Friday, December 25, 2015

A How to Guide to Building an Off-Switch

A lot of people desire a high energy, intelligent dog. And I see a lot of times, when they are looking for a new puppy, they say, "I want a dog who can do this, this, this and that, but also have an off-switch." The thing is that a lot of what makes a good off-switch for a high energy and intelligent dog is the training.

So what is an off-switch? An off switch is the dog being able to relax and calm down when you aren't doing anything with her. A dog without an off switch is the dog that brings tennis balls to your lap, that breathes on your shins as you sit on the computer, that begs with her eyes for you to move and for you guys to do something, and destroys the house out of boredom.
From the first day I brought Pip home, I practiced off-switch and settle behaviors with her. She's a dog that is extremely easy to rev up. For dogs like her, it's important to practice taking a breath, calmness. So often, they live on the edge of imploding with excitement over every little thing: People, food, toys, treats. It's not fair to them and is hard on their nervous systems.

So, I now present a tutorial on building the off switch. This is only a small portion of the training you'll need. You'll also need to build impulse control and the ability to choose you and what you want separately and then together with this training. Below the video link are more tips to help you be successful.

Step 1: Building value for the crate/mat/bed
- use a calm treat delivery
- do not add a cue "go to your bed" right away, you want to simply reward good choices
- do not be stingy with the treats!

Step 2: Build duration
- Start by adding seconds at a time between treats
- Ping-pong the duration around once your dog understands staying on the mat is his job (for example: 1 minute, 30 seconds, 20 minutes, 15 minutes, 2 minutes)

- Reward your dog when she isn't staring at the treats or treat hand. I have posted a video below on why this is important. This video is from Kikopup. She has great tutorials online.

Step 3: Add distractions
- If you taught impulse control, this step goes much easier!
- Do not give the leave it cue. You want the dog to choose the right behavior on her own. If you constantly give cues, you'll have to micromanage your dog using the cues you've taught her.
- Only start this step if the dog values calmly laying on the mat very highly

Step 4: Rewarding the dog offering calm behaviors off the mat or bed
- Use a high rate of reinforcement (give a lot of treats and praise) to the dog.
- Be aware of these moments. So many times, a dog offers calmness and is ignored.

You'll find that in some situations, your dog will not know how to relax in a certain situation without the bed or mat. That's OK. As long as you continue to reward the dog for calm behaviors, she will build a habit of being calm.

I remember when Pip would just tear things up and run around and bark and look at me so intently that she was vibrating. She was always ready to go and didn't know how to relax.

Believe it or not, your crazy dog doesn't want to be crazy all the time. It's hard on the nervous system and it's hard on the dog.

Here is my earlier post about building Pip's off-switch for more ideas! Pip was an extreme adrenaline junkie, crazy dog when I first adopted her. Now she is quite calm inside the house.

Off Switches: Just Breathe!

Monday, December 7, 2015

10 Tips for Fading Treats

Fading treats in training is less about coming up with a systematic way of slowly phasing rewards out and more about using rewards more effectively in training. If you use the rewards cleanly, effectively, and smartly, fading treats comes pretty naturally. Hopefully these tips help you guys out!

1. Fade the lure quickly, if using lures.
A lot of times, the reason why the lure stays in the hand for so long is because the dog doesn't cleanly follow the lure at first. Instead of trying to get a sloppy, complete follow of the lure into a position like sit or down, you can break it up into little pieces. Reward the dog for following the sit lure up with their heads without jumping up. Reward them for leaning backwards, and then for sitting. If the dog can follow the lure cleanly, it is far easier to fade the lure.

The important thing to remember is not how many repetitions you've lured your dog, but the length of time you keep the lure in your hand. So focus on getting rid of the lure in the first or second session of using it and switch to the dog following your hand without treats in it.

2. Teach hand targeting as an essential skill

If you teach your dog to touch your hands when they see them, then you have a tool to move and reposition your dog without needing to have food in your hands. I use the hand targets in several flexible ways in the video. As a check-in behavior (good for off leash play to have your dog periodically touch her nose to your hand), as a way to refocus, to aid in teaching hand signals, and to give security and confidence. And, the video above showed my guinea pigs doing it. If guinea pigs can do it, your dog absolutely can do it, too!

3. Use a high rate of reinforcement while training new behaviors
Rate of reinforcement is a phrase which means the number of reinforcers (rewards) given per minute. A high rate of reinforcement means you are giving around 30 treats every minute. And it's also very counter-intuitive for people who want to eventually use fewer treats.

Treats are not just rewards. They are also a form of feedback for your dog. If you are stingy with the treats, chances are, you are stingy with feedback in general. And it's very hard to learn with a lack of feedback. It's also very hard for the dog to be successful if you try to fade the treats before your dog has a solid understanding of the behavior.

4. Expand the list of reinforcers that you use in training
When you are working with your dog, don't just hand your dog treats. If you do that, you'll get a dog who will only work for treats. Teach your dog to enjoy multiple reinforcers (rewards) in training. Make a list of everything your dog enjoys out of life and try to figure out creative ways to use them in training. An easy way to inject fun in training without using treats is to use praise and toys in training. Here, Pip shows you how you can start playing with your dog and how to introduce obedience and structure in play as well.

 Other reinforcers include: praise, petting, going somewhere fun, playing with other dogs, playing chasing games with you, running, bubbles, water (for water loving dogs), interesting smells.

5. Teach training skills which help aid in communication
Just like hand targeting can help, teaching your dog to do things like, fetch a leash when she wants to walk or ring a bell when she needs to go out can help to teach her that she doesn't always have to work for food. Here, I've taught my guinea pigs to load themselves up into carriers in order to communicate if they want to go into or out of the cage. No treats are needed because feeling in control over this aspect of their life is the reward, in and of itself.

6. Reward for effort to build a habit of working hard
When you first start training your dog. Sits and downs are not the easiest thing. But once your dog becomes proficient at them, start to ask more and more from your dog. Consistently challenge your dog so that they feel they have to work as hard as they can to earn the goodies. If sits at home are easy, ask for a sit while asking the dog to leave it. If that's easy, work multiple behaviors with an open container of food on the floor.

In addition, if the dog has worked long and hard, give her a reward worth that effort. If you asked for ten different behaviors when that's hard for her, don't give her a piece of kibble and a pat on the end, give her a piece of steak and a tug session! You'll eventually see a dog that, the longer she goes without a reward, the harder she works because she believes she'll get the best reward in the end!

7. Get the treats off of you!
Train with the treats off of your person. You want to get the treats and toys off of you or hide them on you (in a way the dog can't know you have them). If you use a treat pouch, take it off. Don't hold the toys or treats in your hands. Instead, hide them in your pockets or under your shirt (toys). Once your dog is confidently trained in the behavior, your dog should perform whether she sees the rewards or not and trust that you'll reward her in some way, whether it's praise, treats, a chest rub, toys, or a fun game of chase.

8. Clean up your training mechanics
Too many people will mark (with the word "yes" or a click) at the same time they reward. Or, if their dog is doing well, they'll put their hands in the training pouch. Or, they get a habit of touching their pocket and their dog suddenly becoming attentive. You want to train as cleanly as you can. This means, you plan the steps you take before you train. You don't move for treats until after you mark the behavior. And you don't work with the treats and toys right in front of your dog's face. And you need very clean training mechanics in order to train a guinea pig!

9. Don't just "up the value" of the treats constantly
You hear it all the time! You should increase the value of the treat if the dog is not attentive. While it is important to make sure that the value of the treat matches the level of distraction your dog finds herself in, it's better to look at the environment and whether or not your dog's ready for it.

If the dog isn't listening at home during a training session, don't reach for the better treats. Just end the session. Your dog is missing out of the great chance of working with you and playing the training game. Bad training is asking the dog to do something and when she doesn't do it, breaking out the good stuff so she'll listen and pay attention. This teaches her to blow you off so that you will get the better stuff out.

Sometimes, your dog will not listen is because the environment is too distracting. My dog Pip gets overwhelmed easily. When I take her someplace new, I let her sniff and take in the sights. I used to wait until she finally relaxed enough to offer attention to me. When she does, I know she's ready and I'll make training super-duper fun. She is already starting to ask for training almost right away in distracting places because of this approach.

Asking her to do things while she needs to process her stress will just stress her more. Attend to your dog's emotional and mental needs before you do training. Pulling out the high value treats in this situation is ignoring your dog's needs and may create a relationship of conflict when training.

10. Build a love of working and training with you
Training should be a super fun time. While food is feedback, you want rewards to be moments you share when your dog is successful. For example, when you ask your dog to come to you. Don't just hand her a treat for a "job well done." Tell her she's the best dog in the world. That she's smart and brave and beautiful. Let her cover you with her kisses. Make her feel like she made the best choice in the world for coming when called. When you get frustrated, just stop working. Training should be all about the relationship between you and your dog. It should also be about having fun with your dog.

My last blog post explained about how to build intrinsic value in working and training with you.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

How to Build Intrinsic Motivation: Using Flow in Your Dog's Training

How do you get your dog to listen to you? You motivate your dog. Extrinsic motivators are things like food, toys, play etc. Intrinsic motivators is what it's called when the task itself is rewarding to the dog. A good training practice is to use them both effectively.

However, the thing about intrinsic motivation is that it's typically hard to use in training scenarios. It's easier to access if you do something that is more in line with your dog's natural instincts. You don't need treats and toys to get a Border collie to enjoy herding or an Alaskan husky to enjoy pulling. So, what about things like obedience? How do you access intrinsic motivation when you ask your dog to heel or come when called or stay?

Easy answer: You become a better trainer and clean up your training mechanics: rate of reinforcement, clear criteria, clean treat delivery, using the proper reinforcer for the dog, reading the dog, challenging the dog without overwhelming him, etc...

And really, it might just be easier to understand how important all of that is when we explain it through something called flowThis is a psychological phenomenon described by Mihaly Csikzentmihalyi. There are three main aspects in using flow in training:
  • Defined goals
  • Clear and immediate feedback
  • Balance between perceived skill and challenge
Now, to cover my butt so I'm not accused of anthropomorphism (attributing human traits to animals), I'm not going to say that dogs go into a flow state. But I will say that giving a dog defined goals, clear and immediate feedback, and balancing the dog's skills with challenge cause a dog to be more focused and motivated on the tasks, as well as learn faster. And most trainers have had these perfect training sessions or the perfect run in a trial where the dog is completely focused on the task and performs to the best of his ability. Hopefully, understanding how and why everything went right will allow us to make it more likely to happen in the future.

Below is a video of Pip, in real time, learning a new trick. I throw the treat to reset her so that she can run up to the target with all the enthusiasm she needs to feel like she's having fun. Note that her focus is so immersed in the task that she doesn't care that there are people outside the door, despite being normally reactive to that trigger.

What happens when you have an animal with a history of working with defined goals, clear and immediate feedback, and a balanced between perceived skill and challenge? You get an animal who finds intrinsic value in the work and who would choose to interact with you over any other distractions in the environment. It also improves attention span and allows the animal to recover quickly from incorrect responses in training. Below is a video of Fiona NTD, my guinea pig (yes, this applies to guinea pigs, too), learning a more advanced version of a trick she has already learned.

Interestingly enough, this has been explored in training methods already. Something called Loopy Training demonstrates this by giving the dog a loop in which they can start to work in a comfortable rhythm. This gives them immediate feedback and clear goals with no pause in the training. When the loop is clean (easy for the dog), the trainers are advised to move on.