I mentioned in a previous post that I’ve been collecting tips to share for building more enthusiasm in your dog.
This really isn’t just about “enthusiasm,” per se. It’s about having your dog, as Sue Ailsby puts it, “in the game,” every time you train. In other words, a totally focused and engaged dog. Of course, this is the goal of every good trainer, and especially a service-dog trainer, upon whom so much depends.
If you’ve been following Barnum and me during our first year of training, however, you probably remember my struggles with Barnum’s lack of interest in food, extreme distractibility, and other quirks that made training sometimes feel as if Barnum was not only uninterested in playing my game, but was in fact, wandering out of the arena to find a place to nap or scare up a poker game.
In a future post, I’ll provide my “Building Enthusiasm” checklist and then tackle different tips in succeeding blog posts.
Today’s post is a “show and tell” of how different Barnum looks when he is in the game, versus when he is not.
I chose our “Go to Mat” work because I happen to have video of a quite unsatisfactory performance from last summer, when I was testing Go to Mat for Level Two, as well as a second video, from about a month ago, to contrast it with.
In the second video, we are working Level Three.
By now, I think he could probably pass at L3 and go on to L4, because we’ve achieved the default down-stay that’s being shaped in the second video, and he knows the cue, as well. However, I’m still tweaking other aspects of our mat work, such as proofing different “mats,” different locations, and other criteria.
First, the old video, which is captioned. (Transcript available here.)
If you’d like to play along at home to identify variables that made this behavior slow, ask yourself the following questions about my performance as you watch:
- Where are my treats?
- Where are my hands in relation to the treats?
- How much time elapses between when Barnum responds to the cue, “Mat,” by running toward the mat, and my click?
- How much time elapses between when I’m sure Barnum’s feet are all on the mat and my click?
- How much time elapses between when I click and the delivery of the treats?
- How do I deliver the treats? (Also, where do they land? And, how long does it take for them to get into his mouth?)
- In the second rep, what does Barnum do during the time gap between the click and the treat delivery?
My list above are just some of the issues at play. I’m sure you can think of others.
At any rate, I went back to kindergarten and taught this skill from the beginning.
Part of this involved choosing a new cue — “Park it!” — because the old one was poisoned. (See Level Three homework post for explanation of poisoned cues.)
However, because I’ve changed the criteria for this session, and I’m shaping something new, you will not hear me use the cue at all.
I also decided to change the mat, itself. The one in the video above, which had been our main mat, was a relatively small square piece of material that slipped easily on the floor.
When considering a better mat to practice with, as well as what might be portable for when we are training or working in public, I wanted something lightweight, “non-smelly” (e.g., not a rubber-backed bathmat, which I can’t tolerate, due to my MCS), washable (so chemical fumes and residues could be removed from it), and “sticky” (so it would not slide across the floor when Barnum landed on it).
Someone suggested cutting a yoga mat to size. This seemed like a great solution, as I already have one that is outgassed and not being used for anything else. I just needed one of my helpers to clean it for me and let it dry.
Meanwhile, I’d been working on teaching Barnum that anything could be a mat (towels, canvas bags, sheets, etc.). It was going well until I discovered that Barnum was always orienting himself to face me: He would run to the mat and plunk down, facing me, regardless of what direction the “mat” was in, and this often meant the mat was going in one direction, and he was in the other, so he was making a cross, with just his middle on the mat!
By this time, Barnum knew to run to the mat; he knew that anything could be called a mat; and he knew to lie down immediately on it. But he didn’t understand that I wanted as much of his body contained to whatever the “mat” in question was. I realized that the yoga mat, in addition to preventing the slippage, could be an excellent tool for teaching the criterion, “all four paws on the mat.”
I set this up by putting the yoga mat, full length, against a wall. Because the mat is long and narrow, Barnum could run to either end or the middle, and as long as he lined up against the wall, there was plenty of room to have all four feet on. However, if he was not parallel to the wall, it would be very obvious (to both of us) which parts of him weren’t on the mat.
It worked really well. It was much easier for me to see where all his paws were, and I was able to click for two, then three, then four paws on. I raised my criteria to four paws quite quickly, and we did that for a few sessions, with me periodically shortening the mat by turning one end under, to keep focusing Barnum on keeping his whole body on the mat, no matter the size or shape. I also worked in the automatic down as a new criterion, when he became solid on “all four paws.”
Working against a wall with a mat that stayed in place was much easier for me, as well, because I found it much easier to get the treats in the right spot. If they hit the wall, they would still land on the mat. And if they went to the edge of the mat, they didn’t slide underneath, which had been a problem before, leading Barnum to lose focus by trying to dig the treat out from under the mat.
Other trainers had suggested to me before that I use a corner (two walls), but that had always been too hard for me, physically. I found it awkward to throw the treats into a corner. Also, there just aren’t many usable corners in my home. Most of them are blocked by furniture or have doorways where the treats can slide under or are very cramped and small.
So, the yoga mat has helped a lot.
However, Barnum’s speed and eagerness, his “in the game”-ness has been most affected by changes I made in my rate of reinforcement, my timing, and multiple aspects of my treat delivery.
Check out what his mat behavior looked like a month ago (below), and compare it to the previous video!
(Note: This video was taken at the end of a session, so Barnum’s actually less bouncy and focused than he normally is for mat work these days; you can see this when he stops at one point to look out the window. I should have stopped this session earlier, but I wanted to get some of it on tape, and the opportunity didn’t arise till the end of our session.)
[Access note: I wasn't able to upload this video to dotsub, where I normally caption videos. However, there is virtually no dialogue in this video, only the clicks, except for the three times I say, "Release!" Those are the times Barnum pops up and runs off the mat. If anyone is able to upload it to dotsub, let me know, and I'll caption the clicks. Read the "transcript," which is mostly a description of the action in the video.]
See how he jumps up and runs off the mat?
And trots back with focus?
Notice how I try to keep a higher rate of reinforcement (although I do miss many opportunities to click, and sometimes click late, partly because of the work in wrangling the treats).
We have done sessions where he literally leaps into the air, all four feet off the floor, when released from the mat, and runs hard back to it, but those aren’t on video.
The best part, of course, is when I can apply our skills to real life. We now practice Mat every week when the visiting nurse comes to change my dressing.
Hopefully in the not-too-distant-future, when I finally get my powerchair and van lift working again, we will start public access training. Mat — AKA “glue yourself to the floor” — will be one of our most important skills.
-Sharon, the muse of Gadget (who never learned mat!), and Barnum, moderately enthusiastic SDiT