Tuesday, April 01, 2014

Basic concepts for tricks training

I'll be teaching a dog tricks class at Dog Fun Forever starting in May, and I needed a concise introductory handout that would help my students understand the basic concepts involved. 

Basic concepts for tricks training

To effectively train your dog to perform tricks the first thing you should learn is to use a clicker or a marker word (a clicker is recommended for tricks training). The click or marker word (which should be something very short like the word “yes”) is a conditioned reinforcer. It does not replace the use of treats, but instantly tells the dog that what he has done will earn him a reward. The timing of clicks or markers is very important! The click or marker word needs to be delivered right when your dog has done the correct behavior. (There’s a very good explanation of conditioned reinforcers at the Fearfuldogs’ Blog.)

Begin teaching the click/marker word, in a quiet area. Have a handful of your dog’s favorite treats ready. Click (or say the marker word) and immediately give your dog a treat. Repeat 5 to 10 times. You can test your success by clicking when your dog is not paying attention to you. If your dog responds to the click by suddenly looking at you, then looking for a treat, you are ready to move on and start teaching some tricks.

We teach tricks by following the simple principle: Behaviors that are rewarded are more likely to be repeated. But how do we get the behaviors in the first place? The best way to teach tricks is to shape them using luring, capturing or a combination of the two.

Many behaviors and simple tricks can be achieved by luring the dog into a position or behavior and then rewarding it. The motion we use to lure can then be faded into a hand motion to signal the trick. Once the dog is reliably doing the behavior we can then add a verbal cue. One disadvantage to teaching things this way is that it conditions the dog to focus on you and your hands and makes it difficult to teach independent behaviors or tricks that involve the dog moving or looking away from you.

Capturing behaviors means waiting for your dog to perform a certain behavior and rewarding it so she will repeat it again. It requires patience and close observation, and it doesn’t always work for everything you want to teach your dog. Capturing leads to surprisingly fast results, however, and teaches the dog to think about exactly what she is doing to trigger the marker/reward. It works very well for teaching complex behaviors, things that are hard to lure or trigger (like a sneeze or a stretch, for example) and things that involve looking or moving away from the handler.

Many tricks can be taught with a combination of luring and capturing. Some methods that work very well with one dog won’t work as well with another. It’s best to keep your mind open and let your dog help you figure out how to adjust your methods.

Shaping, or as it’s formally known, “shaping by successive approximations,” simply means breaking down a behavior into tiny increments, and reinforcing the dog at each incremental step until you’ve achieved the full behavior. 

Shaping involves splitting behavior rather than lumping. Lumping means to reinforce an entire behavior at once (as we do when we teach sit or down, for example). In contrast, splitting means to look for and reinforce very small movements or steps of a behavior, building toward the final behavior.

For example, to teach a “roll over,” you and your dog will become very frustrated very quickly if you try to get the whole behavior at once. It’s not something your dog may feel comfortable doing. But, if you start by rewarding a down and then capture or lure successive movements (head turning, shifting weight to the side, etc.), you can, in a few sessions, work your way toward a full roll. 

A very easy first shaping exercise is to add an object to the environment and reward your dog for increased interaction with it. For example, clicking and rewarding for a mere glance at the object at first will soon have your dog paying more attention to it. Once your dog is very interested in the object, you may start raising the criteria required for a reward to a sniff, nose-touch, paw-touch and so on. For a great example of this sort of training exercise, see Karen Pryor’s 101 Things to Do with a Box.

Ten Laws of Shaping

 (from Chapter 2 of Don’t Shoot the Dog by Karen Pryor)
  1. Raise criteria in increments small enough so that the subject always has a realistic chance of reinforcement.
  2. Train one aspect of any particular behavior at a time. Don’t try to shape for two criteria simultaneously.
  3. During shaping, put the current level of response on a variable ratio schedule of reinforcement before adding or raising the criteria.
  4. When introducing a new criterion, or aspect of the behavioral skill, temporarily relax the old ones.
  5. Stay ahead of your subject: Plan your shaping program completely so that if the subject makes sudden progress, you are aware of what to reinforce next.
  6. Don’t change trainers in midstream. You can have several trainers per trainee, but stick to one shaper per behavior.
  7. If one shaping procedure is not eliciting progress, find another. There are as many ways to get behavior as there are trainers to think them up.
  8. Don’t interrupt a training session gratuitously; that constitutes a punishment.
  9. If behavior deteriorates, “Go back to kindergarten.” Quickly review the whole shaping process with a series of easily earned reinforcers.
  10. End each session on a high note, if possible, but in any case quit while you’re ahead.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Welcome back to the dog blog, I say to myself ...

We've had tons of rain around here over the past two months, which has made the ground so extremely soggy that's it's been hard to get in a lot of agility training and practice with the girls. But did that mean I took the time to write about dogs and agility in my dog blog instead? No, it did not.

But I did move 8 of my 12 channel weave poles into my basement so I can get Tally and Pinky finally weaving. It's so funny the differences between them: Tally is go go go and doesn't seem to sweat it as the poles move closer together. Her main problem is that she goes too fast to always stay in the channel--she just sort of flys out accidentally. Pinky, however, is very deliberate, paying close attention to where she is stepping. She's very sensitive to any change in pole width, so we're progressing at a snail's pace. I don't see her becoming a fast weaver anytime soon. The only think holding Tally back is that I don't train and practice her nearly as often as I should be. She's probably be weaving a completely close set like a pro if she belonged to someone less lazy than I am.

Anyway, that's not what I came to talk about. I'm thinking about Doggie Stress, mostly because I just caught up with my Team Small Dog blog reading and This Post made me think somewhat about Pinky and Tally and stress, and rather than blah blah blah about my own dogs over in Laura's comments I figured I should do that here in my own blog.

So what I'm thinking about is how different dogs (and by that I mean Pinky and tally) handle stress so very differently. I just discovered this the other week in class with Tally, after I inadvertently completely stressed her out. Well, actually, I think she stressed me out first, because I've created a Shaping Monster: we've done so may shaping games that now I have a hard time just getting her to relax and chill while waiting our turn in class. She wants to throw behavior after behavior at me, and if they don't succeed in getting a reward she wants to start barking at me, as if to say "HELLO! I'm doing stuff here!" So when my turn came, I was exasperated and stressed. Then I wondered why I couldn't get her off of me; it's like she was stuck like glue, refusing to stop staring at me. Usually she has brilliant obstacle focus, but now suddenly she was all handler.

Val, my instructor, pointed out that I was stressed and had stressed Tally out, and her staring at me was because she wanted to be absolutely sure of what I wanted before she did anything, because obviously whatever she was doing wasn't pleasing me. I hadn't a clue ... Pinky and Lucy always exhibited their stress by going away and sniffing and pretending they couldn't hear me. Now suddenly I have a dog who stresses the opposite way, by gluing herself to me and refusing to take her eyes off me (I swear, even though she's only 14 lbs., her behavior reminds me so much of many border collies I know ...)

Anyway, I've decided that from now on, Tally goes into a crate between turns in class so I don't get stressed about her demand to play shaping games. (I tried shaping her to relax on her mat, but we got stuck on the "relax" part. I couldn't get past her thinking that the mat was just the place she was supposed to go and try out her repertoire of shaped behaviors, or bark at me if the didn't work ...) Good thing she's small and her crate is very portable.

There's also a big difference between what stresses Pinky and Tally in the first place: Pinky doesn't like too much pressure. It's as if she needs everything to be her idea. When she goes through the weave channel, she's more relaxed and faster if I keep some distance. If I act like her doing something is really important to me, she's more likely to shy away from it. If I pretend I'm not overly interested, she's more likely to try things. Tally, on the other hand, really really wants to know what I want her to do. She'll try all sorts of behaviors if it's not apparent to her, but she's very tuned in to my actions for any cues I may be throwing off. It's a little unnerving, actually. But if I can get used to it I'm going to have a tiny little kick-ass agility girl ...

In other news, I decided that since USDAA Nationals will be somewhere on this side of the country in 2010 (I really hope it's Kentucky), I may as well see if I can qualify Lucy. I'm pretty sure we'll have no problem in Perfomance Gran Prix and PVP Team, but I'm not so sure about the Performance Speed Jumping. Lucy's really a great dog, but she doesn't always take top honors for speed. I guess I'll just have to enter a lot and hope we get lucky ...

Monday, October 26, 2009

Silence of the squirrels

Squirrels are great little sprinters and it's always impressive when a dog can catch one. After the catch ... maybe not so much fun. Definitely no fun for the squirrel.

Yesterday I was out with my three, and I guess I had a moment of inattention because Tally lunged for a squirrel and her leash just jumped right out of my hand. At first I thought "No biggie. She'll tree it then stand barking at the base of the tree and I'll go get her." I was a little flabbergasted that she caught it with absolutely no problem. She's an amazingly fast little dog.

For a second it looked like the squirrel would get away, because Tally released it ... no, then she caught it again, wounding it this time. She kept catching it, releasing it and catching it again like a cat would, and I couldn't stand to watch. So I let go of Lucy and Pinky, knowing that Lucy would go straight for the kill and end the poor squirrel's suffering. She did, with one quick bite.

So then I had three dogs playing tug-of-war with a dead squirrel, and I was hoping to creep in and grab their leashes before ... too late. Tally gained control of the squirrel and took off with the other two in pursuit. I became the crazy dog lady running down the street screaming her dog's names in vain. It was a nice day and neighbors were out, too.

Lucky for me Tally wanted to enjoy her prize on her home turf. She led us all straight home and when I caught up I only had to open the gate to the back yard and everyone ran in. Tally proceeded to take victory laps around the yard with her treasure while the other two chased her.

I didn't want to have to go searching for the squirrel or its bits later (when it was likely to start stinking) so I needed to get Tally to drop it. A while back I got Pinky to drop a dead rat (killed by Lucy) by throwing cheese at her, so I went in to get some food. I grabbed some meatballs--perfect for throwing! I also grabbed the camera, and here's what followed:

And no matter how many times I do it, I can never get over my squeamishness and revulsion at having to pick up a dead critter ...

In other news, Tally is adorable, if occasionally annoying:

Friday, October 23, 2009

My little stick of dynamite


It's been almost five months since I got Talladega, and I'm really amazed with her. When she first showed up it was hard to even live with her. She was terribly rude and ill-behaved, and thought the best way to get a human to play was to bite a face or appendage. She wasn't house trained and couldn't be trusted out of my sight at any time whatsoever unless she was in a crate. Now she's house-trained (provided I make sure she gets out at the right times), only slightly rude and occasionally ill-behaved, and can be trusted out of my sight for minutes at a time! She still tries to nip the occasional face, but we're working on that.

But all that will come and I don't mind it so much because I think she's going to be a kick-ass little agility dog. Our major problem has been focus. She's so into everything and everyone (she loves the world and the world loves her!) that it's been hard for her to stay working with me when there are possibly exciting things around. Over the past six weeks I've had her in two classes designed to work on exactly that, and she's made remarkable improvement. She's not 100 percent yet, but she's good enough that I think can "mainstream" her into a normal agility class.

Meanwhile, on my own, I've been working on obstacle performance, and she's a dream. She learns so quickly and seems to really have a great time. She also overcomes her fears quickly; she's gotten a little startled by the teeter, and flew off the dogwalk once, but she's always willing to give it another go right away. This is a huge contrast to Pinky, who gets really shaken at the smallest scare. She was startled on the dogwalk once and I couldn't get her to approach it again. I had to start all over again on a low contact trainer and work all the way back up.

I've still got a lot of work to do on her jumping skills, and the weaves are a work in progress, but I've got time; based on the vet's age estimate, Tally won't even be old enough to compete in USDAA until next April. And I'm trying not to even focus on that, because I really want to enjoy the process. Now that I'm really getting her attention, training her is amazingly fun.

A great side effect of Tally's success is that she's made me completely relax about training Pinky, because now I know I'll have a dog to run when Lucy retires. Pinky can stay in training for years. This has had a wonderful effect on her training. With me relaxed, Pinky relaxes and we make good progress. Duh! I actually knew this would be the case, but it was getting myself to REALLY relax, as opposed to just pretending to relax, that was the key. Dogs notice!

It's a game. It needs to be fun!

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Do our dogs gripe about us after a run?

I had a good time doing USDAA this past weekend. Lucy was fabulous and I wasn't too bad either. We got a few Qs (2 Snooker super Qs and 1 Jumpers) and missed a few, but we were a good team all weekend.

But I've got a little rant inside me that I need to let loose ...

Over the weekend I got really sick of listening to people bitch about how something their dog did ruined their run. I felt like if I heard an indignant "S/he knows better!" one more time I was in danger of slapping whoever said it. It's almost heartbreaking to see someone out on a course with a dog who was trying hard to do the right thing, getting confusing, late or no instructions, and then getting lectured by the handler ("what were you doing? You're not listening Blah blah blah!") as they come off course.

If our poor dogs could talk amongst themselves they would probably be saying stuff like "What was s/he thinking waiting until I was on the landing side of the jump before telling me I needed to turn?" or "All of a sudden s/he moved in a way s/he never does in training, and it just threw me completely off and I popped a weave. She never does that--I don't know what got into her!" or "S/he was driving right toward that jump so I thought I was supposed to take it. Then s/he started screeching in a panicky voice 'Here here HERE HERE!!!' and it frightened me out of my wits. I slowed waaay down after that and hesitated before the rest of the jumps because I wanted to know for darn sure I was supposed to take it so s/he wouldn't yell at me again ..."

Full disclosure: I used to blame Lucy for stuff that was my fault all the time. So I'm not holier than anyone. (And I really hope I didn't make too huge a fuss about it to other people because god, it's awful to have to listen to!) At some point, however, I realized what a stupid dope I was and that Lucy was actually really, really good at this stuff and I was the one who sucked. And after that we just started getting better and better. I really wish I could share that revelation with the people I hear bitching about their dogs, but that would amount to saying "hey, your dog is great but you suck!" And that's pretty much an awful thing to say to anyone. I probably would have cried if anyone had ever said it to me even though it was the truth.

So I don't know if there's much a of a solution for me on this issue, aside from turning away and refusing to listen to anyone who's dissing their dog. Or maybe I should try sarcasm (I'm really, really good at that) and say something like "Yes, it's a shame that your dog keeps screwing up when you're always so perfect out there."

Or maybe I'll just come here and rant whenever it gets to me ...

But now a fun bit to counteract all my negativity! At one point over the weekend, Derrell Stover "got" me with a little joke: He asked, when I was bar-setting, whether I had raised the chute. I actually stopped, thought and looked toward the chute before I realized it was a joke. I had a good chuckle and decided I'd have to try it on someone else. So before our Standard run on Sunday, after table legs and whatnot had been changed for P 12", I asked the judge (Melanie Behrens) if she had lowered the chute. Yeah, I got her! But then in our run that followed, Lucy apparently decided the chute wasn't low enough:

Monday, September 21, 2009

Practice, practice ....

practice pose
Originally uploaded by bunchofpants
I want to be able to put all three dogs into a sit or a down, move away, and have them all stay put while I take photos. Lucy is a champ at this. Pinky's getting better, but will change her sit to a down if she doesn't get a reward right away for the sit, because she thinks a down is a more lucrative position. Tally ... well I'm lucky if I can keep her is a sit for more than a moment, and she definitely doesn't stay while I move away. But we'll keep practicing ...

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

My lesson of the week: Stand up!

I did three days of agility with Lucy in a trial on home turf over the Labor Day weekend. Not three full days--I don't ask the old girl to do that any more--I only entered her in three events per day. We had some great successes: a Jumpers Q (for the PIII jumpers title); two standard Qs (the first of which got us the PIII Standard title), and two more Snooker Super Qs (one more Snooker Q and we'll have PIII Snooker Bronze!) Our pairs run was beautiful; unfortunately our partner E'd, but we had a good time.

Notice I haven't mentioned any Gamblers Qs? Since achieving the ADCH and moving over to Performance, we have yet to get a gamble. I'm starting to think I should just stop entering Gamblers, since I'm not chasing the APD title. Maybe I should just enter the things we're really good at until I retire Lucy. Why keep trying at something that only leads to frustration? On the other hand, I keep thinking that sooner or later we'll do it. I work on gamble skills when we train (although now that she's getting old I don't spend a lot of time training her). It's something to think about.

Overall, the trial felt very positive and rewarding to me, and Lucy was running fast and seemed like she was having a good time out there. But I had one moment where I did a really boneheaded move that I knew was wrong, wrong, wrong, and that prematurely ended what was shaping up to be a fabulous Snooker run: I bent over to pull my dog into handler focus. Of course, it did not draw her toward me, as I intended, but pushed her out and away, so she jumped the #2 closing obstacle in the wrong direction.

I had been trying to threadle Lucy. There are lots of ways I could have handled this successfully, none of which involve bending over, and I had even planned to do it correctly (with a "backy-uppy" move) in the walkthrough. The problem is that to us humans, it seems like bending over should draw the dog in, so in a pinch or a panic, we resort to stupid instinct. To dogs, us bending over looks like we are pushing or pointing ourselves toward an obstacle (probably the wrong one). I used to make this mistake all the time with contact/tunnel discriminations. I want the near obstacle so I lean in toward Lucy thinking I'm somehow "engaging her," but she thinks I'm indicating the far obstacle. I see my friends do it all the time, and if they say "I don't know why she took X instead of Y" I can say "oh, you leaned over. You need to stand up straight."

So the fact that I know better and did it anyway makes me feel like even more of a dope. But I'm a trainable dope, I think. I swear if I got a do-over I wouldn't do the same mistake again. Maybe a whole new mistake to learn from, but not that one!