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!)

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