eileenanddogs

Tag: verbal cues

The Right Word: Reducing Errors in Verbal Cue Discrimination

The Right Word: Reducing Errors in Verbal Cue Discrimination

Sable colored dog leaps off a pink mat towards her female handler's outstretched hand
Summer releases on the correct cues

I’m an auditory person. I grew up in a whole family of musicians. I love language and sound and music of all sorts. For the first half of my life I lived almost exclusively in the company of musicians, and in the second half I have few musician friends. This second half has made me conscious of the ways we musicians are different!

At work, I’m the one who gets asked to check the voice mail when we can’t understand the name. When there is a strange noise, eyes turn to me for identification of it. I can almost always tell if someone can’t hear me well, and I can immediately tell if someone is not listening to me (these are very different!). I can also ignore visual stimuli very well if I am listening to someone or something. (With regard to visual skills, I’ve been told someone could come in and rearrange the furniture in my house and I wouldn’t notice….)

So naturally I am interested in my dogs’ perceptions of sound and verbal cues. Frequent readers will know that I am honest about my limitations and frailties as a trainer, so I think you all will believe me when I say that ironically I seem to have three dogs in training who all have rather low aptitude for verbal cues. I.e., it’s probably not just my limitations in this case. So we all have to work extra hard on words.

Verbal cue discrimination training, where you teach a dog to respond only to the correct word,  can be stressful for any dog. If not done with care, the dog can have a very high error rate, which is discouraging to many dogs. So I gave a lot of thought about how I could reduce that error rate.

In A Secret for Training Two Dogs I described my strategies for teaching one of my dogs to stay on a mat while I trained another. I briefly discussed my methods for releases. I have chosen to use each dog’s name, spoken in a certain tone, as an individual release. Dr. Patricia McConnell demonstrates this method in “Examples of Wait with Multiple Dogs.”  This post covers how I went about teaching the discrimination of each dog releasing only on her own cue.

Does She Know the Cue At All?

Most of us at some point discover that our dogs don’t know their verbal cues nearly as well as we think they do. Here’s an experiment for those who have puppies or inexperienced dogs and haven’t worked on this before. Try this if your dog is familiar with Sit and Down, but not Stand.

Cue your dog to sit. Then look at her just like you are giving her a real cue (be as convincing as you can) and say “(Your dog’s name), Purple.” Or some other word that doesn’t sound a bit like “Down” or any other cue she knows. Most dogs will promptly lie down.

It usually turns out that your dog  didn’t really know the word, “Down.” She didn’t need to, since whenever you have said something to her when she is sitting, you meant for her to down. So you can say anything and she will do it.

The transition from responding whenever “human-says-a-word” to learning to listen to the verbals can be difficult and stressful. That’s why I decided to apply the principles of reduced error learning.

Reduced Error Learning

I don’t use the term “errorless learning” because it is both impossible in real life situations and sets a depressingly high standard for most people (and also, I have to add, the most well known studies involved lab animals that were food deprived. I just don’t want to be associated with that). I wrote about this in Errorless Learning II. I have adopted Susan Friedman’s terminology of “reduced error learning” because I think it’s more realistic.

The original concept as promoted by Skinner is great. I do absolutely follow the practices of this kind of learning, which I would describe as “setting your dog up to succeed and to reduce stress in learning, including with creative manipulation of the training environment and props.”

An example of this is the process of  making the right choice easier at first during an olfactory discrimination, such as the cups game. If you are teaching your dog to foot target the inverted cup that covers a smelly treat, first you start with only that one cup. Encourage her to use her nose to smell the cup and treat. Let her repeatedly practice touching the cup with the  treat under it. Lift the cup and give her the treat each time.

To start the discrimination, you introduce a second cup without a treat, but you introduce it way over to the side where the dog can’t reach it. You gradually move it closer and closer while the dog is still touching the correct cup. In this way you have made the correct choice easy and the incorrect choice hard, and the dog is gaining a reinforcement history for touching the cup with the treat. Only after this process would you start mixing the cups up.

The opposite of this process would be to put out multiple cups with only one with a treat under it, and mix them up each time the dog gives a try. Even if your dog knew a foot target, there would be no clue as to which cup to touch. And even if it seems like it would be obvious for them to touch only the smelly cup, well, I’m here to tell you that my hound couldn’t do it, even when I made it much easier than a bunch of mixed up cups. With several cups, the failure rate is apt to be so high that many dogs will quit after a few attempts. This is the difficulty with trial and error learning.

Applying Reduced Error Learning to Cue Discrimination

Verbal cue discrimination means you teach your dog to respond only to the correct verbal cue and not other words. The way this is generally done is to repeat the cue for one behavior several times, and reinforce correct responses. (If you are not getting correct responses, you aren’t ready to work on cue discrimination.) After about four of these, say a completely different word instead. If the dog doesn’t do the behavior (yay!), or hesitates, quickly mark and reinforce.

Note that this is harder for the dog than firing off a bunch of different cues the dog knows. Because in this exercise the dog must be discriminating enough and confident enough to do nothing if the word is not a real cue. Plus, in so many situations we reinforce clicker dogs for guessing. The first time you practice this it can be like pulling the rug out from under the dog’s feet.

So how can we reduce stress and errors? In addition to choosing words to begin with that were very different from the correct cue word, I also chose to use at first a different tone of voice and/or volume for the cue. I took pains to make the non-cues as far away in the auditory sense as they could be from real cues.

Sand colored dog with black muzzle and tail stays on a pink mat, relaxed and with her mouth open, as her female handler says a nonsense word. She is supposed to stay unless she hears her personal release word.
Clara correctly stays on her mat when I chirp out a nonsense word

 

The Process

Since the whole point of individual releases is that one dog comes and the other/s stay put, I practiced with each dog by herself, going through the following steps to insure that she learned to respond to her own release cue and not the other dogs’.

Special note:  I heavily reinforce my dogs for being on their mats, and I don’t require them to move when I give the general release cue, “OK.” Because of this I incorporated a hand target and/or other body language at first to encourage them to move, then faded it. Others would probably not need to do this.

  1. With the dog on her mat, I called her with her release word followed by invitation to hand target or other body language that invited her to move.
  2. Then I called her with her release word without a hand target.
  3. Then I said a word that was very different from the dog’s release word and in a different tone (I blurted it out, high and squeaky). I reinforced her for not moving. If she got up, I quietly escorted her back to the mat, walking side by side with her to avoid using body pressure. (This hardly happened at all, which was one of my goals.) If the dog did get up, I made the non-cue word even more nonsensical. Quieter. Or perhaps I turned away. Anything I could think of to make it less cue-like. Once she started getting it: lather, rinse, repeat.
  4. I started interspersing the dog’s release word. I reinforced when she came, and for the other words, I reinforced when she stayed. If she stayed for her own release word, I beckoned her a little. If she came for another word, I quietly escorted her back to the mat as described above.
  5. I gradually worked into using a normal tone of voice for the non release words. I continued to reinforce for correct behavior/s, staying or releasing appropriately.
  6. The final step was to work in the other dogs’ release words to make sure the subject dog wouldn’t release on them. At this point I was saying all the words exactly the same way without helping the dog. The goal was that she released for her own and was steady for the others.

Link to video for email subscribers.

Outcome

This method worked very well for Clara and Zani. Clara in particular got it very fast, and I loved how she lay there very relaxed on the mat while I said the other dogs’ release words.

Summer had the hardest time. She alone started offering other behaviors for the non-cue words.  That meant that the first few times I used a non-cue word, I had to withhold reinforcement or else reinforce a random behavior performed on the mat. In most cases she tried her “rewind” trick, a backwards inchworm move. I figured out to reinforce very fast, before she was able to move, and we got through it.

But then after I got her to stay still on the mat through the non-cue words, she lost confidence about coming on her own release word. She was not getting the difference.

I did some extra sessions with Summer. After I reviewed the video I realized what the problem was. My squeaky cues were actually prodding her to action. She is a bit sound sensitive and I think they stressed her out a tiny bit. In any case she responded by trying something, anything. So I did the obvious, and instead of squeaky blurty non-cues, I said very quiet ones. That did the trick. I was able to raise the volume almost immediately, and she is catching up to the other dogs.

I’m getting close to my goal of having all my dogs present and unfettered while I train one, with the others reinforced for their self control on their mats!

Thanks for reading! Coming up:

Eileenanddogs on YouTube

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
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 really the opposite of a missed 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 complete my embarrassment, 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!

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

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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