Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Focus on Strengths; Not Weaknesses

I was recently reading an article wherein the author stated he had read a book called "Soar With Your Strengths." Although the book is about business management methods, the general takeaway applies to a lot in life:

"Don't try to teach someone how to improve their weaknesses, but rather focus on having them improve their strengths."

Some people might disagree, but I think that's paramount in a successful dog training program. Instead of focusing on "bad" dog behavior, hone in on what "good" behavior the dog is displaying, and cultivate that.

Picture this entirely hypothetical situation: your parents get a 7-week-old puppy. They haven't had a puppy in over 7 their patience is wearing thin with a rambunctious, young, untrained dog. Enter "trying to improve weakness." Everything the puppy does is "No." (Or, knowing your mother, more like "NO!!")

The puppy trots over to stick her head in the garbage -- "No." The puppy starts chewing on a shoe -- "No!" The puppy lunges at the end of the leash -- "NO!!!"

See a pattern? EVERYTHING the pup does is "bad." We've all had a puppy -- they don't know what they don't know. And they WANT to know about everything...all the time. But, if we're constantly mad at them for everything they do, won't we be teaching them not to behave at all?

We, as dog trainers, need to channel our puppy's energy into doing things that get him rewarded, versus focusing on all the "no" behavior.

But, how do we do that?

Well, first we need to know what Puppy is good at. Most puppies that young are good at chewing on things, having accidents in the house, galloping about wildly before crashing for a big nap, chasing anything that catches their attention, and eating.

Okay. So, let's redirect "bad" behavior into "good" behavior. Let's try our aforementioned scenario again. The puppy sticks her head in the garbage (undesirable behavior). So we get Puppy's attention with something even MORE delectable than garbage and call her over. She comes (desirable behavior), we give a treat...what just happened?

Did we just begin teaching Puppy how to "come"?

Let's try another one: Puppy starts chewing on a shoe (undesirable behavior). We again get Puppy's attention with a brand-new, uber-fun squeaky toy! Look how much MORE fun this is than an old shoe...come get it! Puppy gallops over (desirable behavior), we give the toy as a treat. Again, teaching "come."

Last one: Puppy lungeing at the end of the leash. This one's tough, because puppies have sheer strength belied by their small size. You think you have control and then off they go, pulling for all they're worth.

Now: the easiest way to get Puppy to stop pulling is to -- once again -- have something more desirable in your hand than whatever the puppy's running after. (I recommend starting this exercise in the house, with the least amount of distractions...after all, we want to set Puppy up for success.) In this case, small, easily-chewable, utterly delectable treats work wonders.

This is where your clicker training comes in VERY handy. Of course, since we're working with a puppy you need to ensure you've properly charged the clicker. For this exercise, the second -- and I mean the exact MOMENT that puppy puts a bit of slack in the leash, you click & treat. At first Puppy won't know WHY the clicks are coming, necessarily, but the more you move around and Pup figures out slack leash = click = treat, you're in for a revelation.

Notice in these three examples we don't yell at the puppy for offering undesirable ("bad") behavior -- rather we focus on redirecting their attention to desirable ("good") behavior.

This type of training works wonders, folks.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Charging the Clicker

An integral part of operant conditioning - also known as clicker training to the average dog owner - is the marker which tells the dog she's performed the desired behavior. While technically "any" sound can be made to mark behavior (such as a whistle or even a word, such as "Good!"), studies have shown that animals trained with a clicker as the marker learn quicker.

Why is that, you might ask? The reason is simple - the clicker makes only one sound, without variance in pitch, tone, loudness, etc. Therefore the dog knows that exact sound means he's offered the desired behavior. Before beginning any type of clicker training, first your dog must of course know the meaning of the clicker. To start him off, it's merely a matter of equating the sound of the click with some sort of "paycheck," the easiest being treats.

(While you can use any of your dog's reinforcers for training, the easiest to use is small, chewy treats. This is only because it takes the dog a very small amount of time to eat the treat. If you're using toys or play with a dog new to clicker training, it might take her longer to understand the exact correlation of desired behavior to paycheck.)

Charging the clicker is easy: simply get your dog into a low-stimulus environment (somewhere inside is ideal) and begin by clicking and treating. It's best to click, pause, then treat (think of a waltz tempo) since animals can only process one stimulus at a time. I.e., if you click and treat simultaneously, your dog might not be listening to the clicker and it'll take longer to pair the 2 together.

Here's a quick example of how to charge the clicker:

Once you've primed the clicker and your dog understands that click = treat, you can begin rewarding your dog for performing desired behaviors. Remember to only focus on one behavior at a time - try "sit," then end that session (and maybe even move to a new location) before starting on "down," etc.

Now you can teach your dog just about anything!

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Training "Play Dead" Behavior

Some people might think training a dog to "play dead" is just a cute trick. Dog owners, on the other hand, could look at it as a great behavior to teach in order to help relax a dog. Besides, when it comes time to add a verbal cue to a behavior, you can name it anything you want – regardless of whether everyone else thinks it's just "playing dead"!

Speaking of adding cues, it's important not to begin throwing either verbal or signaled cues around too early when teaching a behavior. Remember, dogs aren't people. They don't understand language; that being said, they CAN learn what movements and words mean when taught properly to cue behaviors.

Here's my first session with Zada working on getting her to lie flat – relaxed – on her side. I'm not so much shaping this behavior as I am capturing it. She was already consistently offering it in her repertoire of offered behaviors so I merely waited to capture it. (If I were truly shaping, I'd have rewarded her in the beginning for first lying down, then flipping over onto her hip, then starting towards the ground, etc.)

Notice how she'll hit a "snag" and get confused as to what I want. By remaining consistent and waiting for her to offer the correct behavior, I let her figure out what pays and she works through it. The next step is to get her consistently offering the full behavior – i.e., lying flat on her side, relaxed, and holding it – every time. Then I can start adding in cues and also work on the duration of the behavior.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

101 Things To Do With a Box

Did you know dogs can learn to be creative?

My German shepherd, Zada, is very obedient and disciplined but she seemed almost robotic...she was happy and healthy but always seemed to be waiting for me to tell her what to do. I learned a good way to stimulate her mentally and get her creative juices flowing was to play a game called "101 Things To Do With a Box."

Purpose of 101 Things To Do With a Box Game
What's the point of this game, and what does it actually DO for a dog? Well, the object is to get the dog thinking and offering behaviors. Even if your dog already offers behavior, this is a great way to make any dog think "outside the box," so to speak.

Starting The Game
To start, place a box in a relatively low-stimuli environment (inside works best). If your dog isn't used to the positive reinforcement method of clicker training, you'll need to prime the clicker first. Once the dog knows that click = treat (i.e., the click denotes the desired behavior was achieved, which results in a treat), you can start the game.

At first, your dog might not pay much – if any – attention to the box. In that case, you'll need to reward ANY behavior which indicates the dog has acknowledged it. This could be walking by it or even turning the head in the direction of the box.

If you keep rewarding any behavior which focuses on the box, the dog will quickly catch on. Once he knows that paying attention to the box is the desired behavior, and is consistently returning to it, then you can start clicking and treating for different behaviors. The object here is to not treat for the same behavior twice; you want the dog to figure out it's DIFFERENT behaviors which pay.

Examples: Zada touches the side of the box with her nose (click). She lifts her right paw and puts it on top of the box (click). She sniffs/rubs her nose on the top of the box (click). She does this a couple times, then lifts her LEFT paw onto the box (click). Basically, if she's already touched a portion of the box with a body part, she must either a) touch a different portion of the box or b) use a different body part in order to receive the click and treat the next time.

At one point, see she lies down facing me (keep in mind I'm not making eye contact with her at any point) and while she isn't paying 'specific' attention to the box, she shifts her weight and her tail touches the box (click). She most likely didn't know WHY she got clicked, but the more I work with her, the more she'll figure it out.

On her next try, she did much better and knew what was 'expected' of her right from the get-go of the session.

This game of course isn't limited to using a box. Play around with a chair, ottoman, ball, skateboard – whatever! After playing around with 101 Things To Do a few times, your dog will start offering you behaviors more readily. Then it gets really fun: you can start shaping trick behavior!

***And yes, I'm well aware my dog is NOT good at catching treats in her mouth. But she DOES try :)

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Shaping Behavior: Teaching Tricks

Whether for new tricks or "normal" obedience cues, shaping is a great way to teach a dog a new behavior. This method seems to 'stick' with the dog much more quickly and for a longer duration than either luring or – something I don't recommend – making the dog perform the behavior.

If you've never tried this training method, it might take a while for both you and the dog to get the hang of it. But the rewards are worth the patience!

How Do I Start Shaping My Dog's Behavior?
First and foremost, your dog must understand clicker training. If he doesn't, you'll first need to charge the clicker before you begin.

You can free shape anything; you need to have in mind what you want before you begin so you can remain consistent with your rewards. Simple obedience staples – sit, down, stand, etc. – are fairly simple, since these are behaviors a dog performs every day. Often when teaching these behaviors with free shaping, it's more a matter of capturing the behavior versus technically shaping. Tricks, on the other hand, can prove much harder – but also more fun! – because they often involve small increments of shaping which eventually turn into the full behavior.

If you have a dog who doesn't readily offer behaviors, you can work on getting her to offer more behaviors with a simple game called 101 Things To Do With a Box. When playing this game, you might start to notice your dog offering one or more behaviors more often; you can start by shaping those behaviors and give yourself a 'head start.'

This is what I did with Zada. While playing "101 Things" I noticed she had an inclination to lie next to the stool and rest her chin on it. After ending that game, I began a new session, working on shaping just that behavior. She caught on relatively quickly, but I attribute that to having chosen a behavior which she was already offering. This was the first time I'd ever attempted shaping this behavior:

After a brief respite, this is the second free shaping session. You can see she immediately started offering the behavior. I then 'upped the ante' by throwing her treats so she'd miss them, thus forcing her to get up and start over. This shows me if she's really understanding what behavior I'm looking for. She did very well!

Before giving her her meals, I'd also started waiting until she'd offered the behavior of lying flat on her side, which she's started offering consistently. Therefore, I devoted an entire session to shaping "play dead" – which I think I'll be able to start adding cues to soon.

The possibilities are literally endless with free shaping behaviors – it's a fun and never-ending way to work with your dog!

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Feeding Your Dog with the Molecuball

The "molecuball," also known as the Atomic Treat Ball, is a great toy for dog owners to have. Much the same as a Kong toy, the Atomic Treat Ball is a treat dispenser*. Just place small dog food pieces or treats into the hole of the molecuball. Not only does it keep your dog busy, it's mentally stimulating – the dog must work to extricate treats or food.

This treat dispenser is also a great tool for those dogs who gulp their food too quickly (gulping food causes air to be ingested into the stomach, which can lead to a condition known as "bloat"), since only a few kibbles are released at a time, and the dog is forced to eat more slowly.

Here a German shepherd demonstrates the use of the molecuball. Keep in mind not all dog food is small enough to fit through the hole; the kibble displayed in the video is California Natural Lamb & Rice Formula.

* However, due to the size and intended use, the molecuball shouldn't be used to freeze food into, since the opening is only for treats to come out; not for dogs' tongues to go in.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Closing a Drawer: Teaching Tricks via Clicker Training

Here's a quick training session showing a snippet of how to go about teaching a dog to shut a drawer using operant conditioning. This is only a step in the entire process; attaining this level of commitment on a first try with a green dog would be out of the question.

While I had worked with Zada for a couple of minutes prior to turning on the camera, I hadn't worked with her on targeting – especially drawers – for quite some time, although we'd worked on it in the past. I still haven't put a cue to this behavior, as it's still not strong enough (in my opinion). She'll be ready for that soon.

Targeting can be done a couple of ways:

  1. training the dog to touch an actual 'target' (such as a lid, piece of paper, etc.) and moving it to various objects you wish the dog to touch
  2. free-shaping the dog's behavior by waiting for the dog to move towards the desired object (e.g., a drawer) and rewarding subsequent motion bringing the dog closer to the object
For working with Zada to close the drawer, I originally started out with a target, which I don't need anymore. In my opinion, teaching the dog to touch the target is an excellent way to work on tricks such as closing drawers and doors, turning light switches off/on, pushing wagons, etc. because the dog knows what to do – touch the target. From there it's a short step to free-shaping the dog to push.

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