Practicing Behavior Fluency

When you teach using positive consequences to behavior, you get a student who wants to engage, learn and listen.

Awesome Students!

The first time I met this beautiful little girl, she was very timid and backed up and Bella is a Cavadoodle and client of Cincinnati dog trainer Lisa Desatnikbarked a lot from people and dogs and her environment. Now her tail wags a lot, she has initiated play with other puppies we’ve socialized her with, and she is one smart student.











Working on sit, down and beginner stays

Teaching A Puppy Sit, Down, Stay from Lisa Desatnik on Vimeo.

Kim is now working on distance with Bella’s stay…even around a highly distracting other puppy. (this video was taken a few weeks ago) Great job to them!

Six Tips To Use Distractions In Dog Training

It is a very common problem of companion pet owners. Their dog ‘knows’ a particular behavior like sit or stay but seems to completely forget or tune out when there are distractions around. And often that dog may be labeled bull-headed, stubborn, dumb, or dominate.

dog training tips for using distractionsThe reality, however, is any number of reasons… the behavior may not have a strong reinforcement history, it may not have been taught with consistency, there may be a stronger value for the dog to do anything but the behavior asked for are just some of the potential causes but none of them have to do with the labels listed above.

I was just working with one of my puppy clients the other day who thinks everything that moves and tastes yummy is absolutely fascinating. When we began working on loose leash skills, instead of working against those distractions (a battle that will be hard fought) we worked WITH them.

In her first lesson, she was catching on pretty quickly the contingency that *if* she runs to the end of her leash after a moving leaf, *then* the opportunity to chase it went away but *if* she took even one step in the beginning with me or her owner, *that* she got the opportunity for awesome fun of leaf chasing.  We also worked on the same type of exercise adding in asking her to sit for the opportunity to get food in a bowl or greet a stranger walking by.

The Premack Principle  states that a high probability behavior will reinforce the less probably behavior, and this does not always have to be positive, just more probably. As an example, going out to train animals or meet with someone is a higher probability behavior for me than writing this post; and I know that when I finish this, that I can go out to do other activities I would rather do. Therefore, I am more probable to get this done quickly to be able to leave my house and the opportunity to leave has become my reinforcer for writing.

From this puppy’s perspective, chasing leaves is a highly probable behavior. Sitting and walking on a loose leash are less probable, but the sitting and walking on a loose leash can become more probable to her by pairing those behaviors with the consequence of chasing leaves.

Here is the thing. If your learner is SO focused on that other stimulus that she cannot think about anything else, then you as her teacher can make some modifications in your lesson plan to help her succeed.

Remember, the less opportunities there are for your student to practice (and get reinforced) for unwanted behavior choices, the quicker you will be able to teach and build value for wanted behavior choices.

Here are a few tips of training your dog (or other pet) successfully with distractions:

Add distance

If your pet is so close that all she can think about is the distraction, then you are too close. Back up to where you and your student can succeed and begin working on the behavior then. Here is a post I wrote about how adding distance from a front door was how I taught a dog to eventually sit at the door.

Distance is your friend whether you are working on a reactivity issue or teaching self control. By exposing your student to a stimulus at a level that does not evoke an undesired response and gradually increasing the intensity of the stimulus as your pet can continue to succeed (either with relaxed body muscles for a reactive dog or with the ability to do a specific behavior), you are desensitizing her to that environmental stimulus.

Easy Does It On Distractions

Add distractions only at a level where your pet can continue to succeed. Just because your student can sit in your quiet living room and on your porch, does not mean you are ready to take that training to an active park or pet store.

Compiling a list of potential distractions will help, ranking them according to their level of distraction. And know that distractions are cumulative, meaning several low level distractions in an environment can add up to a higher level distraction.

As You Increase Difficulty With One Criteria, Lower Other Criteria

Know that as you add distractions, this is going to make the lesson plan more difficult, so lowering other criteria will be helpful. For example, if, in your home you had worked up to 30 second duration and being able to walk five feet from your pet with your down/stay behavior; know that when you take this lesson on the road, in a more distracting environment, you will want to begin working with much less distance and much less time duration, and work back up to those criteria.

Increase The Rate Of Your Reinforcement

This is sort of an extension of my previous tip on lowering criteria. Increasing the rate of reinforcement can help you to keep your pet’s focus around environmental distractions. As an example, if your dog is walking with a loose leash next to you on a quiet street and you are able to mark and reinforce that behavior only once every twenty to thirty steps; when walking your dog in a new environment with more distractions, you may need to temporarily lower that criteria to reinforcing every few steps and building back up to higher criteria.

Increase The Value Of Reinforcement

Remember, when teaching by choice, animals will make a decision based upon which choice will get them the greatest value. Knowing your pet’s Awesome List is so important, and that changes. Do not try to compete against something your pet REALLY wants unless you stack the odds in your favor. (And remember, those distractions can actually be used as reinforcers too!) You can also use play as a reinforcer, such as tugging. A dog who is fully engaged in a game of tug or chasing a Frisbee is a dog that is not fully engaged in noticing the person walking by.  (Please note that if your dog is fearful and reactive to stimulus, you may want to work with a positive trainer to help teach your dog a new association with that aversive stimulus.)

Practice, Practice, Practice

There really is no quick fix to teaching solid behaviors around distractions. Consistent training with much practice in a variety of settings with valued reinforcement, accurate marking of behavior, and smart trainer decisions about when to raise and lower behavior criteria will get you there.


How Crate Games Make Going Into The Crate Fun

I have been working with this Havanese puppy, Migo, on training him to go into his crate.  I did this by making the crate a hugely valuable place to be (from his point of view), by using clicker training and positive reinforcement.

You can see how much he enjoys crate games by how fast he runs back in. Since he is moving in so fluidly, it was time to begin adding a cue just as he is on his way into the crate.

Teaching Dog To Sit With A Game

The other day, I had a second training session with this adorable labradoodle puppy and his family. He laid patiently at their side while we began talking through solving the issues that come with bringing a young, energetic companion into their home with sharp teeth and an incomplete understanding of human household etiquette. (It is so awesome that their whole family is on board and eager to learn about training.)

dog training tip - teaching a dog to sit by Cincinnati dog trainer Lisa DesatnikThen we got up to work on actual training. After their practicing some hand targeting and name game exercises, we started doing some work on building value for his sit behavior. Initially they were using treats as a reinforcers; however, he was noticing more of the environment than of his teachers, and being slow at offering the sit.

Remember, this is a little guy who was born to play and who had just spent over a half hour in the car followed by time resting. He was ready for activity.

So, I wanted to show another approach. I stood in the center of the room and when he followed and sat at my side, the second his rear end touched the ground, I proclaimed, ‘Yes!’ and then proceeded to run and grabbed a tug toy.

As just about any labradoodle puppy will do, he began chase. It was Game On! In just a couple of seconds, I stopped movement. He responded by putting his rear end back on the ground, and I immediately marked that behavior again with Yes! and began moving again. We even worked in some initial tug game rules (adding the cue ‘get it’ before giving him the tug and then teaching the ‘out cue – but tugging will be another topic for another post).

All of a sudden this puppy who was uninterested in his classroom became a straight A student.

So, I thought I’d talk a little about why this happened and some of the lessons here about training.

Firstly, as our pet’s teachers it should always be our goal to figure out how we can make our lesson plan clear and understandable for animals who do not speak our language. In this case, practicing capturing the sit behavior, marking it and reinforcing it with many successful repetitions in their home with low distraction will help to build fluency with sit (part of this family’s homework).

Timing is important to teaching with clarity. Especially since non-human animals do not speak English (or other human language), marking the very specific behavior you are reinforcing tells learners, “Yes, what you just did this second was exactly what I was looking for.”  Without good timing on your part, you may inadvertently teach behaviors you do not want to see.

Motivation is another important concept to keep in mind in training. Remember, when given choices, animals will choose to do behaviors that get them the most valued consequences. It is our job as their teacher to figure out how to make the behavior choices we want to see, the most valuable choices for each learner. And that changes all the time. Probably a dog will value chicken or meat over dry dog food, and my bird Barnaby will value a piece of cream cheese over a pellet. After a big meal, an animal may be less motivated by food. After a long exercise (and once settled), an animal will probably be less motivated to do activities and value resting instead. On the other hand, after a long nap, a puppy is going to be ready to play. A dog sitting at a door may value the opportunity for smelling flowers or running in the grass.

By being aware of what your pet values, you can increase the value of the behavior you are teaching by following it with (or I should say, marking the behavior with a click or verbal word that is followed by) a highly reinforcing consequence. (In this case, that consequence is the opportunity to chase or tug.) And with enough pairing of the behavior such as sit with a valued consequence such as meat, a game of tug or a game of chase, the less probable behavior (like sit) will become more probable.

The Sit Means Play Game

This game is actually terrific for teaching several skills in addition to sit. It works on self control and the ability to turn on and off active movement. You can also build up to working on duration as you wait longer in between marking and releasing the behavior to play.

Steps simplified:

  1. Initially capture your pet sitting
  2. Mark that behavior (such as either a verbal marker such as ‘Yes!’ or a click)
  3. Follow the mark with a game of chase, tug or something else (for no more than a few seconds)
    (NOTE: in the beginning you will want to stop this game before your dog becomes too aroused)
  4. Then stop and stand still
  5. When your pet sits, go through the steps again

Variations of this game can include different reinforcers such as the opportunity while on leash to greet someone or sniff the grass, the opportunity to get a leash attached, or any activity that gets your dog’s tail wagging.

Here is a video of me using this game to give our Sam the opportunity to run find treats.

As always..remember to have fun!

A Dog Training Tip: Practice Consistency

Sam wanted to pop in again. He has a feeling many of his friends are just as confused. It is important to remember, we have a lot to do with the success of our pets. If we don’t provide clear criteria and cues on what behaviors we want to see (and reinforcement for those behaviors), it is awfully difficult for them to understand what behaviors we want to see – and to understand the meaning of our cues. #dogtrainingtips

dog training tip on consistency

Dog Training: Teaching Your Dog To Come When Called

Are there times that your dog turns a deaf ear when you call him to come? Like when he is outside smelling flowers, in pursuit of a squirrel or playing in leaves?

It can be pretty frustrating, I know. People will tell me their dog is stubborn or obstinate or it is something about that breed.

teaching dog to come when calledWhat is really going on here? Well, it is always important to remember that recall (the act of coming when called) is a behavior just like sitting and is learned through lots of positive practice…in other words, lots and lots and LOTS of practicing at a time when you and your student can focus, and you can guarantee valuable outcomes for your dog.

Just as with teaching any other behavior, having success involves choosing the right learning environment and the right reinforcers for your pet, your having great timing in the delivery of marking the wanted behavior and reinforcing it, and progression in small or large enough steps that make the lesson plan easy and engaging for your student.

Recall is a skill that can be practiced every day. There are so many opportunities for building value for that choice to come. It is important that you give your dog great positive feedback that coming is worth every ounce of effort on his part. Puppies especially naturally already want to be by your side. What a fabulous time to reinforce him with valued food, play and/or attention!

There are so many strategies for teaching recall. In using any of them, these are some things to keep in mind:

  1. Always focus on setting you and your pet up for success. Do not try to call your dog when you know he will not come. Remember that every time you call him and he does anything but coming, you are weakening that cue and actually even teaching him a different meaning for the word come than what you had intended. Only call your dog when you can guarantee that at that moment, he will come when called.
  2. Just as in teaching any behavior, begin lessons in environments with minimum distractions and difficulty and only increase that as your dog can continue to succeed.
  3. Especially when you are first teaching this, always only call your dot go come when you can guarantee your dog a positive outcome. If you need your dog to come so that you can lock him in a room, give him a shot or something else unpleasant, this is NOT the time to be using your cue.
  4. It is a good idea to practice the collar grab game so that your dog has a positive association with your touching or applying pressure to his collar.
  5. Practicing teaching your dog that his name has value by saying it, and when he looks at you, marking that behavior and giving him reinforcement.
  6. If you have already weakened your recall cue, you may want to consider starting fresh with a new word or hand signal.
  7. Have a good knowledge of your dog’s Awesome List and use high value items during training as you add to the level of difficulty. Remember, your dog is going to make decisions based upon choices. Stack the scale in favor of the choice you want him to make and mix up reinforcers so that you are unpredictable. It sure makes things fun.
  8. Practice. Practice. This is a behavior that you can work on throughout the day in short amounts of time.

 Here are a few ideas for getting you started:

 Ping Pong – With another person in a secure space with no distraction, stand a short distance apart. With a high value treat, one person will call your dog ONCE. When he gets there, that person will grab his collar and hold it while giving him a cookie. The other person will call the dog when the dog is not looking and repeat. As your dog gets better at this (after about 10 perfect recalls), you can practice moving further apart and continue to increase distance and adding distractions.

Catch me if you can – (again, in a secure environment with minimum distractions) – If you have two people, one person will hold your dog back while you are a short distance away. Get in your ready position, call your dog and then run. When your dog gets to you, give him a huge value reinforce. If you have only one person, you can very gently push him back from the chest area, call him and run.

Everyday life – Call your dog to come before you feed him or anytime that you know you are going to do something he really likes.

How do you practice recall with your dog? I’d love to hear.

Dog Training Tip: Keep Training Sessions Short

The other day, while watching television, I used commercial breaks to practice a few things with our Sam. In the two minutes of time, we were able to work on combinations of sit/down/stand/stay, hand targeting and weaving through my legs. In another break, I took out my circular pie pan and practiced stationing to it (going to it and standing with his front two paws on it). When the commercials were over, I gave Sam his ‘All Done’ release cue and stopped to focus on my program again.
dog training tip from Cincinnati dog trainer Lisa DesatnikHere is my point. That sort of impromptu, every day teaching sessions are awesome to build into your day. The most effective training is done in short intervals, ending on a positive note, so that both you and your learner can really focus.

There are so many behaviors you can work on in a minute or two minutes time, and even just as you go about your day. Here are just a few suggestions:

Sit and/or down/stay – adding distance, duration and distractions

Recall – ask your dog to sit, walk to another part of your house and call him to come (or course, giving him a nice reward for getting to you)

Body touching – if your dog does not like to be touched in certain places, you can spend time teaching him that touches are the predictor of food or play

Tricks – work on teaching your dog some new and fun behaviors

Crate games – reinforce your dog for running and staying in his crate or bed

What ideas do you have for making the most of that minute or two with your pet?

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