Wednesday, November 30, 2022

Noticing Trainer Mistakes 2


 I want to continue on from a previous blog to talk about some common mistakes we make with our dogs. And when I say "WE" that does follow the one finger pointing at you with 3 fingers pointing back at me. Even with all my experience I still make mistakes and any trainer that tells you otherwise is lying to themselves. But before you get into this blog, make sure you have read Noticing Trainer Mistakes #1.

If you look at the picture above you might see Azul moving in to nip at Cam. While I trust these boys to communicate with each other and this was a small way to communicate that would not escalate, it is my mistake that led up to this. I had tossed treats off in the distance for Cam to find so I could have a few minutes with only Azul and I failed to see Cam coming back into our training zone. Cam, who is loosing his eye sight, didn't realize how close Azul was or that I was about give Azul a treat. If I had seen this coming I could have redirected Cam or asked him to stop without invading Azul's space.

Here are a few other common mistakes that I see far too often!

Making training sessions too long

This can be pushing our dog's attention span too far or trying to build duration a bit too rapidly. I see puppy owners trying to do long 1 hour sessions with a puppy who can only handle 1-3 minutes of extreme focus and no more than 20 minutes (often less) in a session that lots of different behaviors that are happening. We also tend to rush things when we are training something like down/stays because we think the dog can stay for 5 minutes however often the few times they stayed that long previously was more coincidence then training. As dog owners, we need to watch our dog's behavior even when we are training simple things the dog already understands to make sure we see their subtle signs that tell us it's time to end a session or a longer duration behavior.

Delivering treats too slowly and/or misplacing treats.

When we are using food as reinforcement, the value gets added to the last behavior the dog actually did. So if ask our dog to sit, they do and we struggle to get the treat fast enough so the dog then lays down. We still deliver the treat so our dog associates that reinforcement with laying down. This is OK if you don't care if your dog moves from a sit to down automatically. I let Azul do this all the time because he prefers laying down. However if you are working on a competition style sit that you want to be perfect, you muddy the behavior often causing confusion because your reinforcement was miss-timed. 

I see this all the time in more complex behaviors such as getting a check-in or eye contact while out on a walk. Our goal might be to reinforce the moment the dog looks up at us, but we could easily mess the timing up rewarding the dog for going back to sniffing. This can also be where misplacing treat delivery can apply. If our dog is pulling to get to a smell and we ask them to look up at us, then toss treats back on the ground we are actually reinforcing the sniffing of the ground. I toss treats on the ground all the time because I want my dog to enjoy sniffing the ground, especially if I'm trying to distract them from a nearby trigger. However I don't want to deliver reinforcement that prompts more sniffing if the original issue was caused by sniffing. In the example of a check-in due to pulling to sniff, I want to reward for first looking at me, then returning to the heel position to take the treat out of my hand. These are both behaviors that reduce the pulling to sniff instead of encouraging more pulling.

If you are struggling to modify a behavior that you don't want repeated such as pulling, barking, lunging, nipping, etc; consider the timing and delivery method of the reward!

Punishing desirable behavior.

A popular method of teaching dogs to do the behaviors we love is to reinforce the behavior when it naturally occurs...aka capturing the behavior. But a common behavior mistake is accidently punishing a desired behavior. Perhaps we have been working on training proximity or recall so we've been reinforcing our dog for these behaviors in our training sessions. Yet when we are not focused on the training session we often ignore or punish the dog when they follow us from room to room or put a leash on them when they choose to stop playing and come back to us on their own. We may accidently get annoyed at them following us everywhere and yell at them from time to time, which is a punishment based on our emotions in that moment. 

Sometimes we don't even realize that what we are doing is punishing! Azul for example has been reinforced heavily for simply being calm, laying down near me. Then we step into the backyard to play and when he chooses to lay down near me I decide he's done playing and take him inside.

Cam can also be used as a good example of punishing behaviors that was not intentional. With puppies who chew on everything, we might punish them for picking up items that do not belong to them by taking away those items and sometimes adding in physical or verbal punishment as well. Cam was likely punished for this before he came our way, but this impacted his ability to learn how to retrieve because he was not willing to put his mouth on anything except his ball. When we take treasures away, we teach our dog that running away with the treasure or guarding the treasure is more reinforcing. But if we trade up to a different option that is reinforcing for our dog, we still keep our items safe and reward our dog for not chewing them up or running off with them.

Reinforcing unwanted behavior. 

We've already looked at this in a few situations where either our timing or delivery was off, but we can also accidently reinforce unwanted behavior without meaning to deliver reinforcement. I had this discussion with a client today. Their young puppy was developing the habit of mouthing hands as an attention seeking behavior when the puppy was over-excited. Puppies naturally mouth things, yet we dislike this behavior because it hurts and easily gets carried away becoming a bad habit. Most generally we want to redirect puppy biting by giving them a toy to mouth instead of our hands. But in this situation, the puppy already had pretty amazing bite inhibition (a really gentle mouth) so his mouthing wasn't painful and his whole goal was to get attention. By redirecting to a toy we would be giving him the attention he wanted. By yipping or telling him to stop biting we would also be giving him attention. Even negative attention is sometimes more rewarding then no attention at all. So in this particular case of puppy mouthing I suggest the owner totally ignore the behavior by either holding their hands still so hands became less exciting or putting hands in pockets so they were no longer accessible. I chose to simply hold still and let puppy mouth my hand while I ignored them because A- it wasn't hurting in the slightest & B- the puppy soon got bored, laying down beside me and I was able to reward the calm behavior the owner was after instead of the mouthing.

Failing to teach a dog to generalize. 

If you're not familiar with the term "generalize" this means teaching a behavior in multiple environments until you reach the point where the dog can do that behavior in almost any environment. Teaching our dogs to lay calmly at our feet comes to mind here! We often do this in the house where we want to be calm, then take puppy to go visit a friend's house and the puppy turns into the energizer bunny, unable to lay down and relax. While this may start simply because the new environment is exciting, but some puppies really struggle to with calmness. My son's puppy Finn is a great example of that, even if it's a bit backwards to the way it typically works. Finn lives in a very busy house filled with action, but when he goes outside with my son they are usually doing calm activities. Finn is amazingly calm outside for his age, happy to simply follow my son around the farm. But inside where the kids are, Finn is a total spaz unless taken to nap in his crate. He has learned to lay down and relax outside while my son does farm work. But he hasn't learned to lay down inside where there is always at least one person moving around the room doing something. Azul on the other hand was totally opposite as puppy, easily settling in the house and a total spaz outside the house. We need to practice all behaviors we want our dogs to repeat in a wide variety of environments until they understand that behavior and can easily do it in multiple settings before we start adding in additional distractions.

Using only treats as a reinforcement. 

This is a huge one for me and also for many trainers! Food is the easiest reinforcement for us humans to learn how to use correctly with good timing and treat delivery. We can then apply these mechanics to training multiple behaviors rather easily. Most dogs are also very responsive to food reinforcement making a Go-To reinforcement for many trainers. However there are some issues that come up when you only use food motivators. 

What do you do when you run out of food? How about when your dog is full? What about if they are not feeling well? A dog in fight, flight, or freeze mode will stop digesting and therefore becomes temporarily unable to take treats but you still might need to get them away from something dangerous. 

For a dog who is not food motivated, offering treats can actually become punishing or discourage behaviors you want repeated simply because the dog is tired of you shoving food in their face.

While it's harder to learn to use toys, games, and environmental reinforcers for behaviors, it's much easier in the long run if you've added some of these to your reinforcement options. When Azul had tummy issues at 8 months old, I basically lost all opportunities to reinforce anything. That's when I learned to use other methods of reinforcement. His tummy issues are gone, but now he loves still loves environmental reinforcers way more than food. Plus I'm a much better trainer for being pushed to think outside of the box and learn what was really motivating to my dog.

Being inconsistent with cues

This one is still an issue for me! With my brain fog, a common issue is mixing up words saying one thing while I mean something entirely different. While most people do not have that issue with verbal cues, it's much more common for people to deliver inconsistent body language cues. Often that's simply because we don't think about what we are doing with our body when we are training. Remember the mouthy puppy? He was over-excited because I just showed up at his house, then here I was moving my hands around "talking with hand gestures" without paying attention to it therefore prompting him unconsciously to mouth my hands.

Since dogs often speak & understand body language long before they understand verbal cues, we allow inconsistent cues by not paying attention to what our body is doing. We want our dog to lay down so one time we might point to the floor, another time we might put a flat hand on the floor, and another time we might tap the floor. Each time we do something different with our body, yet continue to think that since we are using the same word consistently that our dog will understand what we want. You may have heard a force free training using the phrase, "Name it when you love it!" This is because we often learn to train giving the verbal cue first then doing whatever body language seems to work in that moment. However we can use much clearer communication if we focus on body language first and add the verbal cue later. This is especially true if more then one person sometimes gives cues to the dog. I train a ton of hand signals, but if other family members are using different hand signals the dog easily becomes confused. Words are easier for most humans and signals are easier for most dogs. Consistency is key!

Stay tuned for another post in the near future with some videos with some pretty obvious mistakes!

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