OFF!

By far the most commonly misused cue that I see in pet dogs is the cue “off”. I teach my dogs the cue “off” but I use it very differently than most folks do. I teach it as the opposite of “on” as in “get on the chair”. Or the couch. Or the bed. Or the hay bale. Or the groomer’s table. Then I use “off” to tell the dog to get off of whatever I have asked him to get on. When I have a dog who is struggling with guarding spaces, this is probably the first behaviour I teach; get on the couch, click/treat, get off the couch, click/treat. That is how I use “on” and “off”.

The problem that I observe is that most people use “off” to do something called “counter cuing”. Counter cuing is when the dog chooses to do a behaviour and you cue him to do a different behaviour. The idea is that the dog goofed, and made the wrong choice and you are helping him out. This works well in the human world after all. If you are in the airport and you choose the line that will lead you to priority boarding someone will come along and help you out. If you are supposed to be in business class, you erred in your choice, and they will tell you. If you are in the priority boarding line because you should be there, then they will tell you that too. So when a dog jumps up to greet a guest, most pet owners cue the dog “off”, treating the behaviour the same way an airline employee would treat a traveller in the wrong line.

International airport Platov, registration desks. Rostov on Don, Russia - December 12, 2017
When we get in the wrong line at the airport we appreciate the information that we should be in another line. If we keep going to the same airport, and keep getting told to go to the other line we will learn to select the correct line eventually. Dog’s won’t learn that about jumping up because they get a big reward for making the wrong choice.

There is an important difference between the dog who jumps up and the traveller in the wrong line. Usually, the dog who is jumping up is expected to never jump up. The traveller could conceivably be in the priority access line some time. This difference may not seem terrible, but when you put it in the context of learning it can make life really difficult for the dog. Many dogs learn very quickly that “off” doesn’t mean “never”. “Off” means “not this time”. Here is how that works.

When you are teaching dogs a cue, the cue says “do this behaviour and you will earn a reward”. Most people when they are teaching a dog to not jump up, teach the dog that when they stop jumping up, they will get attention, and most dogs who are greeting by jumping up enjoy attention. So what happens is that the dog jumps up, the owner says “off” and the dog gets off and the owner pays attention to him. This creates a sequence that we refer to in dog training as a behaviour chain. I like to think of it as a game where we each take a turn, and at the end there is a reward for the dog. This behaviour chain looks like this:

BEHAVIOUR CHAIN

It doesn’t take long for a smart dog to figure out that jumping up starts the game of you telling him what to do so that he can do it and you can give him attention. The problem is that MOST of the time we don’t want the dog to jump up at all! Because the chain is heavily reinforced each and every time it occurs, the dog thinks that jumping up is the desired behaviour.

So what to do? To begin with, understand that you can spend your dog’s whole life explaining to him that the priority seating line is not for him, and he is never ever going to get the memo. As long as he eventually gets attention for jumping up to begin with, he is going to think that when flying “air trainer” you line up in the priority access line, then you wait till you are told to move to business class and then you get boarded! Starting out by understanding that the dog thinks that jumping up is a required step. Once you understand that, you can start to make changes to change the outcome. Training is a series of steps that starts with our understanding of what is going on and progresses to us changing our behaviour in order to change our dog’s behaviour.

Before I progress on to outlining a few of the ways that I use to teach keeping four paws on the floor, let me add that there is an element that contributes to the problem. Excitement. When a dog is excited he may not remember what the process is. He may forget temporarily what the protocol is, so even when he knows what you want him to do, he has to over ride the temptation to get his face closer to our face when he is greeting. This is really important to understand along the way to success because he may not initially be successful when he is highly aroused.

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This dog is typical of a dog who has been told to get “off”. He is very good at jumping up, and will likely stay there until told otherwise. He thinks this is how he is supposed to greet! I am betting that the man who is being greeted would prefer that he didn’t have to go through the routine of telling the dog what to do!

My first go to change in my behaviour to change jumping up is to just stand there. I am not ignoring the dog however; I am attending closely to what is happening. The dog approaches and jumps up and I turn into a statue. When the dog jumps off me (which he eventually has to do because dogs don’t have terrific balance when on their hind legs), then I pay a LOT of attention to him. It takes very little time with a young puppy to learn that jumping up just doesn’t pay well, and the time spent standing up against me decreases very quickly. Eventually, especially with a young dog, they just don’t bother jumping up; having four on the floor just pays better.

With older, committed jumping greeters, I will usually start by standing quietly until the dog gets off on his own, however in the event that the dog has had a very long history of jumping up, I may need a plan B. In this case I get out my clicker, and as he approaches me, I click and toss the treat BEHIND the dog. This teaches the dog that there is very little to gain from charging at me and knocking me over. It is usually a quick study in the dog approaching at a more sensible speed. At that point I can start offering the treat low and then greeting the dog with all four feet on the floor.

If neither of those tactics work, I have a third strategy I use. The technical description for that strategy is “response cost”. Every time the dog jumps up, I quietly and calmly say “too bad” and put the dog in a crate, behind a gate or out of the room I am in. Most dogs quickly learn that if they jump up they lose all access to me, and if greeting is what drives the behaviour, they have lost the one thing that matters. Their response has cost them something they wanted. My dogs all learn that the cue “too bad” means they are going to lose something they want.

You should notice that in all three strategies, I don’t say anything to the dog about getting “off”. In fact the only time I say anything is if I am going to indicate to the dog that he has lost his turn. Only once he is doing what I want do I start to communicate with him again. I don’t end up with a dog thinking that I actually want him to jump up; he is clear that jumping up either gets him nothing or a trip to his crate or another room. Changing my behaviour results in changing the dog’s behaviour.

I should mention that I see the “off” issue when dogs get on furniture or counters too. The same principles apply. If you say “off” you are really saying “go ahead and get on or jump up until told otherwise” and that just isn’t a very efficient way to train your dog!

OFF!

THE SWISS ARMY KNIFE OF DOG TRAINING

I happen to own two Swiss Army knives; both from Switzerland, although I have never been there.  One is mine and the other belonged to my late father.  For a long time I kept them carefully separate so I knew which one was which.  They are both special to me; mine was brought to me by my parents after they visited Switzerland and my father’s was given to me by my mother at his funeral.  They both have toothpicks and I haven’t lost either toothpick.  They both have two blades, a big one and a little one.  They both have a couple of screwdrivers (a Robertson and a regular flat blade one) and they both have the inevitable corkscrew which I have never ever used since I don’t drink.  They are very handy items even though they don’t come with every tool in the book.

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I LOVE my Swiss Army Knife! I almost always have it in my pocket because I use it all the time. It does have its limitations, however, it is handy for almost every job. Sadly, it doesn’t come with a clicker!

Positive reinforcement is a bit like my Swiss Army knife.  I can use my knife both for cutting string and for opening a paint can.  I can use positive reinforcement to teach a dog to stay or to come.  I can use the Swiss Army knife to pick my teeth or to clean out the groove that the little tab belongs in on the lawn mower.  I can use positive reinforcement to help a dog with thunderstorm anxiety or to jump over a jump.  Both of these tools are widely useful.  The key to being successful is having a solid understanding of how the tool works, what it does and what it doesn’t do.

The easiest way I know of understanding what positive reinforcement is would be to divide the term into its component two terms.  Positive refers to everything that the trainer adds.  So, if I were to GIVE the dog a treat, I am positive.  If I YELL at the dog, I am also being positive.  Sadly, positive has a second and not useful meaning related to behaviour.  When we say we are being positive, we might be indicating something pleasant or desirable.  In training we simply mean adding something to the interaction.  Reinforcement is anything that increases the behaviour; so when the trainer adds something, and the dog does more of whatever we are training, we see positive reinforcement in effect.  This means that if the trainer YELLS at the dog and the dog BITES more often, we are positively reinforcing biting!  That sure doesn’t sound like the positivity of feeling good or better.

In its simplest form, positive reinforcement increases desired behaviours.  If we want the dog to sit more often, we wait for the dog to sit and add something he wants.  If the dog sits, randomly, we could get right up and feed him a treat.  If this happens 3 times in an hour in the first hour, and 7 times in the second hour, and 22 times in the third hour, and 21 times in the fourth hour, and 34 times in the fifth hour, we can see a trend where over time, the dog is increasing the frequency that sitting happens because the trainer added a treat each time.  Easy peasy, right?  This works for simple skills where the dog offers the behaviour in its entirety without having to learn something unusual or unnatural and we wall it capturing because we are capturing the behaviour as is.  What about more complicated things?

Complex behaviours can be developed through a process known as shaping.  You can think of shaping as a series of steps towards an end goal.  Heeling off leash is a behaviour that is very easily shaped.  Simply stand still and when your dog comes towards you, mark the behaviour (we use clickers, so I will just say click when I mean mark), and toss a treat away from you.  We are adding the click, and the dog keeps coming back to us after each tossed treat, which means that the behaviour of being with us is increasing, so this is still positive reinforcement.  Next, you could stand so that your right side is against a wall, and click when the dog comes into heel position, and toss the treat over your shoulder so that the dog goes behind you to get the treat.  In this way, he will begin to get closer and closer to a nice stationary heel position.  After a few reps of this, you might try taking a half step away from the wall, and continuing to click for being on your left side in heel position.  You would of course continue to toss the treat behind you to get the dog out of position, and then back in again.  When your dog is good at that, you might continue the progression by stepping further away from the wall.  Eventually your dog would be choosing to come to your left side even if you were in the middle of the room.  You could make a nice little game of this and begin walking forward one step and clicking when your dog keeps up with you, and then walking forward 2 steps and clicking for keeping up with that.  Progressively, you add more steps and then changes of directions and halts and eventually, you have very nice off leash heeling.

young hunting dog and hand with clicker
Positive reinforcement is the Swiss Army Knife of dog training. When you use a marker like a clicker to help the dog understand EXACTLY what you are teaching him, it can be a very powerful tool. Understand different aspects of positive reinforcement helps you to optimize your training.

Shaping can be applied to all sorts of tasks, from heeling to coming when called, all the way through complex things like backing away from you and spinning!  Shaping is a skill though and both you and your dog need to learn the process.  With one of my own dogs, D’fer, I had to stop using him as a demo for shaping after he learned to “shovel snow” by lining up to the handle of a snow shovel, pick up the handle and walk the shovel forward in under ten clicks!  He was really good at shaping but he gave my audiences an unrealistic expectation for how long shaping would take.

All this is very good information for building behaviours, but how about dealing with behaviours you don’t like?  Positive reinforcement can be really good for that too!  There is a procedure called Differential Reinforcement of Alternate behaviour, shortened to DRA.  It is also sometimes called DRO, with the O standing for Other behaviour.  What this means is simply that you mark or click for anything other than the behaviour you want to get rid of.  Let’s say you have a puppy who jumps up.  When he is doing ANYTHING other than jumping up, you can mark that and treat.  The fact is that most of the time the puppy is NOT jumping up, so you have lots of behaviours you can reinforce.  You can reinforce for four on the floor, running around, barking at the window, lying down, sitting, grabbing a toy, looking at the other dog, following the cat or getting on furniture.  Some of those behaviours might also be on your list of things you don’t want your pup to do, but none of them are compatible with jumping up.  This is a very flexible procedure, so you can either choose one of those things, or all of them, and either way you will decrease the jumping up behaviour.  In practice it is best to choose one behaviour and click that and only that, but at the beginning it may be best to just click for everything that isn’t jumping up to make the point that there are lots of things other than jumping up that you can click.

Another way to decrease behaviours is to reinforce the least iteration of the behaviour.  This works well for behaviours that go on and on, such as barking.  Barking can be looked at as one behaviour, or it can be looked at as a long series of behaviours.  When we look at it as a long series, it is easy to get control over it by clicking for the first few barks.  If you were to count how many barks happen before your dog just naturally stops barking, you might find for instance that he barks an average of 78 times.  I would want to get my click in before the fifth bark if possible, and initially, I would be following the click up with super duper good treats and lots of them.  I would want to make a big impression because barking is such an exciting behaviour.  I would keep doing this until I had an INCREASE in short bursts of barking.  It is much easier to get rid of barking altogether when it occurs in short bursts instead of over long duration!  Once I was in control of the barking to the extent that it only happens in short bursts, I could start clicking for single barks. 

All of these procedures have pitfalls, which is why I have a job!  I have had many students say to me “that worked for a bit, but it isn’t working any more”.  When you are using a Swiss Army Knife as your main tool, you may have to sometimes stop and change tactics in order to be successful.  Knowing that there are other blades to use when your first choice fails you is a valuable skill to develop as a trainer.  Positive reinforcement is my favourite training tool by far, and it is really useful to play with various ways to implementing it.

THE SWISS ARMY KNIFE OF DOG TRAINING

NEVER MIND “LEAVE IT.” “TAKE IT!”

Originally posted April 2013

This week I posted an image on my Facebook page of one of the dogs in our class doing an automatic leave it.  In our group classes, we store all of our treats on the floor in front of the dogs.  When a dog tries to snatch a treat out of a hand, we just close our hand around the treat and wait for him to ask more appropriately to get that treat.  The first thing we teach all of our puppies is that rude behaviour gets you nothing or a time out, and good behaviour allows you to ask for what you want and to get that.  A colleague commented that likely “it all has to do with the overall amortizing of value the dog has to the handler versus the quality of treats” and I disagreed.  Here is why.

When we train we use food in two ways.  Firstly as a currency to communicate what we want the dog to learn.  If we want the dog to learn to sit on cue then we “pay” the dog in treats every time he sits and then we increase our criterion so that we only pay when we ask the dog to do something.  This is a very simplistic situation and I think if we stop at that point in our use of food we short change ourselves and our dogs.  The second way we use food in training is as a joint goal that the dog and handler get to together.  I think of training beyond the basics as a maze that I am negotiating with my dog to get to an end goal.

Given that we use food in these two ways, we have to start out by teaching the dog that food has value and he can get it if he does something.  I use a tool that most modern trainers are familiar with as “doggy zen”.  I put the dog on a leash so he cannot leave, and then I hold out my hand with a treat on it, just under my dog’s nose, so that he could if he wanted, take it.  Most dogs will immediately try for the treat.  As soon as I see the dog try for the treat, then I close my hand around it.  The dog controls what happens; if he hesitates, I leave my hand open and if he tries to get the treat, I close my hand.  When I can leave my hand open for a count of three I say take it and put the treat in the dog’s mouth.  Some dogs actually try not to take the treat at all at this point, but I make sure they get it.  We usually start with REALLY high value treats.  Once the dog understands not to snatch things out of hands, we do this with items on floors, on tables, on chairs, and so on, until the dog understand that he must stay back in order to get what he wants.  And if you are paying attention at this point, you should notice something very significant about what I have not done.  I have NOT said “leave it”.  I feel that leave it is actually a big problem for many pets and their people.

I am going to switch tracks here and use a little story to explain why “Leave it” is a problem.  Imagine for a moment you have been given tickets to a very fancy event; say a play.  It is ultra swank.  It is an all inclusive, get dressed up, have your hair done, fancy live theater event, and part of the event is hors d’ouvres at intermission.  At intermission, you and your absolutely stunning date, who is equally spiffed up as you are, get out of your seats and go to the lobby.  In the lobby you will find penguins.  The guys dressed in the fancy black and white serving outfits, holding lovely trays of canapés, and little bits of cheese on crackers, and some delicious fish and strawberry thing.  And your date breaks into a run, bashes into the first penguin he encounters, grabs the tray with one hand, and with his free hand starts grabbing hands full of the food on the platter and shoving it into his mouth.  Implausible?

46512615 - server holding a tray of appetizers at a banquet
It is generally considered very bad form to tackle the penguin and eat all the appetizers at a fancy party! Most of us know this and help ourselves to one or two things and leave the rest for the next people who show up!

This is how I think most dogs approach food; it is so rare and valuable and so hard to get to that when they see an opportunity, they go for it.  And what does the handler do?  “Leave it.  Fluffy, leave it.  Leave it, Fluffy.  LEAVE IT!  I said LEAVE IT!”  And then Fluffy takes the item anyhow.  Why did Fluffy disregard the human’s request?  Simply because Fluffy knows that leave it is a signal that she won’t have a chance to get what she wants.  It is in effect, a no reward marker.  It says “no matter what you do, you cannot have that”.  Leave it is the cue used in the moment to moment bits of life that you encounter with your dog to tell him that he cannot have what he wants, even though he has been minding his manners all the way along.

Going back to your date, imagine for a moment that you knew what he or she did to penguins at parties.  So as you get up you remind your date to be polite.  Your date, being the cooperative person they are agrees that this time they are going to be polite to the penguins.  You remind them not to rush the penguin.  You remind your date that everyone will get a turn.  Does this sound like a date you want to spend time with?  This is the contract that I see being made more often than not with the dogs and handlers that I encounter.

Coming back to “take it,” let’s think for a moment about a service dog.  I use a service dog to navigate the world.  When I go grocery shopping he is often faced with delicious food, right at nose level, or food on the floor.  Before we ever went out into the public, I taught him that he could have anything he wanted if he asked for it nicely, although sometimes he would have to wait.  I could not go through the grocery store and identify items one by one that he could not have.  He cannot have the soup that slopped on the floor outside the deli, or the cheese that is on the shelf at nose height or the bread and baked goods that are shelved in his reach.  He cannot have the cookie that the little boy is waving as he walks by us either.  He can ask, and I might say yes, or I might say later or I might say no.  When he was a young dog, I usually said “I have something better” and gave him a tidbit that was appropriate for him.  He asked, and I wanted to make him certain that I would listen any time he asked for something.  In that moment, I was using food at the currency to teach him to ask me for things he wanted.

Over time, I would sometimes say “later” and give him a tidbit every few times.  I would also begin cuing behaviours he really liked when he asked for things.  So if my dog asked for the crouton that fell on the floor in the bulk food aisle, I might say “not now, but if you want you can carry your leash for a moment”, a behaviour he really liked doing.  And over time, he generalized that if he REALLY wanted to have something, ask and I would listen and if I could, I might give it to him.

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One of the constant challenges of travelling with a service dog was simply that people would drop food in the train or on the plane, and my dog could not avoid either having it dropped on him or lying right next to something edible. I never had to remind D’fer not to eat things because I didn’t teach him to leave it; I taught him that nothing was available to him unless I told him he could take it!

The next thing I teach dogs when I am training is that the click predicts the treat.  I increase the time between my click and my treat to about thirty seconds, but between the click and the treat, my dog and I are working TOGETHER as a team to get to the food treat.  I start by standing right beside a table of treats.  I click, reach and treat, and then repeat.  Then I take a step away from the table, and I click and we walk back together to get the treat.  Then I do two steps and so on.  With my own dogs I will often take them out on the farm and I will click, run with them to the other end of the farm, and get a treat, and then click and run back and get another treat.  I want to increase the time between the click and the treat so that when I am working in a condition where I cannot immediately treat, everything following the click is part of the reinforcement cycle.  I once as an experiment at a conference clicked my dog for a behaviour and then left the ballroom we were in, walked down a hall, across a lobby, to the elevators, waited for an elevator, went up to the 8th floor, walked down a long hall way, opened my hotel room door, took my dog off leash, went to the bathroom and when I was finished, he was sitting by the treat bin on the dresser.  He understands that clicks predict treats and treats may come much later.  This is essential (although most dogs don’t need to be able to wait that long) to teaching a dog that they can rely on me to follow through with the treat, which is the step when food stops being a currency and starts being something we are both working towards.  We are a team.  Yes, I use treats as currency but once I have established a number of behaviours I don’t use it as a currency as much as a goal my dog and I work towards together.

I will often when I am travelling and I order food, order something for my service dog.  I order things like doughnut holes at coffee shops, and sugar cookies in delis.  Over time, my dog has learned that if I pay and put the item in my pocket it is his later.  By using doggy zen and take it instead of leave it, my dog has learned to ask.  By using clickers and delaying the treat, my dog has learned to wait.  This way I can eat my meal in a restaurant and my dog can look at the fry on the floor under the table and ask me, “can I have that?” and I can say yes or no.

What I have described above is a significant part of how we work with our students and their dogs in our classroom.  In our Levels classroom, all the students put their treats out within reach of any off leash dog.  We don’t start everyone off leash, but it comes very quickly; in under a month, most dogs can work around treat bowls and because of the philosophy, the feedback we get about this is that this carries over outside of the classroom.  See the video below for an example of a typical day in our classroom.

When you start looking at more complex situations as situations where you and your dog are working together to get to a goal, then you build relationship with your dog.  Perhaps the biggest criticism I have seen of operant conditioning is that it is about manipulating your learner into doing things for you.  Certainly it is a model that will allow you to increase or decrease behaviours, but that is just the start.  We would hardly say that a child should not learn the foundations to reading and arithmetic because in the end we don’t want him to just recognize letters and numbers.  In the end we want children to be able to grow up and use what they learn in very broad contexts.  Once I have a foundation of behaviours built on a currency, then I can use those behaviours to do meaningful activities with my dog.  Regardless of what that is, if you look at the behaviours you ask your dog to do as a joint project together that has meaning for both of you, then you don’t need the food itself to get things done, and you don’t need to wave the steak under the dog’s nose get him to do something.  When you have worked carefully at teaching your dog both that he can have what he wants and that you are working with him to get it, then you have a cooperative partner instead of a dog who is scouting the world for things that he can get if he is only fast enough to get it before you utter the magic leave it words.  And THAT is the goal of teaching take it instead of leave it!

NEVER MIND “LEAVE IT.” “TAKE IT!”

WAIT A MINUTE!

At Dogs in the Park we run a drop in gym style program where students can come to more than 15 classes a week with their dog and learn about dog training.  When they have passed enough basic exercises, advanced classes open up to them.  When dogs come to training classes we always tell people to practice their skills regularly and often.  What we intend is that you will learn skills in the classroom that you will then take out and practice in the rest of your world.  If for instance, your dog has learned to sit at school in the classroom, we expect that you will practice at home, in your yard, at the park and on the street.  What we don’t expect is that students will attend all of our classes each week, although we have had students try and do so.

The problem with going to school every day is that the dog never gets a chance to experience something important called latent learning.  Latent learning is the kind of learning that happens when you are not paying attention.  Latent learning is the kind of learning that creates eureka moments for you.  One of the greatest learning moments of my life came about when I was struggling with a pamphlet to advertise my previous business.  I had been struggling off and on with my printer, the software and my computer to try and figure out how to make a double sided colour pamphlet using just the tools I had.  I tried all sorts of things and nothing was satisfying my vision.  Eventually, as we all do, I gave up the struggle with my problem and went to bed.  At about four in the morning I sat bolt upright in bed with the solution.  I rushed down to my home office and tried out my idea and then spent the next four hours printing exactly what I wanted.  Let’s examine the steps that led to my moment of clarity.

French bulldog sleep in bed
If you have ever been advised to “sleep on it” when trying to solve a problem, you were being told to use latent learning to your advantage. Dogs do this too!

The first step was getting a sense of what I wanted to do; I defined the problem.  This is a bit like when your dog is first exposed to a behaviour in class.  The dogs get a sense of the problem and they sort out what it is that you are driving at.  Sometimes this phase of learning can go along for a very long time.  For some dogs and for some people they need to probe the question for a long time to discover what it is that they are driving at.  There comes a point though, when probing the problem just needs to stop in order for the learner to reflect and make the connections between the pieces of the puzzle.

The next step is trying out solutions.  With my problem I tried changing the settings on my printer, and changing the format of my document.  This is the same stage of learning that dogs go through when they try out variations on their idea of what you are driving at with training.  This is the stage where the dog may try not doing the behaviour to see what the outcome is.  As a trainer this can be a very frustrating stage to go through and we can make life a lot harder on our dogs by endlessly drilling at this point.  Most dogs, like me, need to have the chance to give their ideas a try and fiddle a bit but then they are better off to take the time to back off and think about the issue for a bit.  Trainers benefit too because when they reflect on the issues they are working through they may come up with novel solutions and better ways of explaining what they want to their dogs. 

After fiddling for a bit, I went through a very annoying phase.  I would have been better to have gone on and done something different after I had fiddled with it, but being that I am stubborn and try really hard, I decided I would try even harder.  I see some of my students going through this phase when they attend a daily levels class but don’t go away and think about what they are teaching their dogs.  They don’t go away and think about alternatives.  They don’t leave the behaviour alone and let the dog think about the work they are doing.  Like me, they just push and try harder and they frustrate themselves, their instructors and most of all their dogs.

When you get stuck in this phase of learning something, you start trying things that normally you would not try.  I once caught myself picking up my printer with the intention of dropping it to see if that would prompt it to print.  In case you are wondering, dropping the printer won’t make it print.  If you have ever been frustrated by a print job that just won’t work, you have probably also been tempted to shake up the printer a bit.  It just won’t work.  The equivalent to that in dog training is when the trainer abandons the lesson in favour of the result.  I watched one student of mine lift the dog onto a piece of equipment and then reward him, over and over again during this phase.  The dog learned that being on the equipment predicted treats, but he didn’t learn how to use his body to get onto the equipment, so in the end, the dog didn’t learn what the trainer had set out to teach him. 

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This dog looks like he is asking a question! Maybe his question is “what are you driving at?” This is a common question during training!

The “leave it alone and let the dog think” method of problem solving usually gets you better results.  Allowing the dog to have some time between when you first explain the behaviour to them and when you next ask them to offer the behaviour can yield some surprising results.  Often the dog needs a chance, just like I did with my print job to just let the training percolate a bit.  If you allow the dog to have the time and space to think about what they are doing, you can end up with faster more effective learning.

I should be clear though; latent learning won’t work if you don’t lay a good foundation and revisit the exercises from time to time, but if you just hammer away at the problem for days on end, you never give your dog the chance to just think about it.  So often I have watched a dog come along very quickly after they have had a few days off, if they have had a good solid exposure to the things you are teaching first.  If they don’t have a solid exposure, then they don’t make those leaps.  Latent learning is especially important for the intermediate and advanced dogs; they have a lot of education and learning under their belts and to deny them the chance to use that experience to support what they are learning by reflecting is really unfair.

So how do you know that you have done enough foundation work and you just need to leave it alone?  To begin with, this is most applicable in training of more complex, chained behaviours.  If you have been doing your foundational work with sit, down, stay, target with the nose, target with the paw and so on, then when you start putting together chains you may notice that your dog slows down a bit in his learning.  Work on something for ten minutes and then give it a break.  Work on something that the dog is already really good at for a few minutes.  Then come back to what you were working on to begin with.  Just this little break may allow your dog to regroup and be more successful.  If that doesn’t happen, leave the whole thing for a couple of days.  Come back to it when you and your dog are fresh again.  If you still aren’t successful, leave the whole thing for a couple of days and then come back to it again with fresh eyes and a fresh start.

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Teaching a dog to jump onto an obstacle to do a trick can be broken down into a number of steps. In this image we can see one person helping the dog to balance while the other person holds a toy for the dog to focus on. Helping the dog learn the parts of the behaviour gives him the foundation to hold a stand stay on the object later on. The dog will put the parts of the behaviour together over time.

In the days between when you introduce an exercise, and when you reintroduce the exercise, review in your own mind to make sure you haven’t skipped steps or become so focused on the goal of the exercise that you haven’t reinforced the foundational work sufficiently that it will make sense to the dog.  The time you take away from the training session will benefit you too!  It gives you a chance to reflect on and analyse your training, to form questions to ask your dog when you get back to it.  Down time is really important to good training for both you and your dog.

The one caveat about using latent learning is that there is probably an optimal time for each learner to leave the learning alone, and that time is probably different from individual to individual.  If you wait too long between sessions, you risk that the learner will forget the foundations you have worked on.  My general plan is to make a mental map that will allow me to help the dog find the way through the process of obtaining the skills towards an end behaviour.  It might look something like this:

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This is how I think of teaching a compound behaviour to a dog. I like to think about all the foundation behaviours, and then about grouping them into chunks and finally putting them all together. This is of course a very simplified version of the process for scent discrimination with a retrieve!

When you make a map of where you want to go in training, it is easier to see where you are going and where you are going wrong.  I might teach the Foundation Behaviours months before I work on the next level of training.  I might review the Foundation Behaviours in the weeks ahead of working on the next level.  Then I might introduce the “Two Steps to Glue Together” as two different behaviours and work on that for a few days.  Then I might leave it alone for a couple of days or even a week.  Then I might go back and see how the dog is doing with that second step.  If he is not getting the behaviours, then I might review the Foundation Behaviours again and try the next level behaviours a second time.  Then I might let it sit for a while again.  When the dog is able to give m the second level of behaviours easily, then I might introduce the end behaviour.  At this point in training some dogs get the idea right away and some of them need to try it a few times before they get it and a good number of dogs need to let the idea sit for a week or two.  I just keep revisiting success and then come back to the more difficult step or stage later until the dog puts the pieces together.

Latent learning can feel like a giant leap of faith.  It can feel like you are not really training at all, but with advanced dogs, it can really make the whole training process easier.  With my advanced students in our drop in classes, I often recommend that they attend one or two advanced skills classes each week and then one or two regular levels classes each week.  By training this way they can ping pong around the more difficult behaviours and let the power of latent learning work for them.  Wait a minute.  Let the dog think.  Reflect on your work.  Are there holes to fill?  Pecking away at the problem with breaks of days between is often the most effective way to train, and it is a whole lot more fun than getting to the point where you want to drop the printer or get frustrated with your dog.

 

WAIT A MINUTE!

COOL DOGS WEAR MUZZLES

This is my blog on the mystery, mastery and amazement of muzzles.  I love muzzles.  Each one of my dogs has always had their own muzzle and when we go to the vet, we almost always have our own muzzle with us.  In fact the last time I was at the emergency vet I didn’t have time to grab a muzzle and the vet was completely surprised.  Do my dogs NEED the muzzles?  To be completely honest, I don’t know.  I would never ask my vet to find out the hard way!  My veterinarian spent many years after high school amassing a huge amount of knowledge to be the best animal doctor he could be, and I don’t think it is the vet’s job to avoid being bitten; it is his job to give my dog the best medical care possible, and my part in the deal is to make his job as easy as possible.

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This is one of my dogs, D’fer, having his foot looked at. He had a very deep laceration and the vet needed to have a look. You can tell that he is pretty stoic by the look on his face, but he was willing to co-operate. He was wearing his muzzle not because I thought that he would bite the vet, but because I don’t want to take the chance that this could happen.

A muzzle has even saved one of my dog’s lives once.  When Bear was about 14 he got sick; he was so sick that we booked an appointment to euthanize him.  We took him into the vet’s office and the vet needed to listen to his heart.  The key to getting a good listen to a dog’s heart is to prevent him from panting, and when dogs are distressed, they often pant heavily.  After about ten minutes of trying to hold Bear’s mouth shut, and he getting more and more wound up, the vet said “I am sorry, but I cannot hear your dog’s heart today but I don’t think we need to put him to sleep.  If only I could hear his heart, I could help him.  I asked why we didn’t just put a muzzle on him and the vet’s jaw dropped.  He thought that since I was a dog trainer, I would be very offended if he suggested that.  Just the opposite.  I pulled Bear’s muzzle out of my pocket and put it on.  He stopped panting and in fact relaxed a bit because we were doing something he was familiar with.  His heart was healthy and we were able to get a simple blood test that told us that he had Lyme disease.  With treatment, he lived another 18 months.

The fact is that although my dogs are all trained to accept all sorts of handling and frightening situations, if they are really truly and deeply afraid or in pain, they might bite.  Muzzles prevent bites, plain and simple.  My vet is an intelligent, well educated professional and his job is to help my dog to stay healthy, and to resolve health problems when my dog gets sick.  My vet’s job is not to put himself at risk of getting bitten.

I regularly work with dogs with serious behaviour problems including aggression.  I have had more than one student come to class with a dangerously aggressive dog who has already injured someone and be reluctant to muzzle their dog.  More than once a client has said to me “you are the dog trainer, don’t you know how to handle the dog without a muzzle?”  The expectation seems to be that I have some magic that will protect me when handling a dangerous dog.  I am good, but I am not magic! 

Close up of a dog muzzled
This is a groomer’s muzzle. They are inexpensive, easy to obtain, and easy to fit. When teaching a dog to wear a muzzle, this kind of a muzzle can really help your dog to learn that wearing a muzzle is fun because it is easy to give treats through it.

When I worked a service dog, I often had to travel.  When I was on an airplane or a train, I always carried a cloth groomer’s muzzle in my briefcase.  More than once my briefcase was searched and the agent would find the muzzle and ask me what it was for.  In the event of an accident where I needed to be evacuated, I wanted to be prepared that I could muzzle my dog if transport might be difficult.  I always try and plan for every contingency possible and one of those contingencies is that I might need to be carried out of an airplane on a stretcher, and my dog might need to be lifted up by someone he didn’t know.  A muzzle makes that much safer for the rescuer, which makes it much more likely that my dog would be saved in an emergency.

So how do I get my dogs accustomed to muzzles?  I start early for sure!  When my puppies are very young, I will sometimes feed them out of a coffee cup to teach them that they can take treats out of a confined space.  Then I move on to yoghurt containers as they grow, and smear peanut butter or some other soft gooey food item on the bottom.  When my dogs start seeing a yoghurt container as an opportunity to get their faces into something yummy, I cut a small hole in the bottom of the yoghurt container, and duct tape an elastic to make a head strap on the wide mouth.  I smear something in the bottom, and when the puppy is licking away, I slip the elastic strap over his head.  The elastic should be fairly loose to start with.  And then it is a quick step to shoving treats in the front of the muzzle.  Puppies think this sort of a handling game is lots of fun.  If the puppy fusses about the elastic or the yoghurt container, I just don’t pop the head strap over his head until the pup is really confident about the whole thing, and try again in a few days. 

Once the puppy, or sometimes the older dog, is happy about having the loose elastic strap around his head, and is not bothering the yoghurt container, then I switch to a regular muzzle.  My favourite brand of muzzle is still the jafco (https://www.jafcomuzzles.com/ ), but I also use a groomer’s muzzle for training; they are easier to carry in my pocket and they are the type of muzzle that the veterinarian will likely have.  I put the muzzle on loosely, and feed through the front.  I keep doing this until the puppy or dog is happy about the procedure.  From there it is fairly easy to get a puppy to accept the head strap being tightened.  In my experience, dogs accept the jafco very easily, and once I can tighten the head strap, I make sure that my dog has lots of chances to engage in fun activities such as playing with friends while wearing his muzzle. 

Once my dogs understand how to wear a muzzle and once they are relaxed and happy about going for a walk while wearing one, the key is to keep that skill fluent.  You have to practice regularly.  In my house, we sometimes have happy muzzle day on Mondays.  Happy muzzle day is the day that you get to play muzzle games, or go for an off leash walk, or play with your friends while wearing your muzzle.

simple muzzle training
Here is my handout outlining how to get a dog started on muzzle training.

Muzzles are a little bit like shoes for babies.  Babies don’t like wearing shoes.  They don’t enjoy having their feet confined.  Dogs and puppies don’t like having their faces confined either!  If you take the time to properly train your dog to wear a muzzle, then your dog is not going to fuss when he needs to do so.  Additionally, puppies who are taught to wear a muzzle properly rarely mind wearing a head halter unless you put a lot of pressure on the leash when using the head halter.  That is a topic for a whole other blog though!

COOL DOGS WEAR MUZZLES

WHO IS TRAINING WHOM

Originally published June 2013

I love training dogs.  I am a pretty good dog trainer too.  Dogs fascinate me.  I could watch dogs interact over and over and over and over again for hours.  I love horses just as much but have less experience with them, and I spend hours watching them, learning about them, observing them.  Horses are just as cool as dogs and different.  As a professional trainer, I get great amounts of joy from watching my dogs and interacting with them.  Training them provides a framework and a platform for communication with them and that is extremely cool.  I love the interplay of communication between me and the dog.

One of the most interesting things to observe in dogs is when they start turning the tables and training us.  Almost every dog who has been through a training class does this.  In its simplest forms, when the puppy starts to circle and look like he is going to toilet, then we rush to the door, he is training us to rush to the door and take him out.  Training happens when behaviour changes dues to consequences.  If you were sitting and reading a book, and the puppy’s behaviour causes you to jump up and open the door, then the puppy trained you to do something in response to what he is doing.  How does this work?  In short, in order to avoid an unpleasant outcome (cleaning up a bathroom mess), the person will jump up and let the puppy out to pee.  Over time, the puppy will refine his cue.  At first, in order to get the person to jump up and open the door the puppy has to actually toilet on the floor.  Next, the puppy has to look like he is going to toilet.  Then the puppy just has to look at the person in a particular way.  Pretty soon, the puppy just has to glance at the owner and lickety split, the owner jumps up and lets the puppy out.

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The magic “fill up my bowl look” that this dog has used to train his people to fill his bowl.  Image credit: logos / 123RF Stock Photo

In the scenario above, who is training who?  Is the person taking careful note and getting the puppy out to pee, or is the puppy teaching the person to jump up and open the door?  Is the puppy’s toileting behaviour being maintained by the reinforcement of an empty bladder or is the person’s behaviour being maintained by the lack of messes on the floor?  These questions reflect the more subtle nature of training.  When you influence the behaviour of another being, your behaviour is changed in turn.

Most of us want to train our dogs to do things like sit or lie down, or come when called, and it is fascinating to learn about the two way street of communication that really makes up training.  If the dog is motivated to teach you to give him treats it is pretty easy for him to get you to do that over and over again, by offering you a behaviour you like.  So you choose the behaviour that you will get in order to make you give a treat.  The dog chooses either to give you that behaviour or to not give you that behaviour, depending in part how much he wants the item you have on offer.

In a manner this is an economic relationship.  You have something to offer.  The dog has something to offer.  You can choose to trade or not.  If your dog offers you something you don’t want, you don’t have to play.  If you don’t have something the dog wants, he may choose not to offer you anything you might be interested in.

That is the simplest of explanations of what might happen during a training event.  When you do a lot of training, the dog starts to initiate more and more interactions.  About five years ago, I went to do a training session with a client in a hotel room.  I arrived with coffee and the client and I, who hadn’t seen one another in several months, sat down to chat.  At first the dog hung out with us.  Then she started to get jumpy.  Then she vocalized a bit.  I ignored the dog’s behaviour.  The clients ignored the behaviour.  And after about fifteen minutes, the dog I had come to work with walked away from us, entered her crate and faced the wall.  She faced the wall for about five minutes and then she came out and sat in front of me and made eye contact and looked meaningfully at her crate.  The dog was pretty clear that if I didn’t attend to her and start training right now, she would time me out a second time.  This is a dog who understands the training game really well and she applied the rules she understood to try and get me into her game.  What she did to me was absolutely the same as what I might do to a dog who was not attending to me; she took herself and her assets and removed them from me.  When she felt she had timed me out for a long enough time, she offered me another chance to play.

I am fortunate enough to have lived with enough dogs who understand the training game that I have been trained to do a number of very complex behaviours.  The other night, D’fer came up to bed with a hockey ball in his mouth.  He lay down halfway across the room from me and dropped the ball in front of himself.  He looked at me, and pushed the ball at me.  The ball rolled to me, and I caught it.  Deef looked at me and I rolled it back to him.  He mouthed it a bit and then placed it in front of himself and rolled it to me.  I picked it up and rolled it back at him.  We repeated this seven or eight times and then he carefully placed the ball on his bed, curled up around it and went to sleep.  I am pretty sure that D’fer feels that I need to be trained from time to time and he is diligent about training me.  I got to play with the ball as long as I was willing to roll it back to him.

D’fer has taught me all sorts of behaviours and when he thinks I am misbehaving, he is prone to timing me out by taking his toys and removing himself from the situation.  And he has a very sophisticated understanding of how training works.  Today he spent some time training a young woman about training.  He went to a leave it lab with a thirteen year old girl.  He understands the leave it behaviour.  He also understands young trainers.  And he enjoys playing with the variables in order to see what happens.  This amuses D’fer more than perhaps more than anything else in his life.

Knowing the rules of training makes D’fer an interesting dog to work with.  When his learner starts to lose interest in the task at hand, he becomes more animated and interesting to the learner.  When he is playing the training game with someone who is a novice at training, he may know the behaviour they are learning about, but he doesn’t always let the person know.  He will make mistakes that he knows won’t result in a reinforcer.  If the person isn’t getting the hang of things, he will give the person a “freebie” and do the behaviour perfectly to keep them in the game.  Then he will go back to a subpar behaviour to teach the person about how to train the behaviour.  An interesting dog to play with indeed.

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Cooper teaching shaping.  He generally isn’t interested in treats.  He is mostly interested in engaging people and changing their behaviour.  His reinforcement seems to be the act of training itself.  Photo Credit:  Sue Alexander

There is another dog I know who is interesting in a similar way.  Cooper, the Welsh Terrier who stayed with us for about two months last fall.  Cooper taught a number of veterinary students about shaping.  He really enjoyed it.  Seanna, his person, likes to Curl; that game of hurling rocks around, and sweeping ice for points.  Curling is a very social activity and Cooper often gets to go to the Curling Club with Seanna.  This past winter, Cooper figured out that the people who weren’t on the ice Curling, they could be engaged in the training game.  He will approach a person and offer them a trick.  If the person responds by giving him a treat, or engaging him in a game, he will stay with that person for quite awhile.  If the person pats him or says Good Boy, he moves on.  Over the course of the Curling season, Cooper taught most of the Curlers to give him treats when he did tricks.  Here is the interesting part; he isn’t particularly interested in the food.  He is interested in the game.  In my own kitchen I have sat down to hand feed Cooper and he disengages.  He isn’t interested in getting treats.  He is interested in the game.  By engaging in the game, you get the opportunity to engage with Cooper.

If you watch for this phenomenon, you will likely see this in your own dog.  Most dogs who live with people do this to a certain extent.  At its simplest form, the dog will teach you to open doors and fill water and food bowls.  At its most complex, it is a beautiful interplay of exchange of information and opportunity between you and your dog.  This level of engagement is a special gift, a connection and the possibility I hope for every day when I step into the classroom and help someone to teach their dog to sit.  Sit is more than just a behaviour we want to develop for the price of a couple of treats.   Sit is the opening move in a step by step journey of communication where behaviour changes in both directions.

WHO IS TRAINING WHOM

WHAT’S THE POINT?

For those of you who know me well, you likely know that I don’t really enjoy repetitious drilling.  I am pretty sure that most of our animal learners don’t either.  I had a riding coach who once told me “you got the move right, why are you practicing what you already know?” and I think she had a good point.  Once you have mastered the behaviour, what exactly is the point of practicing it over and over and over again until it becomes stale and boring for your animal learner?

For me, this is one of the real challenges to training young puppies.  The early skills that you have to teach puppies are important in order to build a solid training history, but once my puppy has a solid grasp on them, I want to move on.  I DO train my puppies of course, and I encourage others to spend the time with their young naïve dogs teaching them the foundation skills that they will need too, but it is not my most fun training time.  If I could just install sit, down, touch, go to mat, stay, come when called and you control the click as a little program without doing the work I probably would so that I could get on with the stuff that is more fun.

Miniature Poodle Puppy
Teaching a young dog that click means treat and that they can control the click is an important part of foundational training, but clicking and treating hundreds of times would be tedious and is unnecessary.

Here is the problem with dogs who have been in training for a few months.  Most dogs get to the point where the foundation behaviours are known and they aren’t much fun for the dog any more!  Sit?  Got it.  Not worth the kibble any more!  This sequence is not an uncommon sight in my classrooms.  The dog has learned the behaviour, and the owner then asks for that behaviour over and over and over again.  The dog knows how to do it, and he has gotten to the point where asking for it, drilling it and repeating it leads the dog to start to mentally ask “what’s the point?”  I will point out that he is not articulating that in words, but from what I can see an awful lot of dogs don’t want to keep practicing things just because you want them to do it.  At this point in training one of two things needs to happen.  Either the trainer needs to start to move the training along, or the trainer needs to start to apply the behaviour to something that makes sense to the dog!  Both strategies are useful.

So let’s look at sit.  If you have a young dog who knows how to sit, you can start to make that more challenging to the dog right away.  It isn’t difficult.  I like to make a mental list of all the places I have asked my puppy to do this.  In the kitchen?  Yup.  The living room?  Yup.  The bathroom?  Oooohhh!  That one is trickier!  I keep adding rooms until my dog is able to sit in any room in the house.  Then I start to add in places outside.  Front yard, back yard, on the porch, the driveway, the sidewalk, the park.  When I run out of places, I add in objects.  Can you sit on a mat?  A cushion?  That one is tricky!  A boulder? A stump?  A wall?  A bale of hay or straw? In a puddle?  The technical term for this process is generalizing.  I am generalizing the dog’s ability to perform the behaviour to a wide variety of places and contexts.  You can think of this as the Green Eggs and Ham of dog training. 

There are other ways of generalizing too.  Can your pup dog the same behaviour no matter who asks for it?  When your dog is able to follow your directions in a number of venues, will he follow it for your brother?  Your daughter?  Your best friend?  Your trainer?  I am looking to train every cue such that my dog will follow that cue anytime, anywhere, for anyone, and that means getting very specific about what I am teaching.  I cannot expect my dog to follow the instructions if he doesn’t know them and if he hasn’t had the chance to follow a cue in new places and with other people, I cannot expect him to be successful.

Still though, these are just foundational behaviours, and after practicing sit here, there and everywhere, my dog is going to start asking that all important question “what’s the point?”  Why should he sit?  What if he doesn’t want to?  What if it isn’t worth a piece of kibble?  I am willing to do many things, but some of the time, I just don’t feel like it, and it doesn’t matter if you offer me money or some other incentive to do it.  the caveat is that if I think there is a good reason to do something, I will do that boring little thing, often for no reward.  This is the important point to remember when our dogs hit that point where they have mastered the foundation behaviours but those behaviours don’t have context.  When there is no point to doing the task, the dog may begin to refuse to play the game.

So how do we give context to behaviours?  Simply put, we stop rewarding them with food, play or touch.  We start to put the behaviour into other activities.  Most dogs willingly sit for dinner; that is part of the ritual and routine for many dogs, so it makes sense to them to just do it.  In fact, you can really annoy some dogs by offering them a treat before you put down the bowl.  The reward for the behaviour is to get to eat dinner, however most of the time, the dog is just thinking about what the routine might be for getting to the meal.  The same goes for dogs who are required to sit before doors open, or who have to sit before they get their leashes on.  The sit just fits into the routine, and it has meaning to the dog. 

Dog at summer
Once your dog knows how to sit, you should start asking him to do that in a wide variety of places and conditions. Just because he can sit in the kitchen doesn’t mean that he will necessarily sit on the front lawn, in the park or at the vet’s. And just because he can sit on the floor doesn’t mean that he will sit on a mat, on a chair, on a stool or on a low wall. Generalizing the behaviour means that your dog will do the behaviour anywhere, anytime and no matter who asks him to do it!

We can go one better than that though.  We can start making games for ourselves with our dogs that involve the foundation behaviours that get so boring so quickly.  Using sit as our example again, we can start asking our dog to sit before we do things together, such as fetch, search or find me (or even better, find someone else!).  The sit becomes embedded in other activities and gains meaning as part of other fun activities.  Now the dog has a reason to perform the behaviour and that makes the behaviour itself much more meaningful to the dog. 

You can kill the joy of the sit if it is the only behaviour you integrate this way however.  If you only embed the sit, it is a little like playing scrabble where you only get four letters, a, e, s, and t.  There are a very limited number of words you can spell with those four letters and if you try and play scrabble with these four letters, it is going to be a tedious and boring game.  You might choose to play that way at first in order to teach someone the concept of the game, however in the end, you will get tired of the limits set upon you by having so few letters to use.  As your dog gains more behaviours, you can start to play the same games with more “letters” or behaviours.  Now, instead of only having sit to insert into your activities, you can make the required behaviour a surprise.  You start making dinner for your dog, and before putting it down, you ask your dog to lie down, or sit, or touch your hand with his nose.  When your dog gives you the behaviour you ask for, you can give him his dinner.  In this way, behaviours become letters in the infinite game of training scrabble.

Cute little Shiba Inu dog sitting on doormat at home
When there is context to a behaviour, dogs are more willing to do the behaviour. Many dogs know that if they sit by the door, it is quite likely that someone will open the door for them. Once the dog has the context for the behaviour you need not reinforce the behaviour with a treat; the door opening is certainly a reward, however, it is also part of the communication that we share with our dogs as part of the activity, and this is all part and parcel of having a well trained dog. When he understands the behaviour in context and the behaviour is part of the formula we don’t need to reward it every single time.

You can in fact extend this game into more and more complex activities that become meaningful for you and your dog.  At Dogs in the Park, we run a games class each week for the dogs who have passed the foundation behaviours needed in order to play.  We play things such as musical chairs (integrating leash manners, sits and downs into an activity), leap frog (go to mat) and recall relays (coming when called over and through distractions).  By participating in group activities where the behaviours are applied instead of just drilled dogs become more willing and eager to perform those behaviours that have become stale and boring when you just drill them. 

It is important to note that advanced behaviours can suffer the same fate as those foundational ones; drill the agility tunnel or the perfect front in obedience for too long and your previously enthusiastic dog will start to ask “what’s the point?”  Once your dog asks that question about behaviours you have worked hard to polish, it doesn’t take long for an advanced dog to start asking that same question about more mundane behaviours too.

WHAT’S THE POINT?