THE BLAME GAME

Originally posted August 2013

One of the most popular games that people play with their dogs is the blame game.  As a society, we love this game.  If the dog is rude and overbearing with guests, then it is Dad’s fault because he plays roughly with the dog.  Or if the dog attacks other dogs it is because the older dog taught the younger dog in the house to growl at strange dogs.  Blame is lots of fun.

15930130 - man judged by many hands
I think this is often how my clients feel when they have a dog with a problem behaviour.  Blaming people for the problem just isn’t helpful.  Blame doesn’t change the behaviour.  Blame is what we do when we want people to take responsibility for things that we want changed.  Image credit: bowie15 / 123RF Stock Photo

As a behaviour consultant, I don’t get to play the blame game.  It can be interesting to know where the problem originated, and sometimes it is helpful to know when a trauma occurred or if the dog suffered an illness that prevented him from going to puppy class, but the fact is that the blame game just doesn’t work with dogs with behaviour problems.  It is often said that dogs live in the now, and when it comes to specific behaviours this is really important information.  The dog doesn’t pee on the bed while you are away because he is angry; he pees on the bed because his bladder is full and he doesn’t have to stand in a puddle of pee if he pees on the bed.  As a behaviour consultant, I have to look at the behaviours that are problematic and instead of blaming someone for the problem, look at the variables to determine what can be changed to change the behaviour.

It can be helpful to look at a case in order to get the idea of how to look at behaviour problems without blame.  If we have an adolescent Labrador named Lulu, and she is jumping up on people and knocking them over, we have a problem.  If her people, Larry and Lucy come to me for help, I will ask a bunch of questions about Lulu.  How many pups were in her litter?  At what age did she come home from the breeder’s?  Did she go to puppy class?  What have Larry and Lucy tried already?  When did she last go to the vet, and is she healthy?  In gathering this information, I want to know things that will help me to rule out some strategies that might not work.  If there were very few puppies in the litter or if she was a singleton, she is more likely to have impulse control issues.  That tells me that we may be looking at teaching her impulse control exercises.  If she came home before six weeks of age, this may also contribute to a lack of good impulse control.  If she didn’t go to a puppy class then the chances are that Lucy and Larry may not have the skills to address the problem, and Lulu may not have had enough of the appropriate people to help her to meet people appropriately.  Puppy class can help you to find the right people to meet and greet with a solid structure on how to do that.  If Lucy and Larry have already tried penny shake cans, kneeing Lulu in the chest, stepping on her hind feet, and grabbing her roughly around the neck, then I know that Lulu may be conflicted about wanting to greet but not knowing how to do that properly.  If Lulu went to the vet and she has an eye infection, and the jumping up got worse since the eye became infected, she may be quite agitated and uncomfortable and may not be making great decisions.

19061449 - veterinary consultation and a follow a dog
Dogs who are ill often don’t make great behavioural decisions.  Getting sick is no one’s fault, and laying blame in one place or another doesn’t help.  Realizing that the dog is sick and getting him help is a much better solution when changing behaviours.  Image credit: edu1971 / 123RF Stock Photo

The next thing I am going to look at is what is maintaining the behaviour.  Why does this behaviour keep happening?  Lulu doesn’t jump up against cement walls, or the fridge door.  She doesn’t jump up against the hood of the car, or her crate; she only jumps up on people.  Likely, even if people do their very best not to interact with Lulu she gets something out of the behaviour.  She gets attention if you make eye contact, she gets touch if you hold your arms up against your body to protect yourself and if she is confused, she resolves her confusion by jumping up and eliciting the known response when she does this; see my blog “THEY DO IT TO GET ATTENTION” at http://dogsinthepark-suenestnature.blogspot.ca/2013/06/they-do-it-to-get-attention.html.

Notice that so far, there is no blame; just facts.  The first thing I am going to do from here is to define my target behaviour.  With Lulu, I want her to learn to greet with all four feet on the floor.  I don’t care how happy she is or how excited she is, I just want to her to keep her feet to herself when she is greeting.  We can do this lots and lots of ways, but before I decide what technique or method I will choose with Lulu, I will decide what I want her to do.  Given that Lulu appears to have a likelihood of impulse control issues, and Larry and Lucy have already tried to stop the unwanted behaviour by doing things that are unpleasant to the dog, I am going to start with some tactics that may not seem to have anything to do with the problem at hand.  I would start by taking a week’s vacation from greeting anyone other than family members, so that Lulu stops practicing the unwanted behaviour.  When the family greats Lulu, I will have them drop treats on the floor so that Lulu is doing something that she cannot do while she is jumping up.  I will also have the family crouch to greet Lulu for this week so that once she has cleaned up her treats, then they aren’t setting her up to greet inappropriately.  Still…no blame.

Once Lulu has had a whole week of not practicing the undesired behaviour, then I can start to teach her the skills of keeping four feet on the floor when greeting.  If we are approaching her and she has her feet on the floor we can mark that behaviour and drop a treat on the floor and move away while she is eating for instance.  Or we can use a delta signal to tell her to change her behaviour and then mark the undesired response and she can lose a turn.  There are dozens of very elegant solutions to teaching a dog not to jump up when greeting, but the important part is to keep in mind that Larry and Lucy have already tried using an unpleasant outcome without success, so we want to avoid doing that again.  I don’t blame my clients for trying tactics that I might not try, but I can avoid repeating things that didn’t work.

Ideally, Lulu would have come from a larger litter, come home at about 8 weeks, gone to a great puppy socialization class, and learned early how to greet appropriately before she was 16 weeks of age.  Ideally, Larry and Lucy would have tried more effective interventions than they chose, and ideally, Lulu wouldn’t have an eye infection.  None of the things that happened to Lulu are anyone’s fault but they do contribute to how we approach the behaviour now, and blaming Lucy for insisting on getting a very young puppy or blaming Larry for giving Lulu a bath and getting dirt in her eye isn’t going to change what we are dealing with in the here and now.

Prevention is always the best cure.  We can make ourselves feel really great if we think we always know the right answer, but we don’t always know, and neither do my clients.  As we learn more, we do better.  We know now that the best way to prevent jumping up is to teach the dog to greet politely when they are young and reward for the right answer, but when we are looking at behaviour, playing the blame game just doesn’t change the behaviour of the dog we are working with in front of us.  When clients come and ask for help, it is important that I recognize that they are not looking for blame; they are looking for help.  They have taken responsibility for the problem and they are addressing that by coming to me for help.  As long as they are coming to classes and working on their problems, then blaming from me or from the family members shouldn’t be a part of the program; it just isn’t going to help.  Lucy and Larry and Lulu are tangled up in a problem and they are looking for solutions not blame.  I need information, but not so that I can assign blame.  I need to know things in order to formulate a solution.  People tend to use blame when they think that someone isn’t taking responsibility when they ought to.  If clients are in my training hall they have already taken responsiblity, and so blame just doesn’t belong there as a part of the process.

THE BLAME GAME

KIDS AND DOGS

Originally posted July 2013, updated and edited

When I was about twelve, I wanted to teach the family dog some tricks.  The process of connecting with an animal and imparting information fascinated me as much then as it does now.  We had a dog in our family named Thurber, and she was my constant companion, and I wanted to do more.  My aunt had a titled Golden Retriever, and I was mesmerized by the work they did together.  I asked my aunt how she trained her dog and she suggested that I use a chain collar to tell the dog when not to do something and a piece of food to tell the dog when she had done something right.  That was all the coaching I ever remember getting, but it made a big impact on me.  I taught that dog many tricks; most of them involving jumping over or climbing onto things.

As an obedience instructor today, I have a lot of parents asking him about getting their children involved with dog training.  Indeed, dog training and children can go hand in hand, but it is the unusual and rare child who is as interested in it as I was.  Most kids are looking for some early successes and don’t persevere through the early stages where the dog doesn’t know what is happening and neither does the child.  This can be even more difficult when the child and the dog are in a classroom full of adults and other dogs.  The pressure to succeed can often result in frustration for the parents, the kids and the dog.

Little girl playing with dog at home
This girl and her dog are probably just “fooling around” with some treats and tricks. In order to achieve this kind of relationship, the dog has to have great manners, and understand the training process, as does the child. With some careful set up and planning we can make this happen. Once the dog and the child both have some basics, this is what happens; the kid and the dog start to play with training. That is really how I achieved the magic I had with my dog Thurber when I was a kid.

How can we make this more successful for the kids?  For a while we ran a family class which was a levels class just for families and their kids.  Sadly, not enough families could come out to make this worth carrying on with.  We would go along nicely with four or five families in class for eight or twelve weeks and then it would dwindle and get taken over by families who wanted their dogs to meet and like children but who weren’t bringing children to class.  Certainly there are schools who run classes specifically for children but there aren’t too many of them.

As an animal trainer who also works with horses, I think we can learn something from what we do in the horse world.  It is accepted that it is not a good idea for an untrained, inexperienced young rider to be mounted on an untrained, inexperienced young horse.  Instead, we prize those rare ponies who are well suited to teaching youngsters to be confident around and on horses.  We start the kids in lessons where the pony knows what to do and the kids can learn from a horse who already knows the work.  When the kids are proficient on a well schooled calm and older pony, we give them a more challenging mount or more difficult work on the same horse.  When they master that, we give them a bigger horse, and bigger challenges.  By the time a child is about twelve, he can if he has been taught carefully and properly begin schooling younger horses and by the time a child is about fourteen he can begin to teach young horses to be ridden.

15340398 - very young girl riding on pony
This child is being set up for a successful riding experience by pairing her with a safe pony and supervision (she is on a long line to help her to successfully control the pony).  She is wearing the appropriate safety equipment.  The pony is the right size for her and he is calm and well behaved.  We aren’t asking her to control a large unruly and untrained horse.  Ideally, this is what we would do when we pair a child with a dog in an obedience class!  Image credit: davetroesh / 123RF Stock Photo

This is how I recommend that we help youngsters to work with our family dogs.  When mom or dad starts the training, and teaches the dog the skills and then helps the child to master the skill with the dog who already knows what to do, then the dog and the child can develop skills together.  When the child has mastered the basics, then moving forward to more complex and interesting work makes for a more successful experience for both the dog and the child.

In practice what that means in our classes is coming to class and learning to click and treat effectively.  Then take the skill of clicking and treating home to your kids and help them to master that part.  Even very young children can be successful with you clicking and they treating.  By working WITH your kids where you click and they treat does a lot of things.  It teaches the dog that the click predicts the treat.  It helps with your timing.  It involves the children with you and the dog in an activity.  Later you can change roles and let your kids click while you treat.

When you have mastered clicking to mark the behaviour you want, you can teach your dog to do a lot of different things; sit, down and come when called are really easy and useful behaviours to teach your dog so that your kids can participate in training.  When your dog will sit when you say “sit” and you can click when sit happens, you can integrate into your training.  You can start out by demonstrating the behaviour with your dog to your children.  Once your child understands the activities that you want your dog to do, then you can play a variety of games with the behaviours your dog knows.  Get your child to say “sit” when your dog sits, you click and your child can give the treat.  This teaches your dog to follow directions from your child (very important!) and you mark when both the kid and the dog get the right answer.  When your dog is following the direction from your child, you can start giving your child the clicker and you cue the behaviour for the dog.  This gives you a chance to coach the timing of the click so that your child clicks at the right moment.  When your child has had a chance at the cueing, the clicking and the treating separately, then they can start working on all three at once.  I like getting kids to do five of the same behaviour in a row, before we start working on second and third behaviours.

Once the kids get the hang of the process with behaviours that the dog knows, then I like playing a game of call and response; I tell the kid what behaviours to use, and they ask for the behaviour from the dog and click and treat.  When the dog and child are successful with five or six different behaviours in a row, then the kids are ready to start teaching new behaviours.  The dog should by this time understand ten or twelve behaviours, so the dog understands the process of learning.  It is really important that the kids understand that they are marking the right answer for the dog before they start trying to shape new behaviours with the dog.

I have a dozen or so throw away behaviours that I use to help people to learn to shape.  Throw away behaviours are behaviours that don’t really matter a lot to me; tricks are throw aways, and if the dog doesn’t learn them exactly right it is not a big deal.  Throw away behaviours are not the sorts of behaviours that the dog’s life depends upon, like come when called or lie down and stay.  Lying down with your head on your paws is a great throw away behaviour for kids to play with.  The child cues the dog to lie down, and then instead of clicking we just give the dog a treat; the click ends the behaviour, and we want the dog to stay lying down.  Then your child can wait till your dog drops his head towards his paws, and click at that moment and then treat.  If your child is sitting in front of your dog while he is lying down, then your dog will likely keep lying down.  Help your child to offer the treat low between the dog’s feet to help your dog to continue lying down, and if he gets up, then help your child to recue your dog to lie down and then help your kid to continue to click only when your dog drops his head down to his paws.

Notice here that the parent needs to spend a lot of time training, supporting and coaching in order to make this successful for both the dog and the child.  Training, supporting, and coaching set up your dog and your child to be successful and start to work independently.  You cannot do this for either your dog or your child, but without input they are likely going to flounder especially in a busy classroom.  Once your child has trained a few throw away behaviours or tricks with coaching, then it is time for the parent to step back, and supervise but not do it for the team.  These first steps of training independently need to be successful to keep both your child and your dog engaged.  It is also important to recognize that there is no imperative to work for a whole hour in a class-if your child and your dog are comfortable working for ten minutes and then they need a break, then let them take a break; it is not worthwhile to keep them working when they are no longer interested.

84358253 - little girl training a corgi dog at the park
This is the sort of trick that little girls teach their dogs to do.  The dog has to learn somethings first; lie down and stay for instance.  If we help the dog to learn the behaviour and then teach the kids how to get the dogs to do what they know then the dog and the kids can both have a great experience!

Small successful steps lead to a long lasting bond between your dog and your child, but you also have to put the training in context.  This is true for adults in training classes too; “what is the point?” is always an important question to answer.  If you have been working on sit with your dog and your child, then make sure that you use that behaviour with your dog and your child in the context of their day to day activities.  You could for instance start getting your dog to sit before your child puts the dog’s breakfast down.  Or you could get your dog to sit before your child throws a ball or a Frisbee for your dog.  It is really important to make training relevant to both your dog and your child.

Often when parents ask if we include kids in class, they forget that we are dealing with three learners in class; the adult, the dog and the child.  Few training classes are really geared to meet the needs of a child learner, and dropping a child into an adult class is not fun for the child, the instructor or the dog.  We cannot expect the child to learn in the way that adults do, and when we pair the child up with a dog who doesn’t understand the work either, then the adult, the child and the dog go away frustrated.   It is better to teach your dog the behaviours you want him to learn and then repeat those behaviours in class with your kids.  You can step in if you need, but generally, if the dog knows the behaviour the kid can retrain that easily and successfully.

When parents work with the school and take the dog through the work before they take the child through the work with the dog who already knows what to do, this makes it much easier for everyone.  Communication between you and the instructor about your goals in bringing your dog and your child to class can really go a long way to being successful too.  As an instructor, I want to know about your training goals and be a part of your successes.  From time to time a child appears in my classes with their parents and the parent steps back too early, and the whole experiment falls apart.  Not only is the child turned off one of the most magical activities that I was blessed to experience in my childhood, but the adult and the dog are frustrated too!

And what about the child who takes a class and is successful?  When the child and the dog move through the world together and they come up with an idea together, they can explore that with a common understanding of how to communicate about what they each need.  Then the child gets what I got as a child.  A magic relationship with another being.  That is what I wish every child could get when they come through my classroom.

KIDS AND DOGS

THE SALVADORE DALI CAFE

Originally Published August 2013

Imagine what it might be like to live in a completely behaviourally random world.  You go to the cafe and order a latte, and the cashier asks for your hat and coat.  As a cooperative citizen, you give it to the lady who throws it in the trash, as she calls out “NEXT” and turns her attention to the person behind you in line.  You move down the counter to pick up your latte, and the barrista, comes out from behind the counter and grabs you and begins to waltz you around the Salvador Dali cafe and throws open the door and turfs you out onto the sidewalk.  On the sidewalk, a bear in a business suit offers you a Rolex, cheap from inside his waistcoat and when you say no, he pulls out some flowers and hands them to you and approaches someone else on the street.  Still wanting a latte you go back into the store, only to find that it is now filled with pink balloons and you cannot make your way to the counter.  After much struggling, you catch the eye of the cashier and mention your latte and she says “no latte today, m’dear, only champers and cheese” and hands you a plate of candied almonds.  Nothing you do can change the maelstrom of activity you have found yourself within.  How would you feel?

6003347 - checkerboard time composition
Living in our world as it is depends on understanding things like the rules of the game, that gravity controls what floats and what doesn’t and who people are.  When things stop being predictable, then it becomes very difficult to learn what to do.  Salvador Dali had a talent for showing this concept visually in a playful and interesting way, never the less, few people would want to play checkers on a board where the pieces persist in falling through the board and where time expands and contracts independently of what the players do.   Image credit: rolffimages / 123RF Stock Photo

When we work with dogs, they are forever looking for the way through the maze; the way to control their environment, the rules of the game.  There are lots of games you can play and learn the rules through experience, and training is one of them.  Yesterday, I worked with a lovely young terrier who is trying to figure out the rules.  When she barks, she wants attention, and as a youngster, it worked well.  She can make her person do all sorts of things by barking.  Not wanting to disturb people, her person will come in to her and pick her up, or give her treats or tell her to be quiet or point a finger at her or tell her to lie down.  Like trying to order a latte in the Salvadore Dali cafe, everything changes at every step of the game.  So how can we make training an experiential fun game for the dog?

Think about games and activities that you have learned through experience.  If someone invites you to play Scrabble and you have never played before, it might run like this.  Your opponent will give you a hint or a clue or a starting point.  Perhaps they will start by giving you a tile tray and some tiles and ask you to make some words in your tile tray without showing the words that you have found.  Then your opponent will put down some tiles and the board and explain how the scoring works.  Then it is your turn and you can take your letters and place them on the board to make a word that intersects the first word.  You do this and your opponent scores your word for you and then it is his turn again.  He makes a word that intersects a word on the board and you work out the scoring together.  Turn by turn you learn the rules of the game, what strategies work and which strategies are ineffective.  This is exactly how dogs learn when we train using operant conditioning.

Coming back to my terrier friend (she really is a friendly dog who is just trying to make sense of her world), what we set up for training was a contingency that allowed her to learn some rules through experience.  The first thing we did was use a tether to limit where she could go; we set up a playing area so to speak.  Then we clicked and treated to remind her that the game was starting and give her some information about the game and how it would work.  Then we used four basic rules; if she was quiet, her person would stand close to her and wait.  If she was barking, her person would take one step back for each bark, until he got to the far end of the room.  After barking started, if she were quiet, her person would come back one step at a time.  If she lay down, her person would click and treat.  At first, she didn’t know the rules so she did a lot of different things to see what would happen.

When she barked, her person would step back.  This frustrated her and so she barked louder.  When her person was about twenty steps back, she stopped barking and he stepped forward.  Then she barked again and he stepped back.  For about five minutes, she learned how her behaviour affected the behaviour of her partner.  Then abruptly, she lay down.  Her partner came in and fed her a treat.  And she barked.  He backed up.  She stopped barking and stood up.  He stepped closer.  She lay down, he gave her a treat.  A very simple, but very predictable game, in which she controlled the behaviour of her partner.

This is how I think the best training works.  The trainer decides on the game for the day.  The trainer decides on what the contingencies are.  Then the trainer allows the dog to work out the contingencies.  The dog gets to decide if he wants to play or not and if the trainer has done his job well he has set up rules that make sense to the dog and the dog wants to play.  In order to do this we have to understand some things about the game and about the dog we are working with.

If I have a dog who LOVES liver, but doesn’t love cheese, then it doesn’t matter what I want the dog to do, cheese is not going to help him to learn the rules of the game.  Likewise if the penalty is something the dog doesn’t care about, then using that as a penalty isn’t going to work.  If in the scenario that I presented above the dog was afraid of the handler and barking made him go away, the dog would learn that barking resulted in something he wanted and he would do more barking.  I see this all the time in training.  The person thinks that their dog should like something, and they offer it as a reward, and the dog when working out the rules figures out that he will get something he doesn’t want to have if he does a particular behaviour.  This isn’t about the dog not wanting to play your game; this is about the dog not wanting what you have to offer.

Sometimes the task we are asking the dog to do is of no interest to him.  If we ask a herding dog to go sit in a boat and retrieve ducks, no amount of liver is going to make that as fun for him as taking him out to herd sheep.  In the best training the activities we do with our dogs are of interest to the dog.  That said, there are always parts of the game that we might not enjoy; I hate setting up the board in Scrabble, but if I don’t do that part, I cannot do the part that I like doing.  Manners are an example of activities that your dog must do in order to get to do things he likes better.  Behaviours like greeting with four on the floor, taking treats gently, and keeping quiet are all behaviours that the dog must learn in order to be able to do things like playing agility, herding sheep or retrieving ducks.  Teaching good manners allows us to do more fun things with our dogs later and also allows us to establish that the dog doesn’t live in a random world where nothing he does affects the world he lives within.

Luring is a tool that I often see in the training game that can be quickly and dangerously misused.  Imagine if in my Salvador Dali coffee shop, the cashier kept holding out that latte that I wanted, but I could only get it by following her around.  I might tolerate a lot of Rolex selling bears and pink balloons to get my lattte, but I probably wouldn’t enjoy the experience a whole lot more.  Luring should be only used with caution and with respect for the dog.  When a novice trainer discovers that he can make the dog sit by holding the lure over the dog’s head, it is a short and dangerous step to using the lure to get the dog to do things he might consider otherwise risky.  Consider the dog who is not confident about getting onto a piece of agility equipment.  The trainer puts the lure on the equipment, and the dog is then in a conundrum; he can get the treat, but he isn’t learning to control his environment any longer.  He is conflicted because he wants the treat, but he has to do something that he considers dangerous to get that treat.  He doesn’t learn to play the game as much as he learns to balance the conflict between what he wants and what he doesn’t want to do.  Luring is even more dangerous when it is used to get the dog to interact with people or dogs he isn’t sure of, because he may at that point become aggressive.  Luring, properly used tells the dog how to position his body, but that is all it should be used for.  If the dog is concerned in any way about what you want him to do, pairing the thing he is concerned about to the thing he wants is a much safer bet than making his interaction the contingency that results in a treat.

26398277 - owner training puppy dog with treat
Luring is a tool that can lead the dog into the Salvador Dali Cafe.  It is best used to help the dog understand how his body ought to be positioned, but if it is abused and used to coerce the dog to do things that are uncomfortable or risky, then the dog loses control over how he interacts with the world and then he can end up in situations that don’t make sense to him or that actually put him at risk.  In general, targeting can achieve the same results, with fewer risks.  Image credit: simsonne100 / 123RF Stock Photo

As soon as worry comes into the game, then it is not fun anymore.  Then it is time to play a different game; a game that will allow the learner to figure out that he is safe and that the world is a good place to interact with.  When the dog is worried the game should simply be “see that scary thing?  It produces treats”  This game is great when it is played with the frightening thing far enough away that the dog can cope with his fear.  Only when fear dissolves can you switch back to a game of “if you interact with the thing you are worried about, you will get a treat”.

When we think about training as a game, we can set up a series of rules and outcomes that the dog can be successful at.  Teaching dogs to be confident is contingent on the dog being repeatedly successful.  If the dog is successful over and over again, the dog starts to think that he can do many more things than he used to be able to do.  Perhaps the worst thing we can do to our dogs is create a random world where they cannot control what they live with.  Overwhelming dogs with repeated conflicts or failures results in a dog who lacks confidence and who doesn’t want to participate in training games.  If your dog feels like he is living in the Salvador Dali coffee shop, don’t be surprised if he stops participating in the training game, or if he becomes tense or fearful or anxious.  Just writing about the Salvador Dali cafe is difficult because none of it makes sense and there is no control over the outcomes.  When there is no control over your world, learning is inefficient and upsetting and pretty soon you have a dog who just doesn’t want to participate any more.

THE SALVADORE DALI CAFE

TRAVEL AT THE SPEED OF DOG

Many years ago, I had two clients in class.  One very energetic bouncy happy lady had a very energetic bouncy happy border collie.  The other very quiet laidback low key lady had a very quiet laid back low key Malamute.  When it came time to teach the dogs to come when called, the very energetic bouncy happy lady handed me her dog’s leash, I held the dog by the collar and she jumped up and down and up and down and made squeaky enticing noises and ran away and called her dog.  Her very energetic very bouncy happy dog raced joyously to her and promptly bounced her to the ground where the two of them had a very energetic, very bouncy happy love fest.  Next, the very quiet laidback low key lady handed me her dog’s leash and I held her dog by the collar as she ambled slowly away and stopped half way to the end of our training field to tie her shoe lace.  She got up and slowly continued to the end of the field where she turned and calmly asked the dog to come.  I released the dog’s collar and he very slowly, very quietly and calmly ambled towards her, stopping once to sit down and scratch, and then to sniff and go pee, and then he wandered off towards the other dogs in the class waiting for their turn at the exercise.

45501254_s
If I want to teach THIS dog to come to me without bouncing me to the ground, I will need to ask him to come in such a way that I don’t cause him to come so quickly that he cannot stop without hitting me. This is just one aspect of what I need to do in order to be successful when I am training a dog. Copyright: bigandt / 123RF Stock Photo

Week after week, I coached these two trainers on how to get better recalls.  Relax a bit I told the very energetic bouncy happy lady, and he won’t knock you over when he gets to you.  Get a little more excited and interesting for your dog I coached the quiet laidback low key lady, so that your dog is a little more excited to get to you.  The more I coached them, the more extreme each of these ladies seemed to get.  The very bouncy lady got bouncier, and the quiet lady got calmer and even more reserved.  One day in exacerbation, I had them trade dogs and each dog had a much better recall.  Of course over time, each of the handlers DID improve however the bouncy lady was still bouncy and the quiet lady was still quiet.  Luckily they each had dogs to suit their own temperaments!

This scenario really highlights something I see in my classes though.  We have to give the dogs what they need in order to learn.  We can only teach the dogs what they have the foundations to understand and we must present the material we want them to learn in such a way that they will be successful in their activities.  If we don’t we won’t be successful in our training.  In short, we have to travel at the speed of dog.

When I see dogs struggling in class I start out by asking myself if the dog has all the information he needs in order to learn the task.  If we are teaching a dog to go away from us for instance, and we start by asking the dog to move out 20 metres, and the dog doesn’t know how to go two metres away from us on cue, then we are very unlikely to be able to build a solid, happy and energetic go out.  We need to understand the mechanics of what we are working on (coming when called usually works better when the person is a longer not shorter distance from the dog for instance), what motivates the dog, and what the dog already knows in order to be successful.  I have taught the long distance go out a number of different ways, all depending on which dog I am working with.  The point is that I have to travel at the speed of dog in each and every instance. 

Another thing I need to consider when I am teaching dogs is what their own way is of moving through the world.  I tend to be a fairly intense, high energy handler.  I do best with confident, pushy dogs who enjoy my big personality, but as a professional dog trainer, I have to train calm quiet dogs, timid dogs, energetic silly dogs and dogs who just defy classification.  In other words I have to be flexible in the way that I interact with dogs. 

I also have to be flexible in my behaviour when I am teaching different exercises.  When I am teaching a dog to perform a self control exercise such as the down stay, it is better to start out by being low key and neutral.  When I want to teach a dog to come to me from a distance, it generally pays better to be a little bit exciting, unless of course you are working with a dog like my student had who was charging her and knocking her over. 

Another aspect to travelling at the speed of dog is the rate at which we give the dog information.  Ideally we want the dog to offer enough iterations of the behaviour that he can get sufficient rewards to tell him what it is that we want.  We have to set up the dog so that he gets the right answer quickly and efficiently and if he has not received a reward recently we cannot be surprised when he disengages from the activity and does his own thing. 

20862711 - mastiff is scratching behind his ear - copy space
This dog is engaged in his own activity, so you would need to be very aware of how much information you need to give him, how fast that information came, and not overusing his name to nag him. Copyright: chalabala / 123RF Stock Photo

Not only do we have to give the dog enough information to know when he is right, but we also have to give him cues in a timely manner.  I have watched many students say the dog’s name and then wait and wait and wait before giving the dog the cue to the behaviour that will earn a reward.  The only thing this achieves is a dog learning that in the training context, he should disregard his name!  If your dog is engaged, you likely don’t need to use his name at all.  You can learn more about how to effectively use your dog’s name at https://mrsbehaviour.com/2015/06/13/your-dogs-name-an-operating-manual/ .  Similar to this issue is when you have a dog who has performed a behaviour, and the handler delays the next cue for a very long time.  This leaves the dog hanging so that he doesn’t quite know what is coming up next, and if he is not eagerly engaged in the activity to begin with, he will just wander off to do his own thing.

Travelling at the speed of dog requires us as trainers to be aware of a number of variables and factor them all in when we are working with our dogs.  If the dog we are working with tends to be excitable, we need to tone down.  If that same dog needs to perform that behaviour with exuberance, then we can bring our own enthusiasm up a bit and help them to express the appropriate amount of energy for the given activity.  We need to avoid overwhelming the dog with too much or too little information.  Developing the ability to juggle all these factors can feel very overwhelming for many of us, however then they are all in balance, the dog travels along through the training game along side of us and learns effectively and efficiently. 

TRAVEL AT THE SPEED OF DOG

CAT-COT-COG-DOG

One of the many things I love to spend time on is a good puzzle.  Word puzzles are a ton of fun!  In particular, word morphs can keep my attention for hours.  A word morph is a puzzle game where you are given a starting word, and an ending word, and you change one letter of the word at a time to come up with the end word.  The challenge is to get from one word to another in the fewest number of steps.  Often the words are somehow linked, such as cat to dog, or help to safe.  Maybe it is these puzzles that really draw me to training using shaping.

Shaping is the process in training where we start with the dog doing something and change that something into something else through successive approximations.  What that means is each training step brings the dog closer and closer to the end behaviour.  As an example, let me describe teaching a dog to approach without jumping up, as I did with a client’s dog last night.  This dog, a young exuberant labrador loves to rush up to people, and throw herself at people.  At about 30 kg, this dog is big enough to really hurt someone if she chooses the wrong person to jump upon.  This is like the starting word.

6446944_s
Training is a process of steps towards a goal. If you try and take too many steps at once, you will stumble and fall back down to the beginning. When you take the process of learning step by step by step, you go from can’t to can and success with your dog. Copyright: cristianbr / 123RF Stock Photo

The desired behaviour is to have her come up to me, and keep her feet on the floor while I touch her.  In behaviour parlance, we would call this the target behaviour and I always like to break that behaviour down into the simplest terms possible.  I don’t like to use more than 7 words to describe that behaviour because the more simply that I can describe it, the easier it is to find the steps to achieve my goal.  Let’s call this behaviour “approach with 4 feet on the floor.”  That is 6 words, so it fits my desire to have no more than 7 words to describe what I am training, but you will notice that it cuts out the touching part.  By limiting myself to 7 words at most, I prevent myself from lumping too many things into one training session.

Now that I have the starting behaviour and the ending behaviour, the rest of the training session is a matter of inserting the intermediate steps.  This part of shaping requires that I let go of the idea that I am going to run the entire training show without input from my training partner.  It requires that I allow my learner to do what she wants without interference.  During the training session she may do exactly what I don’t want, and for the purposes of this example I am just going to let her do that.  I think that for some of my human students this is perhaps the hardest part of shaping.  Most of my students whose dogs jump up are so deeply appalled by the undesired behaviour that when it happens they give the dog feedback that may or may not be helpful.  Usually, the feedback they give the dog is just exactly something that will maintain or even strengthen the behaviour.  Pushing the dog down may feel like a solution but in fact, teaches the dog that you are more than happy to play a vigorous wrestling game for instance and from the dog’s perspective, yelling is just noisy barking that humans do sometimes.

Here is how the session played out.  We let the dog off leash in the training hall and she began to run around away from me.  This is not an uncommon reaction when the dog is off leash, so the very first thing I did was to set the dog up so that she was unlikely to do the undesired behaviour.  Setting up so that you get what you want is the hallmark of great training.  After about three minutes, she approached me and her person, and I clicked my clicker and threw a treat behind her.  I should mention that this dog understood what a clicker was and what it meant, so if you want to try this out, you should teach the dog that click means treat before you start.

When I clicked the clicker, the dog stopped dead in her tracks and stared at me.  For her, this was probably the first time that she had received any feedback about approaching other than yelling or pushing!  She was genuinely surprised at the outcome.  I made sure she could see me throw the treat and she took off like a shot to chase the treat.  Once she took the treat, she started to explore the training room again, sniffing the toys and finding dropped treats that had been left by previous trainers.  It took her another two or three minutes to approach us and again she approached us at a run. I clicked again and threw another treat behind the dog.  This time there was a short light bulb moment for the dog; approaching me was a safe, interesting thing to do, and it resulted in treats!  From there the dog began to approach me right away after getting her treat.  7 clicks and treats later she was coming in towards us eagerly but under her own control.  Throughout this time, I simply chatted with the client, never giving the dog directions, never micromanaging the dog, just clicking the dog for approaching, and throwing the treat away to get the dog to leave in order for me to set up a chance for the dog to return.

From that point forward, I wanted the dog to start to approach more closely while maintaining her self control.  To get her to do this, I just delayed clicking until she approached more closely.  About 10 more clicks and she was walking right up to me.  I had a little bit of history with this dog, working with her on the down stay, so she made a quick leap of logic and without any prompting or cuing or other information from me, she approached me and lay down.  I really liked that, so I clicked and threw several treats; I made approaching and lying down really, really valuable!

As I said at the beginning, shaping is a lot like a word morph game.  In this case the steps were approach, approach and stop, approach under self control, approach more closely under self control, approach and lie down at my feet.  You will notice that the learner added in something I had not planned for; lying down.  If she had added in sit, or stand and make eye contact, that would have been fine with me too; in this case, it doesn’t matter to me what she did when she arrived as long as it wasn’t putting her feet on me.  In five steps, I achieved my goal of “approach with four feet on the floor”.

12405697_s
This is what my goal behaviour looks like for the labrador retriever I was working with. Knowing what I want is an important part of shaping. If I don’t know where I am going, it is going to be much harder to take steps towards that goal. It is important to be able to form the goal behaviour in terms of what I do want, not just what I don’t want. Copyright: lightpoet / 123RF Stock Photo

In order to get my goal of being able to touch this dog, I would have continued to train, clicking and treating for approaching and lying down while I first stepped towards the dog, and then stepping in and reaching but not touching, then stepping in and touching her and finally stepping in, reaching, touching and stroking her.  The important thing to notice in this case is that once the dog is doing what I want her to do, I am shaping the activity that happens around her while she is doing the behaviour that I want.  This is an important next step in most training; trainers might call this proofing.  What we mean is for the dog to continue to do the target behaviour no matter what else happens around them.

It is popular to only define shaping in terms of reinforcement training but in fact, shaping can happen in any of the four training quadrants; you can certainly use punishment to shape behaviour too.  With this very same dog we did this to keep her safe after she jumped up on a treat station and broke it.  We have small flower pots on the wall to hold treats, and like many dogs before her, she tried to jump up and use her claws to pull the pots off the wall.  She broke a pot and it would be dangerous to her to continue to do this, so we didn’t want her to do that.  When she jumped up on the wall near the pots, we called out “that’s enough”.  If she stopped right away, we would toss treats for her to clean up.  If she continued to the pot, we would call out “too bad” and then quietly and calmly catch her and put her in the classroom crate for a few minutes.  Then we would let her out to try again.  In this way, the dog learned that jumping up on the wall near the pots was a behaviour that would predict an outcome that she didn’t like very much.  It wasn’t stressful for her, it was just something she didn’t like.

It took about five repetitions to teach the dog not to jump on the walls, but that was really only the first step; we really wanted this dog to stop fixating on the pots altogether, so the next step on this shaping protocol was to call out the warning as she approached the wall.  This time she learned the game even more quickly; it took her three repetitions to decide that approaching the wall near the pot was not a desired behaviour.  From there, almost half an hour passed before she tried the behaviour again.  In this way, we had shaped the behaviour we wanted using a negative punishment protocol.

Shaping can work with extinction too.  We use extinction to teach dogs not to snatch treats until they are told.  Extinction is the process of doing nothing at all until the behaviour changes and then reinforce the lack of the behaviour.  At first, we ask only that they not touch our hand when a treat is extended towards the dog.  Then we require that they stay off the treat for a second.  Then two seconds.  Then three, five, seven, ten and so on until the dog learns that trying to get at the treat just won’t work.  We essentially teach the dog to stop trying to get the treat for longer and longer periods of time.

The important thing to understand about morphing behaviours like changing words is to make changes slowly.  If you want your dog to pay attention to you when there are other dogs in the vicinity, then don’t start in the middle of the dog park; start far away, and pay your dog for giving you his attention at whatever distance he is already successful.  Some dogs struggle so much with attending to me out of doors that I start out with just hand feeding outside my front door.  Then I take them to places in the car and just feed them in new places.  In general, if I have a really distracted dog, I want them to take treats nicely in ten places before I start asking them to do anything at all in a new place.  Then I start asking for things they will do at home on my front step or in the driveway.  From there, I take them in the car and ask them to get out of the car and do something really easy.  Each time, I pay really well for whatever the dog does what I ask.  Just as teaching the dog a new skill requires that I increase the difficulty of the skill in a step wise manner, so does working in a new environment.

Just like changing words one letter at a time, shaping or morphing behaviours is a lot of fun.  One of the biggest reasons it is a lot of fun is that if you are only changing a little bit at a time, you are going to be fairly successful in very short order.  It is a lot less fun when you try and change more than one thing at a time.  When you are training, if you are not succeeding, ask yourself if you are changing too much too fast and if you are, slow down and enjoy the success.

CAT-COT-COG-DOG