Monday, March 26, 2018

Clicker Expo St. Louis: Day 3

Better late than never, amirite?

Dr. No: How Teaching an Animal to Say "No" can be the Right Prescription with Ken Ramirez
I wish I could start every day with Ken Ramirez. He's almost better than coffee.
Ken was careful to start this presentation by pointing out that this isn't required training for most animals. It was a single case study, something that was an appropriate tool for this animal. At the Shed Aquarium, Ken and his staff began to notice that one of their beluga whales, Kayavak, was refusing to work with new or unskilled trainers and would swim away in frustration. Ken wanted to teach Kayavak a way to tell the trainer that she didn't understand or didn't want to do the requested behavior, so he taught her to touch a bouy when as an alternate to swimming away (okay, it was a really complex process, but I only have so much room on the blog). In essence, he taught her to say, "No, I'm not going to do that." With this new tool for control over her training, Kayavak was able to work with trainers of most skill levels, and her use of the "no" option slowly diminished. She continues to have the option to touch the bouy, but she does not use it very often. Ken finished this case study by mentioning again that most trainers will never need to use this tool; skilled trainers are able to realize when their animals are saying "no" without resorting to teaching a specific cue. In the bajillion years that Ken has been training, he's only needed this tool four times. But it worked well for all of those situations, and it was an interesting case study none the less.

Fail-Safe: Cracking the Code for Ultra-Dependability with Hannah Branigan
I adore Hannah. You may have noticed.
This lecture and the following lab worked on the topic of fluency - teaching a dog to perform a behavior with precision, stimulus control, and under a variety of conditions. Fluency training was traditionally called "proofing, but instead of setting up a dog to fail or overcome a difficult distraction, Hannah is a big proponent of "errorless learning." With errorless learning, antecedents are set up to make the behavior extremely likely to occur. Once a behavior is obtained on cue, fluency is taught so subtly that the learner doesn't even realize the behavior is getting "harder." Errorless learning reduces frustration, the risk of accidentally poisoning cues, the practicing of incorrect behaviors, and it improves emotional fluency (the ability to perform the behavior in a stressful environment - like, say, at a trial). In the lab, Hannah outlined her process for fluency training. She starts with a general "Are you okay?" behavior of attention and taking treats. Then she asks for an "easy," well-known and rehearsed behavior like a hand touch. When a dog easy performs that, she moves to a more complicated but still well-known behavior such as a favorite trick. Once she has these zeroed in, Hannah knows the dog is ready to work. She starts working on the target behavior, adding in distractions so slowly that the dog never loses his ability to perfectly perform the behavior.
Another from Hannah because I luves her.
In a totally platonic and not at all creepy way.

Passport to Joyful Training with Michelle Pouliot
There are a lot of reasons to be serious about dog training. It's a high frustration field that encourages perfectionism. Situations often feel life or death because many times, they are life or death. However, most of us got into the field because dog training brings us joy. We wanted to play with doggos all day. It's important for us to remember the joy we brought with us into our jobs. And then we watched funny dog videos for the rest of the presentation, which was perfect for the last day of Clicker Expo.

Spot Remover: Clean Up "Not Quite Right" Behavior with Hannah Branigan
In this presentation, Hannah talked about how to remove "junk" behaviors from our fancy competition behavior. Junk means thing like barking, foot shuffles during stays, or rolling the dumbbell during the retrieve. The first step is to identify how the junk behavior snuck in because this will help guide the plan for how to get rid of it. In order to remove the junk behavior, we need to find a way to get "clean" exercises - repetitions of the behavior we want without the junk in it. We may need to change the way we set up (antecedents), change the cue, add an incompatible behavior, increase the rate of reinforcement or change the method of delivering the reinforcement, or add a prop. Minor precision errors rarely require reshaping the entire behavior, which I think is the biggest fear for those of us who have trained junk behaviors (which I'm thinking is probably everyone who's reading this). However, for severe junk or poisoned cues, starting from scratch is always the best plan of action.

Our in Front: Preventative Behavior Services Trainers Can Offer Veterinary Services with Debbie Martin
And then more from the cooperative care movement! Vets and trainers rarely work together, and that's not how the world should operate. After all, we're both working with you on the health of your pet. Here, Debbie outlined several services trainers can offer through veterinary clinics including pet selection counselling, puppy and kitten socialization classes, private lessons, and grooming/medical care classes. Debbie also described "victory" visits for dogs that already have anxiety or aggression issues with vet care. These are structured, one-on-one visits to address specific goals. But as Debbie pointed out: prevention is a lot easier than treatment.

And that, my friends, brings us to the end.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Why Mommy Drinks (aka Allister's Near Death Experience)

The staples are coming out today, so I guess we're going to live a little longer.

Sixteen days ago, at 2am on Monday morning, Allister threw up. This isn't particularly unusual for my house; it seems like someone is always throwing up. And isn't 2am always the time they do it? Heaven forbid they should puke at a reasonable hour, when you aren't trying to sleep.

He ate breakfast just fine that morning, and while he didn't tackle dinner with his typical enthusiasm, he got that down, too. Tuesday morning, though, he turned down breakfast, and by Tuesday afternoon when I got home, it was clear he wasn't feeling well: drinking, peeing, pooping, sure - but turning down meals and just listless enough that I called my vet and scheduled a visit for Wednesday morning.

Wednesday morning Allister turned down breakfast, but it was okay because we had a vet appointment, and we'd get this figured out, and everything would be fine. Allister sat quietly next to me in the waiting room, and patiently tolerated all the poking and prodding from the vet. I could tell that she was a little skeptical that he was as sick as I said he was. His exam was normal - a little dehydrated, but really not bad for a dog that hadn't eaten in a day and a half - and this particular vet had never met him. However, she brought him back for labs (Allister is my one dog that does better with blood draws if I'm not there), and at least four people stopped her to ask if he was alright. He wasn't barking! I think that's what really convinced her that he was sick.

His labs came back weird. Allister was a touch dehydrated, which should have brought his lab values up, but his potassium and sodium were low. He also tested positive for Lymes disease, but he didn't have any joint pain, a hallmark of the disease. He wasn't eating his meals, but he took kibble from me throughout the exam. He'd pooped yesterday and was drinking water fine. The vet was convinced something was wrong, but nothing fit. We discussed a variety of scenarios, including the possibility that the office's blood machine needed recalibration. After all, they were a clinic, not a lab. In the end, we redrew blood to send out and gave Allister sub-q fluids and a shot of cerenia (a potent anti-nausea med). We scheduled a follow up visit for the next day, and Allister and I went home without any answers.

My plan was to teach class Thursday morning and bring Allister to the vet afterward. But partway through class, I received an urgent call from the vet: "His labs are back, and they're much worse than we thought. He needs to be hospitalized as soon as possible."

We rushed to the Oakdale Animal Emergency and Referral Center where Allister was started on fluids and xrays were taken. The xrays showed a distended section of bowel the size and length of a bratwurst, a finding that strongly suggested a bowel obstruction. But he wasn't throwing up! He had eaten as recently as the day before! The emergency vet agreed that it was strange, and asked to do an ultrasound. The ultrasound took another hour or two to complete, but the results were back almost immediately.

The vet came into the room and sat across from me. "There's definitely a foreign body in his bowel. It's probably something organic, which is why we didn't see it on x-ray. His bowels are in pretty rough shape, though, and it needs to come out as soon as possible." She hesitated a moment, watching me. "We also found masses on his spleen and liver. They could be benign. But there's also a reasonable chance that it's cancer."

And I lost it.

(I feel bad for veterinarians - and doctors in general. They get little to no training on how to deliver bad news and handle sobbing patients. It's a really hard way to practice medicine.)

Hemangiosarcoma is an invasive, aggressive, and unfortunately, all too common cancer in dogs. It typically starts in the spleen and then spreads to the liver, then lungs, then heart. It's typically found in medium to large breed males between eight and ten years old, although it can be found in pretty much any breed, sex, or age group.

I'm fortunate to have an extensive support network, and I leaned on them heavily on Thursday. I sat with my husband and we tried to logically decide what to do like intelligent adults and not desperate owners whose hearts were breaking. We could let Allister go today. We could loose him within a week if the surgery didn't go well. We could lose him in three or six months from cancer. Possibly a year. Possibly six years. Or ten - if he didn't have cancer.

As we talked, I sat next to Allister, softly stroking his head and body. Asking him without words, in that way that dog people do, if he wanted to keep going. Or if he wanted to be done. And Allister thumped his tail and rested his head on my knee and told me that he trusted me to make the decision that was right for him.

The staples are coming out today, so I guess we're going to live a little longer.

I'm still not sure that I made the right decision. Actually, if I'm being honest, I'm a bit surprised with myself (us, really - this was definitely a decision we all made together). If you had asked me a month ago if I would choose to do expensive, invasive, and painful surgery on Allister when he very well might have an aggressive metastatic cancer, I think I probably would have told you "no." I think maybe I like Allister more than I thought I did. I know I don't want to lose him.

I have Allister's spleen sitting on my shelf (that's normal, right?). I can see the tumor on it, round and big as a marble - huge on such a tiny organ. I wonder if it's cancer, but I don't think I really want to know. Maybe he'll die in three months. Maybe we have ten years. You never know how much time you've been given.

But perhaps - if you are very, very fortunate - you get the chance to know what you've got before it's gone.

Sunday, March 18, 2018

Clicker Expo St. Louis: Day 2

To St. Louis and beyond! Okay, pretty much just St. Louis. The St. Patrick's Day festivities are in full swing, and I had a blast wandering and watching the parade in between learning sessions. As a bonus, during the book signing tonight I was able to meet Emma Parsons, who you may remember wrote Click to Calm. This was the first book I read when I adopted Maus and realized how deep his rabbit hole went. Maus was a game changer for me; without Maus, I would not be the trainer I am today. And without Click to Calm, Maus would not be the functional, relatively happy dog he is today. I'm so grateful for this book, and I'm extra grateful for the opportunity to tell Emma how much it meant to me and Maus.

Bonus picture of Maus, just in case you forgot what he looks like.

Veterinary Transformation: Fear Free Initiative with Debbie Morgan
Fear free veterinary practice is a newer idea, and it's one I'm really excited about. Many pets don't get routine or even emergency vet care due to fear and/or anxiety. Reducing pet fear and anxiety not only improves medical care for pets and makes for a better experience for owners, it also helps to prevent professional stress and burnout in our veterinary staff. Debbie's presentation on the fear free initiative was one of the lectures I have been really looking forward to, and I wasn't disappointed. Debbie outlined the key concepts of the fear free program to improve physical and emotional well being during medical care. The concepts involved are an approach that considers the how the animal sees the environment, a touch gradient designed with the individual patient in mind, a Fear, Anxiety, and Stress Scale (FAS scale) that allows for concrete assessment of an animal's emotional state, gentle control that is safe and comfortable, and cooperative care training. Like Debbie, I could go on about this topic forever, but time is finite, so I'd encourage anyone who is interested in the fear free movement to explore the Fear Free Pets and Fear Free, Happy Homes websites.  

Please Sir, May I Have Some Food, Water . . . and Control? with Susan Friedman
Control is a big buzzword in dog training right now. Susan makes the argument for control as a positive reinforce just like food or water (or orgasms, just in case you thought behavioral science was boring). Behavior exists as a way to exert control; just like eyes are for seeing and ears are for hearing, behavior is for creating desirable outcomes. In fact, many of the reactivity and aggression issues I work with can be traced back to the dog's inability to control her environment resulting in the creative of maladaptive behaviors - and a lot of behavioral rehabilitation is teaching the owner how to give the dog back her control. The way we give animals control is to give them choices. For example, letting them chose whether or not to engage in a training session or work on a specific husbandry behavior. Of course, sometimes animals don't have a choice in whether or not to do something, like having a broken leg examined or being vaccinated (one of the reason vet care can be difficult). Susan suggests that knowing this, creating a "lifestyle of control" where dogs are frequently allowed and encouraged to exert control over their environment will create an animal that is more resilient to the loss of control. This is true for what we know about humans as well: autonomy, or the belief that you have control over your life, makes you more resilient to difficult situations.

Arousal: Science, Not Sex with Lindsay Wood Brown
Arousal is another buzz word in dog training, and it's one that doesn't have a good definition (oh, Ken). The majority of Lindsay's talk revolved around trying to define what exactly we mean when we talk about arousal. Behavior trainers like myself will describe reactive dogs as having arousal issues, but in sports dogs, high arousal is often a desired trait. What are we talking about? Lindsay makes the argument that arousal is an internal state, like joy or attention, and so we cannot directly change it. While it might seem like it sometimes, there is no "arousal dial" for us to turn one way or another to directly adjust our dog's arousal. Instead, we need to look to environment/antecedents and behaviors to influence arousal. Lindsay proposes that arousal itself is never the issue - arousal does not create or break behavior. Instead, it is genetics, reinforcement history, and environment/antecedents that directly impact behavior.

I'm going to have to roll that one around in my head for a bit because I'm not sure I agree with Lindsay. I mean, not that last bit about genetics, reinforcement, and antecedents, that's solid - I mean the bit about our internal state having no influence on behavior. That doesn't "feel" quite right . . .

Free Cookies? Non-Contingent Reinforcement for Frustration with Sarah Owings
I liked this presentation, probably because it was a concrete tool for my toolbox instead of "just" theory (I love theory, but I've had a lot of it today). Non-contingent reinforcement is an antecedent arrangement strategy. There are several bits and pieces to it, ideas from on person and theory from another. Basically, it's providing free access to a reinforcer without asking or waiting for a behavior. Often, we're told to "wait for quiet" or "wait for calm," and there are many instances where this is not possible for a given dog. Sarah suggests using this tool when the problem behavior is fluent and has low latency (occurs quickly and predictably under certain circumstances), the animal has a narrow repertoire of alternate behaviors it can offer, the reinforcer is safe to deliver (so this is not a tool to use with, say, car chasing), and ignoring the problem behavior actually sets up a system of variable or intermittent reinforcement.

Sarah used several case studies to illustrate use of non-contingent reinforcement, but the one that stuck out for me was the over greeter. Often we're told to ignore our dogs when we get home, and for many dogs, this is fine. They learn that people returning home is not that exciting. However, some dogs escalate their behavior when they don't receive their reinforcement; ignoring results in bruises and torn clothes. In this case, instead of ignoring the dog, Sarah required the owners to give the dog five minutes of calm, undivided attention the instant they got home, no matter what the dog was doing. Because the reinforcer was immediately available, the dog had no need to escalate behavior. Within the space of ten or so sessions, the dog was able to calmly greet it's owners and then disengage on its own. It was striking to watch the change in the dog's behavior, and I'm pleased to have this new tool in my kit.

Animals in Control with Emelie Johnson Vegh, Eva Bertilsson, and Peggy Hogan
Continuing on the theme of control in animal care, Emelie, Eva, and Peggy talked about how to create a "lifestyle of control" (to borrow Susan's term) for our animals. I really, really enjoyed this presentation as it helped me to formalize my thoughts on a lot of the training I've been doing with Kaylee; I've tried to make control and choice a part of her daily life, and I think it's paid off in spades for us. Emelie, Eva, and Peggy divided this topic up into three sections. First, they talked about requests, an animal tells us what reinforcer they want in order to meet their needs. For example, when Kaylee scratches at the door to ask to be let into the yard. Second, there are choice behaviors, where an animal communicates to us what reward they want between several options. Third, and most interesting to me, are start button behaviors. These are behaviors in which the animal indicates it is ready for an activity before it's started. There are a few types, but the example I think of is Kaylee's grooming table. Three or four times a week, Kaylee and I practice grooming. I always start by inviting her up on the grooming table. It is her choice to join me or not, and it is her choice to continue working with me. If at any point she wants to stop or take a break, all she needs to do is jump off the grooming table. I believe that offering her the choice actually makes her more likely to stay working and engage. Kaylee has never refused to start the grooming game, and she rarely declines to jump back on the table after a break. And I could go on and on about start button behaviors and how good they are, but if I don't stop now, I never will. I'll ear mark this as a topic to revisit in another blog, though. It deserves more discussion.

AND THEN I touched Hannah Branigan. It was good. For me, anyway. I mean, awkward. But ohso good . . .

Saturday, March 17, 2018

Clicker Expo St. Louis: Day 1

March has been a long and frankly terrible month, and I seriously considered not attending Clicker Expo this weekend as I originally planned. But I'm just wrapping up a fun day of lectures and adventure, and I'm feeling pretty comfortable with my decision to come as of right now. A few years ago, I attended APDT and "live blogged" summaries of the different sessions I attended. This was really helpful for me, both to consolidate my thoughts on the many learning opportunities I followed and to remind myself of the key points I learned as time passed. So, I've decided to live blog again this weekend. Without further ado, here are the sessions I attended today:

Say What? The Terminology Challenge with Ken Ramirez
I'll be honest, there were several other lectures at this time that probably would have been more beneficial for me to attend. But Ken is on of my favorite story tellers, and I couldn't resist the opportunity to hear him present new material. In this presentation, Ken talked about the difficulty that is spoken language. It really frustrates Ken when there's a conversation about behavior that falls apart due to misuse and misunderstanding of terminology. Part of the problem is that there are so many different definitions for the words we use. For example, if your dogs completes a behavior and you give his a piece of food, you could label that a reinforcer - or a treat, or a reward, or a pay check, or a cookie, or or or . . . Ken reminds us to tailor our speech for our audience (reinforcer for scientists, reward for students, etc.). One of the important thoughts I took from this presentation was Ken's discussion of punishment. Ken pointed out that in colloquial use, punishment does hold an aspect of retribution. In common conversation, a person can punish someone because "they deserve it." However, as trainers we believe that punishment is aimed at a behavior, not a person or animal. I think this is important to remember when we talk about punishment with the general public.

Look Away from the Dog with Theresa McKeon
I know this will come as a shock to some of you (and a "well, duh" to others), but human-human social skills do not come naturally to me. As a result, I try to regularly participate in learning about human behavior. It not fun for me, but it's a skill I need. Theresa's lecture was my Clicker Expo human-human learning. More than 50% of human communication is non-verbal; we rely on body language almost as much as dogs do - but we study it a lot less. Theresa took a very dog trainer style approach to human body language teaching. We discussed different aspects of human body language, and then watched videos to pick apart what we discussed in the context of real human communication. Actually, humans and dogs share a great deal of body language cues. For example, both species have submissive grins. We also both tongue flick, yawn, and blink as calming signals/self soothing. Theresa emphasized the importance of training the human learner first, without the dog, as a strategy for reducing stress and improving success. Her entire lecture was really interesting, but one of the ideas that resonated with me is that students really don't want you to see them fail - that's not shocking - but the more the student likes a teacher, the more they will stress and struggle not to allow that teacher to see them fail.

No Problem! How Problems Create Great Horse Training with Peggy Hogan
Wait, I went to what now?
Anytime there's a conference like this, there's invariably a couple of sections where nothing is really, really exciting. Fortunately, Clicker Expo covers not only dogs, but also horses and other animals. I know that learning about other species makes me a better dog trainer, so I decided to attend one of the horse-oriented sessions (because PONIES). Peggy's concepts were simple enough that even a dog trainer could figure it out. Shaping (or "learner controlled behavior" - terminology, I'm telling you) is an effective way to help horses build confidence, relationship, and behavioral wellness. Peggy's system for problem behavior modification is to identify the specific issue, and then set up shaping exercises outside of the environmental context. The example she used most frequently was loading a horse into a trailer. Many horses struggle with backing out/stepping down when unloading, and this makes them anxious about getting into the trailer. For this issue, Peggy suggested shaping the horse to back up and step down away from the trailer. I feel like pulling specific behaviors out of a chain, working them, and then putting them back into the chain is a fairly common tool in dog training as well. Horses and dogs, it turns out are quite similar in a lot of their learning. But there are also differences - you don't want to reward a horse close to your body, for example. Additionally, stimulus control and duration are even more important when working with a 1,200 lb animal than it is with a 40 lb animal - a horse that randomly throws behaviors in the hope of being reinforced can be a very dangerous animal.

Reactive Dog Games with Emma Parsons
My reactive dog Maus was a game changer for me. It's maybe a bit cliche, but I would not be the person and trainer I am today without him - and Maus would not be the dog he is today without Emma Parsons and her book "Click to Calm." It was really fun to see and listen to one of my heroines in person, and I'm looking forward to getting her autograph at tomorrow's book signing. I don't want to go too deep into this lecture because I want to surprise my reactive dog student's, both beginner and advanced, with some of these games. So y'all are just gonna have to come take class with me. (We're gonna have so much fun!!!)

AND THEN I saw Hannah Branigan and followed her around the clicker store for twenty minutes without introducing myself like the socially awkward and nerdy fan girl that I am. (Hannah also smells leather leashes before she buys them. I thought you should know that.)

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Setting Up for Success with Shaping

Kaylee is not a pit bull. Or a bulldog.

This might be a shock to you, but she's not quite like any of my other dogs. This is less because she is deaf, and more because of who she is as an individual. She's a lot "softer" - which I realize is not necessarily a useful label. What I mean by "softer" is that she is much more sensitive to errors in training and less resilient to failure. While the bull and terriers are most likely to give me the metaphorical finger and move on to the next adventure when one of us makes a mistake, Kaylee struggles. When she feels she has made a mistake, she is likely to disengage, usually by wandering away and sniffing.

I have the privileged of not being a cross over training. I have always used the positive reinforcement philosophies when training my dogs, which means that I have never made a big deal out of training errors. I don't actively punish the dogs when they make a mistake. What does happen when there are training errors is that my rate of reinforcement goes down; I don't reward if I don't get the behavior I'm looking for. Kaylee is particularly sensitive this, and I lose her if she doesn't get rewarded when she's trying very hard to be right. This is particularly evident when we try to shape behaviors. Shaping, by definition, includes being wrong - that's how you get to right.

Now, if we go back to that positive reinforcement philosophy, you will hear trainers say that you need to "reward for engagement." I think this is about as useful as saying a dog is "soft." What does engagement look like? How do I reward it? And how do I apply that to a shaping session?

So here are some of the techniques I use to keep Kaylee focused on me, learning, and not wandering away and sniffing during our shaping sessions:

I break down behaviors to their smallest possible criteria. In R+, we say, "be a splitter, not a lumper." What this means is that we want to split behavior down to the smallest possible step. So for example, if the final behavior I am looking for is "pupper runs to a target and remains standing on target until released," I'm not going to start shaping with "runs to target" or "stands on target." I'm going to start with "looks at target" as the smallest first step I can think of and work my way up from there.

I set up the session to make the behavior I am looking for extremely likely to happen. Most people are introduced to shaping with a 101 Things to Do with a Box style game: you have an object, a dog, and a clicker, and you mark the dog for any interactions with with the object until you have a behavior you like. There's nothing really wrong with this game, per se, but it is the purest and hardest form of shaping you can do, particularly if you have a traditionally trained dog who is disinclined to offer behaviors or a dog who has never worked with an object before. You're going to be sitting in front of that box staring at each other for a loooong time! Instead - if my criteria is "look at the object" - I'm going to set Kaylee up so that behavior is extremely likely to happen. In this example, I'm going to pick the object up and wave it around. Dogs naturally look toward movement, Kaylee looks at the object, and BANG - we have a place to start.

I keep shaping sessions short. Really short. Ten treats short. I will admit, this is the hardest rule for me to follow. My several of my other dogs are amazingly resilient and will keep working with me for as long as I want to run the session - but Kaylee doesn't let me get away with those kinds of shenanigans. To keep our sessions short, I count out ten treats in my hand, and when the treats are gone the session is over, no matter how well or poorly it is going. In fact, it's even more important to stop at ten treats when things aren't going well, and I'm using a high proportion of me treats to reset Kaylee - I need to stop and figure out why I'm not getting the behavior I'm looking for (hint: it's probably because I'm lumping multiple criteria together instead of splitting them down).

I never let Kaylee make a mistake twice in a row. If I had to point to one of these tips and say, "This is the most important piece of keeping Kaylee working with me during shaping sessions," it would be this one (followed very closely by "keep sessions short"). In order to keep Kaylee happy and working, I need to keep my rate of reinforcement high. In order to keep my rate of reinforcement up, I need to get reinforceable behaviors.

Okay, what the hell am I talking about now?

Let's work through this one on an example. Say I'm looking for "touch the object" and my dog lays down next to the object. That's a mistake. I don't want to reward that behavior, I don't want it to happen again. Let's talk for a second about what's going through my dog's mind: a dog that understands the training/shaping game is going to understand within a few seconds of offering the down that it was not what you were looking for, and they have made an error. Some very resilient dogs are going to get up and just offer the next behavior - these dogs are a very small minority. Some dogs are going to get stuck and stay in the down and the two of you are going to end up staring at each other for the next million years. Some dogs will get frantic and start flailing about trying to find the behavior that will get them rewarded. And some dogs - like Kaylee - are going get up and start looking for a noose because they have failed the Master and the sky is falling and now they must die. Very tragic. Much drama.

So how I handle this error to help my dog's learning is crucial. If my dog is inclined to offer another behavior, and I am willing to bet $100 that the next behavior will be one I can reward, I can wait for that behavior with a minimal amount of fall out. I don't do this very often. In this situation, I can't say the next behavior that gets offered won't be, say, putting her head on the floor or more duration on the down. (A Note from The Voice of Experience: Duration is the enemy of shaping. If my dog is holding still, then they're not offering behaviors, and if they're not offering behaviors, we can't get closer to our goal behavior. Always add duration last.)

Another way I can respond to this error is to give my dog the opportunity to perform a behavior I know will get them rewarded. I use hand touches for this a lot. Kaylee downs next to the object. I offer a hand touch. She touches the hand, gets rewarded, and offers the next behavior. Maybe this is one I can reward. Or maybe she makes another mistake, I offer another hand touch, she gets another reward, and I need to stop the session and go back to the drawing board to figure out why she's not offering the behavior I want. Either way, her enthusiasm for the game and our working relationship remains intact because she gets to be "right" and I can keep the rate of reinforcement high.

How I respond to errors in training, particularly with shaping, is nearly as important as how I handle success. Errors are a natural part of the learning process, but the more I can do to minimize error and increase the opportunities for success, the happier and more engaged my dog will be with me and with the learning process.

So, how about you? What helps your shaping sessions go more smoothly? What do you and your dog struggle with?

Sunday, January 21, 2018

3. Indoor Brewery Pass: Lakes and Legends Brewing Company

On Saturday we once again ventured out to explore a new brewery, this time Lakes and Legends Brewing Company in downtown  Minneapolis. I enjoyed this ventue much more for dog training. Sociable Cider Werks has some of my favorite product, but they were having their holiday party when we brought the pups, so Sociable was extremely busy. And also cold.

Did you know it gets really cold in Minnesota?

Lakes and Legends was warmer and more spacious. The pups and their people were able to stake out an out of the way table which gave us a little extra breathing room from the other dogs and people. I tried their Belgian Stout, the Silky, and was very pleased. It's a nice smooth dark beer without the tragically bitter aftertaste I sometimes get from similar brews (lookit me talk about beer like I know what I'm saying - ha!).
She thinks she's people.

Meanwhile Kaylee was pleased to demonstrate how deeply into the throws of adolescence she really is. At five and a half months, Kaylee is right at the age where it feels like your puppy is trying to show you where all the holes in your socialization program are. For example, she's decided that dogs with curly hair are not to be trusted. She also definitely spooked at a toddler, and I know I covered those things in her open socialization period!

On the other side of the spectrum, she's also picked up some straight-up asshat behaviors, like wildly flailing at strangers and jumping on new dogs' heads (you know, the ones with the non-curly hair that she's not afraid of). Much as with human teenagers, canine adolescence is full of social experimentation. Kaylee isn't intentionally trying to be rude to other dogs. She's trying to figure out if she can skip all the social pleasantries and go straight to the fun wrestling play part of a relationship. Relationships don't work that way - but she doesn't know that.

Experience has taught me not to take anything adolescent dogs do too seriously, unless they seem to be developing severe phobias or behavior issues. A little wariness today curly-coated dogs is not likely to turn into full-blown reactivity for me so long as I support Kaylee and help her feel safe. I have found that adult dogs often seem to more resemble the dog they were at three months than at nine months. And there's a reason most dogs in shelters and rescues are between nine months and two years.

Like any parent of a teenager, my job at this point is mostly to keep Kaylee from killing herself while she figures out how the world and its fascinating residents work.

Picture of the only two seconds when all three adolescents were behaving at the same time.
Picture not representative of actual events.

Thursday, December 21, 2017

Duration as a Four Letter Word

Kaylee is growing like a weed. I think she out grew Cannon's winter coat overnight. Her puppy fat is giving way to whipcord muscle, and our struggles with food motivation and working drive are rapidly fading. Training a new puppy is fun because they soak up knowledge like rain in the desert. But puppy raising is also difficult because their brains change as quickly as their bodies - and I'm not just talking about dodging fear periods. Kaylee has reached the age where she thinks duration is a four letter word.

Human children go through this phase as well. An infant in an empty waiting room may be content to snuggle and coo at her parent's face, but ask the same child at six years old to sit quietly without toys or tv or something to do is a recipe for disaster. Or destruction. Definitely one of those.
Stand stay on a log in the woods.
Cute pictures are pretty much
 the reason I teach stays at all

Knowing that this is a normal, natural phase of Kaylee's development helps me decide on a training plan. If I had an adult dog who suddenly lost her ability to hold a stay position for any length of time, I would go back to basics - I'd find an amount of time she could hold the position and slowly build up from there. I could certain do this with Kaylee; that's not a wrong plan. But it's also not likely to impact the eventual outcome: as Kaylee matures into a young adult, her ability to hold a straight stay will almost certainly come back on its own regardless of whether I attempt to retrain her stay now. Unless, of course, I screw something up. We must, of course, never discount our human ability to screw up our dogs.

With the understanding that Kaylee has a solid foundation, and in the interest of not screwing up my dog, I could certainly avoid asking her for stays for the next six to twelve months. That's how I handle fear periods. We hunker down, avoid triggers, and wait for the storm to pass.

Six to twelve months is a long storm. I'm not going to stop training. Instead, I'm going to turn on the tv.

Trainers often discuss stays in relation to the Three D's of Fluency: distance, duration, and distraction. As you see, duration is only a part of the picture; I can put it on hold and increase work in the other areas. Duration is difficult for Kaylee right now because it's boring. She's too distractable to think about being still for any length of time, so I will give her other things to focus on. Therefore, I've added a little distance to our stay practice - and a lot of impulse control. We're playing more zen, sticky feet, relaxation protocol, moving stands, and other games that involve holding still while the world happens around her. Of course, there's some duration here, but it's not out primary focus. These impulse control games will also come in handy for Kaylee's next developmental stage:

The dreaded teenager.

Down stay with distance at TSC.