Lessons Learned For Dog Training Success

(Note that this was actually written several years ago for something. I just found a copy of it.)

I was thinking about this the other day when I was working on teaching our family dog, Sam, a new behavior. I was working on teaching him the leg weave (where he runs around a leg when you move it in a direction, then around the other leg), and he lost interest very quickly in the beginning.

If you are dog training and your dog is ignoring you, these are some questions to ask yourself.I could have simply blown it off to his being stubborn or dumb, but I know better than that.

I know that if an animal I am training is not getting the lesson plan, and would rather do other things at the time, that the animal is simply giving me feedback that I am not teaching in a way that motivates him to want to stay in the classroom.

So I took a step back and thought about what I was doing.

Was I setting him up for success or was I setting him up for failure?

These are some questions I needed to ask:

Was the environment too distracting?  (Remember, it is important when teaching a new behavior that you begin in an environment with minimal or no other distractions so as to have your animal’s full attention. You only add distractions slowly as your student tells you by his ability to focus on doing the behavior that he is ready for it.)

Did I have high enough value reinforcers? (Please read my post on why knowing your pet’s List of Awesomeness is important)

How was my timing between when he did a behavior approximation and when I gave the reinforcement?  (The shorter the time lapse between when the behavior occurs and the reinforcement is produced, the easier it is for the animal to learn that association.)

Was I going at the right pace for him?  (In my shaping plan, were my behavior approximations at an interval that were enough to teach but not so much as to be too difficult? See my post on shaping.)

Was I completely focused on the training so as to catch his behaviors that I wanted to reinforce?

Was my training session short?  (Training sessions should be short, 3 to 5 minutes, ending on a positive note.)

In this particular lesson, it was a very quiet living room with minimum distractions and so I was not using the highest value reinforcer. I was using Sam’s dog biscuits. Also, while I began teaching this by luring him around my leg (having him follow a treat), I did not give him a piece of the treat until he was half way around the leg.

That combination was not setting him up for success. Waiting until he moved half way around my leg was way too long of an approximation to keep his interest, especially when his reinforce for doing so was a piece of dog biscuit.

What did I do? I added some pieces of chicken to my reinforcer bag and, while I used luring at the beginning, I marked (and gave him a reinforcer) for his moving around my leg in very small increments the first few times. There were six locations around my leg that were my target points for marking and reinforcing.

That small change made a huge impact. In only a few trials, Sam was running around my leg and then around the other.

Next, I stopped at that success and practiced another behavior for a couple minutes, then another behavior for another couple minutes, and then went back to the leg weaves. Wow, was he charging around my leg by that point. I had made my classroom so much fun for him that he forgot he was there to learn…but learn he did! And with gusto!

The next step was to begin fading out the lure and using less frequent target points around my leg until I could get to the point where I would just give a hand cue and he’d begin to weave. Now we are working on shifting to just my leg movement as his cue to begin the weave.

My point with this post is that, whenever you are training an animal who just simply is not doing what you want him to do. Know that there is always a reason. And it is not that your animal is dumb or stubborn. As your pet’s teacher, step back and think through what you can do to make the lesson plan easier, more clear…and definitely more fun!

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Proofing and Fluency In Dog Training

It happens so often. People will tell me their dog knows behaviors such as sit, down, and stay but when I ask them to show me, either their dog does not immediately do the behavior or does not do the behavior at all. Or many times a dog will do the behavior that is proofing and fluency in dog trainingcued in one setting but not another.

When it comes to having dog training success (for you and your pet), it is important to understand the concepts of proofing and fluency – used interchangeably sometimes. What they all refer to is how well your pet REALLY knows and understands the behavior in a variety of circumstances and difficulty.

These are some great criteria to think about in terms of proofing and fluency:

PRECISION:  Is your dog doing the behavior just as you want the behavior to look? What should that behavior look like?

SPEED: How quickly does your pet do the behavior?

DURATION: Will your dog remain in position or continue doing the behavior until released to do something else?

LATENCY: Latency is the time between when you give the cue and when your student offers the behavior. Does your dog sit immediately when you ask?

DISTRACTION: Can your pet do the behavior when there are distractions present, of varying levels?

DISTANCE: Can your pet do the behavior when you cue it from 3 feet away? How about across the room or at the other end of the yard?

Different behaviors will have different criteria of relevant importance. In teaching stay for example, the most relevant of these criteria are duration, distance and distraction.

Teaching These Criteria

Firstly, remember, when it comes to teaching behavior, knowing what it is specifically that you are looking for (what should the behavior ‘look like’) is important because if you do not know, you will provide unclear guidance to your learner. For this article, I won’t delve a lot into teaching cues; however, please click here to read more. That is an important step in teaching fluency.

A few more tips on proofing behavior in dog training

  1. Work on one fluency criteria at a time. Initially, you have to ‘get’ the behavior to happen in order to reinforce it (and reinforce it heavily to build value), and give it a cue. So that comes first. (I’m talking about active behaviors vs a stay.) In teaching a stay, the three most important criteria are duration, distraction and distance. As you are working on teaching one criteria (and increasing its difficulty), lower the criteria you are looking for in the other areas. For example, once I have given a cue to the behavior ‘sit’ with specific specifications of what ‘sit’ looks like; while I am teaching latency (sitting immediately when asked), I’ll lower the criteria temporarily of what the behavior of ‘sit’ looks like. When working on a ‘stay’, if I have built up to a minute of duration indoors, I will dramatically lower the duration of the stay when I move to another environment. I will also lower the duration when I introduce distractions.
  2. When introducing distractions, begin with a low level distraction in the same environment with a high rate of reinforcement. As you move to new environments, in the beginning, keep the stimulus (like a group of people or person walking another dog) far enough away that your dog can continue to focus on you. You may want to increase the value of the reinforcer you are using also. (Please click here to read about your pet’s Awesome List.) Only increase the proximity between you and the stimulus when your dog is giving you feedback that he can still do the behavior and show interest in the reinforcer. Always start where you know your dog can succeed; and if he cannot, then take that as your feedback that you need to get further away (and/or lower your criteria and/or have higher value reinforcers).
  3. Once you work through these steps on several behaviors, you’ll find that all subsequently taught behaviors tend to generalize more rapidly.

Remember, learning will come much more quickly when the teacher gives a lesson plan filled with fun!

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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.


On Setting Your Pet Up For Success

The other day I was working with this sweet girl, Fifa, and one of her caregivers, Jennifer. We were going to go outside to begin teaching Fifa about walking on a loose leash, only, I quickly realized just the act of being near the front door sent her over her excited meter.

She could hardly wait to get out the door. How did I know? Her tail was wagging pretty quickly and she was jumping up at the storm door. In fact, she really could not focus on anything else except what was appearing through that clear window.

Calmness was something Fifa’s family wanted her to learn around doorways so I asked her to sit. And, she continued to jump. Was Fifa being bad or stubborn or obstinate?

training a dog with distractionsNot in my eyes. She was an adorable adolescent labradoodle who obviously has come to learn from her prior experience in situations like this that jumping on the doorway gets the door to open and the opportunity to experience everything that is great outside. And, had I opened the door at that moment, no doubt she would have been through it in a heartbeat.

But her family would rather her show calm behaviors instead of bolting out the door.

The problem was – when she was in her overly excited state of mind, the opportunity to teach her anything was gone. If I had tried in that moment, more than likely I would have been setting us both up for failure.

When you are teaching any animal lessons in self control or anything else for that matter (and wanting to set them up for success), it is so important to begin where your student is capable of learning. That means carefully introducing distractions only at a level that will not set the animal over her threshold, and moving forward as the animal shows she can continue to focus.

With Fifa, setting her up for success only meant taking a few steps back. When she was about six feet from the door, she was able to sit when I asked her. And she was able to continuing sitting when asked. So we moved forward a couple steps and practiced again. She was still able to continue sitting. We followed this pattern up to the point where we got back to the storm door, where she originally could not focus at all. After enough repetitions of positive practice and setting her up for success, this time when I asked Fifa to sit – she sat! And she was able to remain seated as she saw the world on the other side of the storm door.

My take-a-way for you: Always ask yourself if your pet is not focusing, am I making this lesson too difficult? How can I better motivate my pet to want to listen?

Training A Dog With Distractions

Do you have a dog that does not listen to you around distractions? Do you have a dog who loves to stop and sniff around every mailbox post and fire hydrant when you are on a walk? Does your dog like a good game of dog sniffing a fire hydrant chase the rodent, or think playing in the sprinkler is amazing?

Oh my.

And so, let me ask you this. Does your dog see you as an obstacle standing in the way of that fun or does your dog seemingly refuse to listen when that fun is lurking in the forefront of his mind?

If you try to compete for your pet’s utmost attention against such over the top reinforcers, I have this to say to you…Good Luck!

Let’s take a different perspective instead. The truth is, you really have no reason for needing to compete. You’ve got all the cards. You just need to learn how to play them.

Stacking the deck: Introducing the Premack Principle

The Premack Principle states that the more probable behavior (like getting freedom to go outside and run) will reinforce the less probably behavior (like sitting at the door as it opens until being released). Another way of looking at it – “If you eat your brocoli, then you can have your desert.”

It is a powerful concept when we talk about setting ourselves and our pets up for success. Rather than your dog thinking, “if I pull hard enough on my leash, then my owner will give in and let me smell the flowers,” you can teach him, “if I walk by my owner’s side, then I’ll be given the opportunity to smell the flowers.”

How do you use the Premack Principle effectively?

Well, first, know your goals. Do you want your dog come when called? Do you want your dog to walk with a loose leash? Do you want your dog to sit until released when you open the door?

Now think about what it is that your dog REALLY likes. Sniffing, chasing a ball or a human, being massaged, having his leash clipped to his collar, freedom to play outside, swimming in a body of water…the list can be lengthy.

TIPS:  During training, only use activities on your list that YOU want to reinforce. If garbage raiding, poop eating or furniture chewing is on your list, you may want to avoid it as a reinforcer for a behavior…unless you want to see more of the garbage raiding, poop eating or furniture chewing that is.

Also, keep in mind that what an animal finds reinforcing can easily change depending on the environment. After a long walk an active dog may much more prefer laying on a mat to a game of fetch. However, in the morning, that same dog would love to play 20 games of fetch rather than being told to lay on a mat.

Putting your lists into action is the fun part.

Now it is time to combine those lists. Here are some examples of how I may use the Premack Principle.

If a dog that I am walking stays at my side, I may click for him doing a ‘wanted’ behavior and then use a release word fdog sniffing grassollowed by ‘go sniff’ and walk him to a mailbox post or just a grassy area. After a few few minutes, I’ll use the release word that tells him the sniffing behavior should finish, and I’ll say, “let’s go” and we continue our walk. I may mix things up and sometimes after the click give him a piece of meat, and other times send him to sniff.

If I call a dog to come while he is the middle of playing or smelling something (remember to ONLY call your dog when you know from your prior experience training the dog) AND he comes, I may then click him for coming and then immediately release him to go back to doing what he was doing before.

The combinations are endless here. The effects are powerful. The biggest lesson here: don’t go to combat against competitors for your dog’s attention. Instead learn how to tie access to those competitors to you.

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