Using Novelty in Reinforcers

Last week on my Bookends Farm blog, I wrote about one of my horses sneaking into the barn and finding enjoyment exploring the area. He found this somewhat novel experience preferable to being outdoors with his friends eating hay. That was an example of him creating his own novelty in enrichment. I promised a blog post on novelty in training with dogs so here it is.
ruts are for roads, not training

While we tend to think that our animals need routine, routines can become ruts. Ruts aren’t fun. Animals understand patterns and when they predict something enjoyable, they can become disappointed and frustrated if it doesn’t happen. On the other hand, if we surprise them with something new, it helps to build some resilience for those times when unexpected or unavoidable situations disrupt the routine. We can help our dogs learn that different can be a good thing.

The routine in our house is that mealtime for dogs is when we come in from barn chores, both morning and evening. Eloise, my Jack Russell Terrier, runs up the stairs in anticipation as soon as we come in. When I get upstairs, she is sitting on the little rug where she waits for meals. If I am in a hurry to do something when I get in and don’t immediately feed her, she continues to sit there. She learned that sitting on that rug is what causes meals to appear, and my occasional lateness taught her that she needs to keep sitting there. That behavior has become resilient to the passage of time. How have I made that a good thing? Oftentimes what delays her breakfast is that I am sharing mine with her. If I feed her immediately, it’s because I have prepped her dog food quickly. If I am making scrambled eggs or oatmeal for breakfast, I will make extra so she can have some for her breakfast. More often than not, a late breakfast equals a special breakfast!fullsizeoutput_194
One of the first handouts I give to dog clients is about treats. I explain that treats should be small and soft but that each dog will have preferences in taste. I ask people to try different foods to see what their dog likes best and then vary those treats according to the difficulty of the training. I suggest commercial treats and “people food” such as cheeses, meats and peanut butter. People find something the dog likes, but then they stick with it. The dog gets accustomed to that treat, and it stops being quite so reinforcing. The dog doesn’t focus as well. When I visit, I bring something new, such as ham, or chicken and the dog can’t wait to work for me! The people see how well it works and then use that as a reinforcer…and stick with it. They neglect to take advantage of novelty. I tend to have something different each week so that the dogs never know what to expect from me. It’s not the specific food I have in my treat pouch, it’s the knowledge that there will be something new and exciting.

Bandit is happy to see me arrive
The reaction from the dogs shows that it’s not what I have; it’s the anticipation of what it will be this week. They don’t ignore me until they see what I have. They know I’m good for something novel and so they focus on me as soon as I step in the door. That’s what makes positive reinforcement and novelty both so powerful and so different from luring, even though both involve food and both can use novelty. Positive reinforcement includes the element of surprise.
In addition to varying foods as reinforcers, we can also vary activities. I like to surprise Eloise after a recall. Sometimes she gets a treat. Sometimes I pick up a stick and toss it for her. Other times I pat my chest which is her cue to leap into my arms. Then she gets her wiry hair scritched before being put back down to run off again. In the fall, our road is littered with wild apples and they make wonderful things to throw and fetch. They bounce and taste good too. My old Jack Russell, Beetle loved snowballs tossed for him to leap up into the air and catch. Nature provides novelty if we take advantage of the opportunities.
When training a new behavior, novelty may cause problems by interrupting the flow of training. While the dog is still trying to figure out what earns the click, a high rate of reinforcement (the number of click/treats per minute) gets many repetitions of the correct response. Offering the dog something novel could slow things down. The dog might sniff first, then savor the morsel and finally look around on the floor to see if any was dropped.
I prefer to use novelty to maintain behaviors that might otherwise lose their fluency over time. The problems that distractions cause can be counterbalanced by novelty. It becomes “can I catch that squirrel?” against “what goodie might she have”? I want to be sure that my reinforcer is worthy of the decision my dog makes!

The Elephant in the Room: Using a Clicker to Train Herding

Nell starting herding
Nell when she was starting.

“Are you going to use a clicker to train Case to herd?” is a loaded question, especially when it’s phrased, “You’re not going to use a clicker on him, are you?”.  I want to curl up in a hole when I hear it because I know there are strong opinions involved and I am right smack in the middle so I can’t easily say yes or no.  The short answer is, I will consider all the tools and skills I have learned since I first picked up a clicker and since I first watched a Border Collie herd sheep.  I am ruling out nothing nor am I automatically including something. (please see note below added 4/13)

My advantage is that I have trained horses to do a lot with a clicker and the traditional equine community is as full of doubters as the herding world. Traditional is the important word there. People have been training horses and herding dogs for centuries without a clicker. A lot of punishment and aversives have been involved, from spurs and whips for horses to throwing all manner of things (caps, crooks, cans full of rocks) at Border Collies who get too close to their sheep. It is assumed that it’s the way It Has To Be Done, even if you don’t like doing it that way.

Both horse training and herding dog training involve some very strong instincts. Fear is a strong motivator in a horse and people have invented all kinds of stronger and stronger equipment to stop a horse, steer a horse and make it go where you want it to go even if it doesn’t want to. The drive behind a Border Collie to get to his sheep is equally strong. It’s amazing they haven’t figured out a way to use elevator bits and martingales on them.

And that brings us around to the question of “why wouldn’t you use a clicker then??”. The simplest answer to that is that I will never have the timing or stock sense of a Border Collie working sheep. A clicker has scalpel-like precision and I am constantly shown that where I thought the dog should balance is not where he thought he should balance…and the dog was right. If the dog understands the job, he’ll be where he needs to be. I have been blessed with amazing dogs who taught me that lesson over and over. The only technology I’d like to see in shepherding is a way for the dogs to remotely open gates.  When they figure that out, farmers will be able to stay in bed.

I haven’t mentioned the sheep yet. I have been amazed to see and hear people who espouse positive reinforcement training for dogs absolutely terrorizing the stock, whether it’s ducks or sheep or something else. I watched one video where the handler and dog were going around and around a small pen of sheep working on the dog’s focus on the handler so he wouldn’t be distracted by the sheep.  Well good God first of all, I do NOT want my dog’s eyes on me!! Ears, yes, but the eyes should be on the stock! At all times! And in the name of positively reinforcing the dog for focusing on the handler so close to the sheep, the poor ewes in that pen were leaping and scrambling over each other in terror. Granted, it’s not hard to inspire that much terror in a group of sheep in a pen, but if you have compassion for the dog, how about a little compassion for the sheep?

Finally it needs to be said that Case will be a working farm dog. I have not ruled out trialling because it’s fun and a good way to learn and practice on different sheep in different situations and great to network with other shepherds. But in daily life he will need to work large groups of animals in large spaces, as well as small groups of sheep in small spaces and large groups of sheep in small spaces and small groups of sheep in large spaces.  There will be “traps” such as roads and fences and doorways and round bales which will all affect how the sheep move and react.  He will need to think for himself, problem solve and react accordingly.  Clicker training is wonderful at teaching animals to problem solve IF you set it up correctly.  If I use a clicker to teach him how to think, then he can generalize that to his working world.

So how am I going to do it?  I don’t know yet. I will need to feel my way step by step to see what works best. Case already knows what a clicker is so yes, I will be using a clicker with him for some things. But I think long and hard before using it for a specific behavior. If he was anything other than a herding dog, I’d have used it a lot more by now. So far I have used it to teach sit and a hand target.  He won’t sit when working. A hand target may come in very handy for recalls.  I’m tiptoeing my way toward that one. Hand targeting is simplicity and effectiveness itself in training recalls, but it’s based on a visual cue.  As I’ve already said, I want his eyes on the stock, not me. Right now I’m thinking it might work for a “that’ll do” which means “you’re done working, come to me”.  But…even then I like a dog who keeps an eye over his shoulder just in case the stock break for the gate when I thought they were secure.


NOTE- it occurs to me that perhaps I was a little too vague when I said I would not rule anything out when training this dog.  I did not mean I was going to use aversive and punishing methods if that was easiest.  I simply meant that I was going to use positive reinforcement although that might not include a clicker. It means that I may not use food, but instead use access to the sheep as a reinforcer, providing that doesn’t cause undue stress to the sheep. It will be a hot (energy wise) environment and I will have to be juggling two species to keep them both as safe and happy as possible. Sorry if I gave anyone the wrong impression.

I have since written a further clarification post:

Expo Inspiration: Which Clicker Training Project to Choose?

The annual Clicker Expo (East) was held last weekend in Virginia Beach (it’s in a different city each year).  I flew down Thursday and arrived in time to meet up with old friends and new at the reception.  As this is my third Expo, I found I’ve gotten a little jaded- I now know that the people there will be kind and encouraging, the dogs well behaved and happy.  My first year I was astonished by the overall positive feel of the place!  It doesn’t make it any less wonderful to be surrounded by all that reinforcement, however.

The challenge, after hearing lectures, watching labs and sharing stories with fellow trainers, is which projects to take on upon my return.  There are so many things I want to do!  I started off by attending Ken Ramirez’s lecture, “What a Concept: New Frontiers in Concept Training” followed by observing the associated lab where a dozen or so dogs and handlers got to try out some beginning concept training under Ken’s guidance.

Ken covered three basic concepts: Match to Sample (where the dog is shown an object and then must choose an identical object from a collection of varied items); Do As I Do (where the dog mimics either another dog or his handler); and Counting (in which the dog demonstrates an ability to distinguish the number of objects in a collection).   When I walked out of that lab, I wanted to attempt all three projects and I wanted to do them with both dogs and horses.

On Saturday, I started the morning by listening to Laurie Luck‘s lecture “At Your Service: Teaching Service Dog Behaviors”.  The lab for this lecture was at the end of the day.  In her lecture, Laurie stressed that the things a service dog does are “just behaviors”.  They can be trained just like any other behavior, once you break them down into manageable components.  In the lab, she coached many dog/handler teams through the beginning of teaching a dog the opposites “push” and “pull” and then scent detection, as a service dog who learns to alert a diabetic to low blood sugar would.

This little dog captured my attention in the Service Dog lab.
This little dog captured my attention in the service dog lab- she loved the “pull” exercise where her love of tugging produced quite a vigorous pull!

This lab rekindled my desire to do some nose work with Beetle (whose sight and hearing have faded with age, but whose nose works just fine!).

The topic which surprised me most was the lecture Hannah Branigan gave, “Obedience Competition: Break It Down to Build It Up!”. I have not previously been interested in obedience competition for dogs, but this talk opened my eyes to the many different behaviors required of these dogs AND I was hit with a realization of how useful the techniques Hannah explained would be for Dressage with horses.  My mind was just popping with connections and it’s one of the things I love about learning about training dogs- takes me right outside the box with the horses.   I could not attend the lab with this lecture (we are limited to one lab per day so that everyone gets a chance to get in to limited space), but the talk did inspire me to attend another lecture of Hannah’s on Sunday, “Prep School for Competition Dogs”.   By the end of this, I was thinking it would be fun to do some of these exercises with Eloise until the snow melts and I can try them with the horses.

On Sunday, I was able to be a coach in Kay Laurence‘s lab “The Craft of Fine Slicing”.   In this lab, Kay asked participants what behaviors they would like to teach, and she then showed them how to slice these behaviors down into the smallest beginning components- where do you start to teach a dog to back, to turn to left or right or to cross its paws?  She stressed the importance of a base position- a position from which you can begin to shape other behaviors.  She frequently likes to begin with a base position of “standing with stillness”.  This means the dog is simply standing and waiting for your guidance.  I decided that with all the glory of the things I had seen over the weekend, that was probably a good place to start.

Kay had demonstrated how she tossed treats behind the dog and then clicked as he returned while he was still standing. Many dogs have a “default” behavior of sitting or lying down- we train these early and they are pretty strong.  Eloise well knows that if there is any question, it’s a good idea to hit the ground.  Trying to catch a dog whose legs are only 6 inches long before she drops is a hard thing to do!  I was tossing treats as Kay had, but Eloise kept sliding right into a sit or down when she came back.  Kay, and others, have stressed the importance of observing and setting the dogs up for success so I watched and tried to figure out what I could do.  At one point, I tossed a treat higher than previously and Eloise jumped up to snatch it out of the air- that time she came back and stood in front of me, ready to leap up again.  Aha!  That was the way I could keep her on her feet.  I tossed the next ten treats up, she jumped up to catch them and then stood waiting for the next one.  I could then click as she stood, even withholding the click for a few seconds as she continued to stand, and then toss another treat.  Ten clicks, ten stands.  We have a start.

I still have plans for the other projects.  I also began Beetle on the nose work this afternoon.  But one thing at a time.  There were many other lectures I attended which addressed more nuanced topics of how to go about training- with luck, I will retain those thoughts to be woven into my daily interactions.

Standing with stillness
Standing with stillness

Meet Eloise!


This is Eloise.  She is the face of The Dog Chapter at Bookends Farm.  Eloise came to live at Bookends Farm when she was a year and a half old.  She had a different name then and her people decided she wasn’t happy living in an apartment and spending a lot of time in a crate.  They were right.  They contacted a woman named Pauline who worked with Russell Refuge (Pauline now has her own rescue called Jacks Galore!).  I was looking for a snugly little girl and so Beetle and I went down to meet her.


She did not try to take Beetle’s tennis ball away from her so he said it was ok if she came home with us.  We named her Eloise because everyone at Bookends Farm and The Dog Chapter has a book themed name- she is named for Eloise in the children’s book…a wild haired little girl.  That Eloise lives in the city at the top of the Plaza Hotel.  This Eloise came to live on a farm.

The other thing about everyone at The Dog Chapter and Bookends Farm is that we use Clicker Training and Positive Reinforcement to do all our training.  And that is what this blog will be about.  I’m Jane, by the way.  I will be sharing stories of how Clicker Training and Positive Reinforcement work to be the best training we can use for our friends.