Posts Tagged With: dog training

Cause Of Failure In Dog Training

I found this quote by Bob Bailey the other day and thought it ties nicely with my last post


Photo credit: Stisnprtisn! studio

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Are Dogs Who Love To Train Born That Way?

Many people see my dogs perform tricks or see a video of them running agility and assume that they were just born that way. (My coworkers are convinced that whippets must be one of the smartest and most trainable breeds around.) That they were born loving tunnels, that they were born knowing how to focus on me and do tricks while there are a gazillion other tempting options around: other dogs and people, ground to sniff, birds to catch. They think their dogs could never do it because they are not like mine.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard someone say “we tried agility one time, but she just didn’t like it”. Really? You tried one session and already concluded your dog doesn’t like it because she doesn’t run through tunnels when you ask her to?

Agility is something that dogs learn to love if you do it right. Sure, some dogs love obstacles from the get go, but not all of them. Most dogs start out liking some obstacles, but they only start liking the others once we build value for them. That means we find ways to make it lots of fun for the dog.

But not all humans want to do agility and that’s fine. Back to reasons why people think their dog wouldn’t like training. They say he doesn’t like to play so much or he takes the toy and runs away or he just can’t focus around other dogs or he doesn’t care about treats. Guess what? Ruby had all those problems (and then some). He loves training now.

My dogs like training so much because I take the time to observe what toys and treats they like, and what type of play. Imagine a special someone would observe your preferences for months so that they could arrange a perfect date for you, cooking the favorite meal for you, taking you to all the places and doing all the activities that you love the most… Would you be impressed? My dogs are, too.

Training in this way is not a duty for a dog, it’s a joy and a privilege. Something that they look forward to and they are disappointed when I don’t have the time to do it. I have never forced or begged my dogs to do agility. During first agility sessions my dog might work for 2 minutes and then have a break for 15 minutes or more. If they’re not interested in working, they don’t have to. Another dog will get their turn. Soon, they find out that I will not beg for their attention and that if they’re not ready when I am, they will loose the opportunity to have fun. However, if they do give me their attention, all their favorite treats, toys and games will rain from the sky and life will be AWESOME. We will go on that special date. Thus training becomes a privilege, not a chore.

Of course to prepare a perfect reward for my dog I have to do my homework before I ever show him agility equipment. I train tricks to see how he likes to learn, what treats he likes and what gets him excited during training sessions. I play with him several times per day. My favorite time to play is on a walk and just after the dog has come inside, which means that as I’m doing my homework we play at least four times per day. I teach him some toy games, such as tugging, Two Toy Game and retrieve. Now that we have some activities that my dogs loves to do with me we are ready to take that training in public, among other dogs.

I don’t start training agility until I know I have some reward that my dog will go ga-ga over. For many dogs that reward must be built through time, so the dog might start out just mildly interested in play, but as we play more and I learn to play better, it will become a better and better reward. So don’t worry if your dog isn’t already crazy about something. Just take what he likes the most and do short, fun session with it. Even treats can become more rewarding with time if used correctly.

After my homework is done we can start with agility, with no obligation for the dog to participate – but of course now they WANT to, because I know what makes them tick.

This is Aki. He likes jumps, absolutely loves the dog walk even though it’s narrow and high, but he says there is something sinister about those tunnels. And yet, from this video you would never guess it, because his owner took the time to bring out his playful side and to find the toy that is worth going through the tunnel for.

Does Aki love tunnels now? Not yet, but with patience and keeping it fun… he will 🙂

This is a wonderful read as well:

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On Failure

I fail. A lot. I fail while training my dogs every day in one way or another. My dogs fail, too. But the important part isn’t that we fail, the important part is how we handle it.

I taught my dogs through free shaping and games that failure is OK and nothing to worry about. If you do it wrong, you don’t get a reward, but we are still playing and you will probably get it right on the next try, so hurry up and try again!
Similarly, when my training plan fails this is nothing to worry about. It doesn’t mean I’m stupid, worthless, will never be able to train this, have a dog that cannot be trained or any other nonsense that the inner critic tries to feed me. We are still playing and my next plan will probably work better!

by mariathehedgehog335

by mariathehedgehog335

I set out to do a few Recallers games in a public place where we usually wouldn’t do them. I brought Ruby out of the car and started tugging, but I could feel his heart wasn’t in it and he even stopped to look around twice. Guess what, if the dog isn’t tugging happily in a certain place you cannot use the tug as a reward. OK, so we were left with food. He was more focused when working with that, but I still felt like I might lose him at any moment. He was on leash, so “loosing him” meant just loosing his attention, but attention, to me, is everything. Since I was fast, rewarded him often and also released often to environment, this didn’t happen, but if I were to lose intensity for a second he would be off to sniff the bushes in no time.

While this would look like a successful training to an onlooker, it was a failure to me, because we are way past the stage where I need to work for his attention (or so I thought). Failures happen and all good trainers are OK with that. They even use them to their advantage. Here are some types of failures:

1. Dog failing at the task. Perhaps failing multiple times. Perhaps not succeeding at all.
2. Reacting inappropriately to dog’s failure because of lack of training plan or lack of knowledge.
3. Inability to get dog excited about training.
4. Loosing dog to the environment (loosing focus & wandering off).

For me, the #3 – inability to get dog excited is the hardest failure to bear emotionally, followed really closely by #4 – loosing dog to environment. These used to be our biggest problems in training and while we don’t get them very often these days, they can still happen as evidenced by my experience with Ruby.

Dog training is an interesting activity. It teaches you so much about yourself, your character, your fears. It can expose your weaknesses like perfectionism, impatience, comparing yourself to others, comparing your dog to other dogs, focusing on the negative, difficulty in expressing joy and approval, worrying about what will others think, wanting to look good, anger, frustration. These were all mine if you were wondering… Some of them in the past, others I’m still struggling with. I probably forgot some, too.

I think it’s amazing that dog training is bringing all of these flaws to the surface in the context where I am motivated to work through them. Sure, it hurts when I bump against “comparing myself to others”, but by working through it I found self-love, appreciation for the journey that is mine alone, and also more love for others. What could be better than that?

I know you have your own struggles, some are with knowledge, others with mechanics and still others with internal critic like mine. You are not alone. Dog training is an unexpectedly emotional experience for most of us.

Look back at the struggles you have already overcome. Perhaps you spent months to teach your dog to play with toys. Perhaps your patience was tested by a puppy piranha. Perhaps you learned to control your frustration better. Perhaps you taught your dog “sit pretty” after 8 months of patient work. You did it!

Remember also that not everything was hard. Perhaps your puppy slept through the night from the time you brought him home. Or he loved food. Or he wasn’t afraid of traffic. Or learned Sit fast. Or you could take him with you for a coffee without much training at all. Every single thing that is easy for your dog is difficult for someone else’s dog and therefore not something that should be taken for granted. When I felt really hopeless and thought that Ruby will never be happy to work with me with other dogs present, I wrote a list of all the things that were great about him, including snuggling 🙂 It helped.

Um... we were supposed to be going in the same direction!

Um… we were supposed to be going in the same direction!

This problem in front of you is just like one of those you already solved. With a little creativity and perseverance it will become one of the problems of the past. If this post reminded you of the problem you have successfully overcome, go ahead and write it in the comments so we can celebrate together 🙂

PS: What do Silvia Trkman and Susan Garrett have in common? They see problems as puzzles, waiting to be solved. They replaced the feeling of frustration with curiosity and a game-on attitude. I came to believe that all great trainers do that – it’s what puts them in the right state of mind to find solutions.

Thanks Monika for Ruby’s agility photo! Those are some great memories 🙂

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How Much Will My Dog Remember?

A friend asked me how much do dogs remember if they only train something once per week. The reference was to our weekly agility trainings. The answer, as Facebook would say, is complicated.

First, I would like to point out the 2011 study The effect of frequency and duration of training sessions on acquisition and long-term memory in dogs. While the study was focused on how would different training schedules impact how long the dogs would retain the knowledge afterwards (the answer: once behavior was learned all groups retained it for four weeks regardless of training schedule used), the interesting point for our discussion is that not only have those Beagles that trained only once or twice per week remembered their training, they learned faster than those who trained every day.

Whoa! What are you saying here? Should I just train my dog once per week for fast learning?

Well, it depends on how you define ‘fast’ and I think it also depends on what you’re training. In the study all groups trained the same behavior. Would results differ if the behavior trained was more complex? Who knows.

BeagleRetentionStudyHere’s the graph showing how quickly each group progressed through stages of learning the task of jumping in a basket. One session = 6 repetitions.
W1 – trained once or twice weekly for 6 reps
W3 – trained once or twice weekly for 18 reps
D1 – trained daily for 6 reps
D3 – trained daily for 18 reps

Dogs that trained once or twice weekly for only 6 repetitions (W1) reached training level 7 in 10 sessions (60 repetitions) while those that trained daily for 6 repetitions (D1) reached the same level in 18 sessions (108 repetitions). Obviously the group that was only trained once or twice per week had no problems remembering their training sessions. They even learned faster! However, for group W1 those 10 sessions took 7 weeks while for group D1 their 18 sessions took less than 4 weeks. If talking about treats delivered, group W1 learned faster. If talking about how long it took, group D1 learned faster.

Another interesting tidbit from the study’s discussion: “Results of Maslovat et al. (2004) suggest that interference of an extra task might be as beneficial to acquisition in humans as extra practice on the initial task, which suggests an important effect of the intervening interval.” If this is also true for dogs it seems that we could safely practice other things during the week and they would not interfere with learning in our once-weekly sessions.

From this study it seems that if I had a dog that could eat only a handful of treats per day (or would only be interested in a few treats or whatever) and I wanted to teach him several behaviors it would be best to practice those behaviors once per week. Even if the dog would only get 6 treats per day I could train 7 behaviors simultaneously. Each behavior would take a little longer to complete, but I would maximize the number of behaviors learned over a month or two.

I would like to note one thing though: those Beagles were only learning one behavior and they were always brought to the same room with the same equipment. Dogs are very sensitive to the environment in which we teach behaviors, so for my above scenario to work I would have to practice each behavior in a different location and/or with different props.

Now back to our original question on training agility and to my very unscientific observations of what is going on. This was a laboratory experiment and the environment in which our dogs train agility is very different, so we need to take this into account. The Beagle study made sure that the experiment room looked the same during each session and there were no distractions that could interfere with learning. This is crucial when teaching a dog new things: there must either be very weak distractions present or the dog must have learned to cope with those and stay focused on the task regardless. Our agility environment is quite a bit different: we train outside, there are other dogs present, new smells each week and other distractions.

The behavior we were discussing with my friend was sending the dog through a tunnel which is in a way similar to the behavior the Beagles were training. They both work by building the value for an object – a basket in Beagle’s case or tunnel in our case. The more value the object has, the more our dog is going to gravitate toward that object. The value is built as we feed the dog on the object or reward looking at, walking toward, touching and walking on/through object. Running through a tunnel is not an intellectually difficult task (at least not until the dog needs to find an entrance from weird angles). It could be scary or uncomfortable for some dogs, so it could be emotionally difficult, but once the dog has run through the tunnel a couple of times, there is nothing intellectually difficult about it. It’s all a question of whether the dog finds it worth his while. Is running through the tunnel worth more than sniffing or visiting the classmate? That is the real question.



Value building is an interesting thing to observe. If your dog is one of those who is usually slow(ish), try to teach your dog to go to a mat and lie down using his dinner kibble. Observe the speed with which he moves. Better yet, record a video. Next day use very very good treats – dinner leftovers (lots of dogs think that people food is the best), baked liver treats, chicken gizzards cooked with asparagus (Ruby loves those), cheese – whatever your dog loves above all else. Of course the dog will already know how to go on a mat, but watch the speed. Any difference? I’m betting he was faster this time! Now this doesn’t conclusively prove anything because he could be faster simply because he already knew the behavior, but in my experience this isn’t the case. I was actually working on this exact task a few years ago using kibble for several sessions and Ruby was going through the motions, but without much enthusiasm… And then I used really good treats the next time. Wow! I wasn’t expecting such big speed difference!

Caution: do not try using better treats in the middle of a session if your dog is slow – you would only be teaching him that moping around will make you produce better treats. Instead, end the session and wait at least 10 minutes before you go and get those better treats. You don’t want the dog to learn I’m slow -> she cuts up better treats -> then we train using better treats! Score! Being slow pays off.

In the example above you can determine how much value you have built for the mat by how fast the dog approaches it. Another way to see the value is to take the mat into another room: is he still just as keen? How about if I take it outside? Now we’re testing the value of the mat against the distractions of the outside world. What is hard is not the intellectual knowing that he’s supposed to go lie on the mat (though for dogs with poorly developed generalization skills the ‘knowledge’ part will be difficult, too) – it’s the decision to say “no” to distractions and “yes” to the mat. The thing with the higher value wins.

Back to our original question. By now I hope it’s obvious we’re not really teaching the dog to run through the tunnel as much as we’re building the value for running through the tunnel. How can we build this value faster? As we have seen from example with the mat the object gets bigger value if our rewards are better. If I reward running through a tunnel with a piece of kibble the dog might decide this is not enough and sniff next time instead of running through. If I reward it with a piece of meat, it might be like putting 1 EUR into the tunnel’s bank account. Three pieces of meat + me running and praising excitedly might be an equivalent of 5 EUR. And a Two Toy Game after the tunnel might be worth 10 EUR. Each dog has their own value system.

What motivation looks like

What motivation looks like

So if my friend runs her dog through a tunnel ten times rewarding with a piece of meat she will put 10 EUR into the tunnel’s bank account (if the dog is even willing to do 10 repetitions in the row – this might not be the case with some dogs). Then I run my dog through the tunnel three times and play Two Toy Game each time. I just put 30 EUR into the tunnel’s bank account and it’s very unlikely my dog has quit on me on just 3 repetitions (plus, as you saw in the Beagle study, less repetition might actually be better).

Distractions can decrease the value you put into that tunnel, because the dog must work harder. So if my dog’s friend is near, my dog will need to use self-control to stay and work with me instead of going to play with his friend. I will not be just paying for the tunnel, I will also pay for that self-control, so from my imaginary 10 EUR only 5 EUR will go toward the tunnel (but 5 EUR will go toward self-control, so his self-control will grow stronger with time).

As all analogies, this analogy with money is not perfect or scientific or even original (I think picked it up from Susan Garrett, but then it grew in my head to explain more and more events). But I find it helps me predict dog behavior, create training plans that work, and explain what is happening to others. Not too bad for an imperfect analogy 🙂

I hope I have showed you that “remembering” is not just about memory, it is also about motivation. And motivation is not about how often you practice and how many repetitions you do, it’s about how excited your dog is about rewards you give for those repetitions and about the distractions that compete for his attention.

The source of Java's motivation

The source of Java’s motivation

Thanks to Helena Mesarič and Monika Pleterski for photos!

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