Friday, January 21, 2022

Generalizing Cues

 Why won't my dog do what I ask?

Almost everyone knows to start training new cues or behaviors at home in a calm, quiet environment.  Our dogs learn quickly there, then we head out to have some fun on a walking trail running into a friend and try to show off our dog's new skill to our friend...and the dog stares at you like you're speaking a foreign language and they have no clue what you are asking.  Does this sound familiar?  If so, you want to keep reading to learn all about generalizing behavior and how that applies to Planning for Success.

Understanding How Dogs Generalize Cues

As humans we think of communication as talking, using our words, and teaching a dog to respond to certain cue words; sit, down, stay, etc.  Dogs think more in the context of the environment, where am I right now, what is my person doing, what else is happening around me, and what behavior can I do right now in this moment to earn that tasty treat my person is holding?  Listening to that verbal cue is the last thing on a dog's mind, and for many dogs the verbal cue is the last part of learning that they do with a specific behavior.  Now that doesn't mean we have to stop using verbal cues as a way to communicate with our dogs.  Instead that means we have to think of the bigger picture to help our dogs be more successful, especially early in their training of any new behavior.  

First that means that we need to pay attention to emotional and physical language we are presenting to our dog when we are training something new.  Hand signals are very common these days and most of us give visual signals whether we realize it or not.  I've got some cool games if you ever want to try to see if your dog is responding to your verbal or visual cues!  Distractions also play a role in how easily our dogs respond to our cues in other environments.  I'll be doing a more detailed blog on how to add in distractions slowly to increase your chances of success in your training session.  But one of the most commonly overlooked reasons that our dogs struggle to succeed is caused by environmental changes that are often out of our control.  Since we can't walk around inside a tent to block all the distractions in our environments, we can work to generalize our cues in multiple environments in a way that helps our dogs be successful.

Generalizing Behaviors at Home

You've been working hard to teach your dog a new behavior at home, for this example I'll use a down/stay.  You start by training in a quiet room whether that's a training room, living room, or bedroom, you generally practice in an environment where you can control or reduce the amount of distractions.  Once your dog starts to catch on, you move into different rooms of the house, now asking for a down/stay while you refill your water in the kitchen, then while you start a load of laundry, then while you brush your teeth.  It doesn't matter what you are doing while your dog is holding the position, the key is that you are practicing at different times of day and in different rooms.  While your hand signal that cues the down/stay remains the same in every room, the actions you do while your dog is holding position change.  Once your dog can hold the position inside the house, you generally start asking for it outside the house again in environments you can control such as your driveway or backyard during low distraction times.  By doing this, your adding in new elements to the cue.  The grass might be wet or there might be snow on the ground or any other changes in the surface where you are requesting the behavior.  Distractions become harder to control with birds, squirrel, and traffic that may suddenly appear.  With some repetition, practicing the cue in these multiple environments builds up the verbal & visual cues YOU are using and tones out the environmental cues that were present when you first started teaching the behavior indoors.  This will build up your fluency for the behavior by adding to the reinforcement history making the behavior a fun & rewarding behavior to do.

Generalizing Behaviors to Known Environments

The next phase would be to start asking for your behavior in environments that you visit frequently.  Depending on your routine, this might be a walking trail, near a park, your favorite pet friendly store, or a relative's house.  Since you are trying to set up for success, you only want to ask your dog to practice this new behavior in environments where they have a high chance of being successful.  Avoid heading out to your new destination to practice and jumping right into your training session!  Even in well known environments, your dog needs a few minutes to "read the newspaper" or get to know what is in that environment at that time.  Allow them to spend some time sniffing the environment, greeting friends, listening to all the sounds, etc.  Then once they have settled you can start your training off with some simple behaviors your dog has done in that environment in the past.  A great way to tell if your dog is interested more in the environment or ready to engage with you is running through a checklist of simple behavior chains.  I like to use my Body Positions Game where Azul does a series of hand targets to move around me into various positions because this adds more value to choosing to be with ME.  Any fun warm up style game or behavior chain will work, as long as it allows you to tell when you might be rushing your dog into a training session they are not ready for vs when your dog has sufficiently explored the environment and is ready to have fun with you.  This is really a critical step that I see lots of teams skipping!  As humans, we have limited time available for a training session and tend to have a one track mind of we need to accomplish this goal, then we can play.  Our dogs work the other way, they may appear to have a one track mind...gotta sniff, gotta sniff, gotta sniff!  But really they have a basic need to feel safe, calm, and happy before they are ready to learn new things, therefore allowing them to adjust to the environment before beginning the training session allows them to transition into focus and learning mode.

Generalizing in New Environments

The very last step in generalizing a cue is to practice the behavior in new environments.  This is especially important for working dogs such as Service Dogs & Therapy Dogs that visit new environments on a regular basis.  It's important to remember that this is the step where frustration tends to leak into our training sessions.  We tend to think that since our dog can easily keep a down/stay at home for 30 minutes or longer while we totally disengage to do a chore, we expect our dog to do this in all environments as well.  It's important to remember to lower your criteria when you are first practicing a newer behavior in a newer environment!  You will need to reinforcement much more frequently in places where distractions are more intense.  If after just a minute or two, your dog is starting to show signs of stress while you have asked them to down/stay you need to realize this and change your criteria to be successful.  Subtle signs of stress might be shifting their weight, whining, licking their lips, shaking off, etc.  Learn your dog's warning signs so you can end the training session on a successful note instead of pushing them to far into a state of being uncomfortable holding the position.  If you see signs of stress, allow your dog to stand up, change positions, take a short walk, or something else that involves movement before requesting another down/stay.  Alternating between 2 minutes of down/stay and 2 minutes of action, can help your dog to adjust to the environment relaxing into the down/stay position where you can reinforce more frequently until your dog can handle the behavior while still feeling safe, calm, and happy about holding the position.

In the dog training world, this is called PROOFING the behavior; doing the behavior in multiple environments successfully.  Once you have proofed a new behavior in multiple environments, you can start asking for that behavior in more real life situations vs just training sessions.  But remember to adjust your rate of reinforcement based on the distractions in the environment to help your dog be successful.  Reinforcement builds behaviors so if you want your dog to do a particular behavior such as hold a down/stay in a distracting environment you have to be prepared to reinforce that in some way.  I like to change up reinforcement at this stage, maybe using a treat some of the time, but also adding in the use of praise, touch or petting, and ending with a jackpot reward or game at the end of your activity.

This video shows a practice session where Azul is practicing his Service Dog level stay in our training room at home.  Cam is also practicing a stay in his kennel during this training session.

Wednesday, January 19, 2022

Find It Games

 Find It Games!

This is one of my “Go-to” games for rainy days or any down day that I want to give my dog some mental work in a fun way because exercise is out of the picture.  What makes this game so awesome for our dogs is that it’s easy to start simple so they can learn to use their nose, but it’s also easy to keep changing it up to make it constantly harder so that we are challenging our dogs.  This is typically the 2nd game I teach all my dogs and especially dogs that I want to train medical alert skills to.

Before the game, use a 2nd person to hold your dog or place them behind a gate while you hide the treats.  Once your dog has learned the cues that go with this game you can ask them to down/stay while you hide the treats.  Start the game using the same treats every time you play and your dog will associate that smell with the objects they are finding.  Once your dog becomes more advanced you can start hiding different items and add in a “sniff” or “smell” cue to tell your dog which scent they are searching for during the session.

At first, allow your dog to see you drop 2-3 treats on the floor in the center of the room, then go to the dog and release them to find it.  They will run to the treats and gobble them up.  Slowly start moving the treats further away from each other and closer to furniture or other obstacles in the room.  Once you’ve made it to the outskirts of the room you are using, start positioning your dog so they can not watch you hide the treats.  By this time, they should be starting to understand the game but if they struggle too much, place the treats in easy to find places such as the center of the room again.  Slowly add in hiding spots that are at different levels; on the floor, on a low ledge, on the seat of a chair, on top of a shoe, etc.  Make sure all hiding spots stay below the dog’s nose when you're in the early stages, but as your dog progresses, you can pick higher hiding spots.  One rule that I use is I never place a treat on a table top, even a coffee table, as I don’t want my dogs to think that it is ok to eat food left on tables.

Here are a few more slow progression steps I take as my dog learns to search better:

  • Make the area bigger, hiding treats in multiple rooms.

  • Switch to an old dog toy that has been played with often.  This allows you to add in your sniff cue.  Present the toy, place your dog in a different room to hide the toy in an easy spot, give your search or find it cue, and if your dog struggles you can shake the toy a bit to get them interested.  Use the same toy over and over again until the dog starts to get the idea. 

  • Raid the kitchen for smelly items that the dog can’t actually eat such as a banana, empty spice container, or nearly empty peanut butter jar.  Loosen the cap on the container or jar to allow the smell to escape.  Garlic, pepper, and cinnamon are some of my go to smells in the beginning.

  • Slowly pick items that are not as smelly such as clothing, a hat, bandana you or another dog has worn.

  • Hide the treat in places where the dog can’t reach without assistance.  This allows you to build in a behavior or alert you want your dog to give when they find the treasure.  Our dogs sit and stare at the place the treat is hiding.  Make the first higher hiding spots something that is easy to see and smell.  I have a chandelier in my living room that works well for this.

  • Once your dog is really good at the game you can hide items inside boxes, dressers, and other containers.  Make it easy at first by leaving a door or drawer slightly open until the dog understands to alert you for help in opening the container for them to find the object.

  • When your dog is really good you can play with items that you frequently lose such as your keys, phone, inhaler, or meds container.  If you associate the name of that item, you will be able to ask your dog to go find your phone which is an awesome task!

Sunday, January 16, 2022

Shaping Games


There are a ton of games you can play with Shaping Exercises.  One of my my favorite games that I have developed with Azul since he was quite young, is our Positions Game.  The video above shows Azul moving through various positions while we play the game in a quiet aisle to break up some public access training we are working on.  Every position you see involved a Shaping Plan on it's own, then we turned it into a game by stringing them all together.  We are still adding new positions and twists to the game all the time.  

Games like Find It & Hide-N-Seek are also basically shaping games as you start small and work your way to more difficult finds.  One of the most common Shaping Games is 101 Things to Do with a Box!  This game helps both you and the dog to learn how to play other shaping games but teaching your dog to keep trying different choices.  Basically, you create an open space with you, your dog, a box, and reinforcement.  Your dog earns reinforcement by basically doing anything with the box that they haven't done yet; sniffing it, a nose target, paw target, placing 1 foot doesn't matter as long as it's different.  They often will repeat behaviors at which point you simple ignore it and wait for something new.  If it's been awhile since a behavior earned reinforcement, say more then 4-5 rounds back in the game, then I'll go ahead and reinforce it again.  But I won't reinforce the same behavior twice in a row.  While 101 Things to Do with a Box isn't a true exercise in shaping because you don't have an end goal in mind, it's an awesome place to start.  I repeat this game whenever I find my dog starting to get frustrated in our shaping sessions because it's an excellent reminder to the dog to keep trying new things.

The Blanket Game is another simple fun Shaping Exercise.  This is basic Place or Mat training, but it's a fun, easy way for your dog to earn easy reinforcement while learning to try different things.  There are lots of different steps you can use, but here are my basics for getting started.

  • Toss a treat on the blanket, and dog runs to eat it.
  • Hold a treat over the blanket, reward when dog steps 1 foot on blanket.
  • Then 2 feet, then 3 feet, then all 4 feet.
  • Move further away by just a step or so then cue dog to go to the blanket, again reinforcing 1 foot, then 2 feet, etc.
  • Reinforce when dog offers a sit or down on the blanket.
  • Reinforce when dog stays on the blanket for 2 seconds, slowly increasing time.
  • Continue adding distance away from blanket at start, time staying on blanket, and behaviors the dog does on the blanket.
Once your dog is great at the Blanket Game at home, you can take it on the road to generalize cues in new environments.  Remember to start in lower distraction environments, slowing adding in more distractions.  Also, start back at Step 1 where your dog can easily succeed and build up slowly.

As with other training sessions, recording your Shaping Games & Exercises can help you to see things that you may not have noticed during your session.  I've noticed missed opportunities to provide reinforcement when I allowed myself to be distracted!  If you do record any Shaping Exercise, I'd love to see them.  You can send them to me via FB Messenger or via email at

More About Shaping

 This is Part 2, so make sure your read my first post about Understanding Shaping Exercises before reading this post!

Shaping is by far one of the most challenging training tools for me to learn!  I think this is probably due to my "Helper" nature, as it's hard for me to "not" help my dogs along.  Shaping is more about giving them a chance to figure it out for themselves by keeping expectations small in a series of successful steps towards the end goal.  When I see my dogs starting to make a mistake, my gut says help them!  Mistakes are part of shaping exercises, and only through doing different behaviors can the dog figure out what behavior you really want.  

For example, in my last training session with Cam my goal was to make some advances in his nose targeting skills.  If you watch my video on Cooperative Care with Cam you can see that I'm using nose targeting to get him into some simple positions and he is struggling with a bit, mainly because he is excited because I have a ball in my hand.  That session let me know that it was time to practice some simple Nose Target Shaping Exercises with Cam.  During today's session, when I asked him for a nose, multiple times he offered a paw instead to the point of he was beginning to get slightly frustrated.  This means that I had to alter my hand positioning to a place that was less confusing for him so he could understand what I wanted, then after a few repetitions I was able to slowly step back towards my original hand position for that session.  

Shaping Tips & Tricks

Here are a few lessons that I learned the hard way when it comes to shaping exercises.
  • Think in baby steps!  If your dog is finding it easy to sail through your steps, that's awesome and is a great example of your teamwork together.  However, if your dog is struggling or either of you are getting frustrated, your probably taking steps that are too big.
  • Only shape one thing at a time!  While you can hold multiple shaping games or training sessions in one day, focusing on different goals, you need to only pick one shaping plan for your current session with one goal in mind.
  • Keep sessions short and quick by taking breaks between sessions to play and reset.  Shaping exercises should stay at 3-5 minutes long.  But you can get multiple sessions in rather quickly if you break it up with fun.
  • Have only one trainer per Shaping Plan.  I'm a big advocate of dogs being able to learn to work with multiple people, this can be especially difficult when learning something new and when doing shaping exercises.  Going back to the example above, multiple people ask Cam to do nose targets but I'm the only one to shape that skill in training session mode.  Everyone else uses the final cue in real life situations.
  • If you find that your really struggling with a certain step in your plan and it seems like you just can't get passed it, talk to another trainer to see if there is another step you might be missing.  Shaping is not as simple as a straight staircase, think of more as the room of staircase mazes with more then one way to get to the top.  Having a fresh set of eyes on your plan and progress can be extremely helpful.
  • Last but least, work the dog in front of you.  Today I set up for a shaping exercise with Azul and after about 30 seconds, he checked out walking away from me.  This is his way of saying that he is not in the right headspace for a training session right now.  While I might find a high value motivation to help him get his head in the game sometimes, it's better just to hold off on the session and do it later when you both are ready for the session.
I hope this helps you feel more comfortable about using Shaping Exercises.  Here are a few links from some of my favorite trainers about shaping:  

Service Dog Training Institute - Susan Garrett
Planning for a Successful Shaping Session with Your Dog

July Party Schedule

Announcing our Summer Session Special! We are starting with an altered scheduled for July 1st -3rd Monday, July 1st, all of our Group Walker...