What’s your training achilles’ heel?
Mine is actually three heels, as it were–training duration, reducing reinforcers, and training stillness. Three heels which, as you might have already guessed, are all linked together in one big weird misshapen leg-protrusion of weakness and arrow vulnerability.
Okay, my nerdy, allusive metaphor is pretty belabored and isn’t working very well, but I think you get my point–I’m not very good at teaching Nala to do one thing without moving for quite a long while without much pay. It’s not her fault, either–it’s all mine, and it’s become more of a problem as we’ve worked together.
The downside of shaping (when you aren’t actually great at it)
When I got Nala, I couldn’t even consider shaping. The short version is that she would basically just freeze, not moving and totally worried, if she wasn’t given clear instructions for what to do. For a long time, I relied primarily on targeting for teaching Nala new behaviors.
Still, for a trainer like me–who finds teaching stays very, very dull–there was a benefit. I didn’t really need to work hard to teach Nala to stay on her mat, or to hold a downstay in public. If I could get a treat to her pretty frequently, she would stay in her position. And when I started to reduce reinforcers, she would just get bored and chill out.
But I wasn’t satisfied–I wanted to try free shaping.
But to do it, I had to break her down-stay. And, since I’m a ruthless amateur rather than a skilled trainer, I created a bit of a monster.
Now I have a dog who thinks that a still handler is a cue to keep trying things. It’s time to start fixing that.
Awash in a sea of duration behaviors
Flooding is not a recommended means of helping an animal overcome her fear.
But apparently I’m on a masochistic journey to use that terrible technique to cure myself of my aversion to teaching Nala to do something, and to remain at least sort of still, for more than a millisecond.
Here are some of the things that Nala and I are working on right now:
- Retrieve: Nala is great at biting stuff. I’m trying to teach her to calmly hold them in her mouth without chewing.
- Hugging a toy: Sit up. Be still. Gently and calmly hold a toy instead of swatting it and climbing me. It’s harder than it looks.
- Calm chin rest for husbandry behaviors: Nala actually has some decent duration on her chin rest behavior, and she loves doing it; she always wags gently as she presses her chin into my hand and holds it. But now I’m using it to teach Nala to willingly and calmly volunteer for having her mouth handled. Our training sessions have hardly been great examples of how to do this, which is why I haven’t compiled them and triumphantly posted them here.
- Stays: Nala has barely any stay to speak of, although she’s pretty good at staying put on an object. Still, I haven’t trained her to stay in spite of distractions at all. She also hates it when I step out of sight, and pulls desperately to find me.
But there’s a problem: in theory, I know three ways to train duration on a behavior. But in actuality, I only know how to execute one way.
How I Jumpstart Duration on Behaviors
It’s the easiest thing in the world.
You just rapid-fire treats into your dog’s mouth in position. Then you toss a treat away. Then, when your dog offers the behavior again, you do it again.
Ta-da! Now your dog thinks the position is cool, and she’ll probably be willing to do it for a few seconds without moving.
I know of two other ways to teach duration: asking for, and reinforcing, random intervals which gradually increase on average. And the 300 Peck method, which entails increasing by 1 second with each trial, and going back to 1 second at every failure (at least at first). I’ve also experimented ever-so-slightly with reverse luring, although we haven’t done enough Zen or It’s Yer Choice stuff for that to be very effective for us.
This will never do.
I probably don’t need to tell you that I can’t just shovel food in my dog’s mouth whenever I don’t want her to move forever. Not only would I run out of food, it just won’t work for any of the problems I listed above. I can’t shovel food in Nala’s mouth when I walk away from her. I can’t cram food in her face when she has a mouthful of whatever I asked her to pick up and hold. I can’t hold a toy, gently hand it to Nala, and rapid-fire treats in her mouth without dropping them everywhere (at least, not until they invent Octo-Arms for Clicker Trainers). And I don’t have enough arms to hold Nala’s chin in one hand, grasp her lips and touch her teeth with the other, and feed her simultaneously–and I don’t think she has enough mouth, either.
Besides, a lot of the problem with my skill set is that while it’s been great for getting behaviors started, we’re starting to run low on all-new behaviors. We’re getting to the point where I need to proof, raise criteria and difficulty, and add new elements to foundation behaviors–and, well, I just don’t know a wide repertoire of ways to do that.
So, in the interest of learning about proofing and ways of training stays that don’t bore me to tears, I’m auditing a Stay class at Fenzi Dog Sports Academy this upcoming term. I’m hoping that it will help me add some tools to my sadly very empty training toolbox. I also feel confident, based on my experiences with the instructor, Hannah Branigan, in the past, that she’ll have lots of great suggestions for balancing all of this self-control stuff with things that keep the dog alive, awake, interested, and in the game, which is always a high priority around here.
What’s your least favorite thing to train? How have you tried to address your weaknesses?