Wednesday, November 9, 2022

Noticing Trainer Mistakes

 Everyone makes mistakes!

We've all heard the common quote made even more popular by a Sesame Street song. If you've got young kids, don't let that get stuck in your head! But the quote is true in life and in dog training. Before we take a look at some the more popular mistakes in dog training I want to look at the term "mistakes" and what that really means.  There are 2 main types of mistakes: 
  • Mistakes caused by a consistent lack of attention to detail or plain sloppy work. 
  • Mistakes that come from people experimenting. Or, when they make a genuine error due to lack of judgment or experience.
We make our biggest mistakes when we fail to plan and/or pay attention to that plan. These mistakes can hinder our successfulness with our dog mainly because they are more challenging to correct. Sloppy mistakes occur when we simply don't care enough to do a job right the first time. Honestly, I don't think this is the case for most dog owners. We may not use a formal written plan, but most owners have a general idea of what they want to achieve and if they know how to do it, a general plan in their head or seek advice from someone who does know what they are doing.

Instead I want to talk about noticing the mistakes we make when experimenting. Many dog trainers would tell you that you have to do X,Y, Z in this specific order because it always works. That is not me! If our dogs have feelings, can make choices, have different preferences then what works for one dog or in one situation may not work for another. There is the whole Operant Behavior training that spells out how dogs learn in ABC order, but that doesn't mean that the Antecedent and the Consequence are always the same, in fact they are always changing. Our mistakes most often come with what comes before or what comes after the behavior. Sometimes we need to experiment with the A or the C to see what works best. And when we set up an experiment, sometimes we make mistakes.

Here are some common experimenting mistakes in dog training:
  • We don't break down the behavior in small enough steps which adds to confusion for our dogs.
  • We try move from one step of the training to another too quickly. Perhaps we add distance or duration too fast.
  • We set up the environment wrong because we misjudge our dog's abilities to concentrate in that environment or simply misjudge the environment. (The park we chose for a training session is too busy on that day, at that time.)
  • We choose the wrong reinforcement for the behavior we are seeking trying to use a reinforcement value that is too low to motivate our dogs or environmental motivators might be competing for attention.
  • We misread what our dog is offering in the situation.

Setting Up the Plan 

Our dog training often takes the form of having a shaping plan that might be simple or elaborate depending on what we are trying to teach and our skill in teaching that behavior. (See What the Heck is Shaping & More About Shaping

The first mistake we often make when it comes to shaping plans is to think our dogs will simply offer us behaviors if we don't ask them to do anything specific. If your dog is experienced with working with you in Shaping Sessions, then they will easily offer behaviors. However if you have done most of your training using luring, capturing, or even forceful methods your dog may not know how to offer behaviors until they get it right.  For that I suggest playing some Shaping Games.  The overall goal of Shaping is that we want our dog to experiment with behaviors until they stumble on the behavior we are after in that session, which means that our dogs are expected to make mistakes and we should not punish their mistakes or they will stop offering behaviors.

We often misinterpret our dogs offered behaviors during shaping exercises so the first thing we want to do is be open to noticing even the slightest changes that occur; body language, where is their focus, what is their arousal level, etc. If our shaping plan is made up of baby steps, we will notice subtle changes in our dogs much more effectively. If our steps are too big, we tend to lose our ability to notice the small things our dog might do if they are beginning to struggle. Some days our dog might fly through the steps of our plan and other days they may go slower which is often due to their arousal level or the reinforcement level we are using. While it's important for us to teach our dogs to think in multiple arousal levels, we really don't want high arousal when we are training something totally new any more then we want a bored dog. Reinforcement can be motivating, but it can also be distracting! If your dog is extra hungry a low level food reinforcement might be too distracting and if your dog is full a high level food reinforcement might not be motivating enough. Arousal and reinforcement are 2 totally different things we want for these are often what we tend to misinterpret most frequently in our training sessions.

Setting up the Environment

I'm not going to go into too much detail here because I've done that in other blogs.  Here are a few other blogs to help; Generalizing Cues in New EnvironmentsConsidering Distractions, & Picking New Training Environments. But I do want to discuss some of the things we need to notice a bit more in the environments we've selected for training. Most importantly is the fact that we as humans tend to rely most on our sense of sight, where our dogs rely more on their senses of smell & hearing. When we enter a new environment we scan the environment with our eyes, going to check out items of interest more closely or staying further away from items with known distraction histories. Our dogs will smell the area before even getting out the car and key in on items they want to smell more closely. That's why I always suggest starting each training session and group class with a sniff-a-bout to let our dogs process the environment. That helps them focus so much better in training.

Another thing to notice is the vertical objects in the environment. Most people believe male dogs will drag them to trees and other vertical objects to mark them with their scent. For some dogs they may want to leave their scent or smell the other dogs that left p-mail but dogs also naturally orient to vertical objects. Where we might describe a park to someone we are meeting as near the playground, ballfield, bathrooms, trail head, etc., or dogs use some of those vertical objects and many more to be able to re-locate. 

If you've ever taught your dog to find the car in multiple environments, this is often done by them returning on the same path they left the car on using the objects along the way as markers or traffic signs that tell them where to go. Tracking dogs often fine tune this skill learning that scents are often stronger near some objects then others, trees and along the edge of water sources being a big place for scents. When we begin to notice the vertical things in the environment we can learn to use them to our advantage. Without leash training, our dogs would run from vertical object to vertical object, often in a straight line. We can reduce pulling by adding angles to the path, making right angle turns to break focus on an item and later turning back toward that object at a different distance. Working with a longline in a field can help reduce the pulling to tall objects. 

If we are working with a fearful dog or a dog that lacks confidence, we can then do the opposite and work in an environment with more objects of various heights that they can explore. We can set that up in our training area with boxes, barrels, agility or parkour equipment, and natural objects like bushes and trees. Whether we take advantage of the objects already in our environment or add more objects to the environment, noticing how this impacts our individual dog is what makes the difference in our training sessions.

Setting up the Reinforcement

Using the wrong reinforcement (+R) for the environment is often the #1 reason I see other dogs struggle. Check the Reinforcement & Rewards blog which includes my trail mix recipe and list of Azul's favorite low, medium, and high value rewards. The Puppy Trail Mix is my first tip for all clients when it comes to +R because that allows you to pull out low value reinforcement when distractions are low and keep a handy high level reinforcement available when an unexpected distraction pops up. If we building duration, a trail mix can help our dog stay committed to the behavior we are asking because they know sometimes they may get kibble, but sometimes they get that amazing hot dog or other high value +R. This is really helpful for long stays or settles on a mat. If you only use high value +R in a training a certain behavior, your dog can form the opinion of they will only do the behavior when that +R is available. 

Adolescents for example almost always struggle with recall so if I pulled sardines out of my pocket every time I wanted to practice a recall the dog would learn to only recall when they smelled sardines in my pocket. If I use a wide variety of high value treats for hard recalls and lower value treats for easy recalls, I still build a reinforcement history while setting my dog up to use multiple reinforcers for recall.

It's also important to notice what our dog finds most rewarding in the environment we want to train in. For Azul that is generally sniffing anything and everything which can be very hard to learn to use as a +R. I found with Azul it easiest to do micro sessions of focus and a few basic cues near a smell but far enough that he could be successful, then release to the smell. Then we might walk 10-30 feet before the next pause and micro session. 

Sometimes toys work well in outdoor environments for dogs who are not food interested. We as trainers need to notice which toys capture our dog's attention the best and how to set up our excitement level with that toy just enough to be attractive but not over-stimulating to our dogs. If I'm using toys in a training session I want to use short bursts of play 1-3 minutes of play with roughly 3-5 minutes of training between. Of course those numbers vary based on what you are training, your distractions, and your dog's arousal level. For example, if you training a pause or wait in your game you might play 1 min, pause for 2 seconds, and repeat. But if you are training a settle on a mat, you might start with 1 min on the mat, toss a toy to be retrieved, and repeat for 5-10 min before launching into a full tug session at the end of your training.

Once you notice what +R works best for your dog, you can begin to tweak your sessions to meet their needs and interests. This is often when you need the help of a dog trainer to learn to use your dog's preferred reinforcement to your advantage.

Misreading the Behaviors

This is going to be another blog post as this is a huge one for Noticing the Little Things Our Dogs Do. This can include big mistakes such as thinking a dog is aggressive when they are really fearful. Then there are smaller behaviors such as our dogs turning away from the trainer or a distraction which could be caused by multiple things. A subtle sign often referred to in dog behavior books is lip licking. This can be a sign that the dog is nervous, anticipating the awesome reward, confused in what you are asking for, or starting to build frustration. It's more about the change in behavior vs the specific behavior we see and what accompanies that behavior and in what environment the behavior is occurring.  This is why this needs to be it's own post...there is a ton of misreading we do if we look at general behavior without looking deeper into our specific dog. Stay tuned!

Watch this video that is a refresher session with Azul on the Mat and see if you notice any training mistakes made by me. (Yes as a trainer, I still make mistakes!)



Sunday, November 6, 2022

Noticing the End


 I've written a ton of info this year about setting up your training session for success, but there's something important that I haven't covered yet...

When to End a Training Session

As dog owners and trainers, it's important to make sure we pay attention to other parts of the training session but we commonly overlook the end of the session. Sessions might look something like this:

Planning the steps we will use in the training session. (My fall planning package!)
Setting up the environment with the right distractions.
Picking the best reinforcement for the skill and the environment.
Building some momentum with some activity before the thing we want to train.
THE TRAINING
Perhaps a reset game.
MORE TRAINING.
But what happens when we are done training?

Have you ever noticed what you do at the end of a session? 
How about the end of a game or walk?

The End of Session Cue

Many dog trainers suggest using a cue to let your dog know you are done working, playing, training, etc. Sometimes this may vary depending on the activity. If I'm out in the yard, I might end by saying "Let's Go Inside!"  If the boys (Cam and Azul) are wrestling, I might end by saying, "That's Enough!" If I thought about it, I'd probably come up with a few more ending cues that I use. Most commonly though, I use "All Done!" at the end of a session, game, or other activity. I used to just hold my hands up in a "stop" fashion but since I'm learning ASL and my hand signal was already close to the official ASL "All Done" sign, I've been switching my dogs cue over to the ASL sign.

You might be wondering why an End of Session cue is important. If you rely on luring your dog into positions as your main method of training, you may not need an End cue. When the luring stops, the behavior stops. But if you use other methods such as capturing and shaping, it can be hard for the dog to know when they are supposed to keep trying or when they are free to go do what they want. If you train your dog to heel or stay for longer periods of time, you need to be able to release them from that behavior. You might use come to release from a stay position, but what if you don't want your dog to come to you instead wanting them to go chase the ball or play with a friend. Service dogs heel for longer periods of time so handlers often train a Free cue or Go Sniff cue to let the dog know they are off duty.

With play, we build up our dog's desire to be with us. But what happens when we are done playing ball and yet they keep returning it to them. Sure we could walk away or go in the house and they'd get the message but a signal makes it easier for us to tell them we are not doing that right now. The same goes for any behavior your dog loves to do so much that they never want to stop. One of my clients has a pup that recently learned to do a hand delivered retrieve and without an End cue the pup was searching the house to find items to retrieve just for fun.

An End cue shouldn't always mean the fun is ending. If your dog loves to play tug and you want them to go potty again before going in the house you give your End cue so they go off to potty then play tug on your way back into the house. This is one of the reasons I let Azul tug on his longline in the driveway. We get home from our walk and he knows I'm heading to the door but he doesn't want the fun sniff-a-bout to end just yet. Sure the tug on the leash slows a down a bit, but it allows me to play with all the way to ramp and our tug game has times when we are standing still with times that we are racing each other.  This gets us to the door faster as a game then it would if we had a battle of wills in this moment. It makes us both happy as his antics typically make me laugh. And our rules of the game is this only happens in the driveway. We have a big dirt driveway with lots of room for this game. 

If the End cue always means the end of the fun or reinforcement, our dog might start to ignore it. Therefore I always recommend looking at the energy level of your dog then choose a reinforcement or next game that will help them transition into the energy level you are hoping for. If I rushed Azul into the house at the end of a sniff-a-bout, he'd no doubt race in with zoomies in the house. By playing his tug on the leash game, his excitement level goes down slowly before we make it in the door and he's calm before we go in.

When do you END the session?

You'll often hear Trainers say that you need to end on a good note. That is true! But trainers often don't tell you how to make sure you end on a good note. Trainers typically mean end on a positive when your dog and you are working as a team and your happy with the behaviors the dog is giving you. If we just stopped there, that makes it sound easier then it really is. 

If your training session is something simple with an easily defined behavior you are working on, perhaps Roll Over, it's easy to tell when the behavior happens correctly. But what if you're working on multiple behaviors such as all the skills you practice when you're out on a walk. (Cues I use often when walking; left/right, stop/wait, heel, walk nice, focus, easy, and many others.) Often the walk ends for the dog when we get back home or reach the car. If our goal is a for a successful walk, how do we as the human know when to head back home or to the car? Some people walk the same path or trail every time they walk so they really don't make a choice to turn and go home, it's just habit. 

On a training walk, that has more then just exercise as a goal, we have to determine when our dog has reached their limit for learning in the environment. However if we just turned around there, we would likely push them over their limit before we reached our end destination. So we have to look for those early warning signs; they can't check in as frequently, they might pull more, their excitement level might escalate, and so forth. This is especially important if we are walking a dog that might be fearful in the environment. They might be able to handle passing 1 dog or 4 dogs, but as their bucket fills the more and more dogs that come up get harder and harder to handle. In this case we need to notice our dog's limits and turn around before they hit the middle so they are not over threshold by the time we reach the end.

In some training sessions, we might be working on a totally new behavior. I'm going to use mat training as an example as this is a common behavior. In the early stages of mat training we often ask the dog to get on the mat for brief period and get back off to reset, repeating the behavior of getting on. Then we add to the behavior to increase the time they stay on the mat, often starting with adding seconds. Then we add to it again to increase the distance we walk away from the mat while the dog stays on the mat. We might even add to again by adding in other behaviors while the dog is on the mat. However if we make a mat training session go on too long, it can build frustration for the dog which can cause them to leave the mat and being unwilling to participate in the training. We want to End a mat training session way before we hit that stage. 

When you are using a shaping plan that your Trainer gave you, sometimes you have a goal in mind..."If we can just get to Step #5, we can stop there." Or you might have a measured time frame in mind..."If we train for 15 minutes." Sometimes we might be tempted to use our reinforcement to control our time spent in training..."We will train till you've earned all these treats." There is a big flaw in all of these reasons to End a session...we are not paying attention to the dog we are training or their ability to learn in that moment. 

If we want to end the session on a good note, we have to pay attention to the dog and work the dog in front of us. In mat training, if we wait too long in between giving reinforcement, our dog might move off the mat in an attempt to earn the reinforcement faster. If we step back a bit to far, our dog might want to come to us. And if we do the mat behavior successfully and reset the dog moving them off the mat for a few moments and back on, we might reset too many times. The dog may become bored with repeating the on the mat, off the mat, on the mat, off the mat.

It's really important that we notice the little things our dog is telling us about when to end a training session. We might observe subtle body language cues such as stretching, yawning, licking. The dog might do behaviors they know we don't like such as barking at us, nipping our hands, or chewing on the mat. When doing this the dog is basically telling us that even negative reinforcement is better then no reinforcement, which is not how we want to End a training session. 

It's also important to get ask our dogs to participate in a session, which also means they have the freedom to opt out at any given moment. When I was teaching retrieve to Talia & Isis, Cam would opt out and go lay on the couch because retrieving was frustrating to him. I had to take Cam into a low distraction, happy environment without the other dogs and break the retrieve steps down into tiny baby steps where he could earn rapid reinforcement. Now that Cam knows how to do the behavior, he doesn't have the problem doing it around distractions but in the learning stage distractions where a huge reason for him to opt out of training. Cam also chooses to opt out of training if the tone of my voice gets to stern or I begin getting frustrated. Azul opts out if my choice of reinforcement is not something he wants in the moment. Any session that ends in our dogs opting out of the session has a negative impact on the dog's confidence and what we were trying to accomplish during the session. We always want to end the session with the dog fully engaged with us and having fun. This way they learn more from that session.

Pushing the Envelope

To use a common analogy, in most sessions we want to push us dogs slightly to advance their skills. After all if we get stuck on the mat giving reinforcement every 3 seconds and never stretch that time, we end up bribing our dog to stay there which is not what we want as an end goal and it gets frustrating for us. 

Another good example is training a dog in public spaces. Trainers say, keep the sessions short...5 min, 10 min, 15 min and build up slowly. Again it's important to look at the dog we are training! We need to notice the subtle things our dogs do during that session. They may be able to do a 20 min session most days, then all of sudden we are in a new environment, there is an increase in distractions, or maybe we didn't give the dog enough time to sniff before we went in so they have to potty.  All of these things if left unnoticed, will cause a session to end badly!

We want to notice the subtle body language our dog is offering. This can be struggling to do well known behaviors such as having a really loose heel, unable to sit on cue, lack of focus on handler, sniffing things more then normal and so forth. We might also notice a change in their body language as far as their tail might go down slightly more then normal, their mouth might get tight around the edges, or their ears might be back or tighter then normal. Mild stress signals might mean you're starting to push that envelope and it's time to end before things go in the wrong direction. If I've been in a store too long or distractions are too high, Azul will do a deep sigh. It's not loud or offensive to others, but that's his way of saying, "Let's go already!" It doesn't happen much now that he's older, but when he was younger, Azul could easily get bored in the same place for long periods.

Avoiding the Shut Down
I already discussed a bit about allowing our dogs to opt out of a session. Sometimes the environment doesn't really allow an opt out option. If we are still blocks away from home on our walk, we can't simply end the walk there unless we have  a ride we can call for help. When we try to accomplish a goal such as grabbing groceries with a Service Dog in Training, it might be challenging to just leave. We have to take a moment to pay for our items. Yet those last few minutes can run the whole session if we don't handle them correctly. This is why it's super important to learn our dog's subtle signals.

What can we do when we notice those signals and we need to push it just a bit longer? Of course this is going to depend on the situation we are in. On walk and few blocks from home, we might be able to pause for a drink or sit in the shade a few minutes. The same goes for a Service Dog in Training who is struggling to focus, a quiet corner for a short down stay might save the day. 

Sometimes taking a rest is not the answer. Our dog might be having trouble focusing on what we want and we can make a change to help them. I like to break up a boring or slow paced training session with a game. If my dog is struggling with enough focus to be able to maintain a heel, playing my positions game gets them rapidly moving around me with a high rate of reinforcement for a short period. Then they may be able to focus a bit longer to help us finish our session on a good note. Azul can struggle with wanting to check in along with pulling on the leash on some walks because he is over-excited by all the distractions along our path. Changing directions, going down a different trail or a short rabbit trail where he can follow his nose a bit often helps. Changing your speed can help too; slowing down, speeding up, spinning in a circle, etc. Anything that changes what you were doing before can help you to finish up your session ending on a positive note instead of ending with frustration.

Another good trick to have up a your sleeve is some high level reinforcement. Perhaps something unpredictable happens such as dog charging you aggressively, a loud noise, or something falling close to you. Our end goal is that our dogs are resilient enough to handle these things with style. However if too many unpredictable things happen, this can push our dog over threshold real quick and end a training session in a negative way. Being prepared with high level reinforcement that we can pull out when the unexpected happens can help our dogs to build up positive associations with unexpected occurrences. We can sometimes also use high level reinforcement to lure our dogs away from a distraction that they have not been prepared for. You stumble across a half eaten slice of pizza (it happened to us a few days ago) and while your dog may be able to leave low value items on cue, that is simply too tempting. A high value reinforcement hidden in your treat bag can be come a lure and rapid reward for leaving the found item. Every now and then our dogs surprise us by doing a behavior we love but didn't expect in that training session. When that happens we want a high level reinforcement available so our dog will offer that great behavior more often.

All of these redirection activities we can do to help our dogs finish strong are dependent on our ability to know when and how to use the redirections the most effectively. If your dog is over-excited, a highly exciting activity is probably not going to help them calm down. You might need to be momentarily more exciting then the distraction to lure your dog to safety, but then you need to do something to bring them back down to a manageable excitement level. If your dog is tired, a rest is in order but if they are bored and yawning to show that, a rest will only make them more unsettled. 

Dogs have very common body language before big reactions happen. But we have notice their smaller body language signals to implement redirection techniques before the big outbursts happen. And the subtle signals often vary from dog to dog. Sometimes breed traits can help you learn some subtle signals, but not all of them. If you are following a teamwork based training style, you hit a point where you can almost feel what your dog needs and when they need it. We can also teach our dogs to tell us certain things; they need to potty, they want to play, or the owner needs to be aware of on oncoming medical issue. Azul knows a Paws Up in the house means he wants to go outside, a nose nudge on my leg means a migraine is coming, a chin rest on my lap means he's bored or wants us to follow him, etc. These are signals that we've repeated together on a regular basis so that we both understand what the signals mean. But if you are not at the level of teamwork yet, work with a trainer that understands canine body language and behavior that can help you learn what your dog is telling you and teach you ways to communicate more effectively with your dog.

What this training session with Cam and let me know how mistakes you see.  There is a big one near the end!


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