Notes from ClickerExpo Portland: Saturday

In case you missed them, here are my notes from the Friday sessions.

Look Away From the Dog, Theresa McKeon

This session was intended for professional trainers who wanted to learn more about human body language and how to be a better instructor. Even though I don’t fall into that category I’m glad I went! Apparently dogs and humans have very similar body language signals for stress. Who knew?! We both yawn, make ourselves smaller (crossed arms), appear menacing (crossed arms), humans tuck their thumbs while dogs tuck their ears, flick tongues, smile, cough/sneeze, face smash, blink excessively, and shake off the body.

What a Cue Can Do, Kathy Sdao; lab with Sarah Owings

Pretend your learner is a walrus; you can’t compel a walrus!

A really common practice is to use the cue during praise, such as “good Sit!” A cue signals that “reinforcement is available if you perform this behavior right now.” When we use the cue in praise we think the cue is a label, but dogs don’t use labels. For them it signals movement, and they can’t move into the required position if they’re already in it. If you use the cue during praise it reduces the effectiveness of the cue and confuses the dog.

Something I hadn’t even thought about is that learning a cue is a behavior! It requires practice for understanding. This goes for both the teacher and the learner; with enough time both will understand the process with fluency. I needed to hear this since I’ve been bad about putting behaviors on cue and now I’ll have more patience with myself and the dogs.

In the lab Sarah emphasized several things that will clean up our training and encourage clean loops. First, reward in the same location to reduce the search for food. This way the dog returns more quickly to the game instead of snuffling about. Second, reward away from you, you’re hard to leave! This way the dog will naturally return to the object (we were shaping) as they turn back toward you. Third, ritualize your training so your dog can predict what’s going to happen. Fourth, after you have a clean loop work on stimulus control with this strategy: feed the dog’s face for a few seconds, cue the behavior just before they do it, click/treat when they do it correctly, then feed their face again. This encourages the dog to pause in between behaviors so you don’t create a behavior chain.

Loopy Training, Alexandra Kurland

People at Expo threw around the word “loopy” like it was common knowledge. I have to admit I’d never heard of the concept until Expo. Loopy training basically means that you have a very consistent and fluent “loop” of behavior-click-reward-behavior-click-reward. You can see this in the Kay Laurence video below; this is what loopy looks like.

Related to shaping, I really was struck by this: don’t wait for a behavior that doesn’t exist. Wait until the behavior you want is already occurring due to variation before making it a clickable criterion. Shape the criterion when the behavior you want is already happening.

Game On! Train or Be Trained – Part 1, Jesus Rosales-Ruiz & Mary Hunter

This was a lab in which we played PORTL, a shaping game. We paired up and one person was learned and one was trainer; the trainer had to shape the learner to do a behavior. I chose to be the learner; I wanted to experience what my dog’s experience!

The original behavior was for me to push the bell. This led to a really critical question: is the behavior truly learned? Did the learner learn the behavior that you think you trained? I thought the behavior was moving the bell. I pushed the bell a few times so my trainer thought I had learned the behavior. This would lead to intense frustration if a cue was added!

Since it took less than 10 reps for me to push the bell, and we thought I had learned the behavior, we decided to try something more complicated. This highlighted how critical the order of operations is when creating a shaping plan. Granted, my trainer didn’t have much time to think through the plan since we did this spontaneously!

The criteria must be in a sequence that is logical to the learner based on their learning experience and motor patterns. I was supposed to flip over a hollow seahorse toy and place the bell in side of it. Our shaping plan went like this: touch bell, move bell, pick up bell, place bell on seahorse, touch seahorse, pick up seahorse with bell on it….confusion. I had no idea I was supposed to flip over the seahorse. We decided that an ideal plan would have been for me to flip over the seahorse first, and then reinforce me for touching the bell. This relates to a conversation I had with Jesus where he said, “train action before discrimination.” So “pick it up” before “the red giraffe”.

The ultimate goal is errorless teaching, which you can see in the video below.

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Posted by on February 24, 2017 in Training



Notes from ClickerExpo Portland: Friday

I finally got to go to ClickerExpo and it was an incredible learning experience! You should go if you can, or buy the VODs.

A Moment of Science: Clicker Training 101, with Kathy Sdao

Intermittent schedules of reinforcement reinforce a subset of behavior. Outside of a lab their only use is to make a behavior resistant to extinction; for example increase the frequency of the behavior in your absence (SAR dog alerting). Use continuous R+ to make a behavior resistant to change.

Uh, what? You mean all this time I’ve been worried about putting behaviors on a VSR and I DIDN’T NEED TO??? My mind was blown by this. I went back to our hotel room to walk Ava with Josh and spend the whole time enthusiastically gesticulating while exclaiming how relieved I was by this discovery. Continuous reinforcement is easy. VSR are irritating and use too much of my brain.

Building Behaviors: Shape the Future, Laura VonArendonk Baugh

I tend to lump behaviors and forget that my dog isn’t a mind reader. They have no idea that my goal is for them to, say, put their front feet on that pot and pivot their rear in a circle. They’re just sitting there like, “uh, is this thing over here important?”

One of the key reminders I got from this session is that the key to amazing shaping is being a good observer. The video below shows the puppet made for the Warhorse theatrical performance, and it moves so realistically because the puppeteers spent so much time observing horses moving that they can replicate it exactly. This is the kind of observation required for effective shaping. If I’m shaping Touch I need to look for movement in the neck and shoulders, not the nose.

The other thing is that I never knew what to do if my dog skipped a step. What I learned is that it depends. If he skips a step due to luck and doesn’t make progress from there, go back to what he knows. If he skips a step and keeps progressing, keep going! He didn’t need those steps in between.

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Posted by on February 17, 2017 in Training



At Look at the Inside: Muscle Engagement in Canine Movement

Originally I’d posted this on the ABT site but decided to move it.

This is such a cool video, which I discovered through and then went to the Veterinary Medicine Videos Facebook for further exploration. So much cool stuff! This is a great way to visualize the dynamics of movement and the interplay of muscle with skeletal structure. It’s also excellent for understanding injury and conditioning/rehab.

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Posted by on February 8, 2017 in Other Stuff



Getting your puppy ready for the show ring

The Table
This is a key piece of the grooming and showing experience; life is a lot easier if your dog likes it! I start by setting Ava on the table and brushing her all over with a stiff bristle brush. Occasionally I’ll forgo the brush and give her a full body rub down instead. Either way I make sure to lift and set each leg, check the bite, press on the back, lift the tail, span the dog, and grasp the pelt. My goal is that she ends the session a little more relaxed than when we started. I don’t use any treats for this activity, just praise and petting. I also take advantage of observational learning by doing this exercise with Wally while Ava watches. She sees how much he loves it and then she asks to be put up!
In the past few months I’ve implemented a new strategy for nail clipping that seems to be conditioning a positive response to the table. After reading an article by behaviorist Dr. Patricia McConnell, I now give my dogs a treat after I clip each toenail. Instead of click/treat it’s clip/treat. I prep the treats so I have five piles of four treats: one pile for each foot plus a few “good dog” treats for when we’re done. Ava lays on her back on my legs for nail clipping (and she’s never been quicked), but Wally is clipped on the table. He hates having his nails clipped and will either stand up on his back legs (for front feet) or kick them out (for back feet). Sadly I have quicked him so I don’t blame him, but it’s pretty obnoxious. After just a few sessions of this new strategy he’s significantly better about having his nails trimmed and now asks to be put up on the table.

Ava post-strip, 6mo old

I happen to have a set of Happy Legs that I’m using to teach Ava to stack. You could probably make something similar yourself or simply do it on the ground (that’s how I trained Wally). I like using a platform because Ava is less likely to move around and she tends to plant her feet better after I set them. I use a clicker and a high rate of reinforcement for this activity.
At first, I set just her front feet on the pedestals and c/t immediately after removing my hands. I stack her entire front end by lifting her chest and setting both front feet on the pedestals; not only does this work better than doing it foot by foot, in the ring I put the dog on the table front feet first. This moves on to placing each back foot with a c/t for each one. Once she is on the pedestals I use my hand as a visual target (sometimes with bait) and c/t if she stays on the pedestals while looking at my hand. As she gets more comfortable I move on to repeatedly resetting her feet and c/t each time. I practice all the same things on the pedestals that I mentioned above for table work. In just a handful of sessions Ava made a lot of progress!
Eventually we’ll work up to her holding a stack with her tail up and her head up with ears pricked; at this point I’ll add a cue word. Once she can do this consistently on the pedestals I’ll move to stacking her on the ground and the table until we get it consistently in those locations. As she gets older and more experienced we can work on free stacking, which will be a lot easier if I can put a cue to the stack.
Puppies can be tough to gait properly since they’re easily distracted and often act like they’re either a bag of cooked noodles or a vacuum. Unlike heeling, you don’t want the dog to look at you since that will mess up their movement. You can get straight movement by using a Clik Stick as a target but I prefer not to use those since I then have to fade it out (which I’m bad at). Instead we practice trotting with a show lead on and c/t for just a step or two of nice movement. Gradually you’ll increase your criteria to more steps until finally you can move down an entire side in a straight line with nice movement. Then you can practice turning both directions, which will be necessary for patterns. Finally, once your puppy is doing well on the straights and the turns, start practicing patterns. Make sure to practice some of the weirder ones, especially if you’ll be showing at specialties. See pages 4-7 of this 4H guide from Purdue for patterns and explanations.
The final piece is to stop at the judge. This is pretty challenging! I’m actually going to experiment with using a target to teach this to Ava, but in the meantime I’ll share how I did it with Wally. Stopping at the judge is a free stack with the added complication of going from moving to stopped. Most dogs are used to free stacking with you standing in front of them, so typically you try to speed yourself up enough to get in front of the dog so you can body block them. This will slow them into a free stack before the judge. It’s kind of a messy process, which is why I want to try something different.
Physical Conditioning
Puppies shouldn’t be rigorously conditioned like an adult dog, but after 4mo or so they should be walked 20-30min several times a week. Muscle development can make a huge difference in movement, topline, and silhouette. Practice having your puppy trot for increasing lengths of time, which will improve their gaiting speed and movement on lead.
Behavioral Conditioning & Desensitization
Dog shows can seem like a crazy place to a puppy. Technically you’re not supposed to bring un-entered dogs to a show but people do this all the time. As long as your dog is healthy, well-behaved, and unobtrusive nobody cares, so take your puppy to local shows just to hang out and observe. Flexi leads are typically forbidden on show grounds and you can’t take dogs into bathrooms, so plan accordingly. If you have kids it’s probably best to leave them at home since you need to focus on your puppy. You can also attend some agility trials, which are an even crazier environment.
Finally, make sure you go to handling classes so your puppy (and you!) can get used to ring procedure, the exam, gaiting patterns, and being in a ring with other dogs/people. Make sure to enter any local fun matches, although these are often few and far between, and take advantage of the 4-6mo puppy classes now offered at AKC shows.
An amazing resource is Karen Pryor’s book “Click to Win”, which goes into great detail on how to clicker train your show dog.
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Posted by on January 30, 2017 in Shows


Teaching self-control

Two months ago we realized that Ava had gotten a little spoiled: she got everything she wanted with very little work on her part. Partly she charmed us and partly we just let it slide (it happens to the best of us when life gets hectic). Fortunately we caught on to the error of our ways before it became a problem and I came up with this list of games, behaviors, and practices to help Ava develop self-control and frustration tolerance.


Look at that face… Can you blame us?


I work to cultivate a culture of politeness with my dogs and these behaviors encourage that. These are not intended to inhibit the expression of behavior or stop the dog from being a dog; think of these behaviors as “please”, “thank you”, and “may I?” I firmly believe in letting dogs be dogs as long as they follow the household rules!

  • Default Sit/Wait to get resources: meals, outside, out of a crate/car, petted, treats, toys, play, cuddles, etc.
  • It’s Yer Choice: beginning with food and working up to toys, people, environmental reinforcers, etc; this is similar to Doggie Zen or Leave It but with It’s Yer Choice there’s no cue and instead it becomes a default behavior. Get the free ebook at the link above, you can always unsubscribe from her emails later.
  • Dog being annoying? Teach Enough! I’ve found this to be incredibly effective even for demand barking
  • Crate Games DVD or see it in action on YouTube; you can build It’s Yer Choice into this
  • Dr. Overall’s Protocol for Relaxation
  • Put relaxation on cue: watch this video from KikoPup, or read Control Unleashed or the Ahimsa Dog Training Manual
  • Look at That! from Control Unleashed (Leslie McDevitt) teaches dogs to calmly notice things in their environment
  • Mark & Move from BAT (Grisha Stewart) is similar to Look at That but builds on it with the second step of disengagement from the trigger; also differs in that the dog gets two reinforcers: increased distance from the trigger plus food
  • Go to Mat: give you dog a job and a safe place all at the same time, plus you can use stationing later in conjunction with other behaviors (i.e. polite greeting, dinnertime manners, etc)
  • Give: give me the thing in your mouth
  • Drop It: drop whatever is in your mouth
  • Leave It: don’t interact with that
  • Off: get off of that/them
  • Wait: stay there for a few seconds
  • Basic obedience (sit, down, stand, stay, loose leash walking)
  • Polite greetings for people and for dogs
  • Play the games they want to play (tug, fetch, etc) but play by your rules. Ava loves to play fetch and will run up to me with her latex dragon toy. I take hold of it and say “Give”; she has 5sec to give it to me, otherwise I ignore her. When she does give I praise and sometimes immediately toss the toy for her to chase. Usually I’ll hold the toy away from me and wait for her to make eye contact with me before I toss it.If she ever puts teeth on me, even by accident, I instantly end the game and withhold the toy until she’s calm for 5sec.
  • Enforce timeouts and have a timeout area prepared. We use an x-pen that has a bed and a couple toys in it. I put Ava in timeout when play is ramping up too much or when she ignores Wally’s cutoff signals. Timeouts should only last as long as it takes for the dog to settle into a calm state.
  • Exercise! A daily walk plus a daily training session goes a long way towards making a puppy/dog easy to live with. Do note that I don’t mean exhaustion — too much exercise can do more harm than good, especially for puppies.
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Posted by on January 24, 2017 in Training


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A little understanding for our show dogs

I imagine dog shows are pretty weird and stressful to most dogs. Let’s begin with the obvious: the environment. Dog sporting events are probably the only places our dogs will be surrounded by hundreds or thousands of strange dogs and people in close quarters, none of whom they’re allowed to interact with. There’s not normally a ton of noise at conformation events but there’s always a dull roar of activity and sporadic barking, especially by the terriers and toys. Adding to the stress are the owners who don’t properly control their dogs (looking at you, Chow man) or the spectators who coo in your adorable dog’s face (“HELLO little Border Terrier!!!”). Plus most owners/handlers are stressed and distracted, so they aren’t paying attention to their dog and may even be stressing their dog out.
As an imaginary dog I’m already exhausted thinking about this, but now we have to go into the ring. Your dog must perform ambiguous behaviors (standing just right, trotting just right) in the presence of strange people and dogs. In fact, there’s a dog right in front of her that she isn’t allowed to say “Hi” to and a dog right behind her who might be doing something shady. She doesn’t know, she’s not allowed to look. A strange person walks by and now the shady dog is chasing her as they trot around the ring!
Then comes the exam. For Borders this is on the table, which your dog may not enjoy at home, much less at a show. Some tables aren’t stable either, so she gets to stand on shaky ground in a crazy place with a bunch of strangers. Speaking of, a strange person walks right up to you dog while staring at her face and starts touching her head. This person has the audacity to stick their fingers in your dogs mouth! Then the stranger runs their hands along the dogs entire body and touches some extremely sensitive parts, maybe even tugging on her pelt or checking boy parts. Is it any wonder most dogs do a full body shake (stress reliever) after being removed from the table? Afterward your dog is expected to trot in a perfectly straight line, an abstract concept for a dog, before trotting right up to the stranger who is still staring at her face. Finally you go around the ring and she finds herself looking at that strange dog’s butt again, the one she’s not allowed to investigate.
When you think about normal canine communication and behavior, all of this is totally out of their wheelhouse. So let’s have some sympathy! We think it’s no big deal to stand around with our buddies, stroll around the ring, or have a judge run their hands over our dog. Our dogs would disagree; this is nothing like everyday life.

Posted by on January 19, 2017 in Shows



Playing tug with the flirtpole

Not exactly how you’re supposed to play with this toy, but I always encourage thinking outside the box ;)

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Posted by on November 15, 2015 in Other Stuff

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