Refining our training skills with Emily Larlham

You know how when you are a child, people sometimes ask you what you want to be when you grow up? Today, even though I’m already 28, I feel like saying I want to be Emily Larlham when I grow up. Here is 7 reasons why.

 1. When I walked into the room, she kneeled down and asked: “Is this Phoebe?” It’s nice to know someone has actually read and remembered the participating dog introduction sheets! And it’s nice to be greeted this way. Emily did this with all the arriving dogs and their people; everyone felt  welcome and appreciated. 

2. Emily tried to answer every question (time-frame and topic permitting), and she took every question seriously. 

3. Emily didn’t put herself on a pedestal and claim to have the one and only way to deal with dogs, just a way she has found works well and is happy to share.

4. Emily didn’t reprimand people who didn’t use clickers. There were only about two non-clicker people in the seminar, and Emily respected their choice to use a marker word instead of a click.

5. Emily respected that different trainers make different choices. She didn’t attack people who used a collar instead of a harness; rather, she mentioned the advantages a harness has over a collar – without directly addressing or criticizing anyone.

6. Emily excused herself when she forgot to take breaks for her translator to catch up, or when she got sidetracked or carried away with a topic. She feels very real, and that makes her a likeable teacher. 

7. Emily didn’t only not use no-reward markers with dogs, she didn’t use them with people either. This is surprisingly uncommon even among positive dog trainers.

So this was a slightly different review from what I normally do! Thank you, Emily Larlham, and thank you, Martina Lazzarini, for the great organization! I loved the location (Forte Mezzacapo, and old military fortress), the food (yummy Lebanese catering), and I loved all the wonderful dogs and their people I got to know this weekend. 

And now, let’s take a look at some of the topics we covered and games we played at the seminar!

The seminar was about refining our training skills. We didn’t cover beginning clicker stuff, but talked a lot about how to use variety and unpredictability in our favor, and about the importance of being precise with timing, clicks, and treat delivery.

However, for anyone who isn’t familiar with Emily Larlham’s work and her training philosophy, here’s a link to her Progressive Reinforcement Manifesto

Improving your training skills

Get rid of superstitions!

A superstition is the “irrational belief that an object, action, or circumstance not logically related to a course of events influences its outcome” (thefreedictionary.com). For example, in the TV drama Grey’s Anatomy, Burke doesn’t want to operate without his lucky surgical cap. That’s a superstition. 

When it comes to our dogs, superstitions might be that it’s not the marker that predicts the treat (and ends the behavior), but a certain movement or body posture of the handler. In order to check our dog’s superstitions, we cued Eye Contact and then performed possible superstitions: move clicker hand (without clicking), reach in pocket or bait bag etc. Does the dog stop her eye contact (superstition), or keep holding our gaze (she knows it’s the click that predicts the treat/ends the behavior, nothing else)? Superstitions can be gotten rid of by means of performing these actions before the behavior is over and consciously not reinforcing superstitions.

Why is it useful to get rid of superstitions?

– It increases precision and makes for crystal-clear training.
– If you are working on behavior modification by means of classical counter-conditioning, it’s important that your dog knows the appearance of his trigger (e.g. a strange dog) predicts his treat, not your hand moving into the bait bag! 

Reinforcement placement: the art of throwing treats

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Lots of fun and lots of candy: we tested our treat-throwing skills with candy: if we caught the piece of candy, we ate it. If it hit the floor … obviously, we wouldn’t eat it, since the the military fortress’ floor wasn’t all that clean. We became aware that badly thrown treats lead to frustration – frustration we should spare our dogs.

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We talked about how to deliver our reinforcement and that being unpredictable keeps training interesting for our dogs. In the picture, Emily demonstrates an exciting way of delivery: run over and treat your dog.

Vary your reinforcement delivery

1. Vary where the reinforcement is coming from (left pocket, right pocket, bowl, table, manners minder …)
2. Vary what is coming (have different types of treats and toys, verbal praise, touch etc.). Depending on what you’re training, it may be a good idea to either use a treat that bounces or rolls once it hits the floor, or one that sticks to the floor (e.g. a piece of deli meat).
3. Vary how you deliver the treat (throw excitedly, slowly put on ground, throw underhand or overhand, hand-feed, teach your dog to catch the treat …)

Placement effects training

Another important factor that is easy to overlook is that it is not only the click that changes behavior/a particular position (e.g. perfect heel position), but also the placement of the treat: Emily’s tip about teaching behaviors such as heeling is to feed in the position where you want the dog’s head to be.

We also did a practical exercise to become aware of the placement of the treat: teaching walking around a person or an object using a food lure. I haven’t worked much with lures since I’ve been using a clicker, so this was interesting for me, even though Phoebe was already quite tired at that point. 

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Teaching circling a person (or object) using luring:

Lure around you or the object of choice, click, lead the lure hand a little further along the path you want the dog to follow and then drop the treat so the dog has to keep walking to the treat after the click. This is to avoid your dog taking a few steps, than stopping to eat.

If teaching to walk around you, change treats from one hand to the other behind your back. It’s hard to do this when at the same time holding the clicker!

Practice your timing!

We all know that good timing (of the click or marker word) makes for good training. We did a practice round with videos of Emily and her dogs Splash and Kiko, clicking the very instant the dog offered a certain behavior, e.g. Kiko putting the first paw on Emily’s foot.

Using videos to practice or brush up your timing is always a good idea. Before I used a clicker on a dog for the first time, I chose a certain action on a TV show (Hector de la Vega dipping his head to the right in El Internado) and tried to click it every time. Another exercise I did before practicing on a dog was walking around Vienna clicking the instant I spotted a red car etc.

Offering: a behavior strengthening creativity and confidence

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Offering is an important behavior in and of itself – and an integral part of clicker training. In this picture, Emily gets Giotto to offer behavior on his own. She cues and reinforces a behavior he knows several times, and then lets him keep offering it on his own.

“Try something new!”, or 101 things to do without a box

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You’re probably familiar with the 101 Things To Do With A Box game. Emily introduced a similar idea: “Try something new!” – an Offering game without a box.

In order to teach the game, every tiny and slightly different movement of the dog is clicked – until he figures out that this game is all about creativity! Like 101 Things To Do With A Box, 101 Things To Do Without A Box furthers creativity and confidence in the dog and strengthens his Offering skills.

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Elliot is ready to offer anything. Play bow, lift right front paw, lift left front paw, cross paws, dip Jasmin with his paw.

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Ana’s dog already knows the “Try Something New!” game and has a good time getting creative.

Adding the cue

Most clicker trainers will tell you to only add the cue when the behavior is rock-solid. This is for two reasons:

1. It stresses the difference to traditional training, where commands are introduced before the dog knows what we want from him (e.g. saying “Sit!” and at the same time pushing the dog’s butt floorwards),

2. Is allows the dog concentrate on the behavior, and nothing but the behavior, first. This is to avoid the cue being nothing but “white noise” in the background, while it’s still meaningless to the dog.

Emily, however, adds cues rather quickly: once the dog knows what she wants in this particular training session, she’s ready to add the cue, even if this means he might not get it right 100% of the time in the beginning. She argues that, when you add the cue late, you don’t actually add the cue but rather change the cue, because you already have a conditioned cue either way: the context (e.g. a certain place in the room). 

With Phoebe, I have been working with late cues so far: I used to wait until the behavior I worked on was fluent before I named it. I’ve decided to change my cue-introduction strategy to Emily’s advice, since I have a number of behaviors I haven’t put on cue yet that Phoebe keeps offering all the time. I’ve also realized that when I add the cue late, Phoebe is so used to offering the behavior without a cue that she might offer certain tricks she loves uncued as well: they’ve become quite resistant to extinction, even though I don’t consciously reinforce them when they appear uncued. For example, I’ve been capturing her clapping her teeth, which I think is a hilarious trick. However, she loves it so much that she now claps her teeth all the time – even without my cue, simply because it’s so much fun for her to make that sound with her teeth and I’ve reinforced it with click/treat. She may just jump up from sleep and run around my living room clapping her teeth, and she enjoys mixing it in with other behaviors she already knows well, such as sits. Of course, it usually cracks people up, which further reinforces performing this trick without a cue.

Freebies and calm default behaviors

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Pico gets “free treats” for patiently waiting while Martina and Emily are talking. This avoids frustration and at the same time teaches a calm default behavior. 

Emily called these treats freebies; I actually don’t even think of treats for patiently waiting as freebies – after all, a calm default behavior is one of the hardest tasks for many high-energy dogs. 

Phoebe’s main task during this seminar – as during all the seminars she accompanies me to these days – is practicing calmness. She’s a puppy with a lot of puppy energy, and people, dogs and action around her easily distract her. It’s hard for her to choose to remain calm in these situations, and I’m very proud when she does. I make sure to honor this with a flow of mixed treats on a variable reinforcement schedule. This doesn’t only strengthen Phoebe’s calm default behavior, but also my treat throwing skills: yey! 

I believe it’s easy to build drive and work on tricks later in life, but the first and most important part any dog should learn is to relax and remain calm in challenging environments. If you have a solid basis of calm default behaviors, you can take your dog pretty much anywhere, you lower his frustration and stress level in challenging environments, and you teach him to default to a calm behavior (sitting or lying down) rather than jumping and barking on a variable reinforcement schedule or during training breaks.

Have different markers for highly excitable behaviors and calm behaviors

Somehow related to teaching calm default behaviors vs. exciting tricks is Emily’s tip to have different markers for highly excitable behaviors and calm behaviors. This is because your dog has a conditioned emotional response to certain markers, e.g. the clicker in agility. You don’t want to use an exciting marker for very calm behaviors.

I do this in the following way. I mostly use the clicker for new behaviors and exciting behaviors – things where I want the dog to pay special attention. Another exciting marker I use is an enthusiastic “Suuuuuuper!” (for behaviors that are already on cue and don’t need the clicker anymore), jumping up and flashing my hands (if I want to reinforce my dog while she is at a distance), briefly taking her head in my hands, or  rolling on the floor and letting her jump all over her to show her what an amazing thing she has just done. The click is always followed by a treat or toy, the other markers are only sometimes followed by a treat.

When practicing calm behaviors or reinforcing Phoebe walking calmly next to me or staying calm in an exciting situation, I use a calm voice for saying “Guuuuuuut” (gooooood in German” or “Braves Mädl” (“Good girl!”), or, depending on the situation, slowly move my hand under her chin and scratch it softly.

There was a lot more going on in Venice last weekend – but I’ve got to stop writing and get some for-bread work done! Check out Emily Larlham’s next seminar yourselves! And for starters, browse through her youtube channel.

In any case – here’s a photo of Phoebe and me warming up for recall-with-distractions work (photo by Martina Lazzarini): 

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Happy training, everyone, and have a pawesome autumn week!

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