Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Foundation Behaviors

It's been pointed out to me that twenty minutes a day is a long time to be training your dog every day. Which is true. We do a lot of group things here, there are a lot of behaviors I ask for on a regular basis, and I try to mix things up to keep all our lives interesting. But actually pull a dog aside and work with him individually for twenty minutes a day? Yeah, that doesn't happen. Not unless we're working on something in particular. As is the case with B. :grin:

So what are we doing with twenty minutes a day? If you've ever tried to do this, you might notice that you run out of things to do, or you and your dog get bored (and I say that from the perspective of experience). A lot of what B and I do with our twenty minutes is pretty basic stuff. Simple, but important: these are the exercises that I really want to come through in a pinch. So we practice them over and over again, proofing and adding new elements, so that when I really need Rubi to do a behavior, I can be pretty sure that it will happen. Most of these exercises are important enough that I teach them to all my fosters before they leave my house. Needless to say, for a reactive dog, they can be life savers.

Hand Touch - This is one of those things that is so ridiculously handy I can't imagine why everyone does teach it to their dog. Hold your hand out to your dog. Mark/reward when they touch your hand. Repeat until the dog touches your hand nine out of ten times when you hold it out to them. Once you get there, move your hand a little. Mark/reward when they touch your hand. Slowly work up until they touch or follow your hand where ever it goes - always wait to get that 9/10 response before you increase the difficulty. 

Why do I like this one so much? Let's say we're walking down the street and we see another dog. B gets The Look. You know - the one where you can tell that they're just a little too interested in the other dog. I tell B to "touch" and she has to look away from the other dog to touch my hand. The benefit is two fold: it breaks B's focus on the other dog, and it causes her to reorient on me. I can then use my hand touch to move B to my other side (like many reactive dogs, B feels better if I am between her and the other dog). Or I can use it to move her back and away from the other dog. Or I can do any of a dozen other things. B's attention is on me. I could write an entire entry on why I love the hand touch, but you all get the idea.

Mat Work - The goal here is to have the dog go lay down on a mat. Start by marking and reward your dog for interacting with the mat - looking at it, sniffing the mat, touching the mat, whatever. Throw your treat onto the mat when your dog earns a click. If your dog gets stuck on the mat, mark and reward it for being on the mat, then toss the treat off the mat and start again. Once the dog is going to the mat 90% of the time after you throw the treat, try moving your body and not standing directly in front of the mat. This is often a whole new ball game for the dog, so start small again: mark and reward your dog for looking at the mat, sniffing the mat, touching the mat or any of the bed. 

Why is this one so useful? For nervous, insecure dogs like Maus, it creates a safe place. When I take out the mat in a busy area, you can just about see the relief in Maus's eyes. "At last!" he thinks, "I know where I'm supposed to be in the world." For excitable dogs like Rubi, it gives them a job. Rubi thinks, "See the mat? I'm holding it on the floor. Yep, mat's not moving from here. See how well I'm holding the mat still? Oh, yeah, I'm a rockstar." Having the dog on the mat frees me up to pay attention to other things like, say, the instructor in a class. All I have to do is periodically remember to reward the dog for still being on the mat. Mat work also lies the foundation for a few advanced moves like the relaxation protocol and conditioned relaxation.

Emergency Recall - Also known as the "Really Reliable Recall." Before you start this one, a brief note: don't put your dog in a stay first. You will ruin your stays. You start easy - call your dog in a situation when you're 99.9% sure he will come, and use a happy recall word. Why the special word? You want the dog to be happy to come to you every single time. It's easy to get angry when you're yelling, "Rubi! Come! I said come here now!" It's harder to sound angry when you're yelling, "Rubi! YAHOOOO!!!!"  And then make a Big Freakin' Deal out of it when your dog comes. Huge praise and scratches and treats for at least fifteen seconds - that's a ginormous reward for the dog and really hard for a person to do. What I usually do is count my seconds happily to the dog - "One, you're the best dog ever, two, you're so pretty, three, I love you, four, Mississippi, five, Mississippi . . . " It doesn't matter what you say, just that you're super thrilled to say it and you do it for what seems like forever.

And then you repeat the process one thousand times.

I'm not kidding. The repetition is what seals this excercise. Eventually, the emergency recall is more reflex than command. The dog hears the happy cue and thinks, "OMG, must find owner NOW!" without thinking of whatever else is going on around them. It's tedious to teach, but well worth it. I can now call Rubi off squirrels because we practice this just one to three times a day. 

Strategic Retreat - This one has a few different names, too, but the concept is the same. Here's where I use it: we're walking down the street, and we see a stray dog up ahead. I don't feel like breaking up a fight today, so tell Rubi, "this way!" We quickly change direction and go back the way we came, Rubi tail wagging along. It's pretty easy to teach. We go out into a big field. Everytime Rubi gets to the end of her leash, I cheerfully say, "this way!" and change direction, marking and rewarding her for catching up with me. It's the low-stress way of teaching you're dog, "we're leaving now, and it's gonna be great."

There are, of course, other things that Rubi and I work on during out twenty minutes. We do a lot of tricks. I've found that it's really hard to be afraid of a dog that's waving at passer-bys. Rubi has about half a dozen tricks now, all just for fun. I feel not everything should be serious. We also do a lot of problem solving activities. Like many dogs taught by punishment-based methods, Rubi falls victim to learned helplessness regularly (I'll let you google that term if you don't understand it - God bless the internet). What that means is that when confronted with a problem, instead of trying to figure it out, she shuts down - literally. For Allister, Maus, and Piper, when I ask them to do something they don't understand, they'll start to offer me different behaviors that have been rewarded in the past - about a dozen of them. If I ask Rubi to do something she's not sure of, she sits and stares at me until I do something to help her. Or worse, she falls back on behaviors that worked for her in the past - like say, screaming at other dogs. So we do shaping exercises to work on her problem solving abilities. We've shaped a lot of targeting, moving around objects, give paw - simple, easy stuff. Is it working? Well, she offers me three different behaviors now instead of just the one.

Why does it matter if Rubi can problem solve? A thinking dog is easier to teach. A dog that can problem solve is able to think, "okay, this isn't getting me what I want - what else can I try?" Without that connection, Rubi is left trying the same thing over and over again until she exhausts herself, or something in the environment changes. Remember the definition of insanity? Doing the same thing, over and over again and expecting different results.

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