Advent Calendar 2011

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:

4 – And the winner is…

The winner of the e-book Picking Your Performance Puppy is AnnaKarin Nordangård! I used an online random number generator to pick a winner. AnnaKarin is getting a new puppy in a few weeks, so I hope she’ll have some use for the book. This is the video that AnnaKarin picked as her favorite is this one:

I can’t believe it’s almost four years ago. Pi was just a puppy and we lived in another house in another country.

Talking about different countries, there is a lot of discussion in both Norway (Where Thomas is from, and where we used to live) and Sweden (where I’m from and where we live now) about how to best organize the sport of agility. I think that both countries need agility organizations that are associated with the Kennel Club, but still does it’s own thing and has a strong democracy where the agility handlers make the calls. There are a lot of decisions made about agility that I’m sure that most agility handlers don’t agree on. One of those decisions is that you from this year has to be a Norwegian citizen to compete in the Norwegian Championships (which, incidentally was won by a Finn living in Norway two years ago…). I’m glad that I’m not still living there. Another is that the Norwegian Championships are held at Norway’s biggest dog show – indoors on a carpet so bad that a lot of people chose not to come.

Things are not quite as bad in Sweden, but there is still a great need for more democracy here. Agility is run by the Swedish Working Dog Association (SBK), an organization that has a long and proud history of educating Swedes about dogs, breeding working dogs and organizing working trials and obedience trials. The Swedish Working Dog Association (SBK) is a part of the Swedish Kennel Club (SKK). I have been a member of SBK for over 15 years and have always been proud of the incredible tradition we have in this country. Every town has it’s own club with big green fields and nice house. But SBK and agility is not a good match. An organization that also deals with breeding certain breeds, organizing working trials, evaluating mentality in dogs and educating dogs for the military is just too big to rule over agility. We need more democracy and we need people concerned with agility making the decisions. I hope both Norway and Sweden will come to this solution soon.

If you read Scandinavian or if you’re good with translating texts online, here are some blog posts that talk about both problems and solutions:

3 – Picking a puppy

In yesterday’s blog, you have the chance to win an e-book about how to pick a puppy with good structure for dog sports. It got me thinking about how we pick puppies from a litter. Like I mentioned yesterday, I’ve chosen all my puppies based on their looks. I just can’t help picking the puppy that looks in a certain way, and I just feel that the looks goes with the name I’ve picked for the puppy. I have tried to do it in another way, just listen to this:

I’ve planned to test the puppies and pick one based on the test. This is what I did when I picked Squid and I also asked Helen about what to look for structure-wise. There were three female pups and I got first pick. I wanted to see the puppies tug and they all did that well. Then I had one other test that I really believed in. It’s the reversed luring (or “it’s yer choice”) game. I presented a closed fist with treats inside it to one puppy at a time and looked at how they behaved. The first two puppies were excellent, behaving just like I wanted. They would try many different ways to get the treats and they did not give up. I’m not looking for a puppy that stays away from the hand too soon, I want them to be really intense and persistent. I think that this game shows that the puppy is willing to work for rewards and that he has some concentration and endurance. The third puppy was not like that. She sniffed the hand and walked away. That puppy was also the only one in that litter that was a Squid… So I ended up with her even though she failed at the only puppy test I really believe in. I still believe in it, because it was right about Squid. For the first 1,5-2 years she was really hard to train. She would fall asleep during shaping and give up if you used a non-reward marker. It was really, really hard to get her to do anything for any length of time. I’m still very happy that she is mine and at this time, you wouldn’t guess that she ever had those problems. She is a lot of fun to train, is very creative and persistent in shaping and can do obedience for long periods of time without rewards. She was just a very slow starter (and her sisters were not).

Very young Squid (to the left) with a brother, a sister and her mother Fly.

My next puppy was Epic and he is from our first own litter. I thought that having the puppies around you all the time for eight weeks would give you a lot of information and that I’d be able to make a good decision based on their personalities and structure. There were two male dogs in the litter and I picked Epic within two or three days, before he even had a personality… My choice was mostly based on the fact that he was black and white and his brother had some tan spots. Since I had Squid that is so much like mother Fly, I wanted to pick a puppy that was more like the father this time. Epic’s father is black and white and I think that was part of why I picked him. I believe that puppies that look a lot like a relative more often will have the same personality. I know this sounds weird and I’m not sure if it’s true (but it often seems so). Anyone that has any thoughts on this? I couldn’t be more happy with my choice, I love Epic so much.

Epic with a bulldog body at 3 weeks

This summer, Thomas lovely dog Jen had a litter of puppies and I was going to keep a female for herding and breeding. Since Jen is carrier of CEA, we decided to test all the puppies as soon as possible, so that we could chose a female puppy that was clear/normal and not have to worry about it in future breeding. But when the test came back, it turned out that both the black and white puppies were clear and the ones with tan were carriers. I knew I should keep a black and white female, but in the end I just had to pick one of the tan marked because she was clearly “Seven” (the litter has a Star Trek-theme).

Then Thomas fell in love with one of the male puppies and kept him (also a carrier…) and I didn’t feel like having a puppy at all. So Sarek has stayed with Thomas and Seven moved to Stockholm on breeding terms and is now called “Twix”. It didn’t turn out at all like I had planned and I have no idea how it will end (which of the female puppies I’d most like to breed from when they are grown) but I do have a good feeling about my choice anyway. I met Seven/Twix a few weeks ago and I just loved her personality so much. She’s also still very pretty, but I don’t know what Helen would say about this body at five months 😀

Photo borrowed from Emelie Briding. I think this is a really unflattering picture and I’m sure she’ll look great when she’s grown. This is just too funny. 

Seven/Twix at 7 weeks