Dog Zen: Dog Impulse Control/”Leave It” Video

I recently posted some pictures of Barnum doing “pie zen” for Thanksgiving. The term comes from Sue Ailsby’s Training Levels. Zen is teaching a dog to get what it wants by not trying to get it. (Thus the name.)

Once you attach a cue to zen, it becomes the “leave it” cue for most of us.

There is also training “default zen,” which is when the dog learns, for example, not to snork up any food that’s on the floor unless they are specifically cued to do so. This is a very important skill for assistance dogs, so it’s one I’ve worked on with Barnum. Another way to teach this is Susan Garrett’s “It’s Yer Choice.” (Is it just me, or does it seem like a lot of clicker trainers are named Sue?) I’d started combining the two methods before I learned about It’s Yer Choice. Now I’m going back and retraining it some to fill in holes.

This video highlights mostly default zen, but it also shows how I can cue Barnum to eat treats on the floor or to ignore them. We had already been training this skill when one of my training heroes, Marge, the Rhodesian ridgeback rescuer and trainer, posted this video showing impulse control, which she trained via Susan Garrett’s method. Well, not to sound snooty or anything, but when I saw that video (and being a fan of musical theater), I thought, “I can do that.”

Then, Lynn, another trainer from whom I’ve learned much and who is on the same training list as Marge and me, tried it out in a similar fashion with her Weimeraner service dog, Lily and posted this video of it. She trained using the Levels zen method.

So, it seemed the gauntlet had been thrown down. Barnum and I may not be tops at everything. But he is getting to be quick the rock star in certain zen challenges. Okay, maybe “rock star” is a bit much, but it certainly looks impressive, doesn’t it? Well, see for yourself:

Note: If you are reading this post as an email, click here to watch the video.

A captioned version of the video is here.

Transcript of the video is below my signature.

You might notice that I say, “Leave it,” in a mellow tone. I’m not snapping or yelling it. Others use other cues, such as, “no.” Sue says it took her many years of clicker training (after crossing over from traditional training) to be able to use “no” in this way — not as a rebuke, but as a cue. I know that I am not yet capable of that.

Her new Training Levels books, Steps to Success, indicate that the cue is to be given in a “please pass the butter” tone of voice. I have started practicing whispering, “Leave it.” I might see how quietly I can say it and still have Barnum respond. He has excellent hearing, so my guess is that as long as he is focused on me — always the sticking point! — if it’s barely audible, he’ll respond.

I wanted to point this out because recently I had some guests, and one of them kept trying to cue Barnum to do a behavior (go to mat), which he wasn’t doing. I’m pretty sure the problem was that Barnum doesn’t completely know that cue yet. Since has only ever been given that cue by me before, and the person was not pointing to the mat (which would have given him an additional clue as to what was wanted), he didn’t recognize the cue.

Another guest told her, “You have to say it in a forceful tone of voice.”

The first person pointed out that I didn’t use a forceful tone. I was pleased to see that she noticed that.

This is one of the differences between a cue and a command. A cue is something that indicates to the dog that if they do something, they might get a reward for it. Thus, it doesn’t matter how you say it.

- Sharon, the muse of Gadget (whose “Leave it” was nowhere near this good, ever), and Barnum, SDiT and rising Zen Master

Video Description:

Sharon sits on toilet in small bathroom. Barnum is standing nearby. Sharon has a tray of beef cubes in her lap.

Sharon: OK, I’m gonna toss 10 cubes of raw beef heart on the floor.

Barnum looks at the meat on the floor and then looks at Sharon.

Sharon: Yes! I’m giving him one from my hand.

Barnum eats the treat and then looks at the meat on the floor again, then looks back up at Sharon.

Sharon: Barnum, sit.

Barnum sits.

Sharon: Yes! Go ahead.

Barnum starts eating the food on the floor.

Sharon: Leave it.

Barnum backs away from the treats. He has eaten two pieces.

Sharon: Barnum, platz.

Barnum lies down and looks up at Sharon.

Sharon: Yes! Go ahead.

Barnum begins eating the meat.

Sharon: Leave it.

Barnum backs away from the food. He has eaten three pieces. He looks up at Sharon again.

Sharon: Good dog.

She holds out her hand in front of Barnum’s nose.

Sharon: Touch.

Barnum nose-targets Sharon’s palm. Sharon moves her hand above his head and cues “touch” again, and then again lower down. At the third touch, Sharon says, “Yes! Go ahead.”

Barnum starts to eat the meat, but just as he’s about to eat the first piece, Sharon interrupts him.

Sharon: Leave it.

Barnum backs up.

Sharon: Go ahead.

Barnum sniffs and looks at the ground between Sharon’s feet but ignores the five pieces of beef that are still on the floor.

Sharon: Alright, foot!

Barnum gives Sharon a front paw.

Sharon: Yes! Go ahead.

Barnum eats one cube and is about to eat a second.

Sharon: Leave it.

Barnum backs up and circles the food, looking at it from a different angle.

Sharon: Watch me.

Barnum makes eye contact with Sharon.

Sharon: Yes! Go ahead.

Barnum eats the piece closest to him, which is a little farther away from the remaining three pieces of food. He looks at them and seems to decide he shouldn’t eat them. He looks at Sharon.

Sharon: Barnum, platz.

Barnum lies down.

Sharon: Yes! Go ahead.

Barnum gulps down the first two pieces of meat.

Sharon: Leave it.

He looks up at Sharon and backs away from the remaining treat.

Sharon: Good dog.

Barnum lies down and looks at Sharon.

Sharon: Good boy. Yes!

Sharon gives Barnum a treat from the tray in her lap. He eats it and looks down at the remaining treat on the floor and then up at Sharon.

Sharon: Yes!

Sharon gives him another treat from her hand, from the tray in her lap.

Sharon: [To herself] Let’s see. [To Barnum] Chin!

Barnum rests his chin in Sharon’s palm.

Sharon: Yes! Go ahead.

Barnum eats the treat on the floor closest to him. He looks up at Sharon again.

Sharon: Yes! Go ahead.

Barnum looks around but doesn’t move to eat a treat.

Sharon: I didn’t give him anything to do so he doesn’t believe me. Foot!

Barnum gives Sharon a paw.

Sharon: Yes! Go ahead.

Barnum eats the last piece of meat on the floor.

End.

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1 Response to “Dog Zen: Dog Impulse Control/”Leave It” Video”


  1. 1 brilliantmindbrokenbody December 3, 2011 at 5:14 pm

    At the school I got Hudson from, we were actually encouraged to go a step further than the ‘pass the butter’ voice – they suggested, especially when the dog isn’t really engaged, to use a firm but…I guess excited voice. As a singer, I’d describe it as a bright tone, if that means anything to you. Hudson is sensitive enough that his response to the difference between an eager voice and a more level request can be huge. It’s most important, with him, for ‘come’. Some people get snarly when their dog won’t come, but I know with Hudson, if I do that, he will at best slink over. The bright voice tells him he’s going to be petted and praised and possibly even get a treat; even if I give him the same reaction when he gets there, the snarly voice doesn’t get him trotting over with his tail up.

    On the other hand, when the dog chooses to ignore a cue, especially ‘leave it’, they did tell us to start using a…hmm…firmer voice, the ‘correction’ voice.


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