“Toilet Training”? Gimme a Break!

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.

Photograph of book, Control Unleashed, with part of the spine chewed away

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.

Dog-training bathroom: Meat freezer, dog nail file/scratching board, yoga mat for Go to Mat, wooden sppon for take/hold retrieve training, yellow foam taped to a mouse pad for paw target practice, and foam supports to put under dog nail file at optimum angle

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!

Toilet training setup

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 the throne

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)

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11 Responses to ““Toilet Training”? Gimme a Break!”


  1. 1 Eileen Anderson February 15, 2011 at 9:03 am

    Sharon said:

    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?)

    Eileen says:
    I haven’t until now, but it sounds like a splendid idea! I know it will help me! I will try it and get back to you.

    I’m glad to know that Give Me a Break is working so well!

  2. 2 theearlybirdreport February 15, 2011 at 9:34 am

    I think your “toilet training” is an excellent idea! Your well-appointed dog training bathroom is not only an excellent way to employ shorter training sessions, but I can think of several dogs that are fearful of the bathroom that this would absolutely benefit. (ahem, my Early Bird is one of them). Now, I just wish I could fit my dog food freezer in my bathroom! Thanks for the suggestion!

  3. 3 Laura February 15, 2011 at 10:33 am

    Awesome 🙂 What a good boy!

  4. 4 Sharon Wachsler February 15, 2011 at 3:48 pm

    Yeah, let me know if it helps. I am an “external processor” — have been since before I got sick, actually, so I suspect for people like me, cognitive issues or no, saying it out loud (or writing it in a training journal), probably helps stay organized.

    I used to start out sessions with Gadget with the steps in my mind of each criterion, but he had a tendency to leap steps, so we’d go A, B, F! And I had to scramble to keep on my toes.

    With Barnum, I’ve had to relearn splitting (A, A, A, B, B, B…) because Gadget-the-Genius got me into a bad lumping habit.

    I did try Gimme a Break w/Barnum when he was a puppy, but we didn’t have the communication for it. And also, any session beyond 2 or 3 reps was really too much for him anyway, and I didn’t get that. Works much better now that we’ve both matured. wink.

  5. 5 Sharon Wachsler February 15, 2011 at 3:53 pm

    Huh, I didn’t even think about bathroom phobia. I’ve heard of it, but it’s not something I’ve dealt with.

    Are you doing desensitization/counterconditioning w/Early Bird for the bathroom already?

    While I did do a loooooong shaping program to get Barnum over his stair fear (and he now thinks stairs are just the best thing ever), I also found that just leaving treats on the stairs full-time was very helpful. That way, there was no pressure. He could wander over whenever and — surprise! The stairs were a cookie-dispenser!

    I’d just leave treats at the bathroom door entrance and a few scattered inside, all the time. (If you’re not already doing this. Maybe you are.)

  6. 6 Sharon Wachsler February 15, 2011 at 3:54 pm

    Thank, Laura! He IS a good boy!

  7. 7 theearlybirdreport February 16, 2011 at 9:16 am

    Hey Sharon,

    Yes, I am working D/CC with the bathroom issues with Earl. We are having success, but it is coming slowly. The issue is complicated by the fact that I have to bathe him with medicated shampoo a couple of times a month. He has some severe allergy issues and while we are getting them under control, the baths are giving him considerable relief from his itching. So it is a work in progress.

    I have been working on shaping a bit, but he is fearful enough that he won’t take treats within 3 feet if the bathroom door. We will continue to work at the distance he is comfortable with and inch our way closer as he is more comfortable.

    Leaving treats scattered will be a bit difficult b/c I have a foster pup who will gobble them down as quickly as I can scatter them. 🙂 I have been doing this with tuna while the foster is crated. Giving the access all the time would be more ideal, but I am having some success with the limited access. I hope to work up to feeding him in the bathroom.

    I wish I had the foresight to think of doing training sessions in the bathroom when I started fostering him. (he was a rescue and spent the first year and a half of his life in a basement, so he really didn’t have any house skills) This is something that I will absolutely be doing with my current foster and all fosters to come.

    Again, thanks for this post. It was very helpful on several levels.

  8. 8 Sharon Wachsler February 16, 2011 at 12:09 pm

    Oh, right! Multidog households — I always forget about those! With the exception of when my 1st and 2nd SD overlapped, I’m used to dealing with just one dog at a time.

    Yeah, I figured he wouldn’t necessarily eat them, but even just knowing that they’re there, and that he won them, sometimes that helps. . . .

    I had to bathe Barnum a lot when I first got him, which put a wrench in my plan to train him that the tub, and baths, are wonderful, wonderful things of treats and no pressure, building up slowly and happily from the start. So, we’ve had to go back to scratch, although now we are up to him joyfully leaping into the tub, sit and down in the tub and even holding a down with a little water dribbling in. It’s the spraying and shampooing that will be the bigger hurdles. We’ll get there.

    Dealing with phobias is hard. My previous 2 had a lot of random phobias, but neither were abused and neglected the way Earl was. Jersey was a master of the “single-event phobia.”

    But, slow is fast. You will get there eventually, and then it will seem like it really wasn’t all that long to get him to love the bathroom. In hindsight. Lots of hindsight. grin.

  9. 9 kendra February 16, 2011 at 10:35 pm

    enjoy your post! i have many of same health issues as you. will try the toilet traing tonight.

    with much cognitive impairment, frequently tell folks, “i don’t know what i think until i say it outloud.” speaking goals is good idea–now have to remember to do it.

    i just ordered control unleashed. wish i’d know about the value of shorter sessions before. however, i’ll start integrating it now with my severely shy rescued dog, zenji.

    gratefully,
    kendra

  10. 10 Brooke & Cessna February 17, 2011 at 9:03 pm

    Hi Sharon, I’m going to see if I can get Control Unleashed in audible format, otherwise I’ll see if Huib can scan it with me. I’ve been using Sue Ailsby’s Levels site casually, but we don’t have a crazy amount of room to really do serious training indoors – it will have to wait until the summer. Thank you for posting this entry about your training places and sessions with Barnum, I also do training in the bathroom and kitchen so we get short sessions all the time. canyon does really well with the short sessions compared to longer ones, I wish I had thought of this when Cessna and I were doing our fun training a year ago – we’ll start now though 🙂 Sorry for the ramble, but again thanks for posting all these great tips.

  11. 11 Sharon Wachsler February 17, 2011 at 9:20 pm

    Hi Brooke,

    Thanks for your comments! I relate; I have cabin fever due to my broken powerchair, AGAIN, combined with the snow. I want to get Barnum out into public more to practice our skills in different environments.

    Your comment reminded me — there is a DVD set of Control Unlelashed, but from what I read, it’s to be used as a companion to the book. Apparently it’s not intended to stand on its own. I don’t really know what’s in them, though. But I thought I’d mention that in case there’s enough audio that doesn’t rely on visuals to make it worthwhile for you to look into the DVDs. I have no idea.

    I doubt CU is yet available widely available in alternative formats, as it’s still relatively new. But I bet it will be eventually, because it’s selling so well.

    I keep meaning to put together my “suggested reading and viewing” page so I can give mini reviews on the scores of dog and behavior books and videos I’ve read/watched/listened to. But, fwiw, CU is not a book I’d recommend to someone new to clicker training (or to dog training and the concepts of behaviorism). I think you would find it useful, Brooke, because you already have so much dog-training background, but for someone who is a clicker novice, I think a lot of it would be pretty much gibberish. It was intended primarily as a book for trainers, and secondarily for people heavily involved in agility.

    I just wanted to mention that, for others who might be thinking of getting it. It’s very exciting, and I’ve found a lot in it that was readily applicable, but it’s pretty dense reading in places, as well. If you’re new to clicker, there are better places to start.


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