December 2011

14 – Different Kinds of Reward Markers

I want my dogs to know a few different reward markers that I can use in different situations. A click or a verbal “yes” means that a reward is coming from me. The click can end the behavior even if it’s a controlled behavior like a sit stay or a nose touch contact, while just praise doesn’t.

One of the most important reward markers is a word that means that the dog can get an external reward. This word should not be the same as praise, or as a word that means that a reward is coming from you. I would suggest that the word means “get what you want the most”. It can be used to let the dog sniff the ground, chase a leaf, take a swim, get the treats on the floor etc.

For obedience, I want a word that means “turn around as fast as you can and run back to an external reward (even if you don’t know it’s there). So far, I’ve used the same word (“varsågod”) for this as I have for the “get what you want the most”. It has worked well, but I don’t think it is perfect. I would prefer two different words.

You can also teach the dog more specific release words, like “go pee”, “take a swim”, “go for a run”, “see the person” etc. I think it’s very practical and also good stimulus control training in everyday life.

What kind of reward markers do you use?

12 – No Reward Markers?

Let’s get a bit theoretical tonight. Last week I had a long and late discussion with my friend Eva over some glasses of wine. There has been some discussion on NRM (No Reward Markers) and LRS (Least Rewarding Stimulus) in Swedish blogs lately. The NRM is sometimes referred to as a positive punisher (you add something and behavior gets less likely). Tonight, I stumbled on an old blog post (almost four years old) that I wrote in Swedish and that seemed to fit perfect into the discussion. I will translate it for you:

The last year it’s been very clear to me how reinforcing information is to dogs. It’s been known for long that it’s reinforcing to get a cue, or when a target or lure is presented. What you might not think so much about are the small signs that are so reinforcing to both dog and handler that you easily get caught in a vicious circle.

We use (sometimes, not that much anymore) a step that signals “change behavior” to the dog. If the dog has done (and been rewarded for) five sits and I now want the dog to lie down, I’ll take a step back when the dog starts on the sixth sit. A well trained dog will take that hint and try another behavior instead. Some time ago, we had a discussion about what this signal is. A few people argued that this kind of no reward markers are punishers. My conclusion now, a year later, is that this kind of NRM is reinforcing. I did already then argue that the step was functioning as a discriminative stimulus (i.e. a cue), but I didn’t think about it being reinforcing (but I didn’t believe it was punishing either).

There is no problem with using that kind of switch-cue that I described above. The reward does come when the dog does something we like (trying to sit when he has been rewarded for sitting five times before is a good behavior). The problem arises when you use this kind of information when you get behaviors that you don’t like. If your dog has sat down five times and been rewarded for it and then lies down on the sixth try. Or if the dog gets “stuck” during shaping and starts to bark, you take a step back, the dog stops his barking and offers a behavior that you click. Everybody is happy  – you’re happy because the dog stopped barking and the dog is happy to get information and a treat. The question is just what happens with the barking in the future…

Many dogs that “get stuck”, “give up” or “get frustrated” during shaping wouldn’t do that if we didn’t reinforce it so well. I’m not suggesting that shaping is about waiting a lot and I very rarely have to wait for my dogs to offer anything (they’ve learned that giving up earns them nothing, so they don’t). But sometimes when we teach classes, there is a fair amount of waiting and it can get frustrating for both dogs and people. The waiting comes from that we need to extinguish behaviors that have been reinforced many, many times (both in humans and dogs). It’s so tempting to nudge the dog in the right direction (move some, wave the target, tell the dog “come on!” etc.) since the dog often rewards our efforts (at least the first times). If you’re really stuck, I think it’s better to just walk away, take a walk with the dog and make a new plan instead of constantly reinforcing helplessness.

People have a hard time buying this, since it doesn’t feel right to just wait the dog out. I do think that this is sometimes needed for the dog to understand that it’s initiative and to repeat rewarded behavior that is getting him the reward – not barking or giving up. And a dog that understands this is a joy to work with – since you’ll rarely or never will have to wait for the dog again. We sometimes wonder what makes our dogs so very easy to train and how come if feels like they’re reading our minds. I think the answer, at least partly, lies here. Of course, to be able to not help the dog out all the time, you have to plan your sessions well, end in time, set good criteria etc. Or you’re just being unfair to the dog.

What are your thoughts on this subject. It only touches the discussion on NRMs, but I’d love to hear your opinion on that as well. Are NRMs always positive punishers? Should you ever use them? Please leave your thoughts!

For my Swedish readers, this is the link to the original blogpost: Hjälp är mer förstärkande än du tror

11 – Some links

I’ve had a busy weekend with an agility foundations seminar at home. Epic and I are still on our own, while Thomas and the rest of the dogs are in Norway. He’s coming home tomorrow and I’m really looking forward to seeing him and the dogs again. So, being tired and ready for bed, I thought I’d share some blog posts from other authors that I really like. I don’t know very many english speaking blog posts, so please recommend your favorite blogs or blog posts in the comments section below.

Jess Martin on “How I Accidentally Trained my Dog NOT to Tug”

Denise Fenzi on “Talent and Puppies”

10 – More Fun and Clear Agility Training

I’m sorry that I didn’t write anything yesterday. I spent the day driving home in rain and wind after a great herding session in the morning. Came home to snow and ice. I hope it’ll go away soon. I have posted an entry from yesterday now, it’s just a little video of Epic and his third talent (apart from agility and herding). Today, I thought I would share with you some important points that makes agility training much more fun and clear for the dog.

  • Quick transitions. Make sure that it takes a minimum of time to get the dog set up to run a sequence. It’s worth training getting the dog off his toy and into position fast. Some people prefer to set the dog up with their hands when the dog is still on the toy. I like to se the dog swing into position at my side as soon as the toy is out of his mouth. Anyway, it shouldn’t take more than a couple of seconds between the dog letting go of his toy and you leading out. If you take long, or if you have to nag the dog to get him into position, you will loose a lot of the great drive built up while tugging. This transition is excellent to train while warming up or on days like these when there is snow all over my agility field.
  • Use “screw up cookies”. When ever there is a mistake on course and you want to start over, make sure that you keep your dog under control and set him up for success in the next repetition. You definitely don’t want your dog to rehearse flanking, blind crossing, taking tunnels on his own or other unwanted behaviors while you’re walking back, but this often happens if you’re not paying attention. The best way to avoid this is to let the dog hang off his toy while walking back to the start. You’ll have your dog under control while building value for interacting with you. If the mistake was made by the dog, make sure that you ask him for some behavior that he will be successful with before giving him the toy. It might be a hand touch, a sit or a down. If you made a mistake and the dog responding correctly (like missing a jump because of an early front cross) you should of course reward him right away.
  • Reward when the dog gets it right! Unfortunately, a lot of dogs only get rewarded when things go wrong. If your dog makes a mistake, make sure to reward when he gets it right! Never ever just continue running the sequence. How will he know what you wanted him to do if you don’t give him that information when he gets it right. If you keep running, you risk something else going wrong on and the dog not getting rewarded at all. I often make sure to reward the dog with his toy in trials if there is something I need to do over again, I keep a small toy in my pocket for instances like that. Of course, don’t just reward the dog when he gets it right the second time. Note what your dog was failing on and be ready to reward him when he get’s that same thing right in your next training session.

I hope you don’t have snow like us, unless you like it – but I don’t get people who do. Have a great weekend!

Cecilia and Ninja playing

8 – Second Day with Advanced Handling

Epic has been such a good sport these three days. He came here and had done very little sequencing. We started with double box on tuesday, moved on to more challenging sequences yesterday and today we ran courses the whole day. We were only five handlers running dogs in the advanced handling seminar, so we got to run a lot. Epic has never done a full course and he was of course not really ready for these advanced courses, so we had some mistakes and also stopped to reward often. I’m very happy with how well he has been working all three days, and he sure loved a lot running agility. I have so much to work on when we get home, but I think we have a pretty good foundation. Here is a video with some of the work we did today:

We’re staying one more night in the south of Sweden, doing some herding tomorrow morning. Then we’re heading back home. They say that there is a lot of snow and wind coming, I hope it will be alright to drive.

7 – Advanced Handling with Greg Derrett

We’re exhausted after two days of handling with Greg Derrett. Epic did advanced handling today and sometimes it was a bit too advanced for him, considering he just started to run sequences and jumping high jumps. But he did a lot of nice things too and I’m glad that he is behaving nicely and relaxing between runs. He did drop more bars than I’m happy with. He seems to take off to late and takes the bars down with front feet. It’s probably just his inexperience, but I will work more on his jumping. We have a lot of things to work on this winter and I’m looking forward to it.

6 – Double Box Seminar

I’m in the south of Sweden this week, enjoying a seminar on agility handling with Greg Derrett. Epic got to work at a seminar for the first time and did really well. He seemed to take it very seriously and tried his best, even though he got tired in the evening. I really like that he is so enthusiastic, focused and thoughtful at the same time. Squid unfortunately hurt her self last week and had to get stitches on her shoulder, so she can’t run this time. And Shejpa got spayed a few weeks ago, so she’s on a break from agility too. This means that Epic will have to do the advanced stuff tomorrow and on Thursday. It’ll be interesting. Here’s a video from today:

We’re having a lot of fun, but not much time for blogging.

5 – Seesaw Basics

I teach my dogs nose touches as the end behavior on the seesaw. This is a pretty long process for me (and I don’t hurry, I don’t think my puppies are ready for a full seesaw before they are grown) and I do most of it on stairs, away from agility equipment. Parallel to teaching the end behavior, I work on weight shift and confidence. I start by just tugging with the dog in 2 on 2 off, teaching him to keep back feet on the contact. I then let him drive the last step into 2o2o and grab the toy and then gradually increase the distance he has to run before the weight shift. Eventually, I will add a bang to this game and with time increase it. Epic always had a bit of problem with this since he likes to put all of his weight into the toy instead of shifting his weight back in the grip. It’s better, but not perfect. You can see what I mean here: