When I saw this month’s positive pet training hop topic–success, strengths, and improvements–I got all in a kerfuffle.
Honestly, guys, I’m not that great of a trainer. Most of my successes with Nala have been in the area of classical conditioning, and I can only tell you guys about so many situations where I stuffed food in my dog’s face until she felt better before you get bored.
Fortunately, this lovely addition to the bloghop got me thinking about the disbelief I’m always met with when I try to tell outsiders about how I raise and train our dog. How could Nala possibly be as wonderful as she is if I never tell her no, or scare her with my voice, my actions, a can of pennies, or physical pain to let her know what’s right and what’s wrong? I think I see the most justification for the use of force in the case of instinctive doggy behaviors, and, you know, I get it. After all, how can I possibly expect to overcome the scavenging desire of a creature whose evolutionary niche consisted largely of eating garbage? And I think I’ve seen the most justification for using painful force when combating high arousal and prey drive–they’re stuck in that state, and nothing short of the threat of extreme pain could possibly pull them out.
When you think in terms of black and white–she will eat the garbage or she won’t, she will chase the squirrel or she will not chase the squirrel–it does seem like it might be that simple, and like there can’t possibly be a minimally aversive way to overcome the non-responsiveness of a dog locked into the predatory sequence. But part of learning to be a good trainer is learning about splitting–splitting behaviors as well as splitting up the difficult bits and paying well at every stage to create a reliable dog.
In the name of combating the disbelief of people raised in a punishment-based culture, I’m going to tell you about a new game we’ve been playing, and how it’s already paying off.
We’re in the very early stages of what Susan Garrett calls The Wow Game, and we learned about it from free Recallers material a few weeks ago. The end goal is this: You throw a toy for the dog to fetch and the dog runs after it. Just before he reaches the toy, you ask him to stop, sit, do a few silly tricks. He does! Then his reward is to “Get it!” and bring it back to you for a game of tug. But the real end goal is a dog who can think even when in a state of really high arousal, such as when chasing prey or running an agility course. Since Nala has had a tendency to get “sticky” and too aroused to respond in the early portions of the predatory sequence ever since we got her, I always get excited when I learn about new ways to help keep her thinking and learning even when she’s full of excited anticipation.
I’ve introduced Leave It to Nala in a few ways, but I don’t enjoy training it, so it’s not on a verbal cue at all. Really, it’s just a behavior that bores both of us to tears, and whenever I try to structure a formal training session for it, Nala tends to assume her default down and not actually learn to leave food alone regardless of what position she’s in. Still, I ask her to exercise a lot of impulse control every day: when I touch a door handle, she sits and waits, making eye contact, until I release her. When we see a cat on a walk, I pause, keeping her under threshold, and reward check-ins or recalls. When we play, Nala drops her tug on cue, or performs tricks to get me to squeeze the nozzle on the hose so that she can chase the spray. We’ve also done Dr. Overall’s Relaxation Protocol, in which Nala lays in one place and relaxes while I do weird stuff and periodically give her food.
Did you notice something? Nearly all of the things I’ve come up with for training and rewarding impulse control ask Nala to control herself first. Then I either ask her to keep holding it together through a distraction, or I release her to a major reward. Oops.
So, lately, we’ve been doing a couple of things differently.
First, I reintroduced a leave it game–namely, Susan Garrett’s It’s Yer Choice–but I rethought my training set up.
In the past, I’ve done this kind of thing when Nala was already feeling kind of slow and calm. So, like I said before, she defaults to offering relaxed behaviors, mirroring my settled-in posture. It’s easy to appear to progress the game quickly when she’s in this kind of mood, and I could put treats on her paws, but it just wasn’t translating to higher states of arousal.
So, obviously, I needed to train Nala in a higher state of arousal! I got her all riled up and playful, playing tag and chase through the house, inviting her to walk through my legs and stretch her neck up to lick my face, tugging and bouncing around together. And then I grabbed a handful of treats, sat on the floor, and waited.
Ah-ha! Now instead of folding back into a down and waiting for me to deliver food to her mouth like a princess, Nala was engaged and in the game. She was doing all kinds of nonsense to get me to open my hand and toss a cookie, saying “get it!” And her willingness and enthusiasm stayed as I progressed to finally having food on the floor.
That meant that it was time to ask Nala a new question.
“Even though I’m holding an open handful of delicious string cheese bits right in front of your nose, can you sit?”
We progressed to trying other cues, and we’re also working on getting the food closer to the floor. We’re having a lot of fun.
But even though we’re not yet to the point that Garrett advertised with this game–throwing a toy, sending a dog to fetch, and then asking him to stop fetching and do some other stuff before he gets his toy–I’ve already seen huge dividends.
The other night, I learned that some idiotic nocturnal creature has decided to inhabit the backyard of my friendly little murder machine.
Okay, Nala’s never actually killed anything on my watch, but that doesn’t mean she absolutely wouldn’t. My backyard is not a good home for any small furry creature.
The other night, I put my hand on the door; Nala sits and waits, making eye contact, until I release her after opening the door, as usual. But, unlike usual, when I release her she takes off like a shot.
Something blurs along the fence and into a bush. Nala blurs after it, and dives headfirst into the bush.
I call her. “NALAAAAAA! PUPPY PUPPY PUPPY!”
And she turns! And runs back to me, just as fast as she shot out the door, even though there’s not a treat in my hand and she knows it. We dance to the fridge together, me singing her praises, and I feed her fifteen tiny pieces of cheese, one after the other. Then I go out to the backyard, alone, and scare away the creature (I guess. I think it had already headed for the hills as soon as my savage wolflet ran into the house).
Of course, Nala still hasn’t peed, so I go back to the door and open it. She’s crowded up against it, ready to burst back out and play with that intruder until it perishes from fun. But when I ask her to sit–even though this is a whole new context, with me outside and the door already open, even though she’s all wound up and aroused from chasing prey, even though there’s not an ounce of food on my body–I saw her pause, the gears turning in her head. Then she sat and beamed at me until I finished opening the door and said, “Okay, go!”
So that’s it! That’s our huge little success of the week. I asked Nala, “Can you come when I call even though there’s a furry creature in a bush?” And she said, “YES!” Then I asked if she could sit by an open door that led to a yard with prey in it, and she said “YES!” again. And all because we’ve played some silly games that mainly involve covering and throwing handfuls of cheese. The real key to our success, of course, was having a good formula for splitting this huge behavior–recalling off of a critter, and not breaking a stay at the door–into tiny pieces with lots of opportunities for Nala to succeed.
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