Why Your Dog Doesn’t Know Sit

When I was a young girl, my grandmother would send gifts of books from Czechoslovakia.  The books were filled with stunning moving pop-up illustrations.  I learned a lot from those books.  I learned how those illustrations popped up.  I learned how one moving part operated another moving part.  What I failed to learn was how to read Czech.  My attention was so fixated on the illustrations that I memorized the words.  I recited the story based on the illustration.  I never focused on the letters.  Illustrations overshadowed the letters.

fox with cheese

Overshadowing is a well-researched part of dog training.  One place it applies involves adding cues.  (Commands for those who still use that term)  Animals, when simultaneously given two or more cues are likely going to learn about the most salient – to the detriment of the others.  Which facet carries the most weight depends on many factors.

Lured downs offer an example many can envision.  Dogs see humans bending at the waist during the lure.  If owners simultaneously say, “down” while luring or pointing, the word is unlikely to register.  Despite dozens or hundreds of repetitions, the dog stays focused on the owner’s gestures.  The word, “down,” becomes irrelevant background noise.  It predicts nothing of importance because with each repetition, the movement gives the dog all the information it needs.  Touching the ground comes to mean “lie down” rather than the word.  Pointing is perfectly acceptable if one wants to touch their toes in order to ask the dog to lie down.  I just don’t know many people who put it on their wish list.

Overshadowing affects many areas of training.  This is not a luring problem.  It can affect targeting, shaping and capturing.  It is not a positive reinforcement based problem.  Overshadowing has far reaching tendrils that reach pretty much everywhere.

Gestures do not need to be grandiose.  It can be as subtle as the wiggle of a finger or a raised eyebrow.  We all have dog training tells much like poker players have tells.  It takes self-awareness to compensate.  Often it takes a second set of eyes to spot them.

did you say something copy

This does not mean hand signals are bad.  Rather that few people want ridiculous signals.  No one wants to touch their toes to get a down.  It’s annoying.  Holding an arm extended for “stay” isn’t useful.  You can’t hold your hand up to sign stay and tie your shoe at the same time.  If you train with a prolonged gesture, that’s what the dog will need in order to understand.

Good hand signals are functional.  It takes effort to teach a great verbal cue.  Teach both but don’t mash them together and expect the dog to recognize them individually.  Don’t blame a dog for misunderstanding cues that were never made clear.

This might seem persnickety.  Who cares if signals are mashed so long as the method is “positive?”  Frankly, it is a problem when many trainers tell clients to mash signals and then encourage “balance” to clean things up.  Many repetitions become justification that the dog ought to know better and do better without recognizing that the repetitions were flawed.

Clients may feel that positive reinforcement failed because the dog is not responding to verbal cues.  This perceived failure again leads to “discipline.”  Positive reinforcement didn’t fail.  It worked exactly how science said it would.  In the absence of another reasonable explanation “dominant, stubborn, willful” can sound reasonable to a frustrated owner.

That’s a real shame because overshadowing is pretty easy to deal with.  Cues need to precede the behaviour without interference.  Fade lures.  Remove training aides during shaping or targeting.  Get a clean behaviour.  Then purposely add in the cue, and only the cue.  Spend a little time highlighting that these words or signs that are important and have meaning.  Do this in a thoughtful and planned way.

If we dismiss science, then we don’t learn about factors such as overshadowing.  I suppose it must be easier to justify corrections and sleep at night if one remains willfully oblivious to such things.  It is a choice to ridicule science and then justify corrections under the pretense of “balance.”

Learning the science is hard.  It demands that we regularly rip off the bandage that protects our fragile egos.  We need to find the thing we have yet to learn.  It goes beyond lip service.  We can’t just say, “We all have more to learn.”  You have to do something about it.

Learn better.  Do better.  Get better results.  Often those who suggest this path went down it before.  At least I certainly have.  There are walls you hit where it seems like something isn’t working right.  Finding out why is worthwhile.

Individually we should all lose a little sleep wondering if there isn’t some variation of overshadowing playing havoc with our cues (probably).  We should wonder if it impacts other areas of training (it does).  We should wonder if there are other effects to learn about (there are.)

Owners absolutely don’t need to learn decades of research in order to train their dog.  The trainers they hire should.

The takeaway for owners is twofold.  First, don’t mash your cues.  Second, science often does have all the answers….and it makes training a lot less frustrating when you work with it rather than against it.

Reaching the Holy Grail of Training

Years ago, I taught our Kiki a formal recall using targeting.  Systematically I proceeded to work through the exercise.  Much to my delight, Kiki developed the most fantastic competition recall.  People gasped at her speed and enthusiasm.  Her formal recall never failed us over the years.  You could say that it had behavioural momentum.

Domjan, in The Principles of Learning and Behavior describes behavioural momentum as, “response persistence in extinction.”  In non-technical language, behaviours with momentum are enthusiastic, despite distractions.  They are highly resistant to extinction.  Behavioural momentum is the Holy Grail of dog training.

behavioural momentum copy

Behaviours with momentum are like boulders rolling down a hill.  Considerable effort is required to stop them.  By contrast, weak behaviours are like pebbles.  The slightest bump in the road and they get derailed.

Sluggish responses are an indication of poor behavioural momentum.  Dogs that are easily distracted have poor momentum.  When sniffing a blade of grass is more appealing than coming when called, recall behavioural momentum is low.  If you wonder if your dog enjoys doing what you ask, then you might have a behavioural momentum issue.

When owners ask for reliable manners, they are asking for behaviour momentum.  They want a dog that walks politely and ignores squirrels.  They want a dog that keeps four paws on the ground, even when visitors approach.  They want fast, immediate recalls.

People want solid, reliable, strong behaviours they can count on.  There is no magic.  Behavioural momentum combines operant and classical conditioning.  Pavlov might always be on your shoulder.  For too many, he’s snoozing, periodically waking to create an unexpected association here or there.  We forget about him and he dozes off again.  Wake him up.  Intentionally create behavioural momentum by using a fast rate of reinforcement.

“Behavioral momentum is directly related to the rate of reinforcement (see Nevin & Grace, 2000).  A higher rate of reinforcement produces behavior that has greater momentum and is less susceptible to disruption.”  The principles of learning and behavior – Domjan

Crazy fast reinforcement triggers two types of learning.  The dog learns the skill through positive reinforcement.  The fast reinforcement creates a positive association to the behaviour.  When dogs love executing learned skills, distractions are less tempting.  That is crazy powerful stuff.

b momentum copy

Food is a natural fit for creating momentum.  Food offers ease of use, speed of delivery and speed of consumption.   Anything that slows the rate of reinforcement can interfere with creating momentum.  Slow reinforcement leads to frustration, boredom and wanderitis.  It is the road to “I’d rather be doing something else.”

How fast is fast?  The following video shows my Karma working with a high speed of reinforcement.  A reasonable goal for initial training is ten reinforcements per minute (or about a third of the reps in the video.)  Reinforcements should come quickly enough that the space between repetitions is devoid of wanderitis.

Slow reinforcement tanks momentum.  The temptation to prove that we can quickly wean away from “treats” can lead to slow reinforcements.  We employ a litany of protocols, “real life” reinforcements, games, variable reinforcement schedules and Premack.  While there is nothing wrong with some of these things some of the time, they are slow reinforcements.

Sluggish, sloppy outcomes tied to poor momentum convince people that positive reinforcement is not reliable or effective.  There’s a real tragic irony in there.  Tactics that we use to convince people to use positive reinforcement may slow reinforcement, sabotaging reliability and enthusiasm.  Weak results convince people that positive reinforcement did not work well enough.  Aversives can trickle back into the dog’s training.

Behavioural momentum is within anyone’s reach.  Both are possible when operant and classical conditioning neatly combine.  Enthusiastic, persistent responses tell us there is no place the dog would rather be.  There is no behaviour they’d rather be doing.  If we say, “sit,” the dog responses with “I thought you’d never ask.”

Creating behavioural momentum is the trainer’s choice to use food to its full potential.  We can choose to decide, today, that we will not only teach behaviours, we will teach so the dog loves doing them.  We owe the dogs that.  If we create behavioural momentum, there will be no doubt in our mind that the dog wants to do the things we ask of them.

There is no greater feeling than knowing you have reliable behaviour from a happy dog.  It really is a Holy Grail worth pursuing.  Wake Pavlov up and get him to work.  He is not just a tag-a-long.

Reading Research: Does Size Matter?

Following up from Reading Research part one where I review key aspects of the book Experimental Psychology by Myers and Hansen, I thought it would be interesting to tackle the question, “Does size matter?”  Of course, by size, I mean the sample size in a research study – often referred to as “n.”

Many introductory books make the point that small sample sizes are a red flag.  Small samples might provide flawed information.  A small group might be comprised of unique or unusual individuals – subjects who do not reflect the majority of the population.

Yes, Skinner, undoubtedly one of the most well known names in psychology did experiments with only a few subjects.  His work is held in high regard for being tightly controlled.  Much of his work has held up over many decades.

skinner

That presents quite a discrepancy to resolve.  Large samples are purportedly good, yet Skinner’s exceptionally controlled research used small samples.  Assuming that both premises are true, an explanation must exist.

Generally, large samples are beneficial.  One reason is that large samples are more likely to reflect the whole of the population.  There is another reason illustrated by the following example.

Let us pretend that we want to know if a dog training technique is better than another is.  We randomly divide the dogs into two groups.  Group A learns a task with our technique.  Group B learns with a different technique.  We train each group of dogs and compare the results.  This research design is called a two independent group design.

Statistics analyze the data. A standard t-test is a probable choice for this study.  Each statistical test makes assumptions in its calculations.  Standard t-tests assume that the data we are collecting creates a normal curve (bell curve.)  Without enough participants, there isn’t enough data to make a solid, fully formed bell curve.  As the diagram below shows, without a fully formed curve, it is impossible to compare if the curves are similar or different from one another.  Standard t-tests generally require at least twenty subjects in each group – but thirty is better.

normal curve

There are other forms of research.  Some researchers prefer to focus on details.  These details can be lost when data is pooled or averaged.  Instead of blending the results of many subjects, “small n” researchers focus intently at the individual responses of a few.

Such an approach can offer key insights.  For example, if we measured how dogs learn new skills, blended results might create a gentle sloping curve.  Individual results could paint a jagged process – breakthroughs and setbacks.

average graph

There are a number of low n experiments including ABA; Multiple Baseline Design; Changing Criterion Designs and Discrete Trial Designs.

Here are a couple examples to show how some of these processes work.

In an ABA design, the subject acts as both the experimental and control group.  Assume that we want to test a new anxiety treatment.  A baseline is measured during phase one (The first A in ABA).  Treatment is then given during the second phase (B).  Finally, treatment is discontinued (A).  ABA design allows us to see if the treatment has an effect.  We can also see if results disappeared when treatment stopped.  There are many variations of the ABA design such as ABABA, ABACADA and so on.  The reversals allow researchers to see if the order of treatment is having an impact rather than the actual treatment.

Discrete trials are common in conditioning experiments.  For example, we might want to know if dogs discriminate sound better with one ear versus the other.  In other words, we want to know if dogs are left or right “eared.”  Dogs learn to discriminate a tone.  Probe tones are presented to the left or right ear.  The dog’s responses – how quickly they discriminate on either ear is measured.  Comparisons are made.  A response is measured over many treatment conditions.  In this case, hearing is measured across a number of manipulations.  Humans who participated in a similar experiment each performed over 2000 trials.  The sample might be small, but the volume of data is massive.  It requires meticulous record keeping and data analysis.

The question should not be “does size matter?”  That is an overly simplistic question.

Of course, size matters.  Bigger is not always better when it comes to sample sizes.  What matters is whether the size of the sample works with the type of study and the statistical analysis used.

The various types of research are like tools.  A hammer is no better or worse than a screwdriver.  Using a hammer to drive a screw is fraught with problems.  It is similar with studies.  Different types of research serve a different purpose – they need to be used correctly.  Keep looking at sample sizes.  Also, look to see if that sample matches the type of research.  It can be helpful to grab a few studies, look up the sample size and look up the type of study.  Start becoming familiar with the jargon.

I would highly recommend Experimental Psychology to anyone wanting a deeper understanding.  My blogs are just highlighting a few small sections.  Well worth the investment.

Part one on reading research:  Internal Validity can be found here.
Part three – coming soon.

Reading research – 8 classic red flags

Ten years ago, few trainers had access to research studies.  These days with Google University, we have moved into the era of research wars.  It is a battle of quantity, novelty and link littering.  Unfortunately, few seem to be reading past the abstract soundbites to see if the study in question is any good.  Even more problematic are lure of pop psychology magazines with sexy titles, articles that probably misinform more than educate.

Every professor and textbook on the subject of research sends a consistent message.  Read research with a critical mind.  Not all studies are well executed.  Peer reviewed academic papers are no exception.  Sometimes journals will publish research with poor design to inspire further research.  Looking at study design is scientific, not sacrilegious.

As readers of studies, we can take steps to improve our research reading abilities.  We can face our own biases directly.    Do we militantly tear apart research that goes against our point of view, while offering leniency to findings that feel warm and fuzzy?  More importantly, do we know how to read an analyze research?

I won’t pretend to be a research expert.  Rather, over the next series of blogs I will be highlighting what I have learned from Experimental Psychology by Myers and Hansen.  It is a worthwhile investment for anyone wanting to flex his or her mental muscles.

One core concept of research is internal validity.  As the name implies, we need to assess if a study is valid on the inside.  External validity, by contrast, would look at whether results apply to “the real world.”  Lesson number one is that internal validity should not be sacrificed for external validity.  If a study is not valid on the inside, there is nothing of substance to apply to the “real world.”

Campbell identified eight “Classic Threats to Internal Validity.”  They apply to research involving experimentation.  This includes true experiments and quasi-experiments.  True experiments have strict parameters or rules.  Quasi-experiments are not bad, just different.  In both researchers manipulate a variable and then measure the effect it has on another variable.

IV isolation

For example, we might want to know if training method A is faster than training method B.  We divide a number of dogs into two groups and compare results of those two methods.  The type of training is the variable being manipulated.  We call this the independent variable (IV).  The goal of experimentation is to isolate the independent variable, to ensure that no other factor is interfering or confounding the results.

Revisiting our dog-training example, let’s say that group A tested on a Monday and group B tested on Tuesday.  If Monday was sunny and Tuesday was stormy, any claim that treatment A was better is highly suspect.  Stormy weather could have agitated the dogs in group B.  The independent variable was not adequately isolated.  The study would not have internal validity.

The following itemizes Campbell’s Classic Threats to Internal Validity and provides examples.  One step we can take toward understanding research is to understand how these threaten validity.

Our thunderstorm example above is a history threat.  Dogs in group B had a shared history during the experiment that differed from dogs in group A.  Training methods varied.  However, so did weather.  No one can say for sure which training method was faster because the weather interfered.  History threats can be subtle.  Another example would be if one group receives an orientation while the other does not.  Orientation can prime one group, giving them a head start.  It would also be a history threat.

Maturation threat reflects internal changes.  An obvious example might be age.  Behaviour can change as puppies mature.  Maturation can also mean the maturation of knowledge.  Students handling dogs during experiments will have gained knowledge throughout the term. It would not be wise to test group A with new students and group B at the end of term.  Increased knowledge by the end of term can mean that students guess the hypothesis or influence results.

Subjects rarely get the same test results when re-tested.  Practice leads to improvement, even without treatment of any kind.  Suppose we take a group of anxious dogs and test their heart rate.  Heart rates can drop simply because the dog habituates and becomes more comfortable.  A second round of testing should show habituation.  It is not enough to ask if a dog improved, we need to know if the dog improved more so than dogs that did not receive any treatment.  Otherwise, we have a testing threat.

Measuring results is not without potential pitfalls.  Instrumentation threats involve data collection problems.  Equipment can fail or be unreliable.  Scales used to score results need to be set correctly.  Assume we want to know if dogs become anxious at the dog park.  Imagine if the measurement options are:  highly anxious; moderately anxious; mildly anxious and fully relaxed.  Answers obviously will be weighted toward the “anxious” side of the scale.  Unless a dog is fully relaxed, it is by default labelled as anxious. Had moderately relaxed and slightly relaxed been offered as choices, an entirely different picture may have emerged.

Random selection between groups is important.  This process helps balance the characteristics between groups.  When groups are not random by design or chance, this is a selection threat.  Assume that wrandom balancinge want to know which training technique obtains a faster recall.  Group A dogs are mostly short hounds and toy breeds.  Group B has mostly large dogs with a smattering of Border Collies and Whippets.  Under those conditions, we could not claim that group B training produced faster recalls.  To avoid accidental selection threats, random selection and balancing offers an even comparison between groups.  Researcher choice is not random.

Mortality should be listed in an experiment.  It is the dropout rate.  When large numbers drop out of an experiment, it’s a red flag.  According to the text, “Often it means that the treatment is frightening, painful, or distressing.  If the dropout rate is very high, it can mean that the treatment is sufficiently obnoxious that typical subjects would choose to leave, and the ones who remain could be unusual in some respect.”  Assume we are testing a protocol to help reactive dogs.  Many drop out.  Those who remain seem to improve.  The obvious question is whether those who left were distressed or deteriorated so much so they did not return.  That is critical information.

The seventh threat comes with a big word:  Statistical Regression.  Extreme test results are unreliable.  Think back to grade school I.Q. tests.  Scoring low could mean you had the flu.  If an experiment uses subjects with extreme characteristics, we can expect some of that to level out on its own.  Testing a new anxiety treatment on highly anxious dogs can appear to work.  That result looks similar to statistical regression.  As with a testing threat, it is not enough to ask if an animal improved.  We need to ensure that improvement happened because of the treatment.

Finally, we come to selection interaction threats.  It’s the one-two punch of threats.  It happens when a selection threat combines with another threat.  Returning to our experiment that asks which dog training method is faster, suppose we non-randomly select dogs from two training schools.  Immediately, that creates a selection threat.  Now suppose school A has a trick team.  Students at this school are motivated to join the team.  The second training school does not offer tricks sessions.  That creates a history threat.  Trick dogs would have a wide array of skills to draw on – to guess the right answer instead of learning it via the training method tested.  Selection threat combines in this case with a history threat to create one hot mess.

classic threats to validity copy

Campbell’s Classic Threats are the tip of the iceberg in terms of red flags.  It can make it seem no research can hold up to its standard.  Following a defined process for evaluating research is a far sight better than pointing to number of subjects and chanting “the n value is too low.”  It may not be possible to control for every bump in the road.  Experimental Psychology states, “Control as many variables as possible.  If a variable can be held constant in an experiment, it makes sense to do so even when any impact of that variable on the results may be doubtful.”

Knowing the threats to internal validity are only useful if you start using them to read studies more carefully.  It might be tempting to annihilate an experiment you dislike.  Perhaps a more interesting exercise would be review an experiment you love and have shared.  Challenge your bias.  Look at the design and the various threats to internal validity.  Did you find any?

(Part 2, 3 and more….about those n values, non-experimental research and more.)

 

 

Shock Collars are so NOT like T.E.N.S.

I had a more practical blog lined up.  Humor me, as we look at one more expression.  This one keeps coming across my news feed and it’s interesting.  Some trainers claim that, “Shock collars are like T.E.N.S. machines.”

I have used a T.E.N.S. machine many times under the guidance of various therapists.  For those unfamiliar with this treatment, mild electric current flows to pads secured to the patient’s skin.  It causes muscles to contract.  Dr. Ho’s Pain Therapy System seen on infomercials is a T.E.N.S. machine.

Here is one of the machines that I use on a regular basis.  At the bottom are two dials for “intensity.”  There are two intensity dials because the machine regulates the left and right pads separately.

tens

Comfort levels change between individuals.  They also change from moment to moment for the same person.  Intensity levels vary from one area of the body to another, hence the two dials.  There is no “consistent” setting.

If you asked a patient using a T.E.N.S. “Are you okay?” the answer should be “Yes.”  Discomfort results in a reduction in intensity.  If asked, “Do you want me to turn it off?” the answer should be, “No.”  Stimulation should be neutral or pleasant.

With shock collars, it is this underlying premise that is fundamentally different.  Bark collars shock dogs to suppress barking.  Barking reduces because the dog does not like the shock.  If the shock were neutral, nothing would change.  If it were pleasurable like a T.E.N.S. machine, barking would increase.  Barking would increase because the dog would be learning that barking leads to massages.

The same goes for electronic training collars used as negative reinforcement.  Negative reinforcement is like the game “Uncle.”  Children pinch one another.  They keep pinching until the other child says, “Uncle.”  The behaviour of saying uncle leads to cessation of pinching or relief.  Similarly, dogs turn the shock off by obeying a command.  Reinforcement is the cessation of the electronic stimulation – relief.  Dogs that respond quickly can “beat the buzzer”, avoiding shock altogether.

“Pleasant” shock, under the level of aversiveness wouldn’t be effective here either.  Ask a dog, “Do you want the electrical current to stop?”  The answer needs to be, “yes” or the collar will not work as designed.

Both may involve electrical current but the intensity is on a gradient.  Many things are on gradients.  Music is nice, unless it is too loud.  Massage feels good, unless Olga the Horrible is hurting you.  (My apologies to anyone named Olga.  Olga was the name of the massage therapist who hurt me.)  Light helps us see unless it is glaring.  Flowers smell pretty unless it is an overdose of noxious perfume.  Cool water makes a refreshing swim.  Cold water is icy and painful.  Food is usually fabulous, unless you have eaten excessively and feel nauseated.

No one thing fits neatly into a naughty or nice category.  Dogs decide what they find pleasant, neutral and aversive.  We infer how the dog feels by observing their change in behaviour.

I would have gladly paid Olga the Horrible to stop the massage.  Massage therapist Mike was different.  He had magic hands.  I would pay money for longer massages.  Olga’s massages were aversive.  Brad’s were appetitive.  I was not screaming and thrashing in pain with Olga.  I just wanted it to stop and it changed my behaviour.  Contrary to popular belief, it’s not the dog’s attitude that will tell you if the training is aversive.  It is the dog’s responses.

There is a second key difference between these two devices.  Shock collars are training.  With T.E.N.S., the goal is long-term if not permanent pain elimination.  It is not a teaching tool.

Olga may have been brutal, but her intent was to offer long-term relief.  Magic Hands Mike offered the same goal under threshold.  Suzy who does scalp massages at the hair salon….she just gives nice feeling massages.  Training cannot be compared to these scenarios.

In training, the trainer creates the plan with the goal of creating a change in behaviour.  We determine which behaviour we want to teach.  Therapies for pain relief have no skills development.  Olga never taught me to dance a jig in return for pain relief.  She did not use my discomfort as a tool.

I never went back to Olga.  I had the choice to leave.  More importantly, I had a choice to never return.  I could refuse to participate.  Our dogs do not have that choice during training because repetition is part of the gig.  Once the aversive ceases, the aversive is back in play for more training.  We can’t see all the differences unless we look at the specifics of how each of these work.

Olga vs Mike

If you are ready to jump in and say, “You don’t need batteries to use aversives,” then you won’t get any argument from me.  There are many forms of aversives in dog training.  Some are easier to swallow than others.  You do not need batteries to use aversives.

But, let me broaden the statement.  Using aversives in dog training is not the same as using a T.E.N.S. machine.  It’s not even close.  It does not matter if the aversive is added to the dog, the dog is added to an aversive scenario or whether we use a dog’s discomfort for our training purposes.  Using the aversive is trainer’s choice.  If the dog is put into a position where they want to leave, they have been put between a rock and a hard place.  It’s not free will.  The trainer has free will.

Training paradigms are not the same as T.E.N.S. machines.  In dog training, the choices to use an aversive are ours and ours alone.

Stop Nagging – Start Training – Using the environment as a command

I cannot stand micromanaging my dog’s behaviour.  There is a certain point when I expect my dogs to behave.  I hate repeating myself, and I really hate sounding like a nag.

It’s exhausting.

When we think of obedience, the command/obey sequence is what typically comes to mind.  It is what most dog owners first learn.  Say sit, and when the dog sits, reward the dog.  Continue practicing until the dog sits when told to do so.  I have no objection to this.  Being able to communicate with your dog is very useful.  Stylized commands are extremely useful in competitive environments.

Constantly reminding the dog of expectations can get old fast.  Some expectations never change which means it would be nice if the dog did them without having to give a command.  For example, I never want the dog eating the cat’s food.  My dinner is always off limits.  Jumping on visitors is never okay.  Darting out the car door without permission is downright dangerous.  Really, I am never going to want any of these things.

I don’t want to give a command.  I don’t want to give reminders.  Dear dog:  Just do what you are supposed to do.

It’s a lot like little children.  We expect that young children need reminders to “flush the toilet.”  However, there comes a point in time when seriously – you just should not need to be reminded to flush.

If that sounds demanding, it is.  I demand it of myself to train my dog to understand that certain behaviours are expected at all times.  In order to achieve this, we need to expand the idea of what constitutes a command.

stop nagging

Traditionally, commands are words or hand signals that tell the dog what to do.  Who says that commands have to be limited to words or stylized gestures?  Actions and situations can act as commands too.

Dogs readily learn that our actions mean something.  We pick up a leash and they run to the door in anticipation of a walk.  You don’t have to say a word to speak volumes to your dog.

You can use this ability to intentionally to create “commands” for your dog.  If the context or situation reminds the dog of what it should be doing, you no longer have to.

Environmental commands or contextual cues have a wide array of uses.  Teach a dog to sit for visitors, without being told to do so.  Have them wait until released from the car.  For this blog, let’s work through “leave the cat’s food alone”.

Start by ensuring your dog has a reasonable grasp at leave it.  I teach it by reinforcing movement away from treats as shown in this video that demonstrates with American Sign Language.  A verbal cue is taught in the same manner.

Next, bring out the cat’s food.  Continue working leave it, giving the command and reinforcing the dog when it is correct.

At some point, the dog will jump the gun, offering the leave it BEFORE you ask for it.  I call this a genius moment.  Your smart dog has decided to leave cat food alone without being asked

Celebrate this.  Reinforce it – generously.  Give treats.  The dog has noticed that the cat dish being placed on the ground predicts the leave it command.  With repetition, placing the food on the ground will become a command of its own.

Cat food in the bowl = leave it.

The finished product makes for a very peaceful co-existence with our dogs.  The following video shows Kip, Karma and Icarus demonstrating a few variations.  You will see both dogs leaving the cat food alone.  In addition, you will see the animals leaving treats thrown to the others.  I do not like my guys charging and battling over food.  I never want my dogs charging at dropped or thrown food unless given permission to do so.  It’s an excellent candidate for a context based command.

As you watch the video, notice the following key points.

  • There are no verbal commands or reminders given.
  • The dogs are free to do any appropriate behaviour they like.  This is not a stay.
  • Notice the calm and disinterest.  It comes from consistency and generous positive reinforcement.

Most importantly, listen to the silence.  Our dogs are capable of learning that situations have meaning.  Our training has to come up to their abilities.  Watch for those moments when dogs offer genius.  They might be fleeting at first.  With reinforcement, they can blossom into so much more.

(I have used the word command throughout this piece for readability.  Many pet owners recognize it.  Trainers often use the word cue instead because it implies communication while the word command can feel like an order.  By command I really only mean a word, gesture or situation that communicates information to the dog – an antecedent.)

Preventative Counterconditioning…because bad stuff happens

Dog training is supposed to be a thoughtful process.  During planned training sessions we should keep dogs under threshold.  If only life were that easy.

Imagine a loose dog charging while the owner flails their arms shouting, “He’s friendly.”  It is the child screaming, “Doggie” and rushing to pet the fearful dog.  Life is when you accidentally knock over a heavy metal gate and it clashes and startles.

Unless you cloister your dog away from the universe, scary stuff happens.  Life is just not fair and can throw some interesting challenges our way.  We are facing this at our home tonight.

A few hours ago, I became aware that our new neighbours planned to host a party in their McMansion.  It is possibly the most massive party I have ever seen.  It rivals reality television standards.  I first became aware of the situation as the band started sound check.

If I felt so inclined, I could lob Frisbees off the back of the band member’s heads.  As if that wasn’t enough, the celebration includes a professional fireworks show.  We have front row seats.

My son plays drums, so the dogs are accustomed to loud sounds.  However, stacks of Marshall amplifiers are sure to shake the walls and windows.  I can only hope that between our noise desensitization and our son’s practicing that we are sufficiently prepared.

The fireworks have me concerned.  My dogs have only heard fireworks in the form of a free phone app.  Between learning about the event at the last minute and our close proximity, our choices are limited.

  • We could rent a hotel room and avoid a stressful night.
  • We could chop up some chicken and countercondition the dog in vivo (In real life).

We chose to forge ahead with a counterconditioning plan.  Simply put, it means feeding tasty treats when the fireworks explode.  Treats, or other pleasant activities, flow freely regardless of the dog’s behaviour.  Fireworks predict chicken, so fireworks become good through association.

Desensitization (working in small steps easiest to hardest), often paired with counterconditioning is a luxury that does not exist tonight.   If my dogs had noise phobias, I might have chosen the hotel.  I have no desire to flood or traumatize any animal.  It’s a calculated decision.  However, if the dogs accidentally go over threshold we can leave.  I never plan on making that mistake, but it is worth noting that it can happen.

Real life can and does slap us in the face unexpectedly.  By being alert, we can use preventative counterconditioning.  By this, I mean that we take advantage of every first encounter, making it a positive one.  The fireworks are a first for my dogs.

Not all novel experiences are as extreme as the party next door is.  Your dog has many firsts.  Things will unexpectedly startle your dog.  When they happen, your dog is deciding if they pose a threat.

We can influence the dog’s experience.  When something new happens, feed your dog something tasty.  Good behaviour is not required.

  • Car backfires – treat
  • Police sirens wail – treat
  • Baby cries – treat
  • Dog barks – treat
  • Accidentally step on their paw – treat
  • A dog rushes – treat (For safety’s sake, wait until the offending dog is out of the way and under control.)
  • A car enters the driveway or a door slams – treat.
  • Roar of a lawn mower, the snow blower, a chainsaw, the vacuum, see a horse – give a treat.

The dog does not have sit or obey any command to get the food.  I don’t care if my dog sits when they hear firecrackers.  I want them comfortable and relaxed when it happens.  That is achieved by feeding the appearance of a trigger.

Pre-emptively feeding of what may be a bad situation is an exercise that has served all of our dogs well.  Our process of feeding a treat at new situations becomes my way of telling the dog, “That surprising thing…it’s nothing to worry about.”

I do this with seemingly minor nuisances.  I cannot know if a surprise is slightly concerning to the dog.  With repetition, the dog can sensitize to nuisances, becoming more agitated with each exposure.  Erring on the side of caution by clearly communicating that there is no danger is one small step that can pay out huge dividends.

Life happens

I tell clients to recognize times when their dog might feel ambushed.  Who hasn’t experienced the surprise of a fence fighting dog charging?  If and when it is safe to do so, feed your dog.  Do damage control on the assumption that your dog was just as blindsided as you were.

Failing to anticipate problems and failing to act on behalf of our dogs leaves them vulnerable.  By doing nothing, you are leaving the dog’s decision to chance.  That seems just short sighted to me.  As the dog’s caretaker, we have the foresight – the ability to predict – things that may become problematic.

By counterconditioning at every opportune moment, we can give our dogs confidence.  We do not have to wait for fears, phobias and anxiety to take hold.  Behaviour is not stagnant, nor is it ever “finished.”  You can allow life to chip away at your dog’s confidence or actively work at making it stronger.

Dogs would face far fewer rehabilitation protocols if firsts in their lives were anticipated – influenced with a delicious piece of food.  This does not mean that dogs must live a life immersed in things they do not enjoy.  I would not enjoy living next to a house that had weekly parties.  I would move if that were the case.  Similarly, my dog does not have to stand next to the mower.  It is loud.  However, I do not want them fleeing into the house every time a neighbour revs up a power tool.  Our dogs should not feel like there are boogie men lurking in the bushes, always scanning and searching for information that warns of a potential problem.

There are times when we all startle.  Life surprises us.  Pre-emptive treats are about influencing the dog’s interpretation when bad things, out of our control, happen.  Does the dog startle and retreat?  Does the dog shake it off and realize that it’s no big deal?  That’s not a lesson I’m willing to leave to the universe.

How’d it work out for us?  You tell us.  (If your dog is afraid of fireworks or band music, reduce the volume and prepare for some preventative counterconditioning.  Feel free to add desensitization because you have the ability to control the volume.)

The video is dark and difficult to see.  Nevertheless, it is real life – jammie pants and all.  The dogs were on leash initially as a precaution.  To me, the moment that makes me smile is when Karma runs off.  She’s running toward the show.  My son has to bring her back to me so I can keep her in frame.  Do not underestimate the power of tasty morsels of food.

Food has the power to change emotions.

As Highway to Hell rattles the foundations of our house, all the animals are sleeping.  As a trainer, I’d give my right arm if all preventable problems were addressed with a little pre-planning.  Tomorrow, I’m going to predict that it’s plausible that we will hear the bang of a few leftover fireworks.  You can bet that I’ll have treats in my pocket all day waiting for it to happen.