Monday, April 18, 2011

Getting a "Light Bulb" Moment

(by Brianne Statz, CPDT-KA)

I don’t know what it is – maybe her lack of early training experience, maybe her part Husky-ness, or maybe she’s just not Lassie when it comes to the smarts department – but Finley can sometimes be quite difficult to train.

She knows basics like sit, down and stay, and she also knows quite a few tricks, like spin and twirl, wave, weave through my legs, etc. But most of the things she knows have been lured. Luring is when you take a treat (or something your dog is focused on) and move it around to get her to do something. For sit, you move the lure up and back over the dog’s head, and usually the butt goes down as the head goes up, and you have a sit. Finley (who even after having been a stray for at least 3 months was a little overweight when I adopted her) likes her food a lot, and she can be lured to do quite a bit, but when I ask her to think about things more, she often gives up and lies down with her head on the floor looking pathetic.

My most current example of this is working on teaching Fin to pick up a toy and put it in the basket (a trick my Aussie Payton learned in about 10 minutes). This behavior is a shaping process (rewarding approximations of the goal behavior). I had done several sessions with her that ended in frustration for me. She could take and drop the toy if I held it right over the basket, but that was about it – not a very impressive trick.

So I decided, rather than get irritated that she’s not as fast a learner as Mr. Smarty-Pants Aussie Payton, I asked myself how I could make it easier for her. I thought it might help to just get her to understand the concept that she has to carry the toy to a specific spot, rather than drop it (or fling it –that’s the Husky in her) anywhere she wants. So I took a piece of paper and put it on the floor and did a few repetitions of holding the toy over the paper, and asking her to take and drop, with the toy falling onto the paper. Then I took the leap and set the toy right next to the paper. Now she has to pick it up herself and drop it on the paper. This she also did fairly easily (but it could be done easily because the toy was very close to the paper). Then I moved on to placing the toy farther away from the paper. Here she was stumped a bit, as it involved a longer distance to carry the toy.

She made a few attempts, picking up and dropping the toy several times, and occasionally getting lucky and hitting the paper (click & treat!). Then, on one of these trials, she looked at me, then looked at the paper, then looked at the toy, and picked it up and carried it to the paper (click & Jackpot!). It very much seemed like a “light bulb moment”, when the dog finally understands something. Since these moments are very rewarding for me as a trainer, I just got reinforced for setting my dog up for success! I might have to repeat that behavior.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Take Time to Go On "Ear Watch"

(by Brianne Statz, CPDT-KA)

Being able to read your dog’s body language can be a very useful skill. It can clue you in to when your dog might be feeling anxious or fearful, excited, happy or relaxed. And sometimes being able to recognize body language early can help you keep your dog happy and calm.

Some of the most expressive dog body parts are the ears. Different breeds obviously have very differently shaped ears, but the basics of ear positioning can still help you read your dog. Watch your dog at a time when he is obviously relaxed and notice the lack of tension in the ears. Compare this to how your dog’s ears look when you pick up his favorite toy – they probably come up and forward a bit, indicating some level of excitement or arousal. Contrast that to when you first come home to greet your dog – many dogs when greeting have “appeasing ears”, which means they are in a lower, softer position than normal. And if you have ever seen your dog very afraid, you may have seen the ears pointed back and plastered to his head.

These ear positions can be great indicators of your dog’s emotional state, and if you notice them, you can intervene when necessary. For example, my Australian Shepherd tends to get over-excited easily and can be reactive when he sees other dogs on walks. When we go for a walk, I watch his ears carefully, because they will often alert me to when he has spotted a dog that I might not have seen yet. If I see his ears go up and forward (aroused/excited), then I know to scan the environment, call him back to my side and reinforce for noticing the other dog without barking like a mad man. If I fail to notice the ears, he may get more and more aroused, and that might spill over into a reactive display.

He also gets very aroused when people he doesn’t know well come into his house. If I left it to him, an appropriate greeting would be to charge at them barking and jumping on them, crazily excited. Since most guests don’t appreciate that, I put him on leash and watch the ears. I reward him for looking at the guest with appeasing ears (the slightly back and lowered ears). When he is doing that, then he can greet the guest (with a toy in his mouth for those who don’t appreciate being licked).

While taking the whole of your dog’s body language into account is important, try going on ear watch for awhile and listen to what they’re telling you.