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.