Category Archives: Training Tips

Random topic #6: Making a training plan

When you decide to train a behavior, how much thought do you put into the process before starting? Do you just jump in with both feet, ready to experiment? Do you break the behavior down and figure out how you’re going to get the initial behavior?

Most people spend relatively little time planning their training. As a result, steps are frequently overlooked, not added until problems develop and reveal the holes in the training. Or, the trainer simply reaches a point where he isn’t sure what to do next.

The most efficient way to train is to start with a training plan. A training plan gives you a roadmap from where you are to where you want to be. The first step is to define the behavior in detail.

What will the finished behavior look like?

You must be able to picture the behavior in perfect, precise detail. Don’t just focus on the obvious. Think about each part of the dog’s body — what must it be doing during each part of the behavior? Want a dog to win the heart of the judge? Include a wagging tail and pricked ears as requirements of the behavior. In clicker training, it’s all possible! By the way, don’t forget the dog’s mouth. So often people ask me how to stop a dog from whining or barking during the behavior. If silence is part of the behavior, plan it, and train it from the start!

How will this behavior be cued?

Verbally? Physically? Environmentally? A combination? Remember that part of teaching a cue is making sure that only the cues you want become lasting cues — and that dogs are master discriminators. Include plenty of time for generalizing the behavior.

What kind of latency is required?

Latency is speed of response — the time that elapses between the cue and the behavior. Zero latency is an immediate response. Short latency is habitual, meaning if you train it for some behaviors, the dog will likely adopt it for all behaviors.

Does this behavior have duration? Distance?

How long should the behavior last? If there’s a specific time requirement, plan to train fifty percent beyond that. For example, if you need a two minute sit-stay for competition obedience, plan to train at least a three minute sit-stay.

Distance should be trained similarly. Distance includes behaviors where the dog is sent to work at a distance, behaviors where the dog must respond to a cue when he is at a distance from the owner, and behaviors where the dog must maintain a behavior even when the owner moves away from him. Distance is challenging because the further the handler is from the dog, the stronger environmental stimuli become.

Does your dog have to be in a particular place relative to you to perform this behavior?

Should the dog always be in front of you or perhaps always within a certain radius of you? If not — and especially if you specifically don’t want the dog to restrict his position relative to you — you should plan on spending time generalizing this element.

Are you always going to be sitting, standing, or lying down when you give the cue?

Again, this is a generalization issue. Your body position can easily become a secondary cue for the behavior. This may work for you in competition heeling, but it can sabotage you for a household sit.

In what locations will the behavior be cued?

Steve White trains every behavior in twenty different locations to ensure that his police dogs truly generalize their behaviors. You may not need quite that much generalization. For some behaviors, you don’t need any! My dogs, for example, aren’t allowed in my husband’s office in our house. They don’t need to generalize to other rooms or other houses.

What distractions might the dog face in those locations when performing the behavior?

List them, rank them, train them.

How reliable does this behavior have to be?

Reliability is a number. You may need only 9 out of 10, or you may need 99 out 100 — or 999 out of 1000.

The definition of the behavior is a detailed description of where you want to go. The second step is to evaluate where you currently are. If this is a brand new behavior, that’s easy! You’re starting from scratch. If this is an in-progress behavior, test and evaluate the behavior for each of the above criteria. Keep records and let the data tell you exactly what your dog is capable of doing reliably.

The final step is to make a plan to get from where you are to where you want to be. Start with the behavior. Break it into responses, and shape it to perfection. When it’s exactly right, add the cue. Then one by one add elements like duration, distance, and distractions.

It can be helpful to give yourself intermediate goals along the way. Sue Ailsby’s Training Levels are a masterful example of this. Here, for example, are the seven intermediate goals for training “Sit”. (Note: After the first level, all subsequent levels of this behavior must be done in a ring or similar environment without clickers or food present.)

  1. The dog must Sit from standing position on one cue only (may be a voice OR a hand cue, but not both, and no extra body language from the handler). The handler may use the dog’s name to get his attention before starting.
  2. The dog Sits from Stand on one cue only. The handler may use the dog’s name to get his attention before a voice cue.
  3. The dog Sits from a Stand on one cue only from 10’ away. The dog may drift off the position where he was standing, but there must be a fairly immediate response to the cue.
  4. The dog Sits from Down with one cue only.
  5. The dog Sits from Down on a hand signal only.
  6. The dog Sits from Down on a hand signal only at 10’.
  7. The dog Sits from Down on signal in line.

Her list of goals are clearly influenced by competition obedience. If you were training for, say, retriever field trials, you might have entirely different intermediate — and ending — goals.

As you train, keep your training plans firmly in mind. Track your progress. Periodically review your training plan, and revise the definition of the final behavior, if necessary. Don’t stop working on the behavior until the behavior your dog performs is a reliable mirror image of the behavior you described.

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Random topic #5: Fallacies of dominance theory

Dominance theory comes from the field of ethology, which is the study of animal behavior in its natural environment. The ethologists observe behavior and then analyze it and look for patterns. Over time, as they get more data, their theories evolve and change, because they find that with more information, some of their initial conclusions were incorrect.

The “dominance theory” that is bandied about in dog training, — and has been since the mid 20th century, is based on a series of short-term wolf studies done in the 1940s. Because these were some of the first studies of their time and they had so little time to do them, the ethologists concentrated on the most overt behaviors — like what they termed the “alpha roll.” Those behaviors comprise roughly 1% of wolf life, yet in the dog world, we still use them to define the entire social world of our dogs.

Since those initial studies, ethologists have done many more longer-term, more comprehensive studies. They found that their initial conclusions were incorrect, and within the world of ethology, the initial work has been dismissed. Alpha rolls, for example, are a ritual initiated by the submissive animal who offers his muzzle and willingly rolls to his back. In the wild, a wolf forcibly flips another wolf only if he’s going to kill him. (There’s a reason why the alpha roll causes some dogs to lose control of their bowels — and others to fight back mightily.)

Even if the dog world were to absorb every lesson the ethologists have learned about wolves in the past 60 years, there would still be problems with applying the lessons to domestic dogs:

  • Wild wolves live in survival situations. Group behavior is VASTLY different in survival situations than in non-survival situations. Rules become MUCH more important. It’s the difference between a combat unit in the Army and the average American household.
  • Wild wolves are a stable family unit. They live in a multi-generational unit that they were born in and will likely die in. Sure, there’s some splintering sometimes, but it’s generally stable. That means relationships are stable and predictable. Dogs rarely have that reality. Sure, some dogs live with the same group — a largely unchanging group — for their entire lives. Others live in a what must seem to be a constantly changing pack. And then when you throw in doggie day care and dog parks and simple outings or meet-and-greets… The lifestyles of dogs simply don’t match the lifestyles of wild wolves.
  • Wild wolves live in a single species group. They don’t live with humans. Or goats. Or horses. Ethologists study all different kinds of groups, and they find similarities and differences. Know what they don’t study? Social groups made up of different species. Know why? Because each group is different! When you mix social species, it’s up to the group members to determine the rules within their group. That means that there are no hard and fast rules within a human-dog group!
  • Dogs aren’t wolves. Different groups of social mammals *do* have similarities in their social structures, but not so much similarity that you can take the rules from one group and apply them whole cloth to another. In fact, long-term studies have been done on packs of domestic dogs — and the conclusion was that their rules are different from those of wild wolves. Similar in some ways, but different in others. (And they don’t match the conclusions set forth in those initial wolf studies either.)

The biggest problem with applying lessons learned by ethologists is that even if the data/theory is correct and appropriate, the data does not say, “X behavior is a dominance behavior and can be used to establish dominance.” Their data says, “In x situation, y was observed in concert with a, b, and c, resulting in z.”

Ethologists observe natural behavior and draw conclusions from the patterns they detect. They are not studying how to CHANGE behavior. That’s the science of Behavior Analysis.

Is ethology important? Terribly so. There’s not a Behavior Analyst worth his salt who won’t tell you that it’s important to understand who the animal is and what’s important to him. That how we determine what their reinforcers and punishers are. But ethology itself is not a science for changing behavior, and it’s not a roadmap for living with dogs. Are there lessons that can be learned that will make it easier to understand this non-human species? Sure. But there’s nothing that says either we or they have to follow some particular set of prescribed rules.

Leadership is important in all social groups of social mammals. How leadership is obtained varies. What leaders do varies. Dominance — as defined by ethologists, who originated the whole dominance theory — means “control of valued resources.” That’s it. Nothing more, nothing less. Control the valued resources, and you’re “alpha.” Teaching everyone in the group how to get access to the resources he wants in ways that make everyone happy is the sign of a true leader.

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Random topic #4: Solving problem behaviors positively

Because clicker trainers don’t use physical corrections, booby traps, or other positive punishment, many people wonder how we deal with unwanted behavior. One of the worse solutions I hear — often from clicker trainers themselves! — is “ignore the behavior.” Oy.

Okay, let’s talk through this “ignore the behavior” nonsense. Ignoring undesired behavior is a technique called extinction. Extinction is an operant conditioning principle that states that if a behavior is not reinforced, it will gradually eliminate.

Extinction is an excellent training tool if the trainer controls the reinforcement. It is, in fact, a crucial part of shaping. For example, a trainer first captures sit and clicks (and reinforces) every sit the dog offers. Then the trainer increases his criteria and now begins to click and reinforce only the on-the-haunches sits. Because they are no longer being reinforced, the sloppy, on-the-butt sits will extinguish, and because the on-the haunches sits are being reinforced, they will increase.

Extinction by itself, though, is rarely a good choice for established problem behavior. The reason the dog is choosing that behavior is because it somehow works for him. Unless the trainer can control that reinforcement, extinction won’t work. Even when the trainer can control the reinforcement, extinction needs to be coupled with a high rate of reinforcement for a desired behavior or the dog will simply choose another, potentially worse behavior.

Solving problem behavior – any problem behavior – is a four-step process:

1. Identify the behavior you don’t like.

Be specific. Describing your dog as “too hyper” or as a “brat” doesn’t really say what you want to change. Instead, try statements like, “I don’t like my dog to jump on people” and “I don’t like my dog to pull on leash.”

2. Determine what you want the dog to do instead.

It’s not enough to say you want the problem behavior to stop. Your dog could stop that behavior and choose to do something even worse! Save yourself time – and your dog confusion – by defining what you want your dog to do in this situation.

For example, if your dog jumps on people, you might decide you want your dog to sit to be petted. If your dog pulls on leash, you probably want your dog to walk at your side, ignoring distractions.

3. Manage the situation so the unwanted behavior becomes unreinforcing or impossible.

This step is critical to the process. Every time your dog successfully does the unwanted behavior, he is reinforcing it – he is making it more likely to occur again in the future. Your job as trainer is to figure out what triggers the behavior and anticipate it, to be proactive and prepared.

You know your dog jumps on people who come through the front door. So when someone comes to the door, you plan ahead and put your dog on leash. You might also tell the visitor to stand perfectly still unless the dog is seated. If you don’t have time to work on the behavior, you set your dog up to succeed by putting him in another room, thereby making it impossible for him to jump on the visitor.

4. Train the new, preferred behavior.

Train the new behavior like any other, making sure to reinforce every correct repetition. When dealing with problem behavior, the best reinforcer is always the payoff the dog was getting from the unwanted behavior. The dog who jumped was getting attention and petting. When a visitor comes, he doesn’t want a food treat. He wants attention! So make sure to give him what he wants in exchange for doing what you want.

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Random topic #3: What is behavior?

Quick quiz:

Which of the following is a “behavior”?

  • An entire obedience routine
  • A heeling pattern
  • A right turn in a heeling pattern
  • A single step
  • Lifting a foot
  • A weight shift

Answer: All of the above.

Behavior is anything and everything the animal does. It is a continuous, ongoing sequence from the moment it is born until it dies. Although we can certainly separate “a behavior,” the definition of that behavior — where it starts and stops, what is and isn’t part of it — is defined entirely by the observer.

What does this mean? It means that a weight shift is a behavior; a step is a behavior; a series of steps is a behavior; the approach, takeoff, and landing of a jump is a behavior; and an entire agility sequence is a behavior if defined as such by an individual… say, a trainer.

It also means that “behavior” is occurring before the action defined by the trainer, and it will continue after. At no time does the animal stop behaving.

What does this mean to a trainer?

The goal of training is to define what Bob Bailey calls a response. This is an isolated “piece” of behavior. Clearly defined by the trainer — and specific to that trainer. One trainer might define “sit” as the dog simply putting his butt on the ground in a reasonably timely maner. Another might define it as tucked, square, on the haunches with zero latency. They’re both right, because each defines the response that he or she is looking for.

In each training session, the trainer defines the response she is looking for. This is setting criteria, and it will change from session to session. Initially you might be clicking one step in heel position. Later your criteria might be 30 seconds in heel position. Eventually you might want five minutes of focused heeling including turns and stops.

Because “behavior” is continuous — occurring before the response you’re looking for and continuing beyond it — the trainer has to isolate it. The trainer does this by varying the behavior before and after the response and identifying the desired response itself with a click. Eventually the trainer will add a cue to “name” the desired response. Even so, be aware — any behavior that occurs consistently before the cue or after the click will be chained onto the response.

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Decision made: puppy kindergarten

I mentioned in an earlier post that I’ve had a devil of a time finding a puppy kindergarten class that begins after I bring Tennyson home but before she turns 16 weeks old in January. I e-mailed the schools near me, and each wrote back to say explicitly that, no, they weren’t starting classes in December. Barkz is having a class, but it’s all the way in downtown Kirkland.

Since I’m going to work through Sue Ailsby’s Training Levels with her outside of class regardless I considered declaring surrender and just waiting until January. But before I made that decision, I decided to search the Web one last time.

I found a class offered by Ahimsa Dog Training. Ahimsa is owned by Grisha Stewart, whom I met several years ago. I know she is an excellent trainer who shares my passion for positive training. The main Ahimsa center is in Seattle, which is far out of my driving range. This class is in Redmond, and is taught by one of her other trainers, Mireille Baumoel, whom I don’t know but am sure is equally excellent.

The class is offered on a drop-in basis. I selected to attend a Monday night class for six weeks beginning on Nov. 24. That will take us through December, and then I can make the decision either to continue with Ahimsa or to switch to a school closer to me in January.

I signed up for the class and was directed to download some really neat resources Grisha has put together. There’s a seven-page handout of things to do to prepare for the first class, a 40-page book about positive training, and links to some really cool videos. I wish I could share them with you, but, of course, they’re only for people who have paid for the class.

I want to share one super creative idea she has built into the pre-class handout though. She calls it a “scavenger hunt.” It’s a socialization game. There are a list of behaviors (of increasing difficulty, but never terribly difficult), that your dog has to perform for a “tester.” The tester is someone at a business such as a vet’s office or pet food store. She has a list of participating businesses but says someone from any business will do. The catch is that each behavior has to be performed — and signed off on — by someone at a different business.

What a GREAT way to get the puppy out and about to see lots of new things and meet lots of new people! Clicks to Ahimsa!!!

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