It’s April, and we’re all sheltering in place and social distancing. Good thing dogs don’t seem to be able to get Coronavirus – we can snuggle with them to our heart’s content.
Ironically, the class I’m teaching at FDSA this term is called “Out and About.” I couldn’t have done a better job, had I actively tried to come up with an inappropriate class title for the times we’re living in! It’s not a new class, of course – the title is a reminder of past and – hopefully – future times where it’s safe and responsible to share public spaces.
The good thing about Out & About – and the reason I didn’t scratch it this term – is that, despite its unfortunate title, there are large parts of it that can be trained at home, right in your own house, in your yard, or during a socially distant walk. Out and About is my choose your own adventure class. Students get to pick one or more topics that are particularly interesting for them, and work on those: advanced recalls away from distractions, leash manners, certain challenges based in overexcitement or fear of particular stimuli, muzzle training, settling anywhere and everywhere … It’s a rich class.
Many of you are probably facing financial hardships right now: job insecurity, unemployment, or simply less work. I myself have stopped working with in-person clients entirely, and am only teaching online. I feel lucky that I still have a job, and that working in distance education isn’t new to me!
Knowing that not everyone is this lucky, I’ve decided to share a short lecture from my current class here with you. It’s a lecture from the first week of class. If you have a decent recall already and are a savvy dog trainer, you’ll be able to take this lecture, come up with your very own training plan, and have something to work on with your dog over the next few weeks – even though you may not be able to afford a class this term. So this is for you, to give you a little something to play with and experiment with! This is my blueprint for analyzing recall challenges, and drafting training plans for recalls away from specific distractions.
Write out the answers to steps 0-4! Writing things down will help you identify details about your challenge that you might otherwise overlook.
How to Analyze Your Recall Challenge and Make a Training Plan
Unlike the foundational steps for a reliable recall, advanced challenges are as individual as the dogs who are facing them. It all comes down to what reinforcers your dog prefers, who she is, and what kind of distraction we are addressing.
With a focus on one specific recall challenge you are facing (e.g. critters, food on the street, other dogs), answer the following questions:
0. What is your baseline behavior?
What happens right now if your dog is faced with the distraction you would like to work on? Take a video if you can, and analyze it! Recording your dog and yourself will allow you to be your own coach!
1. Analyze your problem!
a) Is it really a recall challenge, or does it only look like one? (A lack of response rooted in fear, for example, is not a recall challenge.)
b) Is the distraction something your dog can have some of the time, or is the distraction always off limits? If your dog can have it some of the time – could the distraction itself be used as a recall reward?
c) Do you have a reward that is potentially higher value than the distraction?
d) Can you control the distraction? If not, is there a way to make it controllable, or a controllable stand-in distraction you could use in training set-ups?
2. Define a realistic training goal and/or management solution. Write it down in detail!
3. Draft a training plan!
a) Break your overall training goal down into smaller subgoals (milestones).
b) Make a detailed plan from your baseline to your first milestone.
c) Write down any additional relevant details concerning set-ups, reinforcers, and criteria! When will you raise criteria? When will you lower criteria? What distance will there be between your dog and the distraction? How will you ensure your dog can’t access the distraction when working off leash? Be as specific as you can!
4. Start working towards your first milestone!
Video every session, and analyze it afterwards. It may sound tedious, but trust me: video will help you notice things you missed in real time, and allow you to adjust your training plan based on what you learned. And if you get stuck despite having taken video? Share your video with a dog training friend of yours! A second set of eyes will often be able to recognize issues you overlooked, and a friend’s ideas can get you out of a training rut!
I saw a woman lying in the middle of the street. She was curled up like you’d do when spooning someone. Only there was no one to spoon.
The street was a freeway. I was on a bus – the first vehicle that stopped after a motorcycle ran her over. Her feet were naked. Her skirt had slipped up, revealing her lower legs and bare feet.
Should I get off the bus and make sure she got to a hospital?
She was facing away from us. “Dios mío,” whispered the woman sitting next to me. The sun was shining.
A friend, a lawyer, once told me, “If you ever hit someone in Guatemala, run.” What if the guy on the motorcycle had received the same advice?
His motorcycle was parked on the side of the road. He was fine. He was making a phone call. He wasn’t going to run. And, just like that, I decided to stay on the bus.
The woman in the street slowly lifted an arm. Just a for a second; then it dropped back down. It was the only movement I had seen since we stopped.
“She’s fine”, said the driver. “She’s moving.”
(I’ve seen the mouth of a sheep open and close a minute after separating the head from the body. Clearly, moving an arm doesn’t prove you are fine.)
And we continued on, the bus leaning into the turns so you had to hold on to your seat with two hands, blasting reggeaton.
Later that day, I asked a friend what would happen to the woman. She had no shoes. She certainly had no insurance.
“They’ll take her to the Hospitál Nacional,” said my friend. “It’s free.”
“Will they do a good job there?”
“They won’t,” he said. “If she gets there alive, and she’s badly injured, she’ll die.”
I thought of Peter Singer. He holds that there is no moral difference between walking past a dying person in the street, and choosing not to think of all the dying people in far away places.
It’s morally outrageous to see footage of someone walk past a dying person in the street. We all believe we would stop. (We can’t know if we would. I’d have said I would stop – but I stayed on that bus.)
The thing is: there was no good reason to stay on the bus. If someone is lying in the middle of a freeway, and no one stops the oncoming traffic … How long until they get run over again, this time for good? I’ve seen cats and dogs on that freeway, flat like sheets of paper. There was no breakdown triangles, no traffic cones, and no one was stopping cars for this woman. I could have stopped cars for her, had I gotten off the bus.
I suppose Peter Singer is right. There is no moral difference: maybe we’re just as bad up close as we are at great distances.
I used to call myself an “R+ trainer,” but haven’t used the label in a while. I’m just not happy with it anymore. It’s commonly used to describe someone who strives to only ever use positive reinforcement. That’s not true for the trainer I am today: I have stopped looking at training plans in terms of the operant conditioning quadrant they fall into.
Today, I strive to be the kindest and most effective trainer I can be. When I say “most effective,” I mean that I’ll get to know the individual team in front of me. I’ll learn about their specific situation, their resources, goals, and challenges. On this basis, we’ll come up with a training plan that sets them up for success. We’ll leverage the existing dog/human relationship, and shape behavioral change with the help of ideas, tools, and interventions the owner is comfortable with. Occasionally, my recommendations include mild aversives: I’ll consider verbal corrections or brief time-outs IF I believe they will substantially speed up the training process without negatively impacting the dog, the human, or their relationship.
Another reason I’m not using the “R+” label for myself anymore is that it is increasingly being claimed by trainers who subscribe to a laissez-faire ideology of dog training. The laissez-faire subculture has caused two entirely new categories of pet-dog related problems to surface: on the one hand, it seems like there is an increasing number of pet dogs who suffer due to a lack of structure and clarity. A paradigmatic example of this are insecure dogs who display reactivity when being left alone with encounters they don’t know how to handle.
On the other hand, I see owners who suffer because they believe it’s unethical to stop their dogs from engaging in unwanted behaviors: owners who don’t leave their house anymore because their dog will bark in a crate, or who stop having visitors because they worry it will make their dog uncomfortable.
In the former case, it’s the dog who suffers. In the latter case, it’s the human. When I say that I strive to be the “kindest” trainer I can be, I’m talking about both ends of the leash. I want the dogs I work with to get their basic needs met. These needs include safety, food, exercise, social interaction, and mental stimulation. A baseline of these things should be available unconditionally.
The laissez-faire subculture of the positive reinforcement community has embraced this fact, and taken it one step further: they seem to have forgotten that humans, too, have a right to get their basic needs met: just like in dogs, human needs include safety, food, exercise, social interaction, and mental stimulation. Sometimes, meeting them will mean leaving the dog at home. Sometimes, it’ll mean saying “No” to the dog. In any case, it means keeping the needs of both dog and human in mind, compromising when necessary, and being practical, pragmatic, and fair towards both ends of the leash.
Do you and your dog like shaping? Great! This is the game for you! Don’t worry about doing anything fancy or impressive – this is purely for fun. Keep your rate of reinforcement high, and enjoy your dog’s creativity!
1. Find an object your dog has never interacted with – ideally, she has never even seen it. It can be anything: a book, a chair, a couch cushion, binoculars, a sauce pan, a pencil, a hair brush, a bottle of shampoo, a beer can, a newspaper.
2. Grab a hand full of small (and delicious!) treats.
3. Take your dog, your object, and your treats to a distraction-free room in your house.
4. Set the timer on your phone to 1 minute.
5. Put the object down, and shape your dog. No need to have a goal behavior – see what she offers, and go from there!
6. When your timer goes off, pick up the object, and take a break.
7. Set your timer for a minute, and play, goof around or cuddle your dog until the timer goes off again.
8. Set the timer for another minute, and put down the object again. Continue shaping!
9. Take another 1-minute play or cuddle break, and then shape for a third minute.
Example, minute 1: Phoebe and the plant!
The video shows the first minute of Shape it Up! with Phoebe. I grabbed the first object that caught my eye from a room the dogs are rarely allowed in: a potted plant. I put it down, and saw what Phoebe would give me!
It’s your turn! Find a novel object, and Shape It Up! I’d love to see a clip from your session in the comments!
Today, I’m going to show you not only “nice” videos, but also messy ones. Mick gets bitey, and his sheep are stressed. This, too, is a reality of herding (and life). We – professional dog trainers – tend to only show polished videos. It’s easy to make ourselves and our dogs look good in videos, pictures, and Facebook posts.
I don’t want to be that kind of trainer. I’d rather be perceived as authentic than perfect. I’m human. I’m pragmatic. I like to experiment and problem-solve, and sometimes, I get things wrong. I strive to train my dogs with kindness, and I don’t always succeed. This week, I experimented with pressure tools (a herding stick, and a paper bag) in order to protect my sheep.
It’s time to face our next challenge: it usually takes a minute for things to calm down. Mick starts out with force and intensity, barreling into the sheep like a cue stick shooting into the triangle of snooker balls, sending them flying all over the place.
I know nothing about snooker. It’s entirely possible that this metaphor makes no sense.
At a loss of where to turn in view of the mess he just made, he’ll end up chasing and gripping. He has no control over the situation that results from barreling into the sheep, and Mick is the kind of dog who struggles with a lack of control: it makes him anxious, chasey, and grippy. It takes a while until the sheep are flocking together again and calm down. When that happens, Mick will calm down as well, and start holding them nicely to me.
Once you’ve heard Susan Friedman talk about labels, you can’t just throw words like “anxious” out there. No matter how convenient it would be.
We must operationalize all the labels before we may proceed!
losing control shall mean that the sheep are not sticking together like a single organism with several heads, but rather running in different directions. Think headless chickens. They are not walking or trotting, but running fast – they are fleeing from my pet predator. A single pet predator can easily control a large flock of sheep that is sticking together like a single organism, but he’s at a loss when it comes to controlling even 3 sheep who are all running into different directions. At least my pet predator is overwhelmed by that.
anxious shall mean that Mick carries his tail high above his back (rather than just above his back legs. He will run (rather than trot), and he will single out a sheep, chase her down, and nip. Occasionally, he’ll start chasing one sheep, and then switch to another.
If on a lead, his tail will be high above his back, and he will pull and pant, or wiggle around my legs throwing behaviors at me while holding his head in a low, glancing up at me briefly, but not holding eye contact.
Now we may proceed.
Once the sheep move calmly and orderly, Mick will slow down, keep his teeth to himself, and lower his tail. He’ll curve around them and hold them to me. He’ll be in a thinking, working state of mind – that’s what we’re looking for in a working Border Collie.
The explosive release
It is Mick himself who causes the frantic behavior of the sheep that, in turn, makes him chase and nip. Pre-release, he’s anxious about gaining control, resulting in an explosive cue stick release. Only once the sheep have recovered from being hit by his force is he able to relax and work nicely.
Anxious Border Collies behave like cue sticks, which results in …
… unpredictable sheep running all over the place. This way lies madness!
We don’t want the madness. This is what we want:
Confident Border Collies curve around rather than barrel into the sheep. Treated this way …
… the sheep will behave like a single organism with multiple heads that can be pushed around while sticking together! It’s as if the sheep were trapped in one of these gigantic plastic bubble balls.
This is what I’ve tried to get Mick to curve out rather than act like a cue stick:
Our flawed heroine (who uses too many adjectives) believes the anxious Border Collie must be pushed and pressured onto the desired trajectory around the badass sheep.
insisting on a down before releasing him to the sheep (this makes things worse – it makes the release even more explosive than it would be from a standing start).
Using a paper bag (inspired by the MacRae Way videos) to correct Mick for barreling in. This correction (shaking the bag) also makes things worse for Mick – it increases his anxiety rather than decreasing it.
Using a herding stick to “push Mick out.” This, too, made things worse. Mick is very pressure sensitive, and me putting pressure on him with a stick pointed his way increases his anxiety. If he’s anxious, he’ll get grippy and chase.
I tried all of the above in combination with using a long line to keep Mick at a distance from the sheep while I myself got closer to the sheep. (The long line idea is another trick I’ve picked up from the MacRae Way videos). The results were similar, but I had more control now than I used to when next to Mick when releasing him.
No tools, and no cues, but still use a long line to keep him in one place while I get closer to the sheep. This is tricky: I need to give him space to choose a side, and then step in to push him out.
This is tricky, but it’s working. f I step in too early or too far, Mick will change directions and barrel into the flock with full force from the other side. If I’m too slow or don’t apply enough pressure with my body, he’ll barrel into them and split them up the way he originally intended.
It took me several tries to figure out the right timing, posture, and path to get the desired result – but I did! All of a sudden, I was getting flanks (mostly Come by ones, since that is his easier side), and things calmed down quickly: by means of taking a nice flank, Mick doesn’t split up the flock and immediately gains control of the herd. That, in turn, will give him the confidence to hold them to me rather than channel his rising anxiety into gripping and chasing. The last video in this post shows what a difference this makes.
Paper bag, and I don’t manage to correct the barreling in: a very big, bitey mess. From the release to the point where Mick is more or less able to hold the sheep to me, it takes 24 seconds.
Another attempt at using the paper bag. Apparently, I’m not a single trial learner! Again, Mick splits up the sheep.
Oh but it MUST work! I make one last paper bag attempt, and successfully correct Mick from barreling in. He is still anxious though, and it takes a while for things to calm down. The fact that I’m holding the paper bag is making things worse, not better. I’m not quite aware of this dynamic yet though.
I’m thinking maybe I need a more powerful tool to get this right. This whole paper back operation didn’t really go the way I wish it had. Maybe it’s just not impressive enough. What if I used a herding stick instead?
Unfortunately, the sheep aren’t in view of the camera in this video. But trust me: it was ugly. The mere presence of the stick increased Mick’s anxiety, and his anxiety increased his bitey desperation. I got the message and quickly dropped the stick – only then did he calm down.
Hrm. The paper bag wasn’t working all that well. I believed I needed to increase the pressure on Mick. I brought a broomstick into the round pen with me, and it backfired. What if the problem wasn’t a lack of pressure on Mick, but the opposite: what if I had been putting too much pressure on him? I test this theory by working without tools. What a mind-blowing difference it makes!
Another attempt without tools – another success! As someone who always tries to train with kindness, this shouldn’t come as a surprise to me. And yet …! Looks like we humans have just as much of a hard time generalizing knowledge from one dog sport or activity to another as our dogs.
~ ~ ~
What did we learn today?
Mick and I do better without tools than with tools (This makes me happy – I’d much rather train without tools anyways). I’m surprised how long it took me to realize the problem was too much pressure rather than a lack of pressure.
I am starting to understand how my body posture affects Mick’s movement. I’m learning about the pressure I exert on him while he is learning about the pressure he exerts on the sheep.
Anxious Border Collies, just like anxious people, make bad choices. Just like coercing an anxious person into doing what we want them to do, trying to guide an anxious Border Collie with pressure tools only exacerbates their anxiety. Anxiety activates the limbic system: flight or fight. Mick will fight (the sheep). People will get angry (at the person putting pressure on them, or at an innocent bystander), run and hide in their idiosyncratic ways, or they’ll vote for Norbert Hofer, Donald Trump, and Brexit. “These are the days it never rains but it pours.” (1)
The currency of power
Pressure is not a magic bullet. It’s really quite straightforward, and yet, it can be hard to remember – both when it comes to people, and when it comes to dogs. The dominant narrative of our culture (dog training-wise and societal) is that (1) power is worth striving for, and (2) pressure is the currency of power.
And that dominant narrative isn’t necessarily wrong. At least some of the time, it provides a lens through which the world (or your dog’s behavior) makes sense. That makes it attractive. It’s simple and straightforward, which makes it convincing. Just turn on the news, and all you’ll see are examples of politicians using pressure tactics to get the upper hand. Arms races, trade wars, and literal wars are fought this way. Dogs are trained on basis of the pressure narrative, and children are raised this way.
Screen shot, New York Times, September 18, 2019, 08:23PM
Just because the pressure narrative is one lens that tells one coherent story doesn’t mean it is the only lens telling the only coherent story though. Sometimes, the coherent story the pressure narrative tells is also plain wrong. But boy girl, it sure is tempting to believe – even in the face of contradictory evidence (see videos 1, 5, 2, and 6), and even for trainers who are already committed to minimizing the use of aversives.
In my last post, I told you how Mick was struggling to get the sheep off the fence, which I resolved by having one of my other dogs outside the round pen. This worked for a session or two; then the sheep figured out that the dog on the outside of the fence couldn’t reach them, and again, they stayed glued to the fence. This, in turn, led to Mick losing control of his sheep. When he finally did get one or two off the fence, the frustration of having lost control got channeled into chasing and nipping: he wasn’t herding, but hunting.
In order to resolve this issue, I picked the brains of my mentors: Raul Molina and Otto Peñate advised me to reduce the number of sheep to just three. Helene Lawler gave me incredibly helpful and detailed feedback on a video, and pointed out that I needed to speak calmly rather than add to Mick’s excitement with my cheerleading voice. She also suggested I remove the youngest ewe – a 4 months old lamb. Lambs don’t behave like adult sheep, which can be frustrating for a young dog. (If you’d like to see Helene’s awesome feedback video on my messy herding attempts, sign up for her excellent 1-on-1 lessons at FDSA. Her feedback video is posted in a forum that can be accessed by her private students.)
I made these simple changes – and wow, did it make a difference! Mick still starts out excited and keen to chase, but he’ll calm down quickly now that the sheep aren’t glued to the fence. He is starting to hold them to me nicely, and find balance on the other side of the small flock! His tail carriage is low and relaxed (a sign of a working rather than hunting Border Collie), and he is trotting rather than chasing, which reduces the stress on the sheep.
My ewes, too, are starting to make Mick’s and my life easier: they are learning that I am their safe zone, which, in turn, makes it easier for Mick to hold them to me.
Here’s my favorite snippet from one of three short sessions we did today:
When the sheep had just moved in, I let Mick have a go to see what he’d give me. He was quite bitey, and I ended the session quickly to work on foundations some more. I don’t want to use harsh punishment on my dog, and I don’t want my sheep to get hurt. I took the biteyness as a sign that Mick wasn’t yet ready to be in with the sheep at that point.
I worked on recalls and lie downs in the proximity of sheep, and on flanks outside the round pen. Mick’s ability to keep me in the picture grew. He got used to the fact that there were now sheep on the property, and less excited about this fact. At the same time, I have been learning more about sheep behavior by trying to move them from A to B myself. My growing sheep literacy is helping me read Mick better as well.
After watching the MacRae Way videos on Starting Young Dogs, I decided to take a paper bag with me into the round pen. If Mick tried to bite a sheep, I’d shake it. Ideally, I’d prefer not to use this visual and auditory punisher, but just having it made me feel confident that I’d be able to protect my sheep if push came to shove. I needed to be sure of that before taking Mick into the round pen again!
Mick’s round pen behavior looked a lot better this time – likely a result of our practice over the last few days. My growing sheep literacy allowed me to identify several antecedents to Mick’s biteyness in today’s first session:
+ When the sheep huddle against the fence and Mick can’t move them, he’ll bite when they finally do move.
+ He’ll get bitey if they scatter rather than stay together.
+ He’ll get bitey when one of them (usually the largest ewe) challenges him.
These sheep aren’t easy to herd. They don’t (yet) know to come to me for protection, and they like to huddle against the fence and stand still. Even though we worked in the round pen, Mick had a hard time moving them off the fence:
I tried to help him, but couldn’t get them to leave the fence, either. So I ended the session to go back to the drawing board.
In the following session, I had Grit outside the round pen to help keep the sheep off the fence. As a result, Mick’s confidence grew, and he had less reason to bite!
These are still messy beginnings – I’m throwing out “Come by!” and “Away!” as Mick goes the respective directions, and waiting for Mick to find balance so I can start walking backwards and have him bring the sheep to me. This is messy – but it’s a little less messy than what we started out with, and that is making me happy! I am hooked!
The lie down we need for herding has several elements:
+ we want it on a hand signal as well as on a verbal cue
+ we want the dog to be able to do it at a distance from us
+ we want the dog to be able to not just lie down and pop up, but hold his down until released
Today, we focused on distance. In order to set Mick up for success, I removed the distraction: no sheep! However, I did work him outside the round pen – right where I’ll eventually need him to be able to lie down in the presence of sheep.
I tethered him to a fence post to get to the other side of the pen without him following me. The round pen itself kept him from coming in to lie down at my feet rather than where he happened to be when hearing the cue.
I’m gradually increasing the distance, starting out with Mick right in front of me. I don’t care whether he responds to the verbal cue or to my hand motion in this session – as long as he responds, I’ll mark with my marker word “Good!” “Good!” means: hold your position; I’ll deliver a treat right into your mouth. I mark while at a distance, and then walk over to feed him through the fence. I’ll get up, and mark “Good!” a second time to reinforce his choice of holding the down rather than popping right up. Then, I’ll mark with my marker cue “Get it!” “Get it!” means: I’ll throw a treat for you to chase.
As Mick searches for the thrown treat, I can increase the distance again, setting up for the next rep of cueing Mick’s lie down: “Easy!”
(The part of the video that I cut out is just Mick getting tangled in the leash and me needing to free him.)
Very happy with this session, and with Mick’s responsiveness! I felt like we were a team. Loose leash throughout. Mick is excited by the proximity of the sheep, yet able to listen. I love this dog!
The sheep are grazing on the other side of the door you can see here. Mick can see them through the wooden bars as well as smell them. His reinforcer is getting to go all the way up to the door and look at the sheep. We usually don’t go out through the door on this side of the shed, so there’s no disappointment about the fact that all he gets to do is look. He is practicing a recalling away from the sheep, eating while in a state of arousal, and lying down. Three birds with one stone. I love him!
A week ago, he wouldn’t have been able to do any of these things: eat, recall, or lie down – even with sheep at a bigger distance than this one.
Two more round pen sessions today. Before starting our sessions, I asked for a brief lie down, which I rewarded by opening the door. The lie down reminders have helped: Mick can do it again, sometimes on a verbal cue alone. He only holds it for a split second because he’s excited about what’s about to happen, but that’s okay for now.
When I’m able to tell whether Mick will go “Come by” (clockwise) or “Away” (counterclockwise) around the pen, I cue that respective flank before letting go of the leash.
For both our sessions today, I started easy, then made it more difficult, and ended with easy: I first just stayed on the side of the round pen opposite the gate and let him find balance there. This is easiest for Mick because he’s drawn to the gate, hoping for it to open.
Then, I started moving to see if he’d be able to find balance (his 12 o’clock to my 6 o’clock) somewhere else. He struggled with this, but I feel like we’re getting there.
I ended both sessions on an easy note, moving myself to a position that would allow him to find balance at the gate again.
When Mick rans around the pen and all the way back to me in the difficult parts of the session, I’ve started cueing either “Come by” or “Away” and insisting on it rather than just naming what he does naturally. When I say insisting on it, I mean that I’ll step on the leash if he takes the other direction, or guide him with my body language or by means of picking up the leash and walking a few steps in the desired position together with him.
Today’s first session:
Today’s second session:
I feel like our time outside the round pen will soon come to an end: Mick has started to figure out that he can make the sheep move by means of putting his front paws up on the fence and giving a bark. That’s not exactly what I want him to learn!