Category Archives: #1 TRAINING HELP

Top priority is to help you find entries that might help if you are struggling with training problems.

TIPS ON SHAPING

Offering Behavior

Offering is when the dog comes up with options rather than you directing the dog what to do. I use this method for training most things because when the dog comes up with ideas, the dog is more aware of what she’s doing. When a dog follows a treat or a prompt, they are not as focused on the behavior you’re creating, but rather they’re focused on the treat or your gestures. It is helpful to have the dog actively playing a role because then it’s not all up to you, the dog is a participant and, as he learns a behavior, the dog is responsible for his part of the work.

 

If your dog is demonstrating any concern, the last thing you want to do is try to lure or pressure them into/onto something. We want your dog to trust you and gain confidence. Pressuring your dog to do something can be damaging to your relationship. Instead, be patient and get your dog interested in trying stuff to win the treat from you.

 

You and your dog will need to practice learning this way. It is a skill in and of itself. It’s such a useful skill, that, I find, once a dog knows how to offer behavior (also called shaping or operant conditioning), it gets easier and easier to teach your dog tricks. It’s almost like your dog gets easier to train with every trick. Once you’re fluent in this skill, you’ll teach your dog something new in unbelievably short amounts of time.

 

So, please get some experience with this learning/teaching style. Some things to remember when shaping:

  • It’s a set up. You want the dog to figuratively “walk right into it”. So, if you’re trying to train to interact with a box, you’ll get the dog ready for training (grab your treats, alert your dog that the game is on), and then set the box down in the middle of the room. Since the box is novel, you’re guaranteed some interaction as soon as the box hits the floor.
  • Be ready the second the dog jumps in. If you are still messing around with your treat pouch or whatever, dogs often offer behavior as soon as they enter the area (or the item is set down). If you miss that chance because you were looking at, say, your treat bag, your dog will leave the novel item and come look at you and your treat pouch and the training will stall out.
  • Avoid stalling out. If a dog gets stuck in a sit or a down (obviously, when training something other than sit/down), develop a soft dialogue to communicate, “That’s not it…try something else.” The other thing you can do is take a step to your left or right (most green dogs will get up and follow).
  • You don’t want too much time to go by without the dog succeeding. Shaping can be VERY frustrating and you want to make things easier or break off the training.
  • Some thinking (on the dog’s part) is beneficial stress. Too much thinking is usually not productive. Find that point where the dog is making an effort, but stay away from a demotivating level of concentration.
  • Don’t talk too much. Depending on the dog, talking can encourage, but, at the wrong time, can totally distract the dog from the task. For the most part, try to be quiet except for when the dog is getting close to the right answer or has earned a click/mark. It’s like that game “hot/cold” we played as kids. Make it so that when the dog is correct, you come alive, and when the dog is getting “cold/colder”, you are neutral.
  • CONNECTION, connection, connection. If you don’t have “engagement” and your dog isn’t with you, forget about the task at hand and prioritize building up that connection.
  • Keep it short!! I bet everything I own that your training sessions last too long. Especially when dogs are new to this, you should keep it like 2 minutes long (2 minutes flies by, by the way). It’s better to train for a couple minutes, break it off (either with a toy/play reward and enjoying the play for a time or take a break where you dismiss the dog for a couple minutes), and then start back up for another 2 minutes, for 3 reps a session. If you have more than one dog, you can alternate, giving the dogs a break while the other is working. You’ll make more progress in little bite-sized chunks and the dog will have a better attitude.
  • Leftovers in your pocket and a dog that needs to be taken by the collar away from the task is ideal. You want your dog straining to get back to work.
  • “Relief” is a reward in and of itself. If your dog is concentrating hard, ending the task is a reward.
  • You will want to keep going because it’s rewarding to you to see the dog improving. You will be able to extend the session and keep advancing the behavior you’re training. Beware, though, it starts to get sloppy and the dog starts to think too hard. And, in my experience, a dog thinking too hard is not a good thing (for you or the dog).
  • Don’t be greedy (see above).
  • Slice the behavior down finer if the dog isn’t successful (for example, a glance to start rather than actually touching a paw to a prop).
  • Incrementally make it harder when the dog is ready. Don’t stay at a super easy level (like a glance) once the dog clearly knows that the prop is “hot” (that you want the dog to do something with the prop).
  • Consider placement of reward. Can you reward the dog somewhere that will set the dog up for the next attempt? For example, if you are training to hop onto a board, reward the dog away instead of on the board.
  • Don’t be so focused on your goals that you neglect to realize the dog has come up with a better way/idea/trick. Be flexible. That said, stop and consider deviations from your plan. You do have to be consistent or the dog will get confused, stressed, and nobody will be happy.
  • Enjoy your dog’s creativity. Laugh! Have fun with this! The coolest thing about this style of training is it brings out the dog’s personality.

RETRIEVE

This cooperative behavior is forever useful, so, it is worthwhile to invest training time building this skill. For a dog that likes toys, always encourage the retrieve after sending the dog to the toy. Tugging is the perfect reward for retrieve…for dogs that enjoy tugging. 

But what about the dog that doesn’t like to tug, or doesn’t care for toys at all?

I fully realize that not all dogs are excited about toys. Obviously, such a dog will not be rewarded by a game of tug. Dogs can be taught to retrieve for a food reward, but, the caveat is that the dog needs to spit out the item to eat. That’s a conflict that will cause the dog to prematurely drop the item to collect the reward. To get around this conflict, dispense the treats in a way where it seems like the treats are coming from the retrieve item itself, not your hands. Ideally, you can find a container that the dog can pick up and carry but that he cannot extract the treats from without your help. This may need to be a velcro or zippered pouch, or you might find things in your recycling bin that will work (like a hard plastic vitamin jar) (more ideas below). Choose items that are easy for your dog to carry (so a small pill bottle for a tiny dog, for example). Use appropriately sized items for larger dogs so that it is comfortable in a relaxed mouth. Of course, practice at your own risk. You must be fully in control of the situation so your dog doesn’t swallow and choke on the item. If your dog will abscond with the item and you do not understand how to get the item from the dog, find a trainer to work with (and be sure they know how to help, many won’t) and do not try this alone.

If your dog is really tough to convince, you might need to use things that your dog can start to tear open: like several sheets of newspaper with a delicious morsel wrapped inside, twisted up like a Christmas cracker. You can try this with a dog that is difficult to convince to retrieve:

  1. Work in a very small space: a closet or a bathroom devoid of other distractions.
  2. Find a tantalizing morsel, attractive enough that you have your dog’s attention and let your dog know that you have it by waving it just out of reach under his nose.
  3. Take your wrapper (5 sheets of newspaper), and, while your dog is watching, wrap that food up, twisting both ends so the dog can’t easily get the food out.
  4. Get down on the ground and toss the item just a few feet away towards the wall.
  5. Encourage your dog emotionally with your dialogue. Remember, dog’s prefer playful, not pushy. Try taking a deep breath of awe rather than shouting. Tap a corner of the item or start to tear at the paper to get the dog interested if you need to.
  6. Once your dog is investigating, move back a little. Do not move towards your dog. Sit still and encourage your dog to come back to you (patting your legs, drumming on the floor in front of you, clapping your hands, etc).
  7. If your dog doesn’t even pick it up, but puts his paws on it to try and begin tearing it open, help him by tearing into it, too, getting to the reward in the middle. Make it appear as if the paper is delivering the treat.
  8. Repeat. As your dog’s interest in the game grows, see if he’ll pick up the bundle. Encourage the dog to come back to you as soon as he gets his mouth on it. Resist the temptation to meet the dog and instead ask the dog to come to you. If you are already very close to the dog and in a confined area, the dog is more likely to make it back to you.

Start with very little distance and throw the item next to a wall so your dog can’t move farther away. You may have to start by clicking your dog just for picking it up with his mouth, at which point you’ll move in and deliver the reward from the item, NEVER FROM YOUR HANDS DIRECTLY. The idea is to convince the dog that there’s a prize inside and if he hurries up and brings it to you, you will use your hands to help him get it out faster.

As this dog progresses, stick the paper bundle inside of a sock so the dog can’t tear it open as easily. Transition to using just the sock with a meatball inside. When your dog brings the sock to you, flip open the cuff while still holding part of the meatball. As the dog is grabbing for the meatball, present it directly from the sock while backing slowly away from the dog. As it starts slipping out of reach the dog might start biting for it. You want to hold the meatball inside the sock so part of it is accessible and the other part is covered. This can make the dog try to bite down to grab a hold of the retreating item. You may even be able to turn on your dog’s interest to tug if you practice this enough. 

Other containers you might try are: a cardboard tube (like toothpaste comes in), a travel container for a toothbrush, and there are lots of toys that you can stuff with food (the lotus ball, pouches, discs, covered or lined with fur and squeakers, with bungee cord handles). Sometimes you can find household items that are perfect. In the picture you see a lunch bag that folds up and has a strong Velcro closure. Whatever you use, find something that the dog can’t open without thumbs.

A lot of dogs are much further along in the process. Adjust accordingly but be aware of the distance and distractions.  You will definitely have an easier time with this exercise if you use items that are long enough for you and your dog to both have your “hands” on. Pouches should have straps. Most toys become more attractive with a strap because you can activate the prey drive by dragging it (like you would for a cat to pounce on). If it’s too small (like a ball), it is hard to snake and tease along the ground. It’s also easier for your dog to run off with the toy if it doesn’t have a handle. Always encourage your dog to return to you. If you cannot get the retrieve, put a long line on the toy! That way if your dog picks up the item and runs it becomes a tug game rather than something destructive, like keep away.  

If your dog likes to tug, play a little and then let go and dance away playfully from your dog.  Ideally, when you let go the dog will run after you and pounce on you, begging for you to tug (or to open up the pouch) to immediately restart the game. If it’s OK with you, let your dog jump on you (dogs are context oriented and you can easily teach them it’s allowed in play and not during daily life). My dogs try to shove the toy into my hands, usually with their paws on my belly.

Finally, before the dog spits out the item, say your “Give/Drop it” cue. Getting a dog to hold onto a retrieve item until you say let go is another entire undertaking. Often, dogs will eject the toy at your feet or prematurely when you reach for it. It’s a worthwhile training task to teach your dog to deliver it to your hand. If you are interested in competitive sports, service dog tricks, or you just want your dog to do the bending down and picking up for you, you should already be aware of the challenges the complete delivery to hand presents and be mindful of that component throughout your training. I’ll write another post on that topic soon.