It’s been around a month since my last post, partially because I was sick for two weeks and have a hand injury that has significantly dampened my desire to type. But here we are.
My illness disrupted our training progress, but progress we have made nonetheless. So below is a summary of what we’re working on and where we are at in our training plan:
RESOURCE GUARDING: Shortly after my last entry, we discovered that Brie has a stronger resource guarding response to certain stimuli than we expected. I had noticed that she would get bristly and snarly at Mo when both dogs were trying to get attention from me at the same time, or around particularly valuable food items, but nothing overly alarming. It was merely something I wanted to work on, nothing more. But then one day we bought a new bag of dog food and forgot to put it away, leaving it on the floor. Mo wandered over and started sniffing the bag, and a flip switched in Brie. Hackles raised, tail high, head down, teeth bared, she started stalking Mo around the house. Mo was giving her every submissive signal in the book and scooting away from her with every calming signal she could muster, but Brie kept pursuing. We could not call Brie off; we could not distract her with treats; she was on a mission. I finally had to force her to lay down and keep her there until she calmed down and started responding to me again. Alarming for sure.
So, we’ve been working on counterconditioning. This means changing a learner’s underlying emotional response to a stimulus that they currently find aversive. We do this by pairing the stimulus with something highly reinforcing. At first, that meant just petting Brie whenever Mo approached me, and stop petting her when Mo walked away. Over time, I started to see a change in her reaction to Mo when they were both approaching me . Instead of curling her lip and trying to push Mo away, she started wagging her tail more and pushing even closer to me. She still wants to be in front and get The Most Attention Of All, but at least now she gets excited when Mo participates in petting time rather than trying to chase her away.
I’ve also started giving her a bone or treat whenever Mo had a bone or treat, so that Mo getting food treats becomes a predictor of Brie getting food treats. Sure enough, Brie has started not only accepting that Mo has treats, but she has started carrying bones and toys over to Mo, laying down, and letting Mo chew on one side while she chews on the other. That’s right: she is proactively sharing food treats with Mo.
I’ve also seen a change in the way they play together. Whereas before she was really focused on a lot of dominating body language – fully erect tail, climbing on top of Mo, play biting at her neck – lately she has been playing much more like a companion: partially erect tail, side-by-side play and “doggie bumper cars” with their side bodies, face licking, and trotting around cheek to cheek.
The next step in the training plan is to reintroduce the main stimulus, the dog food bag, and gradually get them counterconditioned to being closer and closer to it:
First, place the bag where they can both see it but neither can reach it, and reinforce Brie for her and Mo being in the same room with it. Then, gradually moving them both closer to it, reinforcing them for each step. Finally, reinforcing Brie for both her and Mo smelling and touching the bag. I’ll let you know how things progress.
FADING THE PROMPT: As I mentioned in the last entry, Brie had a habit of only sitting or lying down when she was prompted with a treat. So I’ve been working on improving stimulus control and fading the prompt so that she will respond when cued, without needing to see “what’s in it for her” before she responds. We’re also working on getting her to respond to the cue more quickly. Rather than letting her think about it for a few minutes before she finally decides to do it, she’s learning that she has about a 3 second window to respond, and if she doesn’t, she loses the opportunity for reinforcement. She’s doing pretty good so far. I’ve put sit on the hand cue that we use for Copper, and she has been doing so without the prompt for a few days now. She’s also responding more quickly than before, although she isn’t as consistent as I’d like her to be yet.
The next step is getting that response more consistently fast, and then we’re going to start to generalize the behavior to other locations. We do our training sessions in the hallway where there are few distractions, so after she’s consistently responding as soon as I cue her, we’ll work on doing it in the living room and kitchen, then in the living room and kitchen with the other dogs around, and then out in the backyard, and then in the front yard, and eventually away from the house.
CRATING: Brie had been trained at Dogtown to load into her crate to eat her meals, but when she got here she had inexplicably decided that crates were scary and to be avoided. This happens sometimes: learned behaviors fall apart in a new environment. So we started by just putting her bowl in the crate right at the entrance and letting her eat from outside of it, then gradually moving the bowl farther and farther back until she was going fully inside the crate to eat. Then, when she started loading into the crate before we placed the bowl in there, we started closing the door. At first, we’d open it and let her out as soon as she was done eating. But we’ve gradually left her in the crate for increased periods of time. A few days ago, we fed the dogs and both fell asleep before letting her out of the crate. I woke up four hours later and she was calmly lounging in her crate.
The next step is to leave her in the crate while Chuck and I walk outside for a few seconds. We’ll leave a kong filled with frozen canned pumpkin in it before we leave to keep her occupied. Then we’ll step outside for gradually increasing periods of time. Then we’ll turn on the car and turn it back off and come back in. Then we’ll back the car down the driveway, bring it back up, and come back in. Then we’ll drive the car around the neighborhood. Then go do something for a few minutes. Then we’ll be gone for longer periods of time until eventually we can leave Brie in her crate while we go on errands for a few hours.
TARGETING: Targeting is getting an animal to walk to an object and touch with their nose/beak/chin. It’s a foundation behavior that is extremely useful for teaching a variety of other behaviors. It’s my preferred method for teaching a dog to come when called, among other things. Since Brie’s recall is kind of, “Meh…if I feel like it,” I’m going to use targeting to teach her to WANT to come, every time we call, with gusto. I have to say, of all the animals I’ve taught to target, Brie is probably the cutest at trying to figure it out. We’ve only just started working on targeting, and watching the wheels turn in her head while she tries to figure out what it’s all about is adorable: ears perked, forehead wrinkled, eyes questioning. We started by just placing an open palm, face up, so that my fingertips were just about an inch from her nose. She did what most dogs do: sniffed my fingertips, her nose touching the end of my middle finger. I bridged and reinforced her for it, and she looked up at me like, “Really? That’s all I had to do?”
After two sessions, she is still only targeting a few inches. To put it in perspective, most of the animals I’ve taught to target have learned how to walk or fly clear across a room or even around a corner in the first session or two. I don’t think Brie’s relative slowness to learn the behavior is because she’s dumb. To the contrary, she has proven herself to be an incredibly intelligent dog. It seems like she’s overthinking it. It is bad science to guess what an animal is thinking or feeling, and to make assumptions about their mental processes. But for the purposes of amusement, I imagine that she’s looking at me going, “…Really? This is all I have to do? There has to be some kind of catch. It’s too easy.” Every time I offer the cue, she looks at me with that wrinkled forehead and puzzled expression, then after a few seconds she tentatively touches my fingertips, then looks quizzically at me again. Who knows what she’s actually thinking, but she sure is stinkin’ cute!
The next step is, obviously, to get her targeting at farther distances, and then in other rooms, and then around corners where she can’t see me. Eventually, just like sitting, in other locations, as well. Once she has learned targeting, I’ll starting pairing it with a recall cue so she can learn to come when called. I can also start using targeting for other behaviors, such as lying down, standing still for an exam, agility, etc. The sky is the limit.
For now, we’re just focusing on the basics. When we’re done with those, we’ll start training plans for some more advanced behaviors.
TARGETING: The biggest hurdle to overcome with Mo is getting her to walk up to us whenever we are and then stay near us. Although she is a lot more comfortable around us and will let me pet her with both hands, pet her back, rub her belly, and even touch her legs and tail, she still paces a lot and runs away if we aren’t standing or sitting in very specific ways.
Mo learned the concept of targeting right away. In our very first training session when we first brought her home, she was targeting to my hand from several feet away. But the catch was that I had to be sitting on the sofa, and I couldn’t move anything other than my arm. Since then we have made much progress. I can sit on the floor; I can stand by the sofa where I usually sit, and can even now stand a few feet away from the sofa. And whereas before she used to run away if we bent over (which made it difficult to pet her, because she’d walk up to us for attention but then would run away when we’d actually bend over to pet her), she will now target when I bend over and place my fingertips very near the ground. So by targeting to the ground she has become desensitized to me bending over… in the context of a training session.
The next step is to continue moving farther and farther away from the sofa so that she will target to me no matter where I am. And then I need to increase the period of time between when she targets and when she gets reinforced, so that she will sit or stand still in front of us. What she does now is paces around the house, comes up to target when I cue her, takes her reinforcer, does another lap around the house, comes back for the next target cue, and repeat. I need her to learn to sit still long enough to be able to work on other behaviors. But in order to get there, we need to strengthen and generalize that targeting behavior.
HOUSETRAINING: Targeting is also going to really help us with housetraining her, because as it is right now, we can’t let her outside. She gets out there and runs away from us and doesn’t want to come back. With 1.5 acres to roam, you can imagine the challenge that presents. She does like to potty outside – in fact I think she prefers it – but doesn’t do so on her harness, and in fact she finds the harness aversive. So getting a strong targeting behavior going means that I can let her outside more often and trust that she’ll come back to me. It also means that I can train her to voluntarily target into her harness and then systematically desensitize her to wearing it. Training her to enjoy her harness means that I can start taking her out for even more training opportunities.
For now, she has a very odd and stringent set of rules regarding elimination. She prefers to eliminate on puppy pads, but only if there are exactly two out. If there is only one out, she will defecate on the pad and urinate on the floor. If there are more than two puppy pads out, she won’t eliminate on any of them and will do all of her business on the floor. And a puppy pad is only good as long as it is completely clean. It’s good for one elimination only. That means that she will defecate on one and urinate on the other, and if one of them has even a drop of urine on one corner, it is no longer any good and she will use the floor instead. So keeping up with her elimination habits is quite a challenge. Needless to say, we are both eager for her target training to progress. :)
Given the nature of her behaviors, that’s all we’re working on right now. Just getting her targeting reliably and staying put is a big enough challenge. When we’ve gotten those under good stimulus control, we’ll start working on some other basic behaviors, and then eventually maybe we’ll have time to work on more advanced ones. Baby steps. :)
So that’s the update! Working with these dogs is a blast, and I love seeing them make progress and come out of their shells. Animal training is just about the best job in the world!