Teaching Cues In Dog Training

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I see it happen a lot. People ask their dog to do a behavior (give their dog a cue) and their dog does any number of things EXCEPT the behavior that is asked of it to do.

In dog training, why cues break down and tips for teaching strong cues.Why this happens can be any number of reasons.

Among those reasons:

In your dog training, the cue has been severely weakened by negative consequences occurring after a behavior (as an example, you call your dog to come from play and then lock him in a room by himself or you ask your dog to sit and if he is slow, then you push his rear end to the ground).

The cue was not ‘proofed’ meaning it was not taught in a variety of environments with a variety of criteria, and so what your dog may know in one situation does not generalize to ALL situations.

Doing anything BUT the behavior cued results in a bigger payday than doing the behavior that is cued.

In your dog training, the behavior that was intended to be cued has not been taught with clear criteria and fluency, and thus the cue meaning for the learner is different from the meaning you had intended. As an example, you may want your dog to ‘stay’ in a down position for five minutes until released but your dog gets up in five seconds. One of the many questions you should be asking yourself is, ‘does my dog really understand what I mean when I say stay’?  It is easy to forget that dogs do not speak human.

What is a cue anyway?

Scientifically speaking, a cue is simply a stimulus that elicits a behavior. Discrimination is the tendency for learned behavior to occur in one situation but not in other situations. (Learning & Behavior, Paul Chance) Therefore, a change in the environment known as a discriminative stimulus becomes a cue for that behavior to be set into motion.

It is important to remember that it is the consequences of that behavior, positive or negative, that determine the future probability of that behavior occurring. The cue is simply an indicator to the learner that that window of time for that consequence to happen is now.

How do you create strong cues?

These are some general tips.

Knowing this about learning, the way to build huge value for cues is by first teaching the behavior that you want to see with the criteria you are looking for, by giving the behavior huge valued reinforcing consequences.

Since you are teaching an association between a cue and a behavior (and the behavior’s consequence), by teaching the behavior first, not only are you pairing the cue with the behavior that is of the criteria you are looking for, you are also pairing the cue with valued consequences that the learner learned through many repetitions. When is the time to add the cue? Add the cue when you can reliably predict that the wanted behavior is about to happen.

Always remember to teach new lessons in environments where your student can succeed so begin in an area with minimal distractions at a time when your dog will be motivated to give you attention.

After successful repetitions and lessons of your dog doing the behavior following your cue, if your dog does not do the behavior after your giving your cue, be very careful not to reinforce your dog’s unwanted choice. Instead, pause and then cue again. If your dog still does not do the behavior after several tries, that is feedback to you as the teacher that you need to go back a step in teaching the behavior. You can also practice being careful not to reinforce your dog for doing the behavior when he does it without the presence of your cue. This is called teaching stimulus control, meaning you are teaching your dog that he will ONLY get reinforced for doing the behavior when cued DURING active training.

Another note about cues is that they should be short and distinct.

Oh yes, and learning AND teaching should be fun!

Why Learning Should Be Simple

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“Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.” ~ Albert Einstein

Dog training tips for helping pets succeed by making the lesson as simple and clear as possible.I love this quote. In its great simplicity, it speaks volumes for both effective teaching and learning. This, from a world famous, brilliant physicist known for his general theory of relativity and recognized with a 1921 Nobel Prize.

I think about this often when I am doing dog training and behavior consulting. A question foremost in my mind is always, ‘how can I help my student succeed with this lesson?”

If the lesson is too difficult student frustration can lead to poor motivation, and with poor motivation focus on the teacher can quickly evaporate. When that occurs, teaching – at least teaching what we WANT our student to learn – is often not effective.

It is important to remember that in order for us to teach a behavior and strengthen its future rate, we first need to ‘get’ the behavior to occur so that we can follow that behavior with a reinforcing consequence. I continue to remember observing in a two day class with reknown trainer Dave Kroyer a session where he was coaching another trainer on teaching her dog to put his nose in a hole of a scent box. There was a moment when her dog was not ‘getting it’ and began pawing at the box. Dave’s response was to pick the box up and ask the trainer what they could do to help her dog understand. The answer was to put the box on its side. With that small change, her dog immediate went to the open hole and placed his nose inside.

And, once you and your student have success, then you can build upon that success from there by incrementally adding to the behavior as your learner can continue to succeed.

What are some ways in which you can make your lesson plan as simple as possible but not simpler?

For one, begin teaching in an environment with minimal other distractions. It is hard enough to focus on learning something new. With stimulus going on around you, it is that much more difficult to focus. Please read this column I had written on the importance of decluttering the teaching classroom.

Break the behavior down into small steps or approximations, and reinforcing your learning after each behavior approximation toward the final behavior. This is known as shaping, and it is a lot of fun to practice. Please click here to read a past post about it.

Be aware of the importance of timing when it comes to teaching new behaviors. Contiguity refers to the closeness in time between the behavior and its consequence while contingency refers to the degree of correlation between the behavior and its consequence (*if* I do this behavior, *the* this is the consequence that will follow). The less time there is between the behavior and its consequence, the quicker and easier the animal can build that relationship.  Please click here to read more. The immediacy with which you can ‘click’ and mark a correct behavior is one of the reasons why clicker training is so effective.

Use reinforcers that are of value to your learner. Remember, it is the learner that gets to decide what is of greatest value to him/her and that can change throughout a day. Learners will always choose to do the behavior that gets them a consequence of the greatest value to them so plan ahead and make sure you’ve stacked the deck in your favor. You can read more in this post.

Use Several Strategies To Change Pet Behavior

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Have you ever tried to stop an unwanted pet behavior by simply ignoring it? If it is a behavior that is really difficult to ignore, like a bird’s scream or a dog’s whining, you probably know, that strategy is pretty difficult. And there is much potential fallout with punishment. Here is a dog and parrot training tip: use a combination approach called differential reinforcement of an incompatible behavior (DRI). I explain in this older post.

To stop your parrot or dog’s problem behavior, a training tip is to use a combination approach.

Lessons In Puppy Success

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Commonly, people who are having trouble teaching their puppy a proper potty area, or who are having problems with their puppy chewing on things not meant for puppy teeth, also happen to be tips for preventing puppy behavior problemspeople who do not use a crate – or practice good management.

The problem is prevention of practicing unwanted behavior while teaching wanted habits and behavior is absolutely critical when it comes to setting your puppy up for success. After all, he was not born understanding your house rules. He has mental and physical needs and will find ways to get those needs met in either acceptable or unacceptable ways (according to your perspective anyway). Without the management component, your puppy may choose to do behaviors you do not like but the reinforcement he gets from his environment for doing them is going to create long lasting habits.

Additionally, crate time is a great way to teach your puppy to settle In puppy training, a crate is helpful for housetraining, teaching how to settle, and separationwith or without a chew toy and even practice separation from you.

Last week I puppysat for a client and shared my home with this adorable little girl.

While here I didn’t even have one circumstance of her pottying indoors or grabbing something that was not intended for her to have. On her last day, she even let me know twice when she needed to go outside to relieve herself.

What did I do? Every waking moment of every day, she was very carefully managed. When she was not in her crate, she had a leash attached to her (although not attached to me indoors) and I was actively supervising her. After opening her crate door, she and I engaged in fun play (with a teaching component in there) or training. Going outside to potty always occurred after a few minutes of activity and she always went. I could tell when she also needed to make a bowel movement and waited for her to continue sniffing to finish all she needed to do before taking her in.

One day I could tell she needed to do this but she kept getting distracted so I took her inside with me and kept her right next to me with a watchful eye. We went outside every ten minutes to no avail. Finally, before taking her another time, we played fetch in my living room and she immediately went as soon as we got to the grass. If I had not been as careful as I was on this day, there is no doubt she would have just had a bowel movement on my carpeting and by doing that, she was beginning a reinforcement history for a habit I did not want her to learn.

After time spent directly interacting with her, when I did not want to ‘actively’ supervise her, I always put her back into her crate and, being tired, she just laid down and rested for sometimes a couple hours while I got things done.

In keeping with this routine, the crate was not a negative to her but a positive as it was time that she could settle herself after being mentally and physically engaged. (If your dog sees being his crate as a bad, stressful place to be, please spend time teaching your dog a positive association with it.) And time that she was laying in her crate while I was cooking, working or cleaning was time that she was NOT biting on furniture, seeking out shoes, or making an unwanted potty choice.

Additionally, because I spent so much time and energy playing fun and engaging games with her toys, those toys were becoming of great value to her. And, since animals make decisions based upon where the value is, she was choosing to seek out her toys more and not pay attention to my things.

With this consistency, by the last day, I was able to leave her in my living room and walk out of the room, out of sight for short periods and twice she actually told me when she needed to go outside to go  potty.

A big mistake that people make when it comes to having new pets is a lack of consistency, a lack of management, and a lack of teaching wanted behaviors with lots of positive reinforcement. If you are finding that your puppy is making poor decisions, instead of blaming your puppy, think about what you can do differently to help him to succeed.

Cincinnati Has New Dog Super Heroes

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Children in Cincinnati learned how to be good dog friends and dog trainers and dog trainer, Lisa Desatnik's My Dog Super Hero kids class in Blue Ash

These young children learned important lessons about dog body language, how to play safely with their dog, and how to be a positive dog trainer at my most recent My Dog’s Super Hero class at the United Pet Fund in Blue Ash. They did a fantastic job – so did my demonstration dogs, Daisy and Bunny. Teaching kids and parents these classes is about strengthening relationships and preventing dog bites.

Dog Telephone Etiquette

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The other day, someone was complaining to me of how her dog really gets her mad when she is on the telephone. It seems that as soon as she picks up the receiver, he begins to bark and pace at her feet, which makes it very difficult to focus on her conversation.

“What do you do when Hank does that,” I asked.

“I immediately tell him no but he does not listen. Sometimes I will push him away or I will get him a toy to divert him,” was her answer.

Whenever a problem like this arises, it is always important to remind yourself that behavior always occurs for a reason. And if it is repeated, then it is being reinforced by something in the environment.

Dog training tips for stopping your dog from barking when you are on the telephone by Cincinnati dog trainer Lisa Desatnik. I have been taught to look at behavior through the lens of Applied Behavior Analysis, a systematic approach to solving behavior problems that involves looking at the very specific behavior (such as a dog barking) in terms of what is giving that behavior purpose and value? What happened *immediately* prior to the behavior (antecedent) to set the whole ball rolling? And what happened *immediately* after the behavior to reinforce it (consequence)? It is how I have been taught to look at behavior.

In this woman’s circumstance, the antecedent is her picking up the telephone receiver; the behavior is her dog barking and pacing; and the consequence to her dog is her attention and/or being given a favorite toy.

When you look at it this way, can you see how that barking and pacing behavior is getting reinforced? And how her picking up the phone has actually become a learned cue (we call that a discriminative stimulus) to bark and pace in order to receive that reinforcement?

Here is how I’d write that out:

A:           Mary picks up the telephone receiver
B:           Hank barks and paces at her feet
C:           Mary gives Hank attention and a favorite toy

Prediction:  When Mary picks up the phone receiver, Hank will bark and pace more often to get Mary to give him attention and a favorite toy.

Once you see that, developing a strategic plan to modify Hank’s behavior in the most positive, least intrusive way becomes clearer.

There are so many possibilities. Antecedent change is probably going to be the most effective here because, let’s face it, once Mary is on the telephone it is going to be difficult for her prevent Hank from building upon his reinforcement of that behavior.

A few suggestions for antecedent change strategies include: Mary could give her dog a favorite toy whenever she picks up the telephone AND BEFORE Hank begins the problematic behavior; or she could teach Hank a reliable sit or down and stay with a huge reinforcement history and then ask Hank to do one of those behaviors after picking up the phone AND BEFORE he begins the barking and pacing.

She should also have a plan in place in the instance that she cannot prevent the unwanted behaviors from occurring, so as to at least minimize the amount of reinforcement Hank receives. With a portable telephone, she can stand up and turn her back to him for example after the behaviors begin.

These are just a few ideas for solving this. When you look at behavior in the context of its environment, it gives you a very different perspective on your pet and your pet’s behavior; and it allows you to develop solutions that not only help your pet to succeed but strengthen your relationship as well.

Be A Teacher Not A Punisher

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This is just a simple reminder that our pets were not born knowing what our expectations are of them. If you have not given them good, acceptable choices for using their minds and bodies, they will come up with their own choices, which you may or may not like. Remember, that behavior which gets the animal something it values will be behavior that gets repeated. Always make wanted behaviors valuable choices…from your pet’s perspective. Be your pet’s dog or parrot trainer who uses positive reinforcement to teach what you want to see.

Instead of using punishment to train your dog, use positive reinforcement and you will see more of the behaviors you want to see.


Understanding Motivation

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Motivation. According to the dictionary, it is the state or condition of having a strong reason to act or accomplish something.

Think about that for a minute and how that has impacted your ability to learn and achieve goals. Let’s try something. Write down an accomplishment of which you are proud. Then write down the compelling factors that inspired and encouraged you to reach motivation is an important factor in dog training successwithin yourself to succeed.

Undoubtedly there was some driving force that gave you the confidence, drive, and determination. Maybe it was a mentor who believed in you, applauded each small step along the way and reminded you of your strengths. Maybe it was the beach vacation you were able to afford. Maybe it was the status that you achieved and respect from others. Maybe also, it was a fear of being rejected or ridiculed if you did not succeed. Or it was that by reaching your goal got you more distance from something else unpleasant (you were able to get a new position and no longer report to a negative boss, for example).

At any given time, those motivations may change. Life, after all, is constantly changing; and as living, breathing beings, we change to adapt to our environment.

Remember, scientifically speaking, behavior is simply a tool used to get a consequence. It functions to either move an animal toward something positive or further from something aversive. Researcher Edward Thorndike named that relationship between behavior and its consequences the Law of Effect; and it states that the strength of a behavior depends on its past effects on the environment. (Paul Chance: Learning & Behavior, fifth edition)

So, going back to motivation, when you think about it, it comes down to a simple question – ‘What is in it for me?’ And a simple answer, “I will choose the behavior that serves to get me the most valued consequence FOR ME.”

How does motivation impact your dog training success?  Everything.

If your pet finds stimulus around you of greater value than focusing on your lesson, guess where your pet will choose to put his energy? If your pet has been in his crate for hours, do you think he will find more value in laying quietly at your feet or practicing an active game?  If you are cooking steaks in your kitchen and you call him into your living room for an impromptu training session, if your dog does not have a history of finding your training session INCREDIBLE, you may find yourself frustrated if your dog chooses to stay in the kitchen when you call. Likewise, if you are in your yard and your dog runs to bark at a passerby, if you have not spent sufficient time teaching your dog that coming when called results in over-the-top great things, then why would he choose to turn his attention to you in that moment?

There are so many factors to consider when it comes to motivation for your pet. Here are just a few.

When training, especially in teaching new behaviors, choosing the least distracting environment will not only make it easier for your pet to concentrate, it will minimize competing reinforcers.

Know in advance what is on your pet’s List of Awesomeness, and use choices from that list as part of your reinforcements for behavior.

Make your lesson easy for your pet to succeed by teaching small approximations toward the end behavior. If it is too difficult, you may lose the interest of your student.

Keep your training session short so that both you and your student can be focused.

Have fun!

Thoughts On Taming Pet Birds

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I have seen and heard so many explanations for ‘taming’ a bird, many involving training a pet bird with some kind of force or punishment. Even before I met my first teacher in behavior, Dr. Susan Friedman  the compassionate side of me always had a difficult time understanding those perspectives on animal care.

On ‘taming’ parrots, one explanation I read explained that for a frightened or aggressive cockatiel, you should catch it in a towel, and clip its wings fairly severely before returning it to its cage to recover; and later trying to get the bird to step up onto a stick. If it won’t step onto the stick from inside the cage, it was said to catch it gently and take it into a small room to work with it some more.

Another explanation was to make Thoughts by certified parrot behavior consultant, Lisa Desatnik - a dog and parrot trainer in Cincinnati) on taming a pet bird and tips for prevent pet parrot bitesa fist, bend it as far as it will go, and then bring your fist to the bird slowing to find out its striking range. Yet another description I have heard is to expect bites and do not back down when it happens, in order to teach the bird that he cannot make your hand disappear.

To this approach, my compassionate side that has learned about behavior science also must ask, in that circumstance, is the bird REALLY being ‘tamed’ or is it learning it has no power over its environment – a dangerous slope to go down. Learned helplessness occurs when an animal is subjected to an aversive stimulus from which it cannot escape and it eventually stops trying because it learns it is utterly helpless to change the situation.

Sure, the animal may (or may not) stop lunging but at what cost? Imagine the extreme stress it must endure and also imagine how that will impact its association with the person who was at the other end of that intrusive body part.

Wow, I think I will stop there.

I would much rather focus on talking about how we, as pet bird owners and caregivers, can help our animals – and our relationship with them – succeed in the most positive, least intrusive way.

Instead of expecting birds to bite humans, first consider why that occurs in captivity.

It is important to keep in mind that all behavior occurs for a reason, and that reason is simply, to get a consequence. Behavior is a tool animals use to move them toward something of value (to the animal) or to move away from something aversive (to the animal).

When the consequence of a bird moving away, pinning its eyes, standing erect, flailing its tail or a number of other behaviors to increase distance is a hand or human body part continuing to move closer; then the bird is learning those ‘distance increasing’ behaviors simply do not work to get humans to move away.

Unfortunately, if the bird then escalates its behavior (since its nonaggressive body language does not work to communicate with humans) to a lunge or bite and only then do hands and bodies back up, then the bird has learned lunging and biting is the most effective strategy for getting distance.

Here are a few general suggestions for setting yourself and your pet bird up to succeed.

  1. Be aware of your bird’s body language. If your bird is exhibiting distance increasing behaviors, then give your bird some distance to teach it those nonaggressive behaviors work.
  2. Keep in mind that from your bird’s perspective, stepping up onto a human body part can be a pretty scary thing to do. Expecting your bird to quickly step onto your hand or arm without any practice with lots of positive outcomes is unrealistic.
  3. Give your bird a choice to come closer. Instead of approaching your bird, reinforce your bird for moving closer to you….one small step at a time. Never be too greedy here and ask for more than your bird is comfortable with. Do not expect in your first interaction to have a finished behavior. In your first training session, success may be your bird moving two steps toward you. You then may work up to your bird touching your arm, putting a foot on your arm (while you keep your arm stationary), then two feet on your arm, then lifting your arm a small bit and putting it back down, etc. This process is called shaping behavior. I wrote about it here.
  4. If you are worried about your bird biting you when it is outside its cage, or your not being able to get your bird back into its cage, you will be helping yourself and your bird to succeed by beginning training with your bird kept in a closed cage – out of reach from human hands and bodies.
  5. In general, teaching your bird some new behaviors to do to get reinforcement will not only increase your bird’s confidence but will increase your bird’s positive association with you (as the giver of reinforcers).
  6. And when your bird is with you or on you, ensure it is a positive experience (from your bird’s perspective).

Here is link to how I solved a past issue with biting in my household.

Happy National Pet Day!

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On National Puppy Day, celebrating the sweet faces I have gotten to know through my training. These are a few of them.

Happy National Puppy Day! These are some of the faces I have gotten to know through my dog training.

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