Testing vs Training

February 25, 2018

To train:  Bring (a person, child, animal) to desired state or standard of efficiency, obedience, etc., by instruction and practice.

To test:  Critical examination or trial of qualities of person or thing; standard for comparison or trial.

Silvia heeling

One of the biggest problems we face as trainers taking part in any kind of competitive dog sport is to be satisfied with behaviour that is not exactly what we visualized when putting our training plan together but one that is “good enough”.  The biggest problem with this is that we tend to go out into our training area and put these behaviours that are “good enough” to the test without following good training protocols.  This often leads us to a place where we end up either having nothing to reinforce and end up with a demotivated dog or, even worse, punishing our dogs for their “disobedience” to the point where the dog either shuts down altogether or stops doing the behaviours that we want because it is in avoidance mode.  The result of this is that we go away from the session in frustration and often in tears having damaged our relationship with our dog and created problems that are going to take a lot of patience and time to fix.  Very often, rather than stepping back and looking at from the dog’s point of view we tend to put blame on our dog.  He’s “giving me the finger”; or he’s being stubborn; or he’s being stupid!

I’m not saying that testing behaviour does not have a place in our training.   Often the only way that we can find holes in our training is to test it.  However, the test should always be set up to test the qualities of the behaviour being trained and not to make the test so difficult and outside the scope of the training that the dog is bound to fail.  This will only lead to a demotivated dog and frustrated handler.

There are a couple of points that are essential to avoid falling into this trap.

  1. Design a training plan
  2. Know what YOUR dog is capable of and what stage of training he or she is at. Be aware of what tests that may be set by others during a group training session will cause your dog to fail so that you can either modify the test to suit yourself or step away altogether.
  3. Learn to read your dog so that when he becomes stressed or frustrated or shut down you can withdraw until you are both composed enough to continue.
  4. You are your dog’s advocate. Do not stand by and watch someone bully your dog.
  5. Teach yourself to recognise the difference between excellence and mediocrity.
  6. Learn about the science behind training. More and more it is just not enough to embark on a training plan without knowing why some things work and some don’t.  There is a lot of information out there about Classical and Operant Conditioning.  The cornerstones of learning.
  7. Don’t be afraid of going back a couple of steps in your training. If you do make a mistake (and you will make mistakes – we all do) do not hesitate to go back and start over.  Making mistakes is part of your learning curve but don’t obsess about them.   Rather than worrying about what NOT to do think about what you SHOULD be doing.

And finally, to quote Bob Bailey who has had a hand in training hundreds of animals and many different species to undertake complex tasks…


Putting it another way: You want to give as many trials and well selected and timed rewards as possible to shape the sharpest and most precise behavior of your choosing, within the time that is available.


Missing the Point

June 1, 2017

In this article Linda Case explores the research that has been done on the ability of dogs to follow signals and whether this ability is a result of domestication/selection or ontogeny/learning.

The Science Dog

Dogs are talented observers of human body language. Dog folks attest to this via boatloads of anecdotal stories and home videos that we are happy to share (and over-share) with others. But more importantly for the purposes of The Science Dog, it is the results of an additional boatload of controlled research studies that support our belief that dogs are paying attention to us.

Getting the Point: Human pointing gestures have emerged as a research litmus test for measuring the dog’s ability to understand human communication signals. To date, there are more than 50 published papers that report about this talent in dogs. Researchers have compared pointing comprehension between dogs and socialized and unsocialized wolves, between dogs living as pets and those living in shelters, among puppies and dogs of different ages, using various types of pointing (hand, eyes, body position) and when the pointing person is either familiar or unfamiliar to the dog. Though results vary and there are a number of nuanced points (literally) to be made, there is…

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Give Your Dog the Gift of a Future

March 31, 2017

lab with gift 2

One of my clients has been looking for a dog.  Her needs were fairly specific as she is an active 78 year old and her husband 84.  They have had dogs all their lives up to now and miss having a dog around so would love to give a dog a home.  But she was very clear in terms of her requirements:

  • She didn’t want a puppy and would rather have an adult dog.
  • The dog needed to be one who was looking for a new home, either because the owners couldn’t keep him any longer, for whatever reason, or because he was a Rescue.
  • He needed to have good manners around people as my client’s husband is frail and would not be able to handle a lively, excitable dog.
  • He needed to be cat friendly.
  • He needed to be calm around her grandchildren.
  • As she loved walking, he would need to be able to walk with her without pulling.
  • She would love a Labrador Retriever as they had had this breed in the past.

Ah, you might say, that is a tall order, and I would agree with you as the first two dogs we looked at were dogs that had been relinquished to two separate rescue organisations and were, for two very different reasons, totally unsuitable.  They had very little self control, very poor manners around people, and had had no basic good manners training.  Their connection with people also left a lot to be desired.  They were very typical of dogs that had been acquired as puppies, given attention when they were cute and cuddly and as they got older and more boisterous, were banished to a life out of doors with minimal contact with their humans.

Sadly these dogs were just not right for my client, and after looking at many dogs that needed a home, we eventually found a dog who looked as though he was the right dog.  He was calm and friendly when we arrived to meet him.  Although he had very little formal training he was very much part of the family with his owner taking him out for regular walks, spending time playing fetch games (at which the dog excelled).  He was very good with children although as they didn’t have a cat we couldn’t assess his behaviour around cats.  I felt that this was a problem that could be addressed because of his generally calm behaviour.  With this dog the characteristic that impressed me the most was the connection he had with his humans.

This connection can only be achieved if the owner spends some time bonding with the dog in terms of activities that they do together.  This dog is one that would fit in with my clients.

Now, after many months, Monty has found a wonderful home with a family that love him, take him for walks and spend quality time with him, and would never give him up.

Circumstances change and I hesitate to judge people who need to re-home a dog because of this.  There are often things going on in their lives that we know nothing about.  But if these same people had taken the trouble to make sure their dog was socialized, had some basic training and had a connection with humans, then this would be their gift to their dog.  If you apply yourself it really does not take much time to teach your dog a few basic skills and to enjoy being around humans, and just in case you find yourself in the unenviable position of having to put your dog up for adoption at least by doing this you will be ensuring that his future is secure.

Behavioural Inhibition

February 28, 2017

One of the most enjoyable things about training with positive reinforcement is that as soon as the dogs sense that a training session is about to start, a kind of buzz happens.  They can be fast asleep or lolling about in the sun, or just sitting gazing out at the garden, but as soon as they hear me getting my gear together (and they hear it – no matter how quiet I am), all of them are standing at the door, tails wagging and eyes bright.  This is because they just love training – training is not a chore it is a game we play together.  It gives them an opportunity to have a conversation with their trainer, to problem solve, to earn reinforcement.

Using positive reinforcement with a bridging stimulus has another advantage.  It gives the dog freedom to experiment with behaviours.  This is a trait that is not present in any dog that shows signs of Behavioural Inhibition.  There is nothing sadder than a dog that is so anxious about doing the wrong thing that it ends up doing as little as possible.  It becomes so inhibited that teaching it anything outside its experience is really difficult and time-consuming.

Some features of a behaviourally inhibited or shut-down dog would be a resistance to trying anything new or foreign to its experience.  A 14 week old puppy that has been positively trained from the get-go will have absolutely no problem rapidly offering behaviours such as climbing on to a raised object, offering position changes voluntarily, readily taking food rewards, making eye contact and so on.  The inhibited dog will, on the other hand, even when lured on to a raised object, will, after many, many sessions be very hesitant to try it and will often start the session simply sitting or standing and doing as little as possible.  This same dog will take many, many sessions of luring the down before offering the position, and even then will lower itself cautiously without making eye contact as though not sure what the consequences will be.

It is possible to make things better for these sad little dogs.

  • Identify the situation that tends to activate behavioural inhibition and avoid that situation. Change the environment.  If the dog is unhappy in the area that you train, move somewhere else where the dog is more comfortable.
  • Identify anything that the dog will participate in willingly. And gradually use this participation to ease the dog into working more confidently towards goals that you have set.
  • Observe the dog closely and avoid anything that causes the dog to shut down. Once the dog becomes more confident these things can gradually be reintroduced.

Exercise LOTS of patience.  Even a hint of frustration or irritation will lead to a shut-down dog.  End the session immediately you start becoming frustrated.

The Case of the “Stubborn” Dog

June 22, 2016

Have you ever been in a situation where your dog, for no apparent reason, stops doing a behaviour that he or she has been doing really well in the past?  Is your dog being stubborn?  Is he trying to “dominate” you?  Has he forgotten his training?  Or does the answer originate with you, the handler?

When you require your dog to perform a task the sequence is to give the dog a CUE which is followed by the BEHAVIOUR which you asked for followed by a CONSEQUENCE.  A cue is the “green light” that tells the dog it’s time to do a behaviour. A cue can be anything that the animal can perceive: verbal, visual, environmental, a scent, a sound, or a touch. A cue can be trained—the word “down” is a common verbal cue that means “lie down on the ground.”  Or, a cue can simply be learned from association—when I open the lid of the treat jar in no time I am surrounded by dogs with sad, starving dog faces so I will give them a biscuit.

As Karen Pryor describes in her book, “Reaching the Animal Mind”, a poisoned cue occurs when a dog associates unpleasant things with a cue. Because of these unpleasant associations, the dog will either hesitate to perform the behaviour or not do it at all. We humans think of unpleasant as a reprimand or scolding, or painful, like a jerk on a check chain. But what we think is unpleasant and what the dog thinks is unpleasant are often different. A slight tug on the leash, pulling on our dog’s collar, leaning over the dog, or even a pat on the head, can all be unpleasant – for the dog.

Poisoned cues are more common than you think and are often the culprit when a dog is thought to be stubborn.

In the following scenario, a dog who was previously coming when called in response to the cue “Come” and a treat, for no apparent reason stopped responding to the cue, and when called ignored the handler, avoiding eye contact and sniffing the grass.  In this case the “Come” cue had been inadvertently paired with a scolding.  The “Come” cue had been “poisoned”.

In another scenario, a dog who had been delivering a toy very nicely to the handler’s outstretched hand for no apparent reason started dropping it at the handler’s feet.  What the handler had been doing was to “reward” the dog for delivery by patting it on the head which the dog didn’t enjoy.  So he started dropping the dummy thus avoiding the pat on the head.  The outstretched hand which was the cue for delivery was poisoned by the pat on the head.


So, before you label your dog as being stubborn, look at yourself and your behavior.  You might be inadvertently poisoning your cues.


The Meaning of Click

June 3, 2016

This is for all those addicted to clicker training, as I am!!!

The Science Dog

Hi. My name is Linda and I am a clicker trainer. In the spirit of full disclosure, I admit that I have been using a clicker for many years. My use began with the common gateway secondary reinforcer, the verbal cue (“Yes!”). While that worked well for a while, I eventually found that I needed more. I wanted a marker that was accurate and clear to my dog and something that could provide that immediate “ah ha!” moment in dog training that we all crave.

Cooper Clicker Training HeelBABY COOPER HEELS FOR CLICKS

Recently, my husband suggested that perhaps I am too dependent upon my clicker. It is possible that finding them all over the house, in the pockets of my jackets and jeans, in the car, and oh yeah, one in the refrigerator, had something to do with his concern. I emphatically denied this and insisted that I could quit clicker training any time that I wanted to.

He called my bluff and suggested that I try using food alone, no clicker. Admittedly, I did…

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May 26, 2016

I came across this game recently and have been working with it to help my dogs relax when being handled, which is what the game was originally intended for.  Watch this introductory video by Chirag Patel.

I subsequently discovered that there is another way to use the bucket game.  My dog Dash is very reactive when strange dogs come up to my vehicle.  She customarily sits in the passenger seat of my car when I visit clients but because she gets so anxious and noisy when my clients’ dogs approach the car, I either leave my car outside the premises or leave Dash at home.

So this is where the bucket game comes in.  I discovered that if I had the bucket of treats on the dash board of the car as I approached the problem area she would be so focussed on the bucket that she did not seem to notice the dogs approaching the car.  I immediately gave her one of the treats in the bucket.  We continued to drive into the property – in silence!  I kept on giving her treats which helped her maintain focus on the bucket.  As we progressed along the driveway of this particular house, I slowed down my rate of reinforcement until we reached our destination and I could get out of my car leaving a quiet and quite relaxed Dash to wait for my return.

I repeated the process on my way out and in future when I am visiting homes where dogs meet me at the gate, the trusty bucket is ready.

Note:  These particular dogs were quiet and well-behaved around my vehicle so I’m not sure how self-contained Dash will be if they were to jump up and bark.  I suspect that the bucket would not be much good in this case.  But…  this has now become another tool in my toolbox for working with reactive dogs in distracting situations where I have a measure of control over the triggers.

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