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!

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