Tagged: german shepherd dog

Choices, Choices

Hiya! I’ve got several other posts in progress, but this morning murwill1 on You Tube asked a few great questions about the Zydeco Lesson Go Place video I posted yesterday that has inspired me to write up a discussion of my choices in that session. It is really validating I have to say, when people watch my videos so closely, and take the time to notice the little details. Watching other skilled trainers work–mostly on You Tube and DVDs, but also at seminars and at Clicker Expo– and thinking through all the whys and wherefores of what they were doing was how I learned most of what I now do today too.

If you didn’t watch the video yet, click on the link above to see it. Then my discussion will make more sense.

murwill1 asked: “Why do you feed sometimes in his mouth and sometimes on the mat? Also, when you use the sweater that is something different? That is not cued like the place mat?”

Normally it is a good idea to only focus on one criteria at a time when teaching something new, but I’ve taught this behavior so often and am getting to know this puppy so well, I can get away with this slightly accelerated “short hand” version, combining a number of teaching goals at once all in one, short, minute and a half long training session.

Teaching goal #1: shape the behavior of actively targeting the mat. I accomplish this by initially clicking him the moment he steps onto it, and then quickly switch to clicking for the entire behavior chain of going to the mat and laying down. How did I know he was ready for that shift in criteria so soon? It is almost hard to define, and I don’t always get it right. Shifting criteria midstream…Hmmmm…I’m tempted to call it a “gut feeling,” but it probably has much more to do with just being obsessively observant. I probably noticed him just beginning to buckle his legs a little on a few reps and by delaying the click slightly, I could now capture the act of laying down instead of only stepping onto the mat.

So the clicks tell him: going to the mat and laying down is correct. (Note: watching myself work here, I see that I am breaking one of my own rules of duration training accidentally. Normally, for me, the click ends the behavior, which means Zydeco is actually free to get up after he hears it. Instead, the pattern I’m creating in this session is: go to mat–click–get fed on mat, then get released with an OKAY!–and get fed again. It’s slightly sloppy, but he seems to figure out what I want anyway. Dogs are very forgiving a lot of the time. Next session I may clarify the entire pattern to this: hear “Go Place“—> puppy goes to mat and lays down—> puppy stays there for X amount of time —-> hear “OKAY!” —-> puppy gets up—> CLICK! — treat toss). Why do it this way? Because this behavior is a chain of little behaviors linked together, and the best way to sustain a chain usually is to put the reinforcement at the end. (There are exceptions to this of course).

Okay, so, with the criteria of “go to mat and lay down” in mind, I feed one treat on the mat to reward him for going there, then toss another treat to reset him to offer the behavior again. However, he was looking so nice and settled on the mat each time, very quickly I decide to switch criteria to goal #2.

Teaching goal #2: staying on the mat until the release cue OKAY! I begin to establish the criteria of duration now by feeding multiple treats in place, either directly to his mouth, or between his paws on the mat. Sometimes once, sometimes twice, sometimes four treats in a row. I like to keep him guessing so he’ll stay there and wait. Once I start feeding in place, I now want to add the release cue OKAY! Note: Zydeco has learned the release cue already during crate training, and impulse control games with toys. Notice in the video how he hops right up each time when he hears OKAY! That tells me he is pretty fluent with that cue. I treat after OKAY each time because it is a cue and when he responds correctly, he gets paid, and I toss that treat to maintain the pattern he already knows that OKAY! means move.

Teaching goal #3: shaping the right emotional response to the Go Place mat. Zydeco gets excited with lots of treat tossing and movement. When he gets excited, he attacks the mat, roughs it up, and even mounts it. That is not the emotion I want attached to this behavior. For me, Go Place is active, engaged, but very focused. It is not goofy, amp up time. Keeping the sessions very short, and alternating between chasing treats, to calmly eating treats in place on the mat helps build the calm focus I’m after. You’ll also notice I’m deliberately speaking very softly to him, and feeding in a deliberate, almost boring way. These choices are also intentional and the goal is to help him remain calm while he works.

So why teach a Go Place with one mat and a default Relax on a Mat with another? Same reason as above: emotions are everything. Although the Go Place mat and his fuzzy relax sweater look similar, that is just by chance. This cream colored Snoozy Go Place mat in the video is just what I had available.  It might even be better if they looked a little different actually. For me, Go Place is active. As I said the emotions I’m hoping to shape and capture are: engaged, focused, calm. But because it is on cue, this is a working behavior. A working behavior can be very different emotionally than a default behavior.

During Z’s work on the relax sweater, I never cue it, and I only feed in position in a very slow, calm way. I also did all the initial work on the sweater with lickable foods like canned dog food and baby food. Licking is also very soothing.

In these two pictures, you can really see the difference in his body language between the two emotional states:

Zydeco Lessons: Go Place

Go Place: mouth closed, eyes focused on me, muscles poised to move again

Zydeco Lessons: Relax on a Mat

Relax on a Mat: mouth open, eyes squinty, muscles loose, posture comfortable, ready to stay there awhile

So, there we go. Several teaching goals all captured in a single, 2 minute lesson. (Have I mentioned that I love clicker training yet?). The long and short of it is: there is no one, perfect, cookie cutter formula to teach a dog anything. The more experience you have–particularly with observation skills– the more you can bend the rules, and go with the flow. As long as your learner is responding well, getting rewarded often, and having fun, you are probably doing it right.

Please keep asking questions, peoples. Articulating out loud why the heck I’m doing what I’m doing when I do things with dogs is super helpful for me too!