Sunday, February 12, 2017

Staycation in Motion, A+13: Leveling Up The Training

Abe has had a full dance card today: we've hung out with Piper Ann and Cannon, and then Allister. I expected Abe to be a little more interested in the other dogs than he has been, but I'm not at all concerned about how any of the dates have gone. More impressively I am happy to report that Abe has begun exploring the backyard on his own instead of remaining in a five foot radius of my legs. Curiosity is a good sign.

So that's the theme of today's post: curiosity and creativity. I want to teach Abe courage; I want him to learn new ways of interacting with the world around him. Abe has done very well with formal training so far. He mostly knows sit, and he's doing great at hand targets and chin rests. These are all lured behaviors, so they don't involve much thinking on Abe's part. He only needs to follow the treat. Now, I want to encourage creativity and problem solving, so our next project is to learn by shaping.

Shaping is the "hot or cold" game. I have an image in my head of the behavior I am looking for, and I'm going to break the behavior down into little steps. Then, I will mark and reward each step up to the finished behavior. It's the dog's job to figure out what behavior I'm looking for. Originally, I was going to start with mat work, but someone else mentioned that they're having crate trouble with crating, so I'll use that instead. Turning crate time into a game often helps dogs feel happier about their kennels.

So, we'll start by breaking down the process of crating into little steps:

  1. Look at the crate.
  2. Step toward the crate.
  3. Take more steps toward the crate. 
  4. Put your head in the crate. 
  5. Put one foot in the crate. 
  6. Put two feet in the crate
  7. Put three feet in the crate.
  8. Put ALL the feet in the crate. 
  9. Stay in the crate for a couple of seconds.
  10. Stay in the crate while I close the door. 
  11. Stay in the crate for longer amounts of time.
Now we have a bog behavior - crate training - and we've broken it down into eleven steps. If the dog is struggling, you can break it down ever further. What's smaller than a step? How about a lean in the direction of the crate?

For each step, I wait until the dog is performing the mini-behavior consistently before advancing to the next level. So for example, I wait until the Abe is offering me both feet in the kennel nine times out of ten before I start waiting for three feet in the kennel. So what happens if Abe skips a step and puts all four feet in the kennel? Jackpot! Instead of handing out one treat, I pass out five or ten. Congratulations, dude, you're brilliant!

And then I stop the training session. It's important to keep shaping sessions short and sweet, particularly if the dog is struggling. Remember math class? Don't you wish the teacher would have given you a couple of easy problems and then let you go home afterward? Be like kindergarten addition, not college calculus. Frequent breaks also take advantage of of latent learning, where a dog (or person) takes the session, thinks about it for a while, and then comes back sharper and with new ideas. Latent learning is the lazy dog trainer's best friend. 

Shaping will help to create new neural pathways in Abe's brain (I have science to back this up, but I'd have to go dig it out of whatever rock I put it under, and I have other things I need to get done today). It teaches him new ways of interacting with his world. It will also teach him persistence and creativity in problem solving. Currently, Abe has one solution to problems: he freezes and hopes he doesn't die. But if I can get him to consider other ways of behaving, I think he'll find that the world isn't such a scary place. In a way, I'm hoping to teach Abe that the world isn't full of problems to hide from - but it is full of challenges to be overcome. 

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