Tonight’s post is the first of a series on How to Build Enthusiasm in your dog. You can get more speed and excitement from your dog, even, or especially, if he’s new to clicker, a puppy, low self-esteem/confidence, low food drive, and more.
And, it’s contagious! When your dog is giddy over training, you will get happy, too, and enjoy the rush of “endolphins” (my favorite fractured word from Postcards from the Edge), after using these techniques, too.
I decided to start the series tonight because I’m feeling the high of a lovely series of training sessions after a really shitty day. Well, actually it’s been a pretty miserable last few days, with today being sort of the turd on the crap-cupcake of the week, where I was feeling particularly physically cruddy, as well as emotionally flattened. (All these scatological metaphors are not just me getting literarily lazy; they are dramatic foreshadowing!)
Finally, tonight, I got some relief (no pun intended, really!) from the pain and exhaustion that had been holding me down all day, and I managed to pull myself out of bed and distract myself from the dramarama. . . .
Barnum and I did some training. Now we both feel soooo much better!
In the last few weeks, I’ve been trying to conduct at least three short training sessions a day, each one composed of several very short sessions (five or six treats), with as high a rate of reinforcement (RR) as I can give (usually a shaping session).
Then I offer Barnum the choice to stop or to continue. It’s called the “Give Me a Break” game, which can be found in Control Unleashed, by Leslie McDevitt. McDevitt originally conceived of the idea as a way to capitalize on latent learning in her dog who was reactive, extremely distractible, and had a very short attention span.
Oh, the Irony! “Control Unleashed,” visibly damaged when my unleashed, out-of-control teething puppy decided it made a colorful and delicious chew toy!
[Image description: A photograph of the paperback book, Control Unleashed, lying open, spine up. The front cover is very colorful, with several dogs in a variety of poses and lots of agility equipment and toys around them. The top part of the book is shredded, especially on the spine, torn and bitten up.]
Latent learning is what happens (in any organism), between training sessions/lessons/classes. It’s when our brains sort out and store what we’ve learned.
Latent learning is also one of the reasons why it’s much more effective (as well as more fun and less exhausting), to do several short sessions a day than one or two long ones. You can experience the effects of latent learning if you take a day or week or month off from training and discover that your dog is farther ahead than where you stopped off. This is very common in clicker dogs in a session in the morning that is a leap from the previous night, or sometimes even a big leap an hour or two after the previous session.
McDevitt created the game by doing a very short (five treats), very fast (high RR) shaping session, and then stopping and giving a “faux release.” This was not her true release that meant, “Okay, we are totally done with training now.” This release meant, instead, “Go cool off, have a chill, watch the birds, play with a ball, let me know when you want to start up again.” It was a way to take the pressure off her dog, who otherwise found training too stressful.
Well, an amazing thing happened. The more often she did this, the shorter was the interim between breaks. Very soon, the moment McDevitt had gone to her chair for her “time out,” her pup was demanding to start up the training again. It became a way of building enthusiasm and focus.
As some of you know, because of my inexperience with puppy training, which led to too-high expectations on my part, and frustration and confusion for both of us, Barnum seemed to be a “slowly dog.” He did the skills, and he seemed to overall find training pleasant (once he finally had some idea of what we were working on — poor dude!), but he wasn’t wildly enthusiastic, and he tended to perform slowly.
A very smart and supportive reader of this blog (Hi, Eileen!), suggested I use Give Me a Break with Barnum. It has worked great!
At first, it took a while for Barnum and me to develop a communication system, because the system McDevitt uses — standing in one spot to train, then going to sit down in a chair in another spot for the break — didn’t work for us. This is because sometimes I train from my bed, sometimes from my pchair, sometimes, um, elsewhere. (I’ll get to that, shortly.) And I wasn’t always able to move far from wherever we were. Not only does where I sit or lie down vary, the room does too — we go wherever there are the fewest distractions, or the most room, or the least exhausting/painful for me.
The cue I use for “break time” is to sign the ASL for “break/interruption” and say “Gimme a Break,” and then wheel elsewhere or just rotate. While “on break,” I break up more training treats while (seemingly) ignoring Barnum. If I’m working from my bed, instead of moving or rotating the chair, I just turn my body slightly. If Barnum wants to keep going, he comes around and faces me and throws a behavior. Usually it’s sit ‘n stare. If we’ve been working on down, he will sometimes platz ‘n stare.
Then I say, “Oh! Do you wanna train??” And he acts excited. Then I say, “Okay, let’s train!” I grab my five or six pieces of meat, rotate or move to a new spot, and we do our next short session.
We work on one skill until I think he’s peaked — by which I mean that either we have gotten a teensy bit further along than the last time we worked, or we’ve made a teensy bit of progress with whatever criterion I’m looking for in that session, or I get that gut feeling that if I try to do one more rep, it will not be as good as the last one or the behavior will actually fall apart. (More on “quitting while you’re behind” in a future installment of “Building Enthusiasm.”)
Sometimes this means we do four or five mini-sessions for one behavior and then move on to several more mini-sessions for several more behaviors. Sometimes we just do one mini-session for one behavior, and that’s it. Sometimes, it’s something in between, like two mini-sessions for a behavior, another couple of mini-sessions for another behavior or two, and that’s it. I gauge it by his enthusiasm, or by what I’m up for.
Another bonus to Gimme a Break for your’s truly is that I can take the breaks to think very clearly and specifically about what I want to do next: What skill will we do now? More of the same, or switch to something else? What will my criterion be that I want us to work on? And if he reaches that, what is the next step up from that, so I am ready to add another criterion if he is cruising with the first one.
I actually say my goals to myself, in my head or, more often, out loud, to make sure I’m clear about what I’m expecting of both of us. Some examples are, “All four paws on the mat,” or “Click for front going down before rear,” or “Click during the second scratch, not at the end of the scratch, which means I need to remember to depress the clicker partway while he is eating his previous treat so I can be ‘faster on the draw’ with my click.”
I don’t know if this technique is useful to people without brain injury, as well, but I suspect it probably is. (Neurotypicals, let me know: Do you do this, too?)
Another “trick” I’ve added to my repertoire is Toilet Training. No, not house breaking the pup! Thank goodness, we are waaaay past those days by now! What I mean is training from the toilet — my toilet! Whenever I head to the bathroom, Barnum follows, and we have a session that lasts as long as it takes me to pee!
It’s a great, easy way to keep sessions short, and to squeeze them in on a day that I’m feeling lousy and would otherwise have difficulty training. Also, if Barnum’s really not in the mood to train, it’s no big deal, because I have still accomplished what I got up to do (empty my bladder). Or I might just do one or two clicks — if he is tired from a long run or something, I click him for flopping down when he gets in the bathroom, toss the treat, he (usually) gets up to get it, and then I can click again for him flopping back down.
And once a day, we have a longer toilet-training session (if you catch my drift). Also, five days every month, we have a few longer sessions, if you catch my flow. (Too much information? Well then, you’ve come to the wrong blog. I grew up in a family where we referred to the bathroom as “the library” or “the reading room,” and my dad discussed manure at mealtimes).
Barnum’s food (raw meat) is stored in my bathroom, in our extra freezer, so it’s just that much more convenient.
The well-appointed dog-training bathroom
[Photo description: Barnum's head in the foreground, looking at a large white chest freezer, next to which is a doggy nail file, and on top of which is a blue yoga mat, a yellow foam rectangle duct-taped to a mouse pad, a long-handled wooden spoon, and two odd-looking white foam pyramids held together with duct tape. These foam pieces are placed under the nail file board to provide a better angle for scratching his claws.]
Although, if I’m feeling truly lousy and not up to opening the freezer lid, I just use the kibble I keep in a sealed container on the back of the toilet. I have a clicker that I hang on the toilet paper roll. It’s all soooo convenient!
Plastic container full of kibble? Check. i-click clicker hanging off toilet-paper dispenser? Check? Plunger for added decor? Check.
[Photo description: A gleaming white toilet in a corner, flanked on the left and rear by tan tile walls. There are three plastic containers on the toilet tank, one of which is a blue and white cottage cheese container, which holds the kibble. A roll of toilet paper hangs from a metal chrome-colored dispenser. A green i-click clicker is visible hanging off the toilet paper dispenser.]
View from guess where? Have i-click, have dog, ready to “go”!
[Photo description: View from the toilet. On the left is a toilet-paper roll with a green i-click clicker hanging from the metal dispenser. Barnum lies on the floor at my feet looking up at me. Just visible in front of me and to Barnum's right is the foot rest of my powerchair. Floor and wall are tiled with large speckled tan/salmon tiles.]
Anynoodle, he is now way into training, and this is what we trained tonight, all in a row, in a bunch of short sessions. (Most, but not all, of these are Training Levels behaviors. We are primarily working Level Three and Level Four):
- File your nails. (See video of early training session of this behavior.)
- Eye contact. (I try to do contact at least twice a day, but preferably at the beginning of any training session each day. Tonight we made it to a count of 18 with six treats!)
- Super-fast down. (I’m rebuilding down from a stand instead of a sit, and using a lure to get him to slide sort of play-bow really fast into the down.)
- Take/hold the wooden spoon (as seen on top of freezer).
- Foot target a yellow styrofoam rectangle (as seen on top of freezer).
- Go to Mat on his dog bed AND nonverbal recall (very important for him to come to me when I don’t have my voice. I cue him to go to his dog bed, then make my kissy noise to call him to me, treat, and cue to mat again).
- Random leave it. (I try to throw in at least one or two zen exercises every day, including now I often toss some treats on the floor and then we train something else, and he has to focus on what we’re doing while also ignoring the food on the floor. This really shows his progress! Requires focus!)
- Play break (tug with plush spider and “I’m Gonna Get You” chase game).
- Foot (give me right foot or left foot, as requested, and also let me examine your nails).
- Default sit/wait before going through doorways.
- Shutting cabinet doors!
What a dog! What a day!
And that’s only what we did tonight!
Earlier today we also did go to (yoga) mat (the blue one on the freezer), eye contact, touch (nose target), “quiet,” Look at That (another Control Unleashed exercise, because he is still slightly reactive to the vacuum cleaner), and two of his most important and highly accomplished skills, “Hold down the floor,” and “Look adorable.”
-Sharon, the muse of Gadget (hmm, is it possible that Barnum might actually be worthy to succeed me?), and Barnum (true business SDiT)