A blog about dog training and dog breeding…and other sundry matters

Posts tagged ‘clicker training’

Training after a major illness

Police dog training from 1915

Image via Wikipedia

As Summer winds down and with it the promise of cooler, more comfortable temperatures in which to train, I must return to work.  My time will be severely curtailed this Fall, as it is every semester.  It is extremely difficult to balance full-time-plus work, graduate school, writing, and dog training.

I eagerly anticipated summer holidays:  it would be a time to focus on getting Athena ready for Intermediate obedience and earning points towards her CD.  It was an opportunity, I anticipated, for me to rehabilitate and train Lily by deaf and partially blind white Catahoula.

There’s a great saying I once heard:  “If you want God to laugh, tell him your plans.”  Nothing went according to plan.  Athena fell seriously ill, then my mother got very ill, and graduate school consumed all of my time.  I did no training.

It’s only within the past two days that I’ve started training Athena once more.  I keep the sessions super short, but she shows her usual enthusiasm.  Today I focused on holding the dumbbell.  She will hold the dumbbell for 5 seconds while in a sit, but I think she will hold it much longer.  She waits for the click before releasing the object, so all I have to do to train for duration is delay the click.  In clicker training the click not only marks the correct behavior, but it marks the end of the behavior; the dog is free to stop the behavior once she hears the click.

So with the remaining days before the show, I will train as much as Athena will tolerate.  I hope to take her out to proof her off-leash heel.  Last dog show she threatened to go AWOL on me during that exercise!  Unless the veterinarian advises me otherwise, we’re definitely entering this show.

The Blind puppy who just wanted to be a normal dog

Lily my special-needs puppy being chased by Athena

I spent the Easter weekend trying to understand Lily’s limitations and strengths.  While at the vet clinic on Saturday, I discovered that her vision is poor.  By Monday, however, I knew conclusively that she could detect movement.  I discovered this while “charging the marker,” which is the equivalent of “charging the clicker” where you follow a click, or whatever marker you have chosen, with a treat.  You do this in quick succession so that the dog associates the clicker (or visual marker) with the treat.  This is the first step in clicker training an animal.

Anyway, the marker I use for Lily is an outward flash of all five fingers on my right hand in front of her face, followed by a treat delivered in my left hand.  At first I noticed that Lily was focused on my left hand with the treats.  When I put my hand around my back, I saw her eyes follow my hand.  When she shifted her attention to my right hand,  I marked the behavior by giving her “the flash” and followed it immediately with a treat.  She learned very quickly to focus on my right hand.

Because of her broken toe, the veterinarian recommended that she get a lot of rest.  Yeah, right.  Encouraging an otherwise healthy five-month-old puppy to rest is like stopping the flow of water over Niagara Falls.  She so desperately wanted to play with my other dogs, so on Monday night I allowed her a very brief play session with Athena, who seemed to dote on her.

The two romped in the house, then Ms. Athena decided to take the game outside.  She ran through the back door and of course Lily followed.  What happened after that just about broke my heart.  Lily fled through the back door into the night, made a flying leap from the first of three steps that descend to my backyard, and landed face down in the dirt, butt in the air.  After a few horrifying seconds when Athena and I froze staring at Lily as she lay on the ground, she slowly got up and, holding up the paw with the previously broken toe, limped into the house to me.  The pain must have been excruciating.  She held up her paw and opened her mouth as though to scream, but no sound came out.

Returning to Training and the Show Circuit

White German Shepherd

Image via Wikipedia

So I decided that I want to return to what I love doing the most, my passion: training my beloved dogs and trialling with them.  The decision came this morning after making some significant changes in my life.

We are rusty, my Athena and I, but I marvel at Athena my white german shepherd’s enthusiasm for training. We trained for a bit today after doing spotty work during the past few weeks.  Now with our first show coming up at the end of the week, I will train everyday, but I will not intensify our work.

You see, Athena is so enthusiastic about training, that she will not leave my side, except for the stays.  Her eyes are so bright and alert with her German Shepherd ears standing tall, and her tail in a perpetual wag.  She has this cute finish:  when she’s sitting directly in front of me and  I give the cue for her to walk around me and sit at heel, she literally jumps up out of her sit and wraps herself around my legs.

Our training sessions are priceless, and I don’t want to kill Athena’s enthusiasm by training hard and stressing her out.  As Sunday’s show will be our first in over a year, and we haven’t trained in about as long, our performance will probably stink, but as long as my dog enjoys being with me and enjoys being in the ring, that’s all that matters to me, and I’ll know that I have done my job as a trainer.

Desensitizing an Adult Dog to Strangers

It’s been a really long time since I’ve done any serious training, or trialling with my dogs, and I miss these activities.  The combination of my job, business, and graduate school keeps me very busy, and prevents me from doing what I’m most passionate about:  training dogs.

This weekend I returned to the show circuit by entering Tuvok, my 15-month-old white German Shepherd,  in a fun dog show sponsored by the Portmore Dog Owners Association, which was held in the Portmore Town Centre.  While the show primarily caters to owners of pitbulls and dogs trained in aggression, the advertisements announced classes for toy breeds, rottweilers, and working breeds.   Rottweilers, by the way, belong to the working breeds.  I entered Tuvok in the working class.  There was even a fashion show where dogs vied for the title of “best dressed.”

We arrived at the show VERY early.  The flyer announced show time starting at 9:00am; however, at 10:00am sponsors were still arriving to set up their booths.   Turns out the show didn’t start till 3:00 that afternoon.

Tuvok and I used the opportunity to do a bit of training.  This pup received consistent, focused training at 5 weeks old, along with his littermates, but once my work load got heavy, his training fell to the wayside.  I was pleasantly surprised, however, that Tuvok responded to simple cues, such as sit and down very quickly and enthusiastically, even among distractions.

It was the presence of strangers that made Tuvok very uncomfortable. Fortunately Classical Conditioning can be used to desensitize a dog to fearful situations, if done correctly.

Here’s how it worked.  I first clicked and treated (C&T) Tuvok each time we walked past someone and he didn’t show any signs of fear or alarm.  Next I sat in a chair in a shady spot and C&T Tuvok for relaxing beside.  Then came the crucial bit.  I C&T the dog each time someone walked towards him and he didn’t show any fear.  I kept rapid-fire C&T until the person passed us, as long as Tuvok didn’t get distracted and started growling or tried to get up.  The trick here was to start C&T before the dog reached over threshold, the point where the dog finds it necessary to react.

It’s also vital when desensitizing a dog that you carefully read the dog’s body language.  Fear does not always manifest itself by whinning, backing away, or trying to tie up the handler with the leash in an effort to flee the situation.  There are subtle signs, such as the look of the dog’s pupils, placement of the ears, and even lifting a paw.

Anyway, Tuvok did splendidly, and in no time he could remain lying down, relaxed as the world and its children passed him by.  He did not get C&T when people walked away from him, though.  I wanted him to have positive associations with people approaching him, and that’s where the clicker came in most useful.  Fearful dogs snap and lunge at people to get them to go away.  I didn’t wan’t to inadvertently strengthen this behavior by rewarding the dog when people walked away from him.

We remained at the show until dusk.  It was going on for 6:00pm, and by this time the working class hadn’t yet been called.  They were still judging the toy breeds “Rising Star” style where the audience voted for the dog they felt should get first place!  by this time Tuvok had become very tired; he’d lost his pep.  Furthermore, I noticed that he hadn’t peed since we left the house at 9:00am that morning.  We were both hungry, having not eaten anything all day.

We left the show grounds that evening without ever making it to the ring, and after paying the $500 entry fee (although the flyer stated that entries were $400 per dog).  I don’t know if they ever got around to judging the working breeds, and if they did, I’m not sure how they could have judged in the dark.

A few good things came out of the day, however.  I purchased a beautiful show lead from one of the booths, practiced obedience skills with my dog, desensitized him to strangers, and spent quality time with my big beautiful boy, which was priceless.

Doggie Adolescence and Obedience Training: A Contradiction.

Okay, so I didn’t train Gretchen yesterday.  I had a big project due for a class and really didn’t have time to work with her.  One wouldn’t think she would have forgotten everything in the space of one day, however.

Well, I took her out in the yard after work for some training, and it was most frustrating.  She wouldn’t focus, but spent the whole time with her nose to the ground.  When I called her name in my “working” voice,  she slowly gave me her attention.  When I said “sit” she looked at me as though she had no clue what I was saying.

Then when I asked for a “down” she looked at me as though I had an arm growing out of my forehead.  Luring didn’t work; she just tried to pry the food out of my hand.  I resorted to the old fashioned pull-‘n-push method to get the sit, and another trick that I learned from a friend to get a down from a dog that won’t down.

I rarely use those physical methods because I feel that there are other methods that are effective; and there are some dogs that are touch-sensitive to begin with, and forcing a sit or a down from such a dog could result in a bite (remember, I train Rottweilers and German Shepherds).   Anyway, I broke my own rule because Gretchen knows these cues, and I’m not sure why she chose not to do them.  She’s 10 months old, so it’s possible that the virus called doggie adolescence has invaded her brain and wiped it clean.

One thing I learned today while training:  it’s important to have many approaches, techniques, and tricks in one’s arsenal of training because it gives you a choice of things to try when something doesn’t work.  Yes, I’m a die-hard operant-based clicker trainer, but sometimes luring, and capturing doesn’t work.

One must use common sense when training.  Capturing and luring have their place, and that’s my first choice when training a puppy or a dog that has little or no experience with training.  Once you have a dog with fluent behaviors that are on cue, it becomes tricky.  It’s up to the handler/trainer to figure out why the dog won’t perform a specific behavior.  Sometimes there’s a good reason, but at some point the dog needs to understand that performing a given cue is not an option.

I’m Back

Many apologies for being away for so long, and thank you to my loyal readers who have sent me message through this forum and by email inquiring if I was okay.

I am just fine, but my graduate program has started, and it keeps me busy.  I have a huge project due tomorrow, and because of this and my teaching,  my dogs have not received any training for the past week, and the puppies are fast growing up to be hooligans.

Anyway,  although I haven’t trained Gretchen, my black and tan GS bitch, she did quite well today.  I was able to get a 10 second sit/stay and down/stay from her AND I added distance.  She stayed on the end of a four-foot leash.  Last time I trained her, we were up to six second stays, and no distance.

Her sits and downs are fluent, and I have faded both clicker and treats for that.  I did use the clicker for the 10 second stays, though, but will phase out the clicker in the coming weeks.

We also did a bit of distance-control on leash, just sits and downs, for the first time, and she caught on surprisingly fast. And she did all of this in my backyard amid distractions.  Perhaps I have a future CDX in the making!

I only trained for 10 minutes, because I have to get back to my studies, but it was 10 minutes that I enjoyed thoroughly.  There is nothing I enjoy more than spending time training my dogs.  It is perhaps the only activity that I can do that forces me to live in the moment and focus on my dog.  One has to focus when handling dogs like German Shepherds and Rottweilers.

Teaching the Down/Stay and Sit/Stay using Clicker Training

It isn’t hard to teach stays to a dog once it understands the difference between “sit” and “down”.  Last week Gretchen had difficulty differentiating the two, but I took her back to basics, and this week she improved.  It was time to incorporate the stays.

I teach sit and down stays concurrently, and have been successful because I concentrate on getting duration first BEFORE I ever try to add distance to the cue.  And, I start with very short durations, sometimes as short as half a second!  This is particularly important when training a young puppy that has a hard time being still.

Gretchen isn’t exactly a young pup:  she’s eight months, an adolescent dog.  Her impulse control has improved significantly, but she is still an enthusiastic learner, and as such has a hard time sitting still for long.  I start off with a half second stay then increase the durations by a second after that with a 1:1 ratio of reinforcement; that is, one click and a treat for every second that she remains in the sit and the down.

Once I had Gretchen successfully and consistently doing four-second stays, I put the behavior on a variable schedule of reinforcement.  That is, I varied when I clicked and treated instead of the usual 1:1 ratio.  So I might click after a two-second stay; next I’d click after a four-second stay and give a jackpot of treats; then I’d click for a half-second stay.  The dog would never know when she’d get her treats, or whether she’d get a jackpot of those yummy steak bits, so she’d hold her stays in eager anticipation.

It’s important when training stays that the trainer doesn’t ask the dog to hold the stay longer than it’s capable.  If I went from asking for four-second stays to asking for a thirty-second stays before I clicked and treated, Gretchen would be confused that I had not clicked sooner and think that she did something wrong. Because clicker training promotes thinking on the part of the learner, Gretchen would break the stay and offer me some other behavior thinking that’s what I really wanted.  Dogs are smart.

Agility for a Five Month Old Puppy

Gretchen rests after agility class.  Was she tired?  Nooooooo! In a matter of minutes she was up again getting into everything.

I have started agility lessons with one of my puppies, Gretchen.  She just turned five months, so we’ve been getting her accustomed to the equipment by walking over the jumps (with cross-bars placed about three inches off the floor), and walking through widely-spaced weave poles. 

The first week was a bit scary for Gretchen, but today’s lessons went better.  She had fun going through the tunnel, which is one of those fold-out varieties.  We introduced it to her by keeping the tunnel folded to form a hoop and just letting her walk through that hoop.  Next we opened it out only slightly.  The trainer held the hoop/tunnel that was only slightly opened, while I coaxed Gretchen through.  She did beautifully.  We gradually opened out the tunnel until she would go through when it was fully extended.

She has a few issues with being introduced to new things.  For instance today the new exercise was for her to sit in front of the first jump and wait for me to say jump (remember that the bars are placed close to the ground, so she really wasn’t jumping).  Well, someone new came to the entrance of the facility and spooked her.  She decided that she didn’t want to sit, so she crumbled into a down, put her head between her two front paws, and looked at me with those big pathetic German Shepherd eyes.  We clearly have a few issues to work through.

I feel as though I moved house today…

Or, at least rearranged the furniture in my house.  I didn’t, of course, not literally, but I spent the day engaged in two activities:  redesigned this blog and moved my dogs around.  I think the former activity is self-explanatory; the latter activity, however, needs some explanation.

All three bitches are on heat, and emotions run high.  Busta, my male Rottweiler, would like annihilate my male Pomeranian, Snuggles.  Snuggles would like to mate with Cody, and the tart keeps teasing him.  Athena would like to do damage to Kissy, and Busta would like to put Tuvok, my four-month-old puppy in his place (as in, don’t touch any of my women!).

Fortunately I live in a large house with lots of crates and holding areas for the dogs.  Everyone was locked away in their own special place, but I spent the day letting out individual dogs–or groups of dogs that got on well–for potty breaks and time in the house with Mom.  Of course I had to remember who was in the yard at any one time, and who was running around the house, or hiding under the sofa. 

It’s the end of the day now, 11:38pm to be precise, and I’ve just finished training three dogs.  Gretchen learned a neat trick today:  turning her head to look left.  I wanted to do a bit of shaping with her, and couldn’t figure out what to do.  She started turning her head, and I started clicking and treating away.  Soon, I started clicking for only left turns.  The little bugger caught on.  I really have no idea to what end this new behavior will serve.

How does one know when to Shape and when to Lure?

I am a big fan of shaping behaviors when I train my dogs.  I wasn’t always a fan, partly because I thought I’d have to wait forever for the dog to offer me a behavior that I could click and treat.  Because I’m the sort of person who likes quick results, I thought shaping just wouldn’t work. Shaping is a process where an animal is rewarded for performing small, incremental steps that he’ll build on to produce a complete behavior.

Instead of shaping, I used luring to train my two adult GSDs.  I was new to clicker training at the time, and obviously didn’t appreciate the merits of shaping.  I lured the dogs by holding food in my hand to get them to perform a behavior, like a sit or a down.  It worked because the dogs learned quickly.  I was very fortunate, though, that my two dogs didn’t fall into the trap that most dogs fall into:  they rely on the food in the trainer’s hand as their cue.  Once the food isn’t present, the behavior is no longer forth-coming.

Both of my puppies, Gretchen and Tuvok, learned their sits through shaping, and both have fast, reliable sits.  The downs have proven to be a bit more challenging, partly because I have been inconsistent with their training. 

When shaping does not “work”

Gretchen’s down is now on cue, but she still needs a lot more practice before I’d consider this behavior “fluent on cue.”  Tuvok, however, is a bit slower at offering the down.  I would click and toss his treats when he offered a down, and he’d get up for the treat.  I’d then expect him to go back into a down so that I could repeat the process.  I found that he would be slow at settling back into the down.  He had to sniff around first, then go check out something at the other side of the room, then he’d sit and look at me before sliding into a down. 

In an effort to teach this behavior quickly, I started putting the behavior on cue.  Did I mention that I love quick results?  What should have been a five-minute session easily turned into 15 minutes as I waited for the boy to resettle.  Then I had an epiphany one evening when I took Tuvok to a quiet spot in the parking lot of a shopping center to train.  He gave me sits on cue, but was not offering me downs, whether on or off cue.  He may have been overstimulated with the new environment.  At any rate, the cue “down” meant absolutely nothing to him.  I suspected that he hadn’t really learned the down properly, and I realized that I needed to back up a few steps. 

Luring with a twist

Instead of shaping this time, I decided to lure, because I suspected that would help him with his concentration issues.  I also needed Tuvok to learn this behavior very quickly.  I did mention that I like quick results.

I lured with food for about three repetitions with Tuvok, but I did something different this time:  I lured him with the food in my right hand, but once he was in the down, I offered the treat with my left hand.  The idea was that lure would not become a bribe.  After three repetitions, I gave the lure with my right hand without the food, clicked and treated with my left hand.

Within minutes he was offering me fast, focused downs, and  the luring hand now became a hand signal for the down, which is something that he’ll need for obedience trials later. 

No two organisms learn in the same way

As an educator I’m aware that no two organisms learn in exactly the same way.  I was proof of that growing up, and I’m very aware of that as I teach adults and kids.  I have found that it is no different in the dog training world.  My puppies are the same age as they came out of a recent litter that I bred.  Both are clicker trained, but their personalities are so different and their learning styles are different from each other and different from my other dogs. 

People often ask me  which of the two puppies is smarter, and that’s a hard question to answer.  They are different, but that doesn’t make one dog smarter than the other.  Tuvok learned the down in one session with the lure.  That was the faster method for him.  Gretchen never responded to the lure.  Whenever I tried luring,  she would lock her legs in a stand while contorting her neck to pry that treat out of my hand.  She was the better candidate for shaping.

The merits of shaping and luring

Shaping and luring both have a place in the animal trainer’s toolkit. I still believe that shaping behaviors are the most effect way to teach.  Had I re-shaped the downs with Tuvok and continued to train him in a less interesting environment, he probably would have learned the behavior with that method.  Shaping puts the animal in control because they quickly learn that when they offer a behavior, they are rewarded for it, and they will most likely repeat that behavior.  The behavior then becomes a strong one that doesn’t go away very quickly.  That is, the dog is not apt to “forget” how to perform the behavior. 

In Tuvok’s case luring helped him to stay focused on the task at hand.  He didn’t have time to go off to explore his environment, because he had a clear idea of what it was that I wanted.  It took the guessing game out of the training sessions where I waited for the down, and he sat there wondering if the clicker was broken.  As I continue training dogs, both shaping and luring will have its place in my repertoire of training techniques.

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