a removal from the opportunity from reinforcement.) The behavior is that irritating to me.

Compared to a lot of things dogs do, it’s a small problem. I imagine it sounds petty of me to complain about it. Zani is adorable. But aversives get to be defined by the one who is experiencing them. When she groans now it just goes all over me. And I really really would love to make it stop. But I believe that applying the negative punishment of removing her from her mat and the kitchen when she did it would not be fair. Because from her point of view that means that sometimes she gets reinforced, and sometimes she gets punished for the same behavior.

There are ways that I could train away the groan. They could be time consuming. So at the moment I try my best not to reinforce it, try like hell to ignore it, and grit my teeth.

The Bark, Check In, and Bark Some More Loop

Clara has some pretty choice behaviors too.

This is entirely a behavior I trained. Even at the beginning I mostly realized the consequences, and in an analytical way it is preferable to almost all other choices. However, that doesn’t preclude me from getting irritated.

I have previously written about Clara’s classically conditioned and operant responses to other dogs barking and other distractions. I paired other dogs barking with treats raining from the sky, and she has a positive emotional reaction to that. It turned into a reorientation, then a recall as she started to seek me out for her treats.

You can see the version I’m discussing at about two minutes into this movie. Clara is in the back yard and I am in the house. The back door is open, as always when a dog is out.  Clara barks at something in the yard, interrupts her own barking, and comes in to check in with me. I give her a treat. I love that she doesn’t stay out there endlessly barking. A few barks and a check in are fine.

Except, what typically happens next? Lather, rinse, repeat, that’s what. The door is still open. Whatever was out there for her to bark at is probably still out there. So what is she going to do after she has checked in and gotten her treat? Hang around doing nothing? Nope. Run out there and bark again and come back again. And again. I remember that this is exactly what I taught her to do. I have richly reinforced the behavior. I didn’t convey to her, “And you can only do this once! Afterwards you have to be quiet and stop being a dog.” Doesn’t work that way.

But that doesn’t stop me from being irritated. This usually happens when I am trying to make my lunch, and also letting the dogs be outside for a while to break up their day. What I feel like doing on one of her trips in is sticking her in a crate. But that would be unfair and unproductive. How can it be right that sometimes I would give her a treat for coming in (away from something exciting, I might add), but that sometimes I would give her a sour look and stick her in a crate?

For this situation, my solution is to allow two or three iterations, then the last time I go and close the door so she can’t keep going in and out. (You can hear me mention this in the movie.) There are times when she doesn’t start barking again so I don’t want to jump the gun the first time she comes in. I am careful not to associate anything negative to coming in and checking with me. That’s not the problem! The problem is her going out again to repeat the process. And of course I am pleasant about it when I finally shut the door. I don’t make it a timeout from reinforcement to be in the house with me.

Kitchen Scavenging

Poor Zani gets mentioned twice this time. Her other annoying behavior is also related to matting in the kitchen.

Because of the logistics of four not entirely compatible dogs, Zani is most often in the kitchen when I am. She has a mat to get on that is out of my immediate working area. She gets reinforced for lying quietly on her mat while I work. Before I continue I want to remind myself and my readers that the problem is mostly in my head. I have a dog who will go get on a mat on cue, and stay there for long periods of time for pretty sparse reinforcement. That is a great thing! I am truly sweating the small stuff, but that’s how it is sometimes.

But my dream of how her behavior should be is that my walking into my area (I used to even have a piece of tape on the floor to mark it off for myself) cues her to get on her mat and stay there until released. In return she’ll get some food treats, perhaps part of what I am cooking if that is appropriate. Also part of my dream is that I completely avoid dropping crumbs, so there is never anything enticing on the floor in my area. Dream on.

But because of some complications, I decided I couldn’t rely on the cue of my walking into a certain area of the kitchen. I made a conscious decision long ago that I would verbally cue Zani when I wanted her on her mat, and that the rest of the time she was allowed anywhere in the kitchen. This works fine.

Except that sometimes I forget. And sometimes she gets on her mat first and I think I have cued her but I haven’t. And also, she eats her meals out of a food toy in the very area that I want to be offlimits the rest of the time, so of course it is an enticing place.

Add to all this the fact the Zani is the most intense scavenger of all my dogs, and I have a little dog who comes into “my part” of the kitchen and sniffs around fairly frequently. The worst thing is that I am convinced in my own mind that she shouldn’t be in there at all, even though I made the conscious decision that she should only stay out when I cue her to get on her mat. So I can be doing something completely different, say, sitting at the kitchen table. When that is the case, and I haven’t cued mat, anywhere in the kitchen is permissible for her. But it still really really bugs me when I see her go sniffing around in the cooking area.

Again, I am tempted to perform a timeout. Remove her from the kitchen the instant she heads into that area. Just get her out of there for a while and show her that it’s not OK. For many dogs that would be negative punishment, as one is briefly removing the opportunity for reinforcement. But for sensitive Zani, either being bodily picked up or led out of the room by her collar in this situation would qualify as positive punishment. Adding an aversive to the environment to decrease a behavior. Not just neutrally making reinforcement unavailable. Those things would be very uncomfortable for her. But I can tell you right now they would be insufficient to decrease the behavior. Her urge to scavenge is way too strong. So that’s another reason not to resort to this aversive technique. Even if it were “fair,” it wouldn’t work.

Conclusion

I have shared these scenarios not as some kind of confession of being an awful person. I think I am probably a pretty typical person who lives with a lot of dogs. (Is that an oxymoron?) I get irritated sometimes. I get tired of doggie behaviors. One of the first books that taught me about the mismatch between human and dog behavior was The Culture Clash by Jean Donaldson. She has been saying it for years. They bug us. We bug them.

The problem is that since I know these neat negative punishment methods for dealing with behaviors, I am tempted to use them as a shortcut to getting what I want.

I shared the stories as an example of the kind of introspection that seems necessary, for me at least, to be a good person for my dogs. This is being tough with myself. And also I wanted to describe once again the seductiveness of punishment. It’s always lurking in the corner, ready to pop out and be put to use.

I remind myself that it is not fair to apply any kind of punishment, positive or negative, to a behavior that is also being reinforced, sometimes directly by me! And I remind myself how good my dogs really are.

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The Perils of Premature Premack

The Perils of Premature Premack

Zani waiting at the back door
Zani waiting at the back door. Her reinforcement for this polite behavior is the opportunity to go outside.

Sacrilege!

Is it possible that in some cases, using the Premack principle in choosing reinforcement for our dogs is not the best choice? Can attempting Premack cause problems?[1]*A technicality, but it’s important. Notice I haven’t said “Premack didn’t work.” That’s like saying that reinforcement didn’t work. Reinforcement is defined … Continue reading

In my experience, yes. It can go wrong with some behaviors, with some dogs, and especially with some inexperienced trainers (yours truly takes a bow).

Premack’s principle states that more probable behaviors will reinforce less probable behaviors. In other words, you can use an activity the dog really enjoys to reinforce something that is ho-hum. You can reinforce loose leash walking with a tug session. You can reinforce sitting politely while the leash is attached with going for a walk. Premack is all about life rewards.

Premack is often suggested in situations when a dog really, really wants to do something, so much so that they are having a hard time with self control. My dog Zani loves little kids. If I wanted to apply Premack to this situation, I could use the opportunity to visit with them (if they were interested and it was OK with Mom) to reinforce her walking calmly up to them without pulling. Visiting with children could be a more potent reinforcer than a really good food treat for Zani. So the Premack principle can turn a distraction into a reinforcer. For my dog Summer, being brought close to children would be punishing. She’s nervous about them.

By the way, Premack applies to punishment, too. Many of David Premack’s experiments involved punishing a behavior by inducing the animal to subsequently perform an undesired behavior. We can think of examples of this easily in our life with dogs. If the only time we take a dog into a certain bathroom is to take a bath, and he hates baths (and we haven’t done anything to mitigate that), the behavior of wandering into that bathroom with us will decrease.

There is one obvious answer to the question posed by my title. Premack is not a good choice when the behavior is never acceptable. For instance, my young dog Clara loves to pounce on and body slam my other dogs. She would love it if I allowed that, but of course I don’t. I teach incompatible behaviors and I interrupt it. And I try to give her opportunities for very physical play with me, with some firm ground rules.

But there is another situation in which Premack is not the best choice, and it can be hard to recognize, especially for pet owners and anyone who is trying to teach their dog without an in-person expert teacher.

In my experience, Premack may not be a good choice when the desired behavior triggers stress, arousal, or a strong emotional response from the dog, or if the behavior results from these conditions.

Summer waiting at the back door
Summer waiting at the back door. What is wrong with this picture?

I think this can be an insidious problem, since behaviors and situations the dog gets really excited about are precisely what prompt people to recommend Premack. If you spend any time at all on dog training Internet discussion groups, you know that whenever someone describes something the dog is passionate about (squirrels) someone else is going to suggest using Premack. This advice comes as regular as clockwork. Give the dog contingent access to the squirrels.

I’ve gotten so I flinch every time I see those recommendations come rolling in. It may work out just fine. But the newbie trainer who is describing the problem may not have a correct assessment of the situation, and/or the skill to use the Premack reinforcer.

I can relate three personal experiences where Premack didn’t work out for me. And I mean, spectacularly didn’t work out. My own inexperience was part of the problem, but that’s my point.

1. Reinforcing loose leash walking with a chance to run towards a squirrel, with my dog Summer. This was a disaster. I was brand new to training, but it seemed like such a good idea, made to order. What I didn’t know then was that Summer has a very high prey drive, is hyper-vigilant, and very environmentally sensitive. I also didn’t know that I really needed to have taught her more about LLW itself (using food). But instead, I jumped right into Premack. When we would see a squirrel I would require a few steps of LLW, followed by a quiet sit. Then I would release her and we would run together to the squirrel and she would lose her mind. When I got tired of circling the squirrel tree with her, I had to figure out a way to get her away. Her capability of going for a normal walk was completely gone by that point.

If you are going to allow the dog some kind of engagement with the environment as a reinforcer, I think there is a prerequisite to being able to make it work. You need a way to get them back, and it seems to me that you need to train this first. You need your dog to be able to recover from a potent emotional response fluently. These are challenging things to do, and usually not in place if you are having a big issue with distractions in the first place.

By the way, I used sniffing as a reinforcer for loose leash walking with moderate success with my dog Zani. I allowed stopping to calmly sniff as a reinforcer for walking nicely on leash. But in her case, I had a little more experience than I had had when I tried it with Summer and the squirrels. I taught Zani a cue to go sniff, “Beagle!” And a cue to come back to my side, “With me!” I practiced the pair of behaviors in boring environments before taking it on the road, and I taught Zani the correct position for LLW to begin with already with food.

2. Reinforcing Clara for not jumping up to lick my face by letting her lick my face on cue, with four paws on the floor. Ouch. Another newbie error on my part. It seemed like such a no-brainer. I mean, if she is dying to jump up and get my face, that seems like a great candidate for Premack, right? Well in our case, wrong. I recently wrote a whole post about the face mugging problem and all the things I tried. I was well on my way to trying Premack when I thought to ask my teacher about it. She took a look at Clara, and said that her jumping up at my face did not look like a happy behavior. It was stress-related. So even if I had succeeded in teaching her how to lick my face without the danger of breaking my jaw, I might have ended up with a situation like Summer at the door (see below).

3. Reinforcing sitting politely at the back door with going outside with Summer. This is a lovely method for two of my dogs, Zani and Clara. See Zani’s photo above. It is one of the most commonly recommended uses of the Premack principle in dog training. But again, it didn’t work for Summer. You would think that something she wanted so badly—to charge out into the yard checking for cats, squirrels, and other varmints—would cause a very prompt, snappy sit at the door. Not so. As you can see in the video, sometimes she can’t sit at all. And if she does sit,  she will not accept a treat. She is what is often called “over threshold.” She is anticipating what might be in the yard, and is having a big emotional response to that. She is also showing the fallout of years of conflict with me at the door. I didn’t cope with her behavior well, especially at first. I nagged her because I was completely oblivious to what was going on. I made the situation worse.

By the way, Zani is also at the door and can be seen at 1:24 in the video in an exemplary calm sit, even though she is excited to go out, too. She is not drowned in excitement and stress hormones.

I fully acknowledge that a better trainer could have managed this situation better. She could have taught Summer first to be calm in the face of the potential excitement. Then worked up to using the Premack reinforcer when she could keep her wits about her. I should have aborted the project when my behavior was obviously stressing her out. But that’s my point. Premack is often recommended to beginners and to us non-professionals. And it can really backfire without some experienced eyes on what is happening. When I first started doing this years ago I had no idea why Summer’s sit was not more reliable. This method seemed to work for everybody else. To be perfectly frank, I read her body language as “sulky.” I thought she was being a bratty adolescent; moving slowly and giving me a dirty look because I didn’t let her out fast enough.

You might think that I would have run into a problem with her stress at the door just as badly if I had used food as the reinforcer for a calm sit. But using food diffuses Summer’s overexcitement, and doesn’t feed into it. (Many trainers have noted that food tends to have a calming effect when training behaviors, as opposed to using tug or other high arousal activities.) She has practiced her frozen shutdown followed by running out in a frenzy for years now. But reinforcing a sit near the door with a high-value food treat instead, and doing training sessions in this area of the house, are changing the potential reinforcement map in my favor. The excitement of the outdoors pales a little, which is good. She starts thinking of other ways she can earn the treat. Hmmm, how about reorienting to me after she goes through the door? Great!

Premack Successes

Let this post be a cautionary tale. But lest it appear that I am saying not to use Premack at all, let me mention some Premack reinforcers that have worked really well for me.

  • The two ball game: reinforcing Clara for releasing the ball by throwing another ball (this works with one ball, too, but was easier for me to teach with two)
  • Tug and flirt pole releases: reinforcing them with the resumption of the game (I should mention that I don’t think I would have succeeded with this one without the help of my teacher, though)
  • Putting on the leash: gets reinforced by getting to go somewhere
  • Agility sequences: reinforced for Summer with play in the water hose
  • Loading into the car crate: getting to go somewhere
  • Getting and staying in a down when I walk in the room with something in my hands: gets reinforced by getting to sniff what is in my hands (guess who: Clara)
  • Walking nicely on leash: reinforced by opportunities for Zani to sniff
  • Most behaviors: reinforced by eating food treats. Gotcha! Eating is a behavior. So really, everything is Premack.

I’m always discovering hidden genius in the Training Levels. Sue Ailsby talks about using Premack or life rewards plenty. She seems personally to be a master at transitioning to life rewards. But she uses food first. Using doors as an example: Level 1 Sit, Step 4: Dog sits by an open door. A whole Step dedicated to using food treats to teach the dog self-control around a door. Level 3 Zen: this whole Level behavior is entirely about self-control around doors, and you don’t send the dog charging out as a reinforcer once! Using food can diffuse the emotional potency of doors to the outside. It makes the door area just another training environment.

So now, almost 6 years into our relationship, Summer and I are spending a whole lot of time doing “silly dog tricks around doors.” To undo the problem I helped to create–with this particular dog–by trying to use the Premack principle first.

What about you all? Am I the only one who has made some poor Premack choices or implementations? And can anyone help me come up with a more general–or more specific–guideline for when Premack might not be the best idea? I don’t think I have ever seen this discussed online.

Thanks for reading!

Coming up soon:

Notes

Notes
1 *A technicality, but it’s important. Notice I haven’t said “Premack didn’t work.” That’s like saying that reinforcement didn’t work. Reinforcement is defined by its effects on future behavior. If the behavior didn’t increase, then there was no reinforcement. Likewise, you can’t say, “Premack didn’t work.” If what you tried didn’t reinforce the behavior, there was no Premack.
A New Resource, and our Rally Weekend

A New Resource, and our Rally Weekend

I have published a permanent page on my blog that collects all the posts and videos I have made that I have been told are useful for dog trainers to show their students.

It can be accessed here:

Video Examples for Teachers

but also is listed on the permanent menu above. I hope it is helpful. I will be adding more material as I develop it.

Our Weekend

For those of you who saw my last post on practicing Rally with Summer and attempting to reinforce appropriately, here are some pictures of how we spent our weekend. We trial very infrequently for a number of reasons, so it is a big deal for me when we do.

On Saturday we both worked hard but it wasn’t fun like it can be. I tried hard to make it easy and fun for her, but there were various stressors. We held it together in a difficult ring with an 88 and fourth place.

But on Sunday it was magic. We had a lovely run, stayed connected, and Summer stayed happy despite the difficult trial environment. I am pleased with the sequence of photos below that show her eagerly taking the jump, then beautifully collecting and checking in on her landing (fourth photo).

We scored a 98 and took first place. My unlikely competitive obedience dog and I.

Summer jump sequence 1
Summer jump sequence 2
Summer jump sequence 3
Summer jump sequence 4
Summer jump sequence 5
In the ring for awards
Accepting our blue ribbon
Superstitious Behaviors in Dog Training

Superstitious Behaviors in Dog Training

Definition of a Superstitious Behavior: Accidentally or unintentionally reinforced behavior where a behavior is reinforced but the reinforcement occurred by random chance instead of in accordance with a specific contingency.   —From the Association of Animal Behavior Professionals glossary

My little black cat Arabella never brought me bad luck

I wrote when I started this blog that I was going to share my mistakes in the hopes of helping others learn. Here are some nice big embarrassing ones regarding superstitious behaviors, but at least they date mostly from my earlier training days. Hopefully you, or any beginning trainer, can benefit from the lessons I learned the hard way.

The Terminology

B.F. Skinner first described superstitious behaviors in experiments with pigeons in 1948. He set a feeding mechanism to trip at variable intervals that had nothing to do with the actions of the pigeons. The pigeons nonetheless started repeating behaviors that had been “accidentally” marked and reinforced by the feeder.

The term “superstitious behavior” now refers to any behavior that is accidentally reinforced. A couple of the behaviors in this post stretch the definition. But even if they aren’t technically superstitious, they are nonetheless accidental or at least poorly trained on my part.

Summer’s Nod

When one of my agility buddies encouraged me in 2008 to start using a clicker, I didn’t know that I should practice timing. I didn’t know that there were mechanical and observational skills involved. A clicker seemed like a fun thing and I had heard that dogs got motivated and enjoyed it. So I also didn’t know that it would be wise to start with a behavior that involved only gross motor movements.

Uh oh.

The very first behavior I actually got with a clicker was a head nod, even though I was trying to click for eye contact. I realized this after working on this a few weeks with Summer. Summer would move her head to look at me and I would click. I clicked the eye contact but apparently also clicked the nod.  Strangely, the nod drifted to the period after the click and before treat delivery. The sequence went: eye contact, click, head nod, treat. The nod, immediately preceding the food, accordingly got a ton of reinforcement. Even though she did learn (despite me) that I was trying to teach eye contact, the head nod remained.

Four years later, I still get little nods from Summer. Interestingly, she doesn’t offer it in shaping sessions. When it comes back, it returns in its old place between the marker and the treat when I have just clicked her for something else. This is an example of a superstitious behavior.  And it turns out that I am really good at creating those!

It has faded some over the years, but I found a couple of examples. Want to see?

Zani’s Weave Poles

The following is a behavior that would have been very difficult to teach, had I intended to do so.

In the course of teaching Zani agility weaves using the two by two method, I would tend to mark with a “yes” the moment she made the turn between the last poles. This was the moment I was absolutely sure she was going to complete the behavior correctly. That’s a natural time to mark. But early on in our training, she did a few little jumps through the last pair of poles. I marked, and you can see what happened.

But what is most fascinating is that she does it only when I am on her right side. When I am on her left, she doesn’t do her “jump thing” between the last poles. I speculate that since she is very spatially sensitive, she is less likely to hurl herself out of the weaves when I am close to where she will emerge. Or perhaps I just didn’t mark the exit as much when we practiced on that side.

Clara’s Circles

Those first two behaviors are pretty cute. This behavior of Clara’s that I accidentally reinforced is rather unfortunate.

Clara has always been pushy. When she was about three months old I started a training project of reinforcing her for walking a few feet away when I was interacting with another dog. I started off with the other dogs in crates and was very systematic about it. I drew lines on the floor for my own benefit so as to keep consistent criteria about Clara’s distance from the other dogs. We did lots and lots of sessions where she would walk away a few steps and reorient at some distance.

It would have been better if I had taught a default down or Go to Mat, or at least thrown the treat away from our immediate area. I ended up unintentionally reinforcing a circling behavior. She would walk a few steps away, turn and reorient at the desired distance. I marked the turn way too often, when what I wanted for her was just to back off. But the “backing off” was not a well-defined behavior, even with my lines on the floor. So I ended up clicking an observable behavior, and that was when she turned back to me. Dang.

What is so unfortunate about this is that the circling either morphed into a stress behavior or it was one already. Because I have seen a lot more of it ever since those sessions. Clara tends to do it when I don’t mark a behavior that she expects to be marked. She will immediately whirl around, usually counterclockwise, then often retreat to a mat.

It is impossible to tease apart how much of this is due to all that early reinforcement, and how much of it is a natural stress behavior for her. I do wish I hadn’t trained so many 180 and 270 degree turns when she was young. When I set out to teach her spinning as a trick, it was dead easy, but I gave that a second thought and decided not to use that trick.

Cricket, Too

I even taught superstitious behaviors with Cricket. I tried to train a paw lift as a “wave” trick, but then it started occurring in her “sit” position as a superstitious behavior. Once it started, I kept accidentally reinforcing it. She almost never put her left foot down when she sat for me again. I didn’t know enough at the time to fix the problem I had created.

The way I first taught the behavior was not great either. A friend had suggested holding a treat in my hand and clicking Cricket for pawing at it, then fading the hand and treat. Such a bad idea in so many ways. Reinforcing an enthusiastic digging terrier for pawing at my hand? Ouch.

How To Avoid Training Superstitious Behaviors

I wish I could give some succinct, pithy advice that could keep other newish trainers from doing this. When choosing what behaviors to teach and how to teach them,  it takes experience to learn to predict the ramifications.

Here are the best suggestions I have.

  • Answer a few questions. Is there a persistent extra behavior that is happening when I train this behavior? What’s going to happen if that extra behavior sticks around? How can I get rid of it? If I’m training a trick—might this extra behavior or the trick itself turn up where I don’t want it? Might it interfere with behaviors that are actually more important to train?
  • Video yourself. If you don’t have a teacher, you can learn a lot by recording your training sessions, and if you are brave, showing those recordings to online friends if you don’t have a teacher or local training buddy. People can give much better counsel if they actually see what you and the animal have been doing. Most of us humans could use a lot of work on our observation and description skills. Cameras do a lot better job for a lot of us.
  • Get expert advice. I didn’t have a teacher to ask when I taught most of the behaviors I’ve described here. A professional would have seen most of my mishaps in an instant and showed me how to head them off.

A Success!

One thing that I got right: I started training that “backing up the stairs or wall” trick that was going around a while back. Zani just loved it and started getting good at it. It was great for hind end awareness.

But then one day when we were practicing our two on, two off agility contacts, she overran them and happily backed up into position. That would be a fault in many agility venues. I immediately stopped training the trick. A more experienced or patient trainer could certainly have both behaviors, but sometimes I realize my limitations. The risk wasn’t worth it to me.

Here is one more superstitious behavior Clara and I collaborated on. This is an example of something that is cute when a puppy does it, but can get pretty tiresome in a grown dog. Of course it’s still cute, but who wants their fingers licked Every. Single. Time. They go to open a crate door?

OK folks, please tell me I’m not the only one who trains silly behaviors by accident. Does anybody want to say what they have done? Or are you all perfect?

(Here’s a link to a one minute video that shows all five behaviors, to make my humiliation complete.)

Many thanks to Joyce Loebig for suggestions that improved this post!

Coming Soon

Copyright 2012 Eileen Anderson

Lumping It: A Public Service Announcement

Lumping It: A Public Service Announcement

So maybe you are new to clicker training and you keep hearing people talking about lumping and how bad it is. Be a splitter, not a lumper, they say. You have a vague idea about it but maybe aren’t exactly sure what they mean except that lumping is bad.

Or maybe you are a teacher and you would like a really clear example of lumping vs splitting to show your students.

Do I have a video for you!

Continue reading “Lumping It: A Public Service Announcement”
Ant-Sized Treats

Ant-Sized Treats

No tiny treats for my dogs!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Note: there exists research regarding the effects of using multiple smaller treats vs larger bites (aka magnitude reinforcement) when training.  But the basic premise that there exists a size of treat that is “too small” for an individual dog also holds true.

How often have you read the following words? “For clicker training you need some tasty treats for your dog. We recommend treats about the size of your pinky fingernail.”

If you Google “clicker training treat pinky nail” you will get page after page of hits with variants of this advice. Except some of them caution that the treats should be no larger than the pinky nail. Some say half the pinky nail. I saw one that said a quarter of the pinky nail.

If you spend any time on the clicker training Yahoo or other discussion groups, you will read conversations about treat size in which people practice one-upmanship regarding how many tiny pieces they can cut out of a single hot dog.

Guess what? This advice negatively impacted my training for years.

Many people have legitimate concerns about their dogs’ weight. Also, I think there is a bit of sensitivity in the clicker training community to criticisms by trainers who use other methods. I think some people want to minimize the whole treat thing.

At your peril.

Here is my story about treats. Summer, my crossover dog, borders on hypervigilance and does not appear to have been selectively bred for an abundance of the “joy with working with humans” genes. She is very environmentally turned on and it is very, very difficult to get her attention outdoors. So naturally, I decided to do agility with her. An offleash sport often pursued outdoors. In fields often bordered by wildlife habitat or in rodeo arenas loaded with animal smells.

For our first year or two, I didn’t have a private teacher, so we just struggled along. I did learn to use high value treats, but I cut them up nice and small as directed. Still, I doled them out fairly generously.

Summer and I got a great agility instructor after about two years. She encouraged the high value treats. I used higher value treats than anyone else in my class, and doled out more of them. Yet after about another year, I was still struggling to get Summer’s attention. My instructor started talking to the class about giving treats generously enough. I listened but I was sure she wasn’t talking to me. As I said, mine were better and I was giving out more.

Then one day in a private lesson, my teacher remarked that the treats I was using were pretty small. I immediately said, “Oh, those are my pocket treats. I have bigger pieces in the food container that I throw at the end of the sequence.” She didn’t say anything else that week. But the next week she took another look and said, “These are just too small. These are ant-sized treats!” I didn’t ask whether she meant they were the size of ants or or appropriate to feed ants. It didn’t matter. Both were embarrassing. I was still a little resistant to her comments since I always passed out several of the small treats. But I did as she suggested and started cutting up much bigger treats.

Around the same time I told her that I knew of something that Summer loved but I hadn’t ever tried. We had been struggling to get her attention for a year or two, remember. It was baby food. She asked me why I hadn’t used it and I said, and this is true, that I was afraid of “treat inflation” and that I needed to leave something at the top to use later. She kindly suggested I drop that concern.

I wrote about what happened next on a list in March, 2010.

But over the weekend, I tried something new. I took two dogs to our agility lesson. My highest value treats were pieces of commercial meatball, thrown in a food tube at the end of the run, and baby food in the jar for contacts. Even my
“pocket” treats were chunks (not little pieces) of chicken skin, hamburger omelette I made for them (just hamburger cooked with eggs), and hot dog. I know, horrifyingly fatty and gross.

And you know what: my dogs performed with the intensity and enthusiasm of my dreams. Like never before. Boy did I feel stupid. And I probably didn’t end up giving them that much more than usual in terms of calories, since one piece went a long way.

I had been like the proverbial frog in the hot tub, who ends up boiled since he doesn’t notice the rising temperature because it is so gradual. I have been settling for lackluster performance without even knowing it. Last week I would have called my dogs enthusiastic. Now I know better.

Dark meat chicken chunks for agility training

In addition to the very high value food treats, we also started reinforcing Summer in agility sequences by letting her play in water sprayed from the garden hose. It turns out she will do almost anything, with speed and excitement, for a chance to play in the hose. And the speed and excitement have “stuck” in her agility performance.

More than two years later, I still tend to use pretty high value stuff for training, but you know what? Summer gets turned on for training whatever I use. Indoors can be pieces of Natural Balance roll, kibble, goldfish crackers, or even bread. Outdoors, and for longer or more difficult behavior sequences anywhere, it is generally meat, fish, or purees thereof in a squeeze tube. And now even outdoors, my  high prey drive, curious dog keeps an eye on me all the time to see if we might do something interesting together.

Weaving for white bread

This is still a little difficult for me to admit to. It feels like I “bought” my dog’s attention. But either you’re a positive reinforcement trainer or you’re not. And if you are, part of the process is finding out what is reinforcing to your dog and using it. If you aren’t getting great results, you try something different. If I had had a typical border collie or retriever, I might have gotten equal enthusiasm from the start with something lower value. But I had Summer, and I (OK, my teacher did actually) figured out what turned her on.

While preparing this post, I needed some photographs. I cut up some hot dogs into “ninths,” then tiny pieces as in the pinky photo above. The dogs were excited by the smell of hot dogs, which they don’t often get. After the photo session I had a pile of tiny hot dog pieces, so I tried them on Clara.  But when I gave her the treats, even two or three at a time, she acted as though she wasn’t sure she had gotten anything. And this is a dog who will happily work for kibble much of the time. The pieces were just too small.

In some circumstances it seems to be very effective to dole out several treats over a time period instead of one big one. But I think even then, there is a minimum effective treat size. I’ve got two dogs (Summer and Zani) who clearly enjoy a nice big piece of good stuff for a difficult job well done.

I’m sure there are plenty of dogs out there who would be delighted with the hot dog treats I cut up today.  I’m not prescribing a treat size. I’m suggesting that we all listen to our dogs about what they want. Most importantly, don’t assume that the common recommendations apply to all dogs.

For two years now whenever I’m on a list and someone starts talking about tiny treats, I have a knee jerk reaction, and write a semi rant in response. Now I can just refer them to this post.

Has anybody else experimented not only with different foods but the size of the treats? Do your dogs like rapid fired smaller pieces or a big chunk?

Addendum, 8/24/12

Two astute readers have mentioned in the comments some things that I should have included. Pawsforpraise pointed out that you need to make sure not to make treats too large because of the danger of choking, especially in rapidfire situations. Good point. Marjorie M. also mentions pancreatitis and the dangers of too much fat in the diet. Also a very real concern. You can read the discussion in the Comments below.

Both of these points reminded me that I didn’t say anything about the need for balancing out the rest of the dog’s diet when they are getting some rich training treats. Summer and Zani, for instance, only get treats like the dark meat chicken above in one, maybe two (active, outdoor) training sessions per week. And I adjust their meals accordingly every time we train. I figured that to be self evident, but I shouldn’t have. My own problem with the tiny treats was caused by taking something too literally, so I sure don’t want to omit some practical concerns here and send anyone flying in the opposite direction!

Thanks for reading.

Related Posts

Copyright Eileen Anderson 2012

Eileenanddogs on YouTube

The Missed Cue: Attack of the Zen Field

The Missed Cue: Attack of the Zen Field

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.Up to this point, all of my Missed Cue videos have been set up. After I discover or suspect a hole in my dogs’ training I set them up in a situation in which I’m guessing they will fail, and record it as a teaching exercise. (I discuss why I don’t think this is a mean thing to do in the original post about missed cues: Dogs Notice Everything.)

But this one was not set up. It was during a normal training session. I thought I had the bases covered. And I had the camera running.

The behavior we were working on was Level 2 Go to Mat, Step 3 from the Training Levels books: Dog goes 5 feet to the mat and lies down. Clara has been getting on mats and being reinforced for that since the day she arrived. She can go to a mat on a verbal or hand signal from at least 20 feet away. She can stay on it for extended periods (20-30 minutes). She has a verbal cue, a hand signal, and two environmental cues to go to mat. She can do it when I run in circles around her, when the other dogs are excited, and in many other challenging situations.  So I really thought we had this covered. But when we are working on the Levels, we never skip steps. We train every step as if we’ve never done it before. You’d be amazed what we find out by doing that.

I was amazed today. We got to the Comeafter.  The Comeafter in this Step is to add a distraction. In the book, Sue talks about taking care in picking our distraction. And I thought I was being careful. I picked putting some food on the floor as our distraction. This is old hat for Clara. She has training sessions with plates of food on the floor, can do recalls past food, etc. She has very close to a default Zen during training. And this was only a 5 foot trip to the mat.

What could possibly go wrong?

(There is a synopsis of the following video at the bottom of this post.)

I managed to do exactly what Sue warns about in the book if you make a poor choice of distraction. I made Clara so crazy she wouldn’t go to the mat.

This problem is different from those shown in all the other Missed Cue videos. They involve generalization issues with behaviors for which the dog knows the cue in some environments/situations but not in others. This one is more like the conflict of two cues, one verbal, the other environmental. Clara certainly appears to understand what I am asking her to do and just can’t figure out how to reconcile it with other strong default instructions.

The more I think about it, the more understandable Clara’s behavior is as she shies away from the food and won’t/can’t go to the mat. We teach Zen by reinforcing the dog for moving away from the treat. That is a definable behavior, as opposed to “not eating the treat.”  And when we train it, most of us like to see the dog getting very distant from the treats, and we reinforce accordingly.

So how can I re-train this? Clara needs to know that she can pass close by the treats as long as she doesn’t eat them.

Also, why, in the second go round, does she not take the straight path I have made for her to go to the mat? She wouldn’t have to come within 2 feet of the treats. Anyone care to speculate about that? That part I don’t understand. I do note that in both cases she seemed to feel “safer” from the treats when I was standing near her.

I know we are not the only ones this has happened to. Sue has at least one photograph in the Levels book showing one a dog shrinking away from a treat on the floor. And Sharon Wachsler, a great service dog trainer, came up with a name for the thing that she modestly mentions lots of us have noticed: the Zen field. The Zen field is the invisible area around the treat that only the dog knows the boundaries of. Sharon is the only trainer I know though who deliberately manipulates the field during training: taking treats in and out of the field and extending the field by adding treats within it and changing its shape.

I am hereby asking for suggestions on how to retrain Clara to get closer to the treats, and not freak when she is asked to walk close by them.  In other words, we need to shrink the Zen field but retain its potency. Seriously, we need some suggestions. I have only one idea and it is very mundane. I bet some of you can come up with some clever ideas. I’ll choose whichever suggested method seems to fit Clara’s and my skill level the best and video the progress and results.

Discussions coming soon:

Synopsis of the embedded video 

The Missed Cue: Attack of the Zen Field

Scene 1: We see Clara having a training session with Eileen. Clara is practicing dropping a piece of knotted rope into a bowl, and there is a plate of treats close by on the floor.

Scent 2: We see Eileen calling Clara, who runs full speed past a plate of treats to Eileen.

Scene 3: We see Clara running to her mat with Eileen, but plopping down and staying without a verbal cue as Eileen continues running by and going out the back door.

Scene 4: We see Clara going to her mat and lying down on verbal cue from two different directions.

Scene 5: We see Eileen put some treats on the floor next to a mat, then verbally cue Clara to go to the mat. Clara looks at the treats and scoots a bit sideways away from the mat. She looks away, then looks back at the treats several times. Eileen changes her own position closer to the treats and cues mat again, and Clara slowly goes around and get on the mat, sniffing it as she does so.

Scene 6: A silly repeat of Clara shying away from the treats with animated flames coming from the treats and the music from the shower scene in Psycho.

Scene 7: Eileen again places treats on the floor near the mat, but this time on the other side, leaving Clara a clear path to the mat. When Eileen cues mat, Clara again slips off to the side and puffs with her mouth and circles around. Eileen encourages her to come to the other side (actually closer to the treats). Clara eagerly comes that way, then stops very short when she gets close to the treats. Finally Eileen puts her foot over the treats and Clara goes by and gets on the mat. Eileen is chatting reassuringly to Clara throughout this.

A Little Heavy on the Body English

A Little Heavy on the Body English

Part 3 of  Dogs Notice Everything (The Missed Cue)

This is actually the human missing the cue. The dogs are understanding the cues beautifully, but these are cues I’m consciously trying not to give!

Around the time I made the Missed Cue videos, I got very interested in cue discrimination in general and worked on teaching Summer and Zani the difference between the verbal cues for Crate and Go to Mat. Since it is so easy to teach these with hand and body cues, my dogs didn’t really know the verbals, although I used them regularly. So I took a stab at teaching the discrimination and made a video of our progress. The methods in the movie are not bad, but my test of the results leaves quite a bit to desired.

In the spirit of the blog, I present the embarrassing part of the video, where I attempt to test Zani’s knowledge of the verbal cues. The whole point is to refrain from giving any physical indication of which item I want them to go, and I fail utterly at this.

To make it even more obvious I’ve turned off the sound for this short clip. Even a human can tell which behavior I am cuing by my body language every time. I not only fix my gaze on the object, but I turn my body slightly in that direction. And dogs are probably 10 times better at noticing those things than we are.

It wouldn’t have been so bad if it hadn’t been the whole focus and point of the training!

Here is the above clip with sound on, in case you’d like to see it.

Does Your Dog REALLY Understand a Verbal Cue?

In case you want to test whether your dogs know a verbal cue, here’s Donna Hill of Vancouver Island Assistance Dogs showing how to do it correctly.

I’m making a goal for myself to teach some cues well enough to pass this test. The first step by itself,  teaching the dog to respond while I am out of sight, could be a challenge. This skill has to be taught gradually as well. Since my dogs can respond to some cues at a distance I’m hoping we have a good start on this.

Anybody else aware of cuing their dog without knowing it? It’s so easy to do. Want to share?

Discussions coming soon:

Thanks for reading!

Copyright 2012 Eileen Anderson

Fixing What I Broke

Fixing What I Broke

Part 2 of Dogs Notice Everything.

The three “Missed Cue” videos were among the first videos I posted publicly wherein I tried to illuminate an aspect of dog training.

Imagine my surprise when, after showing how Zani and Summer didn’t understand their “Go to Mat” cue at a certain distance from the mat, people started asking me how I would fix that.

Oh dear. I was so proud of myself for showing the world the result of this disconnect between dogs’ and humans’ perceptions. Now people wanted me to fix it?

Let me say again: I’m not a professional trainer. I am not qualified to teach people how to train their dogs or to diagnose or treat behavior problems. But these were my dogs (and this was my mistake!). I thought about it, and decided I would feel OK about posting a solution. I could show what worked for us.

I consulted Sue Ailsby’s Training Levels (the old version) and saw where she recommended moving the mat around from the very beginning. I hadn’t followed the directions, tending to stick the mat in one place and sending the dog to it from various positions. Sue wrote:

When you finally get the mat far enough away from you that she’s not going to hit it naturally, she might go looking for it (EE HAH), or you might have to switch from waiting to shaping.

— Old Training Levels, Level 2 Distance

Well, if I had done that from the beginning I never could have made the “Missed Cue” video. But going back and retraining it was fun for both Summer and myself.

Find the Mat

In the “solution” video I moved the mat farther and farther from Summer so that part of the behavior became looking for it. I put it some strange places as well; draped over a step and on top of the couch. After a couple of days’ practice of this (covered in the 3 minute video) I tested her in the original setup with the mat at the end of the hall, and actually slightly out of sight into a bedroom. She found it and ran to it confidently, going much farther than the point at which the behavior had previously fallen apart.

As usual, we didn’t do perfectly though. I did the exercise with Zani as well, and I have an unexplainable “outtake” at the end of the video where she comes up with a pretty strange alternative to finding the mat.

By the way, my dogs are free to move after I mark the behavior with a click or a yes. But since I treat so much in position in mat and other duration behaviors, they tend to stay there. That’s why you see me doing various things to re-set the dogs in these videos.

The Missed Cue: Generalization

This is the video where Zani failed to generalize the “going around” behavior from a pole lamp to a short plastic box. Or rather, I failed to help her generalize it.  Since the video was short, I included a suggested way to retrain the behavior, where I took a third object, a fire extinguisher, which has a vertical profile, and cued her to go around that as a transition between the dissimilar objects. She ran to the fire extinguisher, offered a couple of behaviors towards it, then tried going around. The second time I gave the cue she responded quickly. Looking back now, I would do this differently. I took a risk using the cue. It is usually not recommended to use the cue unless and until the dog is very solid on the behavior. What I would do today, and what I am doing with puppy Clara as she learns this behavior, is re-shape the behavior each time I introduce a new object in the beginning, and not use the cue until she is offering it regularly. That way I don’t “dilute” the meaning of the cue. As Sue Ailsby says, “Remind, review, reteach.”

Here is a short video of Clara “re-learning” the go around behavior on a new object for her. It only took a few clicks for her to get it. Let me reiterate that this is a re-shaping, not the initial shaping of the behavior. If I recall, that took about 5 minutes and many more approximations, and of course she wasn’t doing it with such ease at the end of that session. I will do the re-shaping on various objects in several environments before I use the cue “cold” on a new thing.

Clara Re-Learning Go Around

Here are two short examples of how well you can generalize the “go around” behavior (called “Distance” in Sue Ailsby’s Training Levels) if you use the reteach method and are very thorough, as my friend lynnherself is.

Going Around a Car

Going Around a Building (holding a leash!)

We’ve already had one very nice description of how another trainer solved the distance problem with Go to Mat. How about the rest of you? Have you solved this kind of problem? Do you want to share that in a comment or a video?

Discussions coming soon:

Thanks for reading!

Eileenanddogs on YouTube

Copyright Eileen Anderson 2013

Dogs Notice Everything

Dogs Notice Everything

There is a purple bathmat on the floor with a small piece of kibble next to it. We can see the head and shoulders of a sand-colored dog, who is looking warily at the treat with her body language pulling backwards.
Conflicting Cues: Clara can’t figure out how to get past the treat on the floor to get to her mat.

I am fascinated by how dogs perceive the world.

Dog experts and ethologists have been telling us for a while that dogs discriminate beautifully, but generalize poorly.

What this means in our training lives is that dogs notice all the little things that we, as trainers, tend to do the same every time. Humans fall into patterns easily and we randomize with difficulty.  Dogs notice the patterns. When I teach my dog to run a few feet to go around something and return, I usually use a lamp pole or fire extinguisher. So when I get out one of those items, it’s obvious to her what we are going to practice. It is _so_ obvious in fact, that uttering the verbal cue as she performs the behavior is probably just so much background noise to her. At the beginning stages of learning the behavior, this works to our advantage. I can get her to do the behavior just from context. But later, as we teach the verbal cue, it’s our job as trainers to vary everything else possible.

I can vary a lot of things with the “go around” behavior. These include the following.

  • the object
  • where I stand
  • the direction of travel
  • the distance to the object
  • the room we practice in
  • the presence of my other dogs

And you know what? I can vary all that, and even then she probably doesn’t know the cue. I left out a big factor. She has been watching my body language the whole time. Just try to teach a dog to go around something without clueing them into that with your body. (OK you herding people, I know you all have to do it all the time.) Sometimes we have to take the extreme measure of getting out of sight of our dogs to know whether they know the cue.

The dog starts to understand that it is all about that little sound we were making after we winnow out the contextual cues. Some breeds are better than this than others, and experienced dogs learn it faster. But none of us trainers can afford to skip generalization.

There has been quite a bit written on reasons a dog might not respond to a cue. Here are three nice blog posts about it:

Three Reasons Why Your Dog Isn’t Responding  by Eric Brad at Life as a Human.

The Disappearing Sit by Kevin Myers at DogLovers Digest.

“He Blew Me Off!” by Nicole Wilde at Wilde About Dogs.

Sue Ailsby in her Training Levels books approaches generalization in the best way I have seen in any book or system. She includes explicit instructions on generalizing in every behavior in the Levels. (Full disclosure: I helped edit the book.)

Sue writes in her colorful way about asking her service dog Stitch for a favorite behavior (spin to the right) in a new context:

I was THREE FEET from where I always ask her for this behaviour, holding a dish which was empty instead of full, and I was facing north instead of east. She wasn’t “blowing me off” or “giving me the paw.” She truly had no idea what I was asking her for. Those 3 little tiny differences changed what she saw so much that the behaviour seemed completely different to her.

— Training Levels: Steps to Success, Vol. 1, p. 226

Once you are in on it, the difference between dogs’ and humans’ perceptions is fun. But this disconnect can be bad news for some unlucky dogs. Force-based trainers seem to glory in the idea that when this communication breakdown happens, their dog is indeed “giving them the paw.” I have heard this expression uttered more than once in complete earnest.

Burch and Bailey wrote in “How Dogs Learn,”:

Well-intended owners sign up for classes at their local obedience school, only to get instruction on heeling and figure-8s…….Obedience instructors who run classes designed around formal exercises think their training will ultimately result in a well-behaved dog at home. They firmly believe the behaviors taught in class will generalize to the home. But the majority of obedience class dropouts in a 1991 study told us they quit obedience classes because they saw no changes in their dog’s behavior at home. This suggests that training is not generalizing the way some trainers think it is.

— How Dogs Learn, Mary Burch and Jon Bailey, 1999, p 78-79

The world of dog training schools and classes has doubtless improved since 1991. But at every obedience trial I have ever attended, I have seen handlers in states of rage or at least confusion at their dogs’ surprise inability to perform. Even if you attribute the dogs’ problems to “stress,” where did the stress come from? Changes in the dog’s usual training environment. Changes that in addition to differences in the visual environment involve strange dogs, strange people, new noises, a road trip, etc.

I have seen the furious trainer phenomenon once too many times. So I made a series of videos showing my dogs confounded by small changes in the environment, the props, and in one case, the effect of a previous reinforcement history.

In other words, I set them up to fail.

I admit it; I experiment on my dogs. I push the envelope at times. But just so you don’t think I am a complete meanie: in the videos, they have already succeeded and been rewarded several times. After they fail, I give them an opportunity to perform an alternative behavior and get rewarded again. So from their point of view, this is a normal training session with an imperfect trainer where one time they fail to get the behavior and fail to get the reward. The only difference is that this time, for once, I actually had a clue it was coming.

The Missed Cue

In the Missed Cue video, I move my dogs farther and farther from their mat in a boring hallway and cue them to go to it. And then we see it. Here the respond confidently to my verbal cue. A few inches away, they respond to it in utter bewilderment.  Some viewers have pointed out that in addition to the difference in distance, the dogs fail when the starting place is near the end of the hall with an open door next to them. So yes, it may have been more than just the inches. But think how different that is from how our minds work. The same word doesn’t compute when suddenly there is a familiar bedroom door to our left?

Missed Cue: Paw Touch

In the paw touch video, I let Summer practice her paw whack, a favorite behavior, on several objects, including a little basket lying upside down. Then I turn the basket over. Summer, who learned to fetch in 17 shaping sessions using that same little basket, is helpless in the face of that history. She fetches the basket proudly and prances around with it. Her discrimination is so fine that she reacts differently to the same small object depending on whether it is right side up or upside down.

The Missed Cue: Generalization

The generalization video shows Zani going around some objects. I flummox her by substituting a short plastic box for the pole lamp we had been using. She interacts with the box with a variety of behaviors, then checks back with me for further instruction. I then substitute a fire extinguisher, which is a vertical object like the pole lamp. This time she figures it out. (Nowadays I would have handled that a little differently. Stay tuned for the next blog entry for more about that.)

By the way, I know there are times when dogs understand our cues and do something else. But I believe that happens a lot less frequently than many trainers think. And when it does happen: that’s just a different training challenge.

I would love to hear from you readers about times your dogs surprised you by not understanding a cue. I hope to get some replies down below. Also if you have a video that would be great. Submit it on YouTube as a response to one of mine. (Send me an email if you don’t know how to do this.) Wouldn’t it be educational to have a whole string of these?

Discussions coming soon:

Thanks for reading!

Copyright 2013 Eileen Anderson

Addendum, 8/22/12

There is a new Missed Cue video in the series. Attack of the Zen Field.

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