Two Tips to Undo Pushy Tricks You Wish You Had Not Taught

My dog Karma has a fun trick.  If I hold out my hands and say, “Hup!” she jumps up into my arms and I catch her.  After demonstrating this trick, I often do another variation.  I extend my arms and say, “I caught a fish this big.”

My gestures are the same, but my words are different.  Karma does not jump.  People quickly see that her trick necessitates control.  I do not want her leaping into some poor unsuspecting person’s face as they gesticulate wildly.

Most families aren’t teaching their dogs to jump up into their arms.  Most do teach obnoxious tricks such as speak and shake a paw.  Cute in a young puppy, they become irritating when not controlled.  When dogs use their paws like battering rams, it’s a trick people regret.  It’s all fun and games until Grandma is bleeding.

Few people know how to finish behaviour – to place them under stimulus control.  This means that the dog should do behaviour ONLY if asked.

If you have already created a monster, it’s not too late to fix it.

Begin by reviewing the trick in question.  In the video below, I have used shake a paw as our example.  I personally do not like being accosted by a dog’s paw.  Karma needs to offer her right paw, and she needs to do so gently.  Fix these types of problems at this stage of the training.

Next, add the command.  In training, we often say cue instead of command because the word command can come across as bit too “dictator”.  Essentially, we are talking one and the same.  Think very carefully, about what your cue should be.  For Karma’s paw shake, I want her to respond to the word, “right.”

Finally, start drilling for stimulus control.  Present a random selection of cues to the dog that are similar to the one you have chosen.  Mix these with the actual cue.  In the example, sometimes I offer Karma my hand, but fail to say the word, “right.”

Here is big trick number one.  The dog has TWO opportunities to earn reinforcement.  It is a lot like red and green light.

Stimulus Control red light green light
“Right” = shake a paw.
No “right” cue = no paw.

Both of these are correct.  Reinforce both.  If we fail to acknowledge, mark and pay the self-control, the “red light”, there is no incentive for the dog to hold back.  Cookies are eventually earned as long as the dog keeps swatting their paw.

If we do reinforce the dog for holding back, they can earn double the number of cookies.  That is some serious incentive and motivation.  Pay all right responses.

As for the second big tip – extinction sucks.  Extinction is when we stop giving treats for a behaviour with a history of being paid.  This results in a frustrated dog.  The problem typically becomes worse before it gets better.  That is called an extinction burst.  The dog, frustrated at the lack of reinforcement tries harder.

Extinction bursts are not a pleasant way for dogs to learn.  Families with pets can also become frustrated at the escalation of problem behaviour.  Standing still, holding out your arm for pummeling is not pleasant for anyone.

Reduce extinction bursts by phasing in the red light portion of the exercise.  Do not offer your arm directly to the dog.  Try holding it off to the side at first.  The dog may not recognize it as a sign for shake a paw.  This means they might ignore it.  You can get in some quick and dirty reinforcements for ignoring your outstretched hand.

Gradually, bring your hand closer.  There will likely be a few incorrect responses.  With a strong reinforcement history on both red light and green light scenarios, extinction bursts become extinction hiccoughs.

The following video details Karma’s progression through the steps.  You’ll see her pausing and sorting out the “rules” of the game.

As silly as a trick may be, finishing one little trick to completion builds dog training skills.  If you can build stimulus control for shake a paw, you can apply this skill toward many behaviours your dog ought to know.

Which sort of skills might benefit from stimulus control?  You decide.