Distractions as cues, day 20: a naked dog win!

Naked breakfast:

Lovely response. I’m now getting what I originally hoped for! And a reminder that I can really keep my criteria for this learner tight: a week in a new location max. If I don’t see tangible results by then, even if I did in my previous location – time to change something!

It is interesting that this morning, just as in last night’s video with the collar only, Game approached the kibble further than in the previous reps with the rope. And that is even though today, the environment is same old, same old: no open gates or other unexpected changes.

It is still entirely possible that she cues off the kibble as soon as she notices it. It is also possible that the rope on her collar was a contextual cue for her to expect a distraction, making her more attentive and helping her notice the kibble pile earlier.

In any case, I am getting the desired behavior – and in fact, Game approaching the pile more closely is a nice opportunity to see what happens when I delay my click. So I’m going to stick with this project for one more session to find out.

I don’t think she will go for the kibble at this point. If she did, I’d say “Leave it,” and she would leave it. What I expect is more likely to happen is that she just stands and waits for further instructions, or that she starts coming back to me without the marker cue. I’ll find out tonight!

Naked Lunch1 dinner:

Since Game has been approaching the pile of kibble more closely lately, I decided to shape an auto-return ir auto-stop-and-look-at-me-and-wait before ending this project. So far, I’ve marked the moment of reorientation. Now, I’ll wait to mark her when she’s started moving towards me, or duration of her stopping beahvior – whichever she gives me.

Returning to me it was! Yay, Game! I planned to just take one or two steps, but seeing the confidence in her auto return, I let her take a few more before marking. That confidence showed me she was going to complete that return, so I could let her come closer before the click without creating insecurity about what I expected.

If I wanted to work on this project more, I would mark a few steps later on her auto-return in my next session. Then, I’d lower criteria in terms of what I expect of her, but make it more difficult by not stopping as I get around the corner, but:

  1. Walking in place
  2. Taking one more step towards the pile of kibble
  3. Taking two more steps
  4. Etc.

I would mark the moment of reorientation each time until I was confident Game was able to reorient when I was moving rather than standing still as well. Then, I’d build the duration of the auto-return back up. I won’t be doing this in practice though, at least not right now, because I have another training project I want to dedicate more attention (and treats) to. So for now, this will be the last day in this series! 20 days – not bad at all!

Also, meet the intermittent cat!

Fun intermittent cat fact: tortoise shells cats are usually female because in order to get that color, you need a gene for black fur on the X chromosome and an orange-spot-gene on another X chromosome (they cannot be on the same X chromosome, and neither of them can be on the Y chromosome), and XX will give you a female cat. You can technically have a male tortoise shell cat, but this would be rare, so because hoofbeats and horses, this one is likely female. In order to get a male tortoise shell cat, it would have to be an XXY cat (this is not lethal, but means the male cat will be infertile. It could also be a chimera, but I don’t know how exactly this would work. Thank you, Christian Holeček, for explaining the tortoise shell thing to me again after I forgot the details the first time I asked you!

(1) Should you read it? Yes, you should.

Distractions as cues, day 19: 1m, off leash!

Session 1: breakfast on a 1m rope:

Whee! Success on a 1m rope this morning!

I used to say I may shape a recall rather than just a reorientation once I have a naked dog. However – this may not be necessary because Game now stops and reorients as soon as she notices the kibble pile! She doesn’t approach it and then wait for me to mark, but stops very close to me, and pretty far from the pile. There may be no need to shape a recall if she keeps stopping so close to me!

Session 2: off-leash dinner

Off leash success! Game approached the kibble more closely this time, but I suspect it was not because there was no rope, but because the callejon looks different than usual (there’s a large gate behind my camera that is usually closed, but was open, making things look different). Game may have been distracted by/interested in this different picture and have noticed the kibble later than usual. So this isn’t something I worry about. I’ll be raising criteria to a naked dog tomorrow morning!

Distractions as cues, day 18: 3m, 2m …

Session 1, breakfast in location 2:

I cut about a meter off the rope, and got the same beautiful result. Will cut another meter by tonight. (Why? Dragging something may be a factor for Game, even if the weight of the biothane leash wasn’t. I will soon no longer be able to step on the leash, but Game gets to practice the familiar behavior with only a small increase in criteria.

My goal behavior here is to work up to a naked dog (she’s naked most of the time) – no collar. Then, if I feel like I’d like to take this further, I might shape her to come further back before my click by delaying the click more and more. Or I might end there – it depends on how I feel about my training schedule and how busy I am.

Session 2, dinner in location 2:

Success at 2 meters!

Btw, what Game is looking at here after finishing her kibble are the people talking on the patio ahead and to her left, not the cat.

If things keep going as well as they have been going, I’ll have an off-leash dog by tomorrow night!

Distractions as cues, day 17: a rope

Session 1, breakfast in location 2 (5m rope):

I don’t know how much of a role the weight of the long line plays in our success. So rather than taking it right off after letting it drag, I’m going to cut it down over the next couple of sessions until I have an off-leash dog.

The first step in this direction was to get some cheap rope – it’s the same length as my biothane line. I don’t want to cut up my biothane line because it’s the only one I have right now, and they are hard to come by here.

In today’s breakfast session, I am starting out with the rope the same length as the biothane line and dragging. This rope is much lighter than the biothane line – so in case the weight mattered in our success, I want to be able to step on the rope and stop Game – so I start out with a long enough rope.

I didn’t have to step on the rope! Yay! Before today’s dinner session, I’ll cut off a piece: raising criteria fast but in small increments.

Session 2, dinner in location 2 (4m rope):

I cut off a meter, and still got a nice response. Tomorrow morning, I’ll cut another meter.

By the way, I know she cues off the kibble and not the location in general beause this is a location we walk past between 4 and 6 times a day (need to in order to get back to or out of my place). She only shows the behavior during our training sessions. On the other occasions, she’ll go straight to the fence she can stick her head through to see if the intermittent cat is there (unless she sees or suspects the intermittent cat on the left)!

Distractions as cues, day 16: are the results replicable?

Session 1, breakfast in location 2:

They sure are! You go, Game! Switching from a recall cue to the long line made all the difference! The kibble pile is back to its original size, and there are no cats around – and I get the same behavior!

Session 2, dinner in location 2:

After learning that I can replicate the result in this morning’s session, I’m raising criteria. No need to stay at this stage; she’s got this! I drop the long line and let it drag (when this learner understands something, I can raise criteria fast, but need to keep the increments small). From now on, I’m also making sure I have more than just one hot dog on me in case Game would like to offer another check in after the first one. No need to always release to the pile of kibble right away, since it is lower value than my hot dogs.

Distractions as cues, day 15: a new Game plan

After pondering my behavior chain, I’ve decided to take out the recall cue and try to break the chain: I switched the very fluent recall cue out for the less fluent long line (reaching the end of the long line is also a cue to reorient/return, but I haven’t used the long line in forever). So I let Game approach the familiar kibble pile, did not say anything (she reached the end of the line and hesitated), clicked the reorientation and reinforced with a hot dog from my hand, followed by a release to the kibble pile.

Two things may happen going forwards: I might get a new behavior chain of run to the end of the line to get clicked and come back, eat a hot dog and then the kibble. OR Game may start hesitating before reaching the end of the line. That’s what I’m hoping for: prediction (cue transfer) based on reaching the end of the line. We’ll see. I’m just experimenting here, and I don’t know what is going to happen.

I’m also considering doing some marker cue work around my outside kibble pile, and CU Give Me A Break (GMAB) with high value treats around the pile of kibble … but only a few long-leash-stop sessions further down the line. First, I want to see what effect the long line is going to have – or not have! – on Game.

Session 1, breakfast in location 2:

Session 2, dinner in location 2:

WOW! I did not feel the leash tighten the way it did in the morning! Which is a little bit crazy; I’m suspicious of this working so fast and exactly the way I hoped it would. Reviewing my video, the leash looks less loose than it felt. I am going to stay at this stage for at least one more session to see if I can replicate the result.

Reasons I’m suspicious here:

(1) the intermittent cat must have been around, because Game stops eating to look for the cat. She may already have been smelling the cat when we approached our kibble pile. And animals are already a cue for her to stop. So I may be seeing her response to the presence of a cat, not her response to a pile of kibble. Cats trump kibble. (I can’t see the cat, but Game either smells them or thinks she sees them. If she didn’t, she would not stop eating mid-kibble.)

(2) The kibble pile is smaller than usual because I’ve already worked on a bunch of unrelated things today, and this is all that’s left of Game’s dinner.

(3) I changed kibble – not on purpose, but I ran out, and couldn’t get my usual brand. So this is a different brand of kibble and may be lower value than my original pile. I don’t think it is lower value, given how enthusiastically Game has been working for it today and yesterday. But then again – who knows. Game loves to work, so kibble offered to her within a training session she enjoys may have a different value than kibble found on the street. (While the behavior of eating food found in the street is pretty high on her list of priorities, working with me is usually even higher. It wasn’t when she was a puppy and adolescent, but it is now that she is an adult.)

(The breakfast kibble in this session was the same as the dinner kibble. The reinforcer from my hand is still an entire hot dog. When she reoriented a second time, I would have rewarded again, but I only had that one hot dog on me.)

In any case – tomorrow morning, I’ll repeat and see what happens!

Distractions as cues, day 14: a break from the distractions-as-cues project, and remedial marker cue work

Today, while still thinking about how I wanted to change my distraction-as-cue strategy and considering various options, I did some remedial marker cue work rather than using the kibble pile as a distraction. Since I’ve already mixed marker cues into these sessions, I might as well use today’s day off the distracion-as-cue project to clean up the strength of my markers! (The cut in the middle of this video is when I get up for a kibble refill). Tomorrow – back to distractions as cues!

My rule of thumb for this learner is to change strategies if I don’t see results in about a week. I’ve been more stubborn with my original approach, and stuck with it longer than I normally would, because it worked so fast and so well indoors. This reinforcement history on my part caused me to try once more yeserday, for example. Had I not seen the results in the first location, or if this was my first location, this would likely have shaved 2-3 days off the time I spent on this approach.

It’s good to stay aware of our own tendencies in this respect! Do you tend to abandon strategies too early, before giving them time to work, or do you tend to stick to the same approach for a long time, even in the absence of tangible results?

It’s not only that every human trainer has their own tendencies in this respect – so does every learner we work with. Knowing both our learner and ourselves well is what gives us the best results. In real life, getting to know a new learner takes time. But we can meet them with an awareness of our own tendencies – that’s half the battle dance party!

Distractions as cues, day 13: more whole hot dogs, and time to change the Game plan

Session 1, breakfast in location 2:

She actually didn’t eat any kibble even though my recall happened late – she just touched it and then turned on a dime right as I called. I waited till the last millisecond to call her this morning, hoping she’d choose to do an auto-return! But … not yet. Let’s see what tonight holds in store for us!

Session 2, dinner in location 2:

A relatively slow approach the first time (trotting rather than running). However, this doesn’t necessarily mean anything. We’ve had an active day of hiking and training. No auto-return – so we will change gears!

I might take a day off this project as I think up the next strategy I want to use (and ponder where I want to take this behavior, and whether I want to keep working on it). I’ll keep you updated! Btw, what I say in the end is that Game just had a street meal, not a straight meal. No straight meals for anyone – streetfood only! This little town has the best Quesadillas I’ve had in all of Mexico!

Distractions as cues, day 12: what if I’ve built a behavior chain?

Session 1, breakfast in location 1:

I don’t think you’ll see the fireworks-induced slight concern in Game’s body language – but I certainly see it before and after this session. Thursdays are not our best days.

Session 2, dinner in location 2:

Today, Game gets an entire hot dog from my hand after the click. Yep, I know, she’s a vacuum! It takes her only a second to inhale that hot dog! This was certainly higher value than the usual hot dog piece: you can see that in the way she hesitates and looks at me after eating it. Maybe there’ll be another one?

Is it a behavior chain?

I generall stick with an approach for about a week. By then, if I’ve worked on it daily, I want to see measurable progress. In my first location (inside), I’ve succeeded in turning the visual/olfactory cue of the pile of kibble into a cue to return to me. In my second location (outside), I’ve seen what I’ve interpreted as glimpses of progress – but nothing tangible. And it’s been a week outside. It’s time to start looking at other possibilities. And there is a BIG one: behavior chains.

Two things can happen in set-ups like this: you can either get a cue transfer (which I’ve been aiming for: new cue (pile of kibble) followed by old cue (recall) should eventually turn the new cue into a cue for what used to be cued by the old cue. This is what I planned on, and what happened inside the house.

However – there’s another possibility: I could have been building a behavior chain of run around the corner and up to the kibble in order to get recalled, in order to get released to the kibble (or get to eat hot dogs and then be released to the kibble). It is entirely possible that Game has developed the superstition that running up to the pile of kibble is what she needs to do in order to set the entire progress in motion – as if there were a big kibble-pile-shaped button she needed to push: my recall cue marks the button push, which unlocks the reinforcement galore: hot dogs and kibble, praise and freedom to go look for the intermittent cat after.

We consciously build behavior chains all the time, for example in trial prep when we backchain towards a final big reinforcer that will be given at the end of a (far more complex) routine. If we set things up just right, the dog will perform the entire routine in order to get that final reinforcer – even a dog who is not intrinsically motivated to do the behaviors that come before the reinforcer. If I want to build a behavior chain, I will first work on all the parts independently to get fluency, and then chain them together like beads on a string, connecting them to a final large reward.

At this point, I truly wonder whether this is what’s going on with Game and the kibble pile outside. It would make sense, and here’s why. I have successfully turned environmental stimuli into cues in the past – among them critters, sheep, and all kinds of other animals, both in my own dogs and in student dogs. There’s one crucial difference though: in these scenarios, the reinforcer (chasing the critter; herding) is generally unavailable until after my release cue. There is little reinforcement history for chasing off cue. It’s under stimulus control because that’s how I’ve set up from the start. With students who already have a strong reinforcement history around freely accessing a particular stimulus, I will often implement a strict management plan as we work on turning that stimulus into a cue: no more free access to, say, chasing squirrels. I’ll want to convince the dog that chasing squirrels will become available – but only after either a cued behavior or a voluntary check-in, depending on the specific training goal. The management piece (no free access to that same reinforcer) is something I stress while we work on the training plan. The longer a history the dog has of freely accessing their reinforcer, the longer we’ll have to manage and train because we have to overcome all that history, and convince our learner that the reinforcer isn’t available “for free” anymore.

On the other hand, when building a behavior chain, I will work on all the links in the chain independently, getting them fluent and giving each its reinforcement history before chaining them together (for example, if you are working up to an obedience routine, you will train each behavior and give it a strong reinforcement history before chaining them together into an entire run).

Game is practicing one link in what could be a chain every day: freely accessing food out and about.

Reinforcement histories

I managed to get the cue transfer just fine in the house with Game. She has a history of not being able to access food in the house when I cook or eat, and of not finding random food unless there is a cue to look for it. This history may have set her up for success: in the context of the house, there is no reinforcement history for random free food.

Outside, it’s a different story. As I mentioned earlier, I let Game scavenge to her heart’s content when we’re out and about. It’s a dog thing she loves doing, and she rarely gets sick. So I don’t worry about it, and let her enjoy the things she finds (unless it’s human poop, because it grosses me out if my dog is going to stick their nose into my face later that day). Everything else – go for it. When she is on leash, I will tell her what a lucky girl she is when she finds something, and wait until she has finished eating. I’ll simply adapt her daily food ration when she eats out a lot. When I used to live in the center of Guanajuato, a guesstimated 10% to 30% of her caloric intake was scavenged on any given day. The rest was provided by me.

There are times when I test if my recall or leave it cues or marker cues are still sharp, and then I’ll interrupt her from eating or call her back right before. But that would be an exception rather than the norm.

My idea for this particular experiment was to only use a single environment outdoors, and always use the same food (kibble of a brand she doesn’t find out in the world). I thought I could get a cue transfer result in this location even though I let her scanvenge elsewhere.

Why have I not implemented a management strategy?

It’s just a deal breaker to manage the scavenging while I teach the kibble pile as a recall cue. She enjoys scavenging, and I do not want to take it from her. I am only teaching the kibble pile cue transfer to show you all how I would do it, not because I actually need it. If I needed this behavior, it would be a different story, and there would be strict management.

But since I don’t: in any other context, she has been continued to be allowed and encouraged to freely access whatever food she finds. The food she finds is also usually higher value than the kibble she’s currently on. So in a word – she has a VERY strong and long reionforcement history of freely accessing high-value food. And I may simply have been wrong about the fact that I could still teach a cue transfer in this one outdoors situation where she doesn’t usually find food.

I’m going to give it one more day (tomorrow), with entire hot dogs from my hand, and unless I see a result by tomorrow night, I’ll move on to a different strategy.

What would a cue transfer result ideally look like?

The result I want to see looks like the video below: Alicia and Dylan are currently working on recalls, following the protocol laid out in Calling All Dogs (an FDSA class I teach twice a year). They are at the stage where the dog is off leash, but the distraction is being protected by a barrier. Alicia uses a wire crate to keep the distraction safe. Dylan does not have a strong reinforcement history of freely accessing the kinds of distractions Alicia is working up to. In this case, the distraction is a bowl in the crate. Because we have practiced recalls away from the bowl (and other things) so often in different locations, first on a long line, and then with the crate, Dylan predicts Alicia’s recall here: he approaches the crate, notices the distraction, remembers that it reliably predicts a recall, and returns to Alicia before she has a chance to call him!

Alicia has not been aiming for this behavior – she has just been aiming for recalls off distractions. It happened anyways because that’s how cue transfers work when our reward is high value and our training and management are being consistent! That’s what I expected to see in Game by now. I am starting to suspect that we are not going to get that cue transfer with the kibble pile – but patience, grasshopper! I’ll give it one more day.

Distractions as cues, day 11

Session 1, breakfast in location 2:

This video is a bit grainy because I had to turn the brightness way up – it’s early today and still dawn out.

Session 2, dinner in location 2:

Nothing much to remark except the speed: trotting rather than running towards the kibble. (And yes, I have two sweaters, not just one.)

Wanna work on this or similar behaviors with your own dog? Join me in Out and About at Fenzi Dog Sports Academy!