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.
 
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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.

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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!
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Resource Guarding- How to introduce New Household Members

bigstock_Angry_Chihuahua_Growling__Ye_7629174-720x437I recently received the following question on my Facebook page:

Knowing you post discussions on training issues, I need some guidance on guarding behavior. Our 2 yo sight hound/?? mix has been with us for 1.5 years. He doesn’t guard anything from people, and really just raises his lip a bit if one of the other dogs tries to take his food. I feed him separately so he gets his fill, but he is not a big eater.
However, more than a few times, he has snapped and really growled at the Golden and the Cairn if he perceives encroachment while I am petting him. The altercation takes place very close to me as he is usually right next to me when it occurs. The other dogs are absolutely okay with all being around me, and fortunately, tend to ignore his aggressive behavior. I have been correcting him verbally, which he decides means taking himself into a time out on his bed and not looking at us.
Is this correction appropriate? Can you suggest something else that would be a more positive approach? Thanks for all suggestions.

This raises a few issues so I thought I would write a complete post about it here to share, rather than trying to respond  on Facebook and to one person only.

First, I commend this person for referring to this as “guarding” behavior, rather than aggression or jealousy.  I find myself telling people that dogs don’t get jealous and then realize that doesn’t make sense when people SEE behavior which so looks like jealousy.  What I mean is that by labeling dog behavior as “jealousy”, then we lump a lot of human jealousy behaviors into the definition which doesn’t fit dog behavior.  As humans, we can stew on jealousy, spending time thinking about how to get revenge on someone we are jealous of.  This leads to people thinking that dogs who chew up furniture or pee in the house do it because they are jealous of the new dog and are “getting back at” the owner.  I do not believe this is remotely true.  I believe bringing a new dog (cat, baby, spouse, etc) into the house can upset the normal balance which can lead to stress which can lead to frustration or house soiling, but that’s not jealousy and indicates a dog who needs compassion, not derision.

So, I encourage people to look at behavior like this as resource guarding.  The resource being guarded can be anything from food, to a person, to a favorite chair, to access to the door, etc.  And each dog (or horse or whatever), may have a different importance associated with that resource.  Food may be more important for one dog, and access to a chair or bed more important to another dog.  And this is why the linear model of dominance is a myth.  I have one horse who will willingly share a hay pile…but gets very angry if another horse tries to approach when I am with him.

The more limited a resource, the more likely it is to be guarded.  If there is a chair for every dog, (and each chair is of equal value in their eyes according to comfort, view of the outdoors, warmth, etc!), then there won’t be nearly the problem with someone guarding a chair. So when jacks sharing bedwe have multi-dog households, people are a valued resource; we only have two hands after all!  And one lap, depending on the size of the dog.

So, what is my advice to the above problem? I had a similar experience when I brought Eloise into the household.  I was adamant that a new dog would not make life unpleasant for my dear Beetle.  I didn’t want a new Jack coming in and pushing him around.  Eloise was perfect in that regard.  She came quietly into the family.  At the same time, I wanted her to feel welcomed and loved, not like a second class citizen. Beetle was not thrilled with this interloper and raised his lips and growled if she came close. So my job was to make her presence and proximity a Good Thing as far as Beetle was concerned, rather than a threat.  If I had scolded Beetle when she came close, then he would have equated her with unpleasantness. And that, in turn, would have made him more uneasy when she approached. “Eloise comes close=scolding.  I hate her.” Yes, there I go anthropomorphizing.  Sorry.  But you get the idea.

Beetle loved to be in a chair with me when I was reading.  It was warm, soft and he was close.  He wasn’t actually in my lap as he’s not a lap dog.  He squished in next to me.  Eloise is a snuggled who is more than happy to be in a lap, but got growled at when she even entered the room.  Immediately I imposed the following: if Beetle was in the chair and Eloise entered the room, I started giving Beetle a neck rub- which he loves. That served two purposes.  It distracted him in the immediate AND it began to teach him that Eloise approaching meant good feelings.  If food was within reach, I would also begin offering him treats as she came closer.  If she walked away, then the neck rubs and treats stopped.  The new equation was “Eloise comes close=treats and neck rubs!  Bring her back here!”.

Now this wasn’t an immediate nor clean switch.  There was still growling.  If he growled, I simply got up out of the chair and walked away.  I didn’t scold or use any other punishment.  Losing his warm seat mate was punishment enough.  Now growling=Jane leaving.  Growling does serve as a threat.  But it wasn’t working on the right target.  I don’t know if that made any sense to him or not, but overall, he quickly learned that having Eloise around was just fine, and she could jump into my lap and curl up and he just got more and more attention.

One final word in general about growling: I have to quote a good friend who says “punishing a dog for growling is like taking the batteries out of the smoke alarm”  (and the same goes for punishing a horse for putting ears back).  Those are warning signs.  They tell us the animal is uncomfortable, worried, angry.  We need to respect those emotions.  If we punish, we do nothing to change the emotion.  The dog or horse is still uncomfortable, worried and/or angry.  But he isn’t allowed to express it.  So the emotion builds…and builds…and eventually it bursts out in a bite or some other stronger expression. We need to own that.

If, instead, we observe the things which are upsetting our animals and work to change the way they feel about those things (by using things they like when the threat is at a LOW LEVEL), then the threats cease when the feelings cease.  Everyone is happier and safer.

The original question was about a dog who had been in the household for 1 1/2 years and it’s this “new” dog with the problem. This is not surprising as when newer family members begin to settle in, they feel more comfortable; become more attached to places, things and people; and therefore these resources become more valuable and a tendency to guard them can arise. If this behavior continues, or if it arises out of the other dogs not allowing him access to resources, then it can take more time and focus to come to a resolution.

As with all behavior, that which is practiced and reinforced becomes stronger. Therefore it is important to address problems as soon as possible. It always helps to have the support of a good trainer- if you need to find a great dog trainer: https://www.karenpryoracademy.com/find-a-trainer

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Beetle and Eloise now happily share sleeping spaces

 

 

Pay It Forward: Reinforcement Is Not Bribery

IMG_2946Many times when I do an evaluation on a new dog, the owner will tell me “she’ll come if she knows I have treats”, or “if I shake the box of dog biscuits, he’ll come running”.  But, they say, the dog will not come when called, unless they know the goodies are waiting. This causes several concerns with dog owners regarding using positive reinforcement to train.  They don’t see how positive reinforcement is any different than what they are already doing and they think that if they don’t have the treats, the dog will ignore them.

This is a hard concept to break through when we do use food as a reinforcer. When I talk about using high value reinforcers depending on the difficulty of the behavior, they think that they need to show the dog that they have hot dog bits in their pouch before they step outside so the dog will pay attention.

The opposite is actually true. We do not want the dog to know ahead of time what, if any, reinforcer is available.  Shaking the treats, showing the cheese, making a show of putting on the treat pouch: these are all forms of bribery.  Effective use of positive reinforcement is not bribery.  The proof of that is a dog who has been trained with the correct use of treats as reinforcers.  These dogs come running every time, from a cue, whether it’s verbal, visual or other.  They don’t look to see if the person has worthwhile treats- they come immediately, with great speed, and directly to the handler. 

The reason positive reinforcement works so well is in the definition of the word reinforcement itself.  In behavioral terms, reinforcement is something which makes it more likely the behavior will happen in the future. So this past week I found myself pointing out to clients that the treat they deliver has no effect on what the dog just did- the behavior is over!  But it does have an effect on the next time you ask the dog for that behavior.  If you call your dog, without any bribery, and then are able to reach into your pocket and pull out a piece of cheese to give him, that may make it more likely he will come when you call in the future. He did not even know you had cheese in your pocket, but you did!  You want to be full of happy surprises like this.  Every single time your dog does something you like, you want to be able to surprise her with something she likes.  This is called building a reinforcement history.

When you have a strong reinforcement history, meaning you have a reputation with your dog of “paying well” for behaviors, your dog will begin to respond to cues more rapidly and with much greater reliability.  We refer to reinforcement history as “putting money in the bank”.  You want to have plenty in the account so that when you need to make a withdrawal, the reinforcement account is flush.  When your dog responds to your cue, for instance when he comes when you call, you are making a withdrawal from that “trust account”.  The level of difficulty of the behavior will determine how much is withdrawn.

In the house, getting ready to go for walk and you call your dog, well that might even be free because the dog wants to go out with you!  The opportunity to go outside is payment enough.  In your yard with no distractions and you call your dog, that might cost you a little bit.  Dogs love to sniff and smell things so while it may look to you as if it’s an easy thing, really he had to give something up- the pleasant occupation of sniffing around- to come to you.  So you just made a small withdrawal from your account.  But you can replenish that easily by giving him a treat when he returns.  The balance has been restored. There is enough in the account so that next time you call, he will respond.

The challenge, of course, is when the UPS man pulls in the driveway.  Or at least that’s the biggest challenge at my house.  That UPS truck is the source of so many distractions: movement, intruder on the property, friendly guy in the truck, who gives dog biscuits, and oh the smells on his tires, his clothes, the packages.  I don’t know about you but my dogs act as if the property is under attack when he pulls in and then switch to “here’s Santa Claus!” mode when he stops.  They are in that truck checking everything out.

For me to be able to recall them in that situation, I have to have an account that is full to bursting.  The only way to get it that full is to put lots and lots of little deposits in over time.  When we are outside, whether it’s to go to the barn, or to get the mail, or to go for a walk, I make sure I have low and high value treats with me.  For my dogs, examples are kibble, cheese and hot dogs.  I cut them up in tiny bits (smelly hot dogs go in a tiny plastic container with a lid), I hide them away in a pocket before we leave so the dogs never know what’s there. And then we practice.  I call them when nothing is distracting them and pay with kibble.  I call when there is a mild distraction (sniffing in the woods) and pay with string cheese.  I call when a car is coming and I pay with hot dogs.  My dogs don’t know what I have, but they know that it will be good.  Each time I give a treat, I am putting money in that bank.  Every day I put more and more in- if I’m cheap and only put in kibble each time, that might keep the account level…but will it put enough in so that when the UPS man comes, I have what I need?

I never know when the UPS man is coming, so I can’t slap a steak in my pocket for that particular occurrence.  I can, however, pay it forward.

Keep treats on hand and on you all the time.  You want to pay for the easy stuff, so that the account can cover the cost.

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

Introducing Beetle

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Beetle is the one who introduced me to Clicker Training.   For that, he probably should have been the first one to be introduced, but because he was there in the introductory years, he did not benefit from quality training.  I have learned a lot in his lifetime and I will always know how long ago I first held a clicker because it was in Beetle’s puppy class.

Somehow I had heard about clicker training before that, because I signed up for the course specifically because clickers were involved.  My most vivid memory of that class was at the test at the end.  The class was held in a gym with a slippery floor.  One of the things he had to do for the test was stay at one end of the gym while I walked to the other and wait for a recall.  Then when he came to me, he was to sit in front of me.  Well that little puppy came flying so fast and sat so promptly on the slippery floor that he did a complete back flip, landed in a sitting position, and looked up for his treat.  Sold!

That said, it was not a 100% Positive Reinforcement class- we also had slip collars, gave corrections and such methods which I would not use now and which I frequently have to explain to clients.  Now I have learned to use management in order to prevent unwanted behaviors, set things up so the dog can be successful so there is no need for punishment and to break things down into manageable goals.

Beetle has what I call “neck issues”.  He’s a tough  little dog who grew up with tough big dogs (Border Collies and Livestock Guardian Dogs).

Beetle picking black raspberries.
Beetle picking black raspberries.

He has been in his share of scuffles over sticks and tennis balls and doorways.  Somehow that left him with a neck which seizes up on him if he gets cold and curls into a tight ball.  So in recent years, he wears a blanket from about the first of October to the middle of May.  We live in a cold climate!  When I first started putting a blanket on him, he hated it.   Through the use of a clicker, not only did he learn to happily wear it, but also now voluntarily shoves his head into the neck hole and stands to have it snapped up.

He still has a great recall.  It didn’t stay consistent after his puppy class.  At the time I didn’t know how to deal with distractions, maintain the training, and use appropriate reinforcers.  But we resurrected the training when Eloise arrived.  Recently though, I have had to change his cue as he no longer hears me call or whistle.  I now clap my hands together where he can see me and that is the new cue to mean “come”.  I’ve also turned to other visual cues to communicate- since body cues are much easier for dogs than verbal ones anyway, using good training techniques has made it very easy to transfer the cues!

 

Meet Eloise!

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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.

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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.