Choosing Words For Training

I was asked the other day this question: “Does it matter if we refer to our pet by its species or its sex? Are “Good Dog!” and “Good Boy!” equal in esteeming and reinforcing good behavior?”

In dog training, does it matter what words you use to reinforce behavior? Certified dog trainer, Lisa Desatnik explainsI thought I’d write an answer to that, as it may be a question others have as well.

I am assuming that person was using those words both to let her dog know she liked her dog’s behavior and also to add value to her dog’s behavior so that she would see more of it.

Let’s first look at the function in training of using words to acknowledge a behavior. We call this using a marker. A clicker or other sound (or even another non-verbal signal) can be used as well. Moment marking training is very effective because it involves giving the learner very precise information that what occurred *immediately* preceding the mark is exactly what the trainer is looking for. If you are shaping behavior (reinforcing small steps or approximations toward a final behavior), you may mark those tiny steps with a click or word kind of like you’d play the child’s hot and cold game. You may also click in teaching simple behaviors like when a dog sits or you may mark a behavior for other criteria such as duration. That precision matters because within just several seconds time, you could be inadvertently reinforcing a different behavior if your timing is off. You can say ‘Yes!’ or click much quicker than you can deliver a piece of food.

Good markers then are distinct and short sounds that provide the learner with very specific feedback that *at that moment* the behavior was awesome. Having said that, then using two or more words that take longer to say may not be as effective because by the time a trainer gets through ‘gooood boy’, the dog may be on to doing another behavior. Another point is that, I have seen handlers who repeat ‘good dog’ over and over again. In terms of training, that is not specific enough information for the learner.

To use markers effectively, they should be used ‘as’ the behavior is occurring. No other stimulus should be present until AFTER the click or verbal word (so no reaching for your food until after you click).

Now, as for whether words matter, I’ll say the same thing I told my clients who taught their dog to come with a cue of ‘Buckeye’. Whether we are talking about a cue occurring before the behavior or a marker occurring after the behavior, the word itself does not matter. It is all in how you teach it.

You can build value for words by pairing them with things or activities your pet values. Remember that it is the stimulus that occurs AFTER something that affects the emotional response of what occurs before. A click in and of itself does not have meaning; however, if you click and then give your dog a treat with many repetitions, over time, your dog will acquire the same type of reflexive response to the click as he with the treat.

So, in answer to that question, if I am training a specific behavior, I would not use either ‘good dog’ or ‘good boy’ but rather I would use either a clicker or a single syllable word like ‘yes’ and I would spend time teaching my student the value of the marker I am using.

 

 

 

 

 

How To Create New Reinforcers

Since my focus is on training and modifying behaviors in the most positive ways, I am always thinking in terms where the value is for the learner because the way in which you build value for a particular behavior, is by having that behavior followed by something the animal wants. This is teaching with positive reinforcement.

using positive reinforcement in dog trainingAnd that Awesome List as I like to think about it is ever changing. At one time of day your pet may value resting while at another time your pet may value a game of chase. The list could include the opportunity to go outside, food items, toys, attention, sensory stimulation, even distance from something aversive (although for this post, I am going to focus on the positive).

While food is good for shaping exercises because it can be delivered and eaten quickly for faster timing, having a variety of reinforcers to choose from in any particular training scenario makes you unpredictable and more engaging for your pet. Not knowing what cool thing is going to happen but knowing that SOMETHING great is going to happen as a result of doing a behavior sure can help to keep your student in the game.

You actually can create more reinforcers from the reinforcers already in your list. How? Using classical conditioning. Classical conditioning is a reflexive type of learning where one stimulus acquires the capacity to evoke the same response as another stimulus.

Remember that it is the stimulus that occurs AFTER something that affects the emotional response of what comes BEFORE it. Having said that, with enough pairing of the presentation of a toy, for example, before the presentation of a valued leash, over time, your dog will come to value that toy because it has become associated with the leash. (Show your dog a frisbee – you do not need to play a game, just show the frisbee and put it down, and then take out the leash.)

Experiment at home and see how you can create new reinforcers. The opportunities are endless!

 

Can I be of further help to you and your pet? Please contact me!

 

 

Do Puppies Grow Out Of Problems?

Puppies chew. They play. They run. They get into things we do not want them to. They vocalize. They grab things on impulse. They also may show signs of backing away from unfamiliar things in their environment of signs of pulling toward other things.

Oh so cute they are! We love them for their adorableness but get so frustrated with their bad habits. But, won’t they grow out of those habits?

Do puppies grow out of problem behaviors? Yes and no. Cincinnati certified dog trainer Lisa Desatnik answers.Well, not always.  

While it is true that biologically there are certain behaviors puppies are prone to do like destructive chewing for both teething relief and an outlet for young energy, what is important to realize is that every waking moment puppies – just like all animals – are learning from experience. They are learning constantly associations between behaviors and consequences. Quite simply, those behaviors that are serving to get something of value (from the perspective of the learner) are going to be ones that are repeated. AND if those behaviors get the animal something it values only sporadically, then you will see an even stronger, longer lasting, virulent behavior.

What does this mean for you as a puppy owner (or any pet owner)?

Well, take for example that unwanted chewing of shoes. While a puppy’s natural clock gives it a great need for chewing and destroying, the more times he gets positive reinforcement for that behavior, the more he is likely to repeat it. And often humans add to the value of that destructive chewing and destroying by giving the puppy attention or a game of chase when it has something in its mouth.

While puppies do go through developmental fear periods, if a puppy startles, moves back from or growls at something in its environment; or exhibits elevated heart rate, barking or digging when its human leaves the room, it is a mistake to think that behavior will just magically go away as the dog matures. In fact, those behaviors may more than likely strengthen and even generalize to other fear responses later. If, for example, a man in a white coat gives a puppy a painful injection then later other people in white coats may also cause elevated heart rates, etc. Remember that learning also teaches negative associations between behaviors and consequences/neutral and conditioned stimulus. This is why it is so important to teach young puppies early on that their world is a good place by exposing them carefully and positively to a wide range of environments, people, objects, sounds, and other stimulus (doing this by providing positive outcomes for your puppy and ensuring by watching its body language that it is feeling good in that moment).

Management is a critically important step in puppy training to help young minds grow in ways you want them to. By working to prevent those unwanted behaviors from being practiced (and building a reinforcement history for them) while also focusing on giving your puppy opportunities to practice wanted behaviors with positive consequences, you will be helping your pet and you to have many happy years together.

As a puppy owner, you have an important role in helping your puppy get its needs met in appropriate ways while building value for behaviors and habits you want to see more of…for the rest of your relationship together.

 

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How To Stop Your Dog From Barking Out Windows

It is not uncommon for people who share homes with a dog to complain about their furry friend bursting into a barking frenzy as a response to seeing or hearing something outside the window. Understandably the noise can be really annoying to human ears, especially when it comes at inopportune times.

There are so many reasons why dogs react to stimulus by barking, panting, running side to side, and have accelerated heart beats. It could be territorial or fear or barrier frustration, or for herding dogs, it could even be due to your dog’s instincts to herd.

If this happens on a regular basis, you may want to take steps to modify your dog’s behavioral reaction.

Here are a few suggestions. Please note that behavior is always the study of one, with differing environments, stimulus and animals. These are some general considerations to think about.

Let’s look at this behavior modification plan from the standpoint of the Humane Hierarchy, a ranking of training methodologies going from least intrusive for the learner to most intrusive. For more on this, please see my post.

Antecedent Arrangement

If you have ruled out a medical or nutritional variable, then let’s begin with antecedent arrangement. What can be done to manage the environment so that a) your pet will not have access to practice that unwanted set of behaviors and b) your pet will have less motivation to do the unwanted set of behaviors.

Remember, practice strengthens behaviors and if your pet has access to seeing and hearing those outside stimulus when you can not be in teaching mode, you will be setting your pet up to keep practicing and getting reinforcement from those behaviors.

If your dog is barking at what he sees out the window, then consider blocking access to that window. Drawing the curtains may not be the solution as curtains can be moved by a pushy nose. Some suggestions are preventing access to the window or applying a cling film (that can be easily removed) to the window (purchased at a home supply store).

If your dog reacts strongly to outdoor noises, playing white noise or a radio may help.

As a motivating operation, if you increase your dog’s mental and physical exercise, you will be making resting more valuable to your dog. Think in terms of exercising your dog’s mind and body through training, thinking toys and games.

Positive Reinforcement

In a controlled setting, when you are fully focused and in training mode, you can teach your dog behaviors you would like to see in him when he sees something outside.

A friend of mine saw trouble ahead when her neighbor began letting two dogs out to run and bark on the other dog training tips: how to stop your dog from barking out the windowside of the fence. Karen first saw Baxter, who is a certified therapy dog, running back and forth and she anticipating the barking that would come next. In that moment, she averted his attention quickly and then started putting together a plan. With high value treats, she began teaching Baxter that the cue ‘doggie doggie’ was for alerting (turning his head to look at them) to the other dogs, and then running to Karen for something awesome. She began teaching this inside, behind a window where Baxter could succeed before moving to outside.

What Karen was doing was very similar to Leslie McDevitt’s Look At That Game beautifully detailed in one of my favorite books, Control Unleashed. In a very simplified description, Look at That teaches your dog that *when* he looks at a stimulus, *then* something awesome happens like a pretty tasty treat getting delivered by a well liked human. As your dog’s teacher, playing this means being in a location and at a time when your dog will not be over threshold (in other words BEFORE the lunging, barking behavior begins). Begin by teaching your dog to look at something more neutral. As soon as your dog notices the stimulus, then you mark that behavior such as with a verbal Yes! or a click, and then follow it with a high value treat. As you have continued success, you can first move this game to a more distracting environment, and then a more distracting stimulus. (Leslie recommends teaching this with a cue.)

Very important here is the timing and consistency with which you teach this. Before going any further, I encourage you to read my post on classical conditioning.

As for timing, remember, for your dog to learn that one stimulus (in Karen’s case, the barking dogs next door) predicts another stimulus (tasty food), then the dogs barking must come before the tasty food.  Marking the very moment your dog sees the stimulus is very important as the quicker that consequence occurs after a behavior, the easier it is for an animal to build the association between behavior and consequence.

The management portion of this plan is important because if you allow your dog to practice reacting to his environment outside of your limited training time, you will make behavior change very difficult.

As for Karen, with enough practice, instead of barking back to the dogs next door, when he hears them outside, he runs to find his housemate.

In your house, you can practice classical conditioning without the cue as well.  In a controlled learning environment and without the cue, practice having your dog see stimulus such as people walking to your door or riding a bike down the sidewalk and immediately follow that with giving your dog a super tasty treat. (beginning this at a distance from the window or with people at a distance from your house where your dog will not begin barking and progressing only at the pace at which your pet can succeed at remaining calm – having relaxed body muscles and normal heartrate). The changes you are seeking are internal, involuntary responses. As trainer Kathy Sdao says, the emotional response to the second stimulus infects the emotional response to the first stimulus. You can do this exact same process only with sounds instead of visual stimulus.

To see a fun example of the effectiveness of classical conditioning, please watch this video.

On a last note, remember, if your dog jumps and barks at the sound of your doorbell, chances are pretty likely he has learned that jumping and barking at the doorbell causes the door to open and either – incredible people or scary creatures to walk in. That is another lesson for another day.

 

Putting The Joy In Learning Through Classical Conditioning

I talk a lot about how animals learn from their consequences; and how, those immediate consequences of their behaviors are what determine the future rate of those behaviors. In scientific terms, this is called operant learning or operant conditioning.

classical conditioning in dog trainingHowever, there is another type of learning that is also very important to understand when it comes to helping our pets – and our relationship with them – to succeed. It is called classical conditioning, a reflexive type of learning where one stimulus acquires the capacity to evoke the same response as another stimulus.

Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov first taught us about classical conditioning over a century ago when he measured the salivation response to dogs being fed. In his famous experiment, he gave his dogs food and also rang a bell. After numerous repetitions, he rang the bell on its own without food and found that the dogs still responded with an increase in salivation. The bell, which began as a neutral stimulus, had become a conditioned stimulus.

Why is this such an important concept to understand? Because just as our pets are continually learning whether or not to repeat behaviors based upon whether those behaviors serve to get them a consequence of value; they also have the ongoing capacity to develop associations – positive or negative – with occurrences in their environment.

As I have heard trainer Kathy Sdao say numerous times, the emotional response to the second stimulus infects the emotional response to the first stimulus occurring just before.

The examples of this can be endless. The clicker which initially has no meaning to the animal, only acquires a positive response from the animal after it is repeatedly paired (with the clicker sound coming first) with a consequence of value to the animal. The sight of a leash acquires a positive response after repeatedly being paired with an outing.

Equally important to understand is that something your dog initially has a positive response to like a piece of chicken or favorite toy, can also take on a negative response if it is repeatedly shown just BEFORE something negative. I have seen dogs come to put their tail down and walk away as their owner begins making a stuffed kong, when the kong is only given to the dog after being put into a crate and left there for eight hours (if the dog has a negative association with being in its crate).  Many dogs begin to pant heavily, shake and seek shelter when they feel an air pressure shift as that air pressure shift has come to be associated with feared thunder storms. When an owner jerks his dog’s leash as another dog approaches in anticipation of his own dog’s barking and lunging behavior, his dog my begin having even more heightened heart rate and attention to that other approaching dog as it has come to be associated with a leash jerk.

Here is another reason why understanding this can help or hinder you in your training. Think about the ultimate chain of events – you give a cue, your pet does a behavior, and then that behavior is followed by a consequence. Each step of the first two steps is immediately followed by a consequence, and thus has the power to cause the same response as the event that occurs immediately after it.

In other words, with enough pairing, your pet’s behavior will cause the same response (whether that is an emotional response, salivation or other) as its consequence. AND the cue then, with enough pairing, will cause the same response as its consequence (with is the behavior).

When you train using positive reinforcement (with let’s say a clicker or verbal marker) then everything about that lesson is about causing positive responses. The food given at the end of the chain infects the marker which infects the behavior which infects the cue. And so the cue then takes on the same reflexive response for your student of salivation, energy release, mental stimulation, etc.

If you are wanting to build strong behaviors and have success in your training, it is important that your cues always are predictors of good things for your learner.

If, on the other hand, you give a cue, your pet does the behavior (or does not immediately do the behavior), and something negative occurs, then everything in that chain can become associated with something aversive. An example of this is if you call your dog to come and he ignores you, and the consequence is receiving a shock (remote collar) which causes your dog to feel pain and to jump. Then ultimately sniffing the flowers (or whatever your dog was doing at the time) and your cue have the potential of being associated with a feeling of pain and jumping.

This is one of the ways that taught behaviors can break down and cues can be weakened – or at least can work to cause your dog to not want to learn from you because it causes unpleasant things to happen.

My challenge to you is this: if you want your dog to do what you cue it to do without hesitation and with a tail wag, then take care to make sure that cue is only associated with positive outcomes.

Kathy Sdao: Teaching and Loving Your Older Dog

I found a picture the other day of our dear Butch doing a behavior he was most known for, sitting up with his front paws in the air. It was something we didn’t need to teach. Butch would walk up to anyone and just sit like that, and undoubtedly we got a lot of questions – ‘What does he want?’

He was a really special little guy, as were and are all of our pets. Through the years I’ve seen three of our dogs live through being a senior with many health declines such as loss of hearing and vision, arthritis, and other medical issues. They all had special places in our hearts, and it wasn’t always easy to see their struggles.

We bring animals into our homes for companionship and what they give us in return is something so beautiful and meaningful. Unconditional love and the feeling of being valued by another being is a basic need we all share. Pets provide that to us. I think that is why we see time and again why people will spend money on their pets’ well being before they will on themselves, and why we mourn their loss to the extent that we do.

It is also why, when reknown dog trainer and behaviorist Kathy Sdao stood before us dog trainer Kathy Sdaoat the Karen Pryor Clicker Training Expo with tears swelling in her eyes as she spoke of her most recent loss of one of her own, each one of us in the audience had a lump in our throat as well.

Her presentation was one of several that she gave at the Expo. This one was on tips for ‘Teaching, Loving & Living with Your Older Dog.’

I’ve read and heard much advice on this topic from others but Kathy had a beautiful way of talking about concepts familiar to all of us as dog trainers and reminding us how that science can be applied to add quality of life to our older pets.

Here are a few of the points she shared:

Use classical conditioning to kindle the spark of life

Classical conditioning (also referred to associative or respondent learning) occurs when a neutral stimulus is repeatedly paired with an existing eliciting stimulus. It’s important to note that this is not learning new behaviors, but conditioning new elicitors for reflex responses.

To help you understand – A real life example of this is the dog who salivates at the sound of the can opener because it has been repeatedly paired with yummy food or that same dog who begins exhibiting a fear response (panting, rapid breathing, muscle tension) around men in white coats after a man in a white coat repeatedly did things to cause that dog pain. A child who has been bullied in a classroom may begin to perspire, get nausea, and have increased heart rate before entering that classroom again.

How does this apply to the spark in older dogs?

Well, understanding this, Kathy reminded us to make a list of what still gets our dog’s heart pulsing, tail wagging and legs moving. If we repeatedly pair something that our dog ignores with something on that list, eventually the presence of those ignored activities or objects may serve to get his heart pulsing, tail wagging and body to move.

Use operant conditioning to provide a happy retirement

With operant conditioning, behaviors are learned, strengthened and modified based upon the past consequences of those behaviors. If a behavior serves to get the animal something of value (positive reinforcement), then that behavior will increase and/even strengthen in the future. If a behavior serves to get the animal something aversive (punishment), then that behavior will be suppressed in the future.

What a powerful tool operant behaviors are to the quality of life of an animal!

Kathy reminded us to think about those behaviors that we would like to see more of in our older dog and look for opportunities to reinforce those behaviors with what is of value to him.

With young puppies, for example, we may want to teach calm behaviors like laying down and sitting but we want to actually encourage movement in senior dogs. Behaviors like pre-walk barking and turning in circles that we discourage in a young dog, we want to encourage to our older dog. How do we do that? Simply, when our dog barks and turns in a circle, we put his leash on him and maybe even give him a nice, smelly treat. (assuming those are two things he values)

Expect changes in compliance

It is important to remember that our dog’s ability to do some behaviors may be dog trainer Kathy Sdao on senior dogs and traininglimited because of physical decline – cognitive acuity, sensory deficits, and/or musculo-skeletal degradation. His responses to our cues may no longer be flashy like sitting in a split second. “Let go of the dog you remembered,” Kathy told us, “and see the older, stiffer, confused dog doing her best.”

For clarity, we can transfer cues from those using visual and auditory senses (like the word ‘sit’ or a hand signal) to more tactile and olfactory senses (like a touch or the scent of lavender).

Teach eating

Another important behavior to reinforce, Kathy reminded us, is eating, as appetite fades with age. Some common mistakes Kathy spoke of include:

  • free feeding (please click here to read my post about free feeding)
  • putting all of our dog’s food in his bowl instead of using some for training
  • trumping the meal in our dog’s bowl (if he does not eat it, then we add something better)
  • lower the value of the food by following it with an aversive
  • handfeeding our dog if he stops eating

Instead, apply the same principles for teaching eating as we teach anything else. If we want our dogs to eat MORE from their bowl, then WHILE they are eating from their bowl, we can add a high value treat.

 About Kathy Sdao:

Kathy has been passionate about animal training ever since she quit a good job to move halfway around the world to train dolphins at the Kewalo Basin Marine Mammal Laboratory at the University of Hawaii. Now, 30 years later, she offers her expertise as a certified behaviorist to dog owners in Washington State and across the world, to seminar and webinar audiences and to professional training organizations. Please click here to visit her site.

Teach Your Dog To Like Collar Grabs

I just saw a statistic online…about 20% of dog bites occur when someone reaches for and/or grabs a dog’s collar. That sounds like a big number but let’s think about it.

dog training - teach your dog positive association with having his collar grabbedUnder what conditions does a human typically grab a dog by his collar? Most likely it is when the dog is in an aroused state or when the dog is being pulled away from something he wants to be near.

Remember what we know about behavior there could be a combination of operant and classical learning going on here. The collar grab becomes associated with whatever was occurring at the same time. And the dog learns from experience that the collar grab causes negative consequences to occur.

The thing is, we never know in advance when we may NEED to grab that collar so it is always a good idea to practice teaching your dog that good things happen when a hand is on his collar. The time for that lesson is not when you first need it. It is in a controlled environment with minimum distractions. And as you progress, that lesson can happen multiple times throughout the day in different locations and from different angles.

Teaching Your Dog To Like Collar Grabs

NOTE: These tips are for dogs who do not exhibit any reaction to a hand touching their collar. If your dog backs off when you bring your hand closer, you can try to begin on a leash and practice moving your hand little by little down the leash as you are treating for each step and only moving your hand closer as your dog’s body language tells you he is comfortable. You can also try putting your hand on his chest below his collar if he is okay with that and slowly moving your hand toward the collar. Always, always only go at a pace your dog is comfortable with. If your dog is reactive, please contact a trainer who uses positive reinforcement strategies.

With each step, practice 10 to 15 repetitions of this two times per day in different locations. teaching your dog to like having its collar grabbedHow quickly you progress through these steps will depend on your dog’s success. Remember to practice from different positions (standing, sitting, etc.) and from different angles (standing behind your dog, on the side, etc).

  1. Touch your dog’s collar and while you are touching it, give him a yummy treat. You are creating a positive conditioned emotional response, meaning you are teaching your dog to associate good things with having his collar touched.
  2. Hold your dog’s collar and while you are holding it, give him a yummy treat.
  3. Hold your dog’s collar and apply a little pressure and while you are holding it, give him a yummy treat.
  4. Hold your dog’s collar and incrementally begin applying a little more pressure while giving him a treat.
  5. Hold your dog’s collar and pull him slightly forward while giving him a yummy treat.
  6. Hold your dog’s collar and incrementally begin moving him one step, then two steps, etc. forward and give him a treat.

Remember, this is a lesson that is important to continue because life happens and you never know when you may need it. I love this video of different ways this trainer incorporates collar grabs into many different behaviors.

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