A Year of Being a Choice Architect

Susan Friedman has a wonderful metaphor for shaping desired behavior in an animal: she says the trainer’s job is to be a choice architect – someone who makes the desired behavior easy and attractive, and the undesired behavior hard or impossible. Imagine putting a marble on a slope: it’ll choose to roll down – you don’t need to “make it.” As trainers, our job is to make sure the environment is slopy.

This way of looking at training has two elements I love: it emphasizes giving the dog choice (rather than “making them” do something), and it focuses on manipulating the environmental paths to reinforcement rather than the learner.

Soon after Game joined the family, I realized she would be a great dog to take places – if only I could shape her high sociability and environmental curiosity into laid-back confidence, and build her patience so she would choose to settle rather than pester people, whine or bark when she wanted to interact! Today, I want to tell you how choice architecture and patience helped Game grow from a dog who wanted to meet all the people and all the dogs all the time into a dog who is fun to take places.

Example: tracking group

When Game was an adolescent, I took her to a tracking class. I got permission to use the class as a distraction while doing my own thing. (I can’t say how much I appreciate my colleagues who let me do this kind of thing!)

I asked Game to wait her turn at a big distance from the group – a distance that made lunging and whining unlikely. Here, she had the choice to sit, stand, or lie down in the grass, or to wander and sniff within her leash radius. If she chose to sit or lie down, she got hot dogs and attention; if she stood up, nothing happened. The fact that after a while, she sat down and held her sit while watching the other dog/handler teams work showed me that I had chosen a good distance. Yes, I was the only one working at half a soccer field’s distance while everyone else was standing in a circle. But that was okay. I wasn’t in a hurry to get to my goal, and I wasn’t primarily there for the tracking.

Meeting friends

When we met friends – humans or dogs – I waited for Game to offer eye contact or a sit before releasing her to say hi. If she pulled on the leash, I just remained standing. If she whined or barked, I let her (and made a mental note to choose a bigger pre-release distance next time). If she briefly looked back at me, I marked and released her to say hi or go play. Once she started understanding the principle, she chose to look at me faster and faster.

Example: walking in public

The Siam Crown training fields came with lots of opportunities to take strolls on leash at a distance from other dogs who were pottied on leash, and learn to not run up to them, but just walk and explore. We could also walk off leash (Siam Crown is a gigantic park with a wall around it) while other dogs were training in the distance. I kept a distance where I trusted that Game was able to stay in her radius around me rather than being magnetized to the action on a nearby training field. With time, we got closer and closer to dogs working on their obedience or protection skills.

Eating out

I would find a spot at Siam Crown where I could read or cut up hotdogs with Game on a leash next to me. There were various dog training things going on in the distance. When Game lay down and stayed down, I reinforced her with attention and food.

We also visited Thai street food places – places where you usually don’t spend more than 15 minutes – and did the same things there. These were exciting! I had to up my treat value. I set the clock on my phone and rewarded every 15 seconds at first, then every 30 seconds, every 45 seconds … After a while, I was only dropping a treat between her paws every two minutes. This took work – but I was able to lower the rate of reinforcement surprisingly quickly! I set myself the goal to take Game to one of these places once every seven days. Once a week, I invested about 15 intense training minutes in this project. I didn’t find it to be a huge time investment, and loved seeing Game’s progress.

And … We did it!

Game just turned a year old in July, and I’m proud to say that we have met our training goal. Through making good choices easy and reinforcing, and preventing bad choices or making them difficult, Game has become a dog who can go places with me. She is laid-back and relaxed around people and dogs, and unphazed by commotion. (Not exactly a typical Malinois trait!) She makes good choices without me having to micromanage her.

Comfortable and relaxed in public:

Screen Shot 2018-08-10 at 13.40.11

An enjoyable loose-leash sniff walk in a busy place:

Now that making good choices has become a habit, I am starting to increase Game’s level of freedom. In the past, I would have used distance and/or a leash to make walking up to people (a reinforcer for her) unlikely or impossible. Now, if I am with someone Game knows and likes, I don’t mind if she chooses to walk over and say hi. She won’t be over the top, and it’s not her default thing to do. Having been a choice architect in her first year of life is allowing me to increase the amount of freedom she has today.

Of course, I’ll keep reinforcing good choices rather than take them for granted: it’s fun to catch a dog being good!

Have you been a choice architect in your dog’s life? Tell me about it in the comments!

PS: Check out this blog post by Amanda Nelson. She is a choice architect for her dog in an agility context!

Trainability, Street Smarts, and Social Intelligence

A translation I’m working on made me think about the intelligence of dogs. The book (Marc Bekoff’s Canine Confidential) points out that we shouldn’t rank intelligence the way it is typically done. He insists that all dogs are intelligent, but they are intelligent in different ways.

I agree to some extent. The breed intelligence rankings I’m familiar with measure mostly trainability, and wether trainability is the same as intelligence really depends on how you want to define intelligence. Fanta, my Greyhound, isn’t very trainable – but I consider him to be quite intelligent. On the other hand, we are usually looking for a “trainable” dog when we say we want an intelligent one, and most people, even if they aren’t familiar with the term “trainability,” probably mean this concept when they talk about “intelligence” in relation to dogs.

Let’s look at the two dogs who are making mischief while I’m writing this post: Grit and Game. They are interesting because they are the same breed, and yet they are two VERY different dogs. One of their differences lies in the kind of intelligence they have.

Trainability

Grit is the dog who would be higher up in a traditional intelligence ranking. She is highly trainable, biddable, and generalizes very well. It’s extremely fun to work with her – she tries hard and learns fast. She is on a par with the Border Collies I’ve worked with.

Game learns new things more slowly, and she is less biddable – she doesn’t want to figure something out simply because I am asking her to figure it out. She’s happy to figure it out for a nice reward though. (I believe high biddability inspires dogs to try harder, and might make them score higher on trainability, too.) Game needs significantly more reps than Grit in order to remember something, and she doesn’t generalize well. Same cue, slightly different location – Game will look at me as if she had never heard the cue in her life, while Grit will be able to perform without hesitation.

However, Game has two other kinds of intelligence. Let’s call them practical intelligence and social intelligence. Game would score very high on both of them. Grit would score rather low.

Practical Intelligence

When I say practical intelligence, I mean the ability to recognize and use opportunities to get what you want – find a path from A to B, get food that seems out of reach, etc. It could also be called street smarts. Game has lots of it – she’d thrive as a stray dog, while Grit probably wouldn’t survive long enough to spread her genes. Here’s an example:

This will happen every time I forget something edible on my desk and leave the room. Game doesn’t pay much attention as long as I’m in the room. She knows begging won’t work, and she knows I do not appreciate her taking my resources. We’ve had this conversation, and she respects it. However, when I leave something edible unattended, Game will remember it, wait till she is sure I have really left the room, and then take it. She isn’t “being disobedient” or “a bad dog”. It’s just like with a toy or bone another dog has: Game wouldn’t steal it from another dog, but if the other dog left it and walked away, that toy or bone would be fair game. Finders, keepers! It may also have to do with the fact that Game doesn’t generalize well. I have told her I do not want her to steal my food while I’m in the room, but that doesn’t translate to me not wanting her to steal my food when I’ve left the room – this is another situation entirely. (I could, of course, train it if Game’s stealing bothered me. All it takes is generalizing “Leave it!” to out of sight contexts.)

Grit, on the other hand, doesn’t steal my food when I’m in the room, and she doesn’t steal my food when I’m gone, either. Is she less practically intelligent, or is she just much better at generalizing and assumes that if I don’t want her to steal my food from the table, this is still the case when I leave? It’s hard to say!

Game has also been faster than any of the other dogs when it came to figuring out how to open the sliding door in our old house. She has since found numerous ways to open a number of different doors – even ones I barricaded – in order to reach something she wanted and knew was behind a closed door.

Social Intelligence

Game is a superstar when it comes to social interactions. So far, I have not once seen her not get along with a new dog or person. She is friendly and confident, and she reads others well. If there is a reason to roll on her back or run away to avoid a conflict, that’s what she’ll do. Otherwise, she’ll charm new dogs and new people – even ones who are sceptical at first. It is quite fascinating to observe. She isn’t fazed by people acting weird, wearing helmets or carrying umbrellas. If a street dog barks angrily, she’ll curve around them. If a street dog is scared, she’ll be friendly and charming and not overwhelming. If someone is ready to play, she’ll play rambunctiously.

Grit doesn’t have this level of social intelligence. She is sceptical of new people. The interesting thing is that I can trace her scepticism back to one particular experience with a stranger. Maybe the fact that she generalizes so easily made her more susceptible to becoming a socially cautious dog. As far as strange dogs are concerned, Grit generally does well with them, but she has opinions about dogs and the way they are supposed to behave in social situations. She can also be a bit of a bully.

What kind of intelligence do your dogs excel in, and in what areas don’t they do as well? Do you see a connection between them? What kind of intelligence is most important to you when it comes to choosing a dog to join your household?

Adolescence: Working on Opting In, Engagement, and Pushing Me to Work/Play

As a 9.5 months old adolescent, Game thinks the world is very interesting. So many things to explore, to sniff, to look at or roll in! People to greet, and dogs to play with!

I don’t want to correct my dogs for lack of attention – but I do want them to give me 100% when we’re working: we’re either off duty, or we’re ON. And on means ON in a the-world-around-us-ceases-to-exist kind of way; only me and my dog and whatever it is we are doing together. That’s the kind of attention I give to my dog when we work or play, and that’s the kind of attention I want in return. No halfhearted checking in with me and then going back to sniffing the ground in between reps!

With a puppy, it’s easy to overwhelm the environment with food or toys. As the dog gets older and more independent, this gets more difficult. Eventually, it won’t work anymore unless you have a naturally handler-focused dog (Phoebe is an example of a dog like this). This is the point where people will often add corrections to the picture: work with me – get rewarded. Lose focus – receive a correction. This works well enough, but I don’t want to train this way. It doesn’t seem fair: what I’m asking of my dog isn’t “natural.” Tuck-Sitting, heeling, fold-back-downing, retrieving stuff on cue while ignoring all environmental temptations … It’s not our dogs who want to perform perfect heeling patterns; it’s us – the human on the other end of the leash. Correcting a dog for being interested in something that is inherently more interesting to dogs – like looking at the cat walking past the training field or sniffing – doesn’t seem fair to me.

I still want that perfect state of ONness, focus, and engagement though. So I need a different strategy – one that relies neither on corrections nor on overwhelming the environment with my rewards!

Game finds the environment very interesting. I could already tell she was environmentally focused when I got her at 10 weeks of age. Even when she was a puppy, I made an effort to not overwhelm the environment with my reinforcers, but wait till she asked to work or play. Game is a working-line Malinois. Enjoying work is in her genes, so I didn’t doubt that I would get what I wanted if I was just patient and set her up for success.

At 9.5 months of age, Game’s environmental tendencies have been flaring up again. (As they should – any decent adolescent will challenge their human to be creative and become a better handler.)

Game is highly confident, highly social, nose driven, and interested in everything and everyone. Of course, that makes the world pretty exciting, and working away from home comparatively boring! Here’s what I’ve been doing.

The Set-Up

  •  I imagine a square or circle of 6 to 10 meters in diameter. That’s the area Game will get to explore on leash.
  •  I set my timer to 15 minutes. If after 15 minutes of acclimating, Game hasn’t asked me to work, I’ll end the session, and put her back in the car.
  •  I walk her into my imaginary square or circle, and keep walking her around this area. I want to give her an opportunity to sniff to her heart’s content, to look around, to move her body. If she pulls on the leash, I’ll stop, and if she is about to step out of my imaginary square or circle, I’ll stop her with the help of the leash.
    The reason I’m walking is that I know if I stood still or sat, Game would engage me before she was ready. Sitting used to work very well when she was a puppy, but now that she’s a little older, I’ve found walking her around to be the better strategy. Otherwise, she will ask for work too soon, and likely disengage during work. In order to avoid this, we stay in motion.
  •  There are two ways Game can ask me to work: she can sit and look at me, or she can make eye contact while walking and keep up her eye contact for at least 4 steps. The moment she does one of these two things, the game is ON, and we start our ritual.

The Structure of Our Engagement/Play/Work Sessions Away from Home

Our current ritual is personal play (play without food or toys) – food play/training – toy play/training – food play/training – toy play/training – trade the toy for food (cue: “Let’s trade!”) – end the session. From the moment Game asks to work by sitting or making eye contact for 4 seconds until the moment I end the session, I expect 100% of her attention. I make sure I set her up for success by keeping the length of our sessions realistic. If I were in a cooler climate, I’d probably use whatever remained of the 15 minutes my timer was set to for play and training. That way, the sooner my dog asked to work, the longer the fun part would be. Here, in the hot and humid Thai summer, I end the session after a few minutes. Especially when playing tug, I’ll be all sweaty and tired after just a few minutes! Even if Game could keep having fun, I wouldn’t be able to keep up much longer.

For now, I keep all “Ask to work” sessions separate from walks, hikes, and exploration/just-be-a-dog field trips. I want it to be as clear as possible that during an “Ask for work!” session, there are only two options: walk around in a boring square or circle, or work and play and have fun with me. If I want to take Game on an off-leash walk in the same area I want to work, I’ll just put her back in the car for a few minutes in between the work and the leisure part of our field trip.

This is what it looks like at the agility field. Behind my camera, there’s a guy watching us and a dog in a crate – further distractions!

Can you see the difference between the acclimation part and the “Ask to Work!” part? Both last approximately 4 minutes. Game hardly ever looks at me during acclimation, and she never takes her attention off me while we are working/playing. I gave her the time she needed – and when she was ready, she was all in!

In more exciting places, there will be times at first when we acclimate for 15 minutes and then go back home. That’s okay. With an adolescent, being out in public is not really about what I train or work on. It’s all about shaping the mindset I want! I won’t accept any less than 100% engagement, and it’s up to Game to decide that she’s ready to give me these 100%. I am laying the foundation for a dog who will love to work in public later in life. Right now, it is secondary whether we actually get any “work” done or not.

Here is a session at the parking lot of a big supermarket. Note how quickly Game asks me to work! (Ugh, I’m not wearing the right pants for putting the toys back into my pocket, which is a little annoying and interrupts the flow of our session.) We’ve been at this parking lot three times in the last three weeks or so. The first time, Game acclimated for 15 minutes without looking at me at all, and then we went back home. The second time, she acclimated for about six or seven minutes, and then we had a perfect play session. This time, acclimation only takes 17 seconds before Game starts pushing me to work by means of initiating enthusiastic personal play!

Tesco Parking Lot Sam Phran; Game almost 10 months:

This is huge and really good. However, there are two tiny lapses of attention in this 4-minute play and training session. They are small, but they are there (can you spot them?). I’ll try especially hard to not have any lapses of attention the next time we go there!

Here’s the play-by-play:

00:38 Out of the personal play, I ask for a sit and reward with toy play. The sit leads us into the first toy play section.
00:49 “Switch!” (one of the reinforcement/toy play protocols we’re working on)
01:00 Switch!
01:13: Aus! (Out cue, rewarded with food.) Now we’re entering the first food play/training portion of our session.
01:33 Game struggles with her fold-back downs in this environment and in this arousal state. That’s okay – it’s information that I need to work on this some more.
01:57-02:05 I cue “Platz!” (down), reward with food in position (marker cue “Good!”), and then reward with a game of tug (marker cue “Tug!”). This leads us into the second toy play/training part of today’s session.
Note that it’s always important to me that Game voluntarily brings back the toy, and pushes it into me. I want her to insist on playing – never the other way round!
00:53 Out cue, automatic sit, food as a reinforcer … And we’re in the second food play/training part of our session.
02:47-03:51 Down cue rewarded with food in position (marker cue “Good!”); staying down gets rewarded by a throw of the tug toy (marker cue “Chase!”). We’re back in the last toy play part of the session.
04:27 “Let’s trade!” followed by food sprinkled on the ground. This is our end ritual.

Training notes to self – pay special attention to the following things next time:

  • Wear pants or jacket where it’s quick and easy to hide the toys during food play parts of the session.
  • Make sure Game acclimates for at least 30 seconds – this may avoid the tiny lapses of attention during work.
  • Make sure there’s no obstacle behind her when asking for a down – it might make it harder for her.

The Development of Game’s Interests and Ability to Stay Engaged in a Class Environment

Time flies! Game is already 17 weeks old today. 17 weeks! That’s more than 4 months! It’s crazy.

A favorite colleague of mine invited us to use his puppy class for training and socializing Game. We’ve been going since I’ve had Game. We don’t participate in the exercises, but just hang out in the corner and work on our own things. It’s important to me that my puppies learn to be able to work in the presence of other dogs, and I really appreciate being able to use the puppies and their owners as a distraction for Game. We don’t join their play and socializing time, and we don’t stay for the entire hour, but only as long as it feels right for Game. The very first time, we were only there for a few minutes, and we stayed behind a fence, at a greater distance. The second time, we added a few minutes more, and so on, until we reached our current class time of between 20 and 30 minutes, which is plenty for any dog.

Since I discovered how to draw pie charts in Keynote the other day, I thought this would make a fun way to show you how the allocation of our class time has changed over the course of the last weeks!

The last two charts were drawn right after class. The earlier ones are reconstructed from my memory, so they are probably not 100% accurate. Still, it gives you an idea of how Game’s attention span and interests have developed!

I’d love to show you a video of how we work in the presence of other puppies, but unfortunately, I can’t film at the puppy class. So I’ll add a written explanation instead. Feel free to comment if you have any questions!

11 to 17 Weeks Puppy Class Pie Charts Game

Let’s look at my categories in a little more detail!

How to read the pie charts

The slices of play, work, sniffing, looking, and check-ins you see in the chart represent the percentage of the class time we spent with each of these activities. However, they don’t happen chronologically and one junk at a time, but we circle back and forth between them. For example, in a 20-minute session, we might spend 3 minutes looking at stuff and sniffing, 2 minutes offering check-ins, engagement, and extended focus, 4 minutes playing and working, 1 minute sniffing and looking, 1 minute checking in and engaging, 2 minutes playing, 2 minutes working, another 2 minutes looking around and sniffing etc.

Play (blue)

Personal play and playing with toys (various tug toys, balls, Kong Wubba …). As for personal play, Game gets to climb on me while I lie on the ground, we play opposition reflex games, I turn away from her and she tries to find my face, and I tease her, trying to grab her paws. As for playing with toys, we work on fetch, tug, out, the beginnings of shoving the tug in my hands, switch between different toys, switch between toy reinforcement and food, and going from high-arousal toy play to a food reinforcer for an easy behavior, and back to toys (switching between states of arousal). We also work on distinguishing different marker cues: tug (strike the tug toy) vs. chase (I’ll throw a toy for you to fetch). (1) Our play also includes engagement elements.

Work (green)

The distinction between work and play really is an artificial one. I try to make “work” and play equally fun. When I say “work,” what I mean is we practice the behaviors we’ve already worked on at home: first, I introduce them in a distraction-free environment, and then, we take them on the road. So far, the skills I have worked on in puppy class include:
+ come when called (verbal cue “Ygame!”)
+ distinguish between different marker signals (good = keep doing what you’re doing; I’ll deliver the treat right into your mouth; click/tongue click = I’ll give you the treat, and the behavior is over; ok, get it = I’ll throw a treat for you to chase; treats = I’ll scatter a few treats for you to search for in the grass). Our work includes various elements of food play in the different reward sequences.
+ hand touch (and verbal cue “touch”)
+ tuck sit (verbal cue “sit”)
+ stand (lured or hand signal)
+ fold-back down (lured or hand signal)
+ front feet on disc
+ touch a vertical target
+ chin target
+ mouth a retrieve object (a piece of garden hose)
+ walk over the A frame
+ climb/jump on a low table (food lure or hand touch)

Auto check-ins/Auto check-ins and extended focus (yellow)

This is me clicking whenever Game offers eye contact/looks in my direction. The first two sessions (11 and 12 weeks), there’s only auto check-ins, but no extended focus: Game would occasionally glance at me, but look away right away. That’s okay – I knew the duration would come.

From her third time at the puppy class onwards, Game has been able to give me extended focus: she didn’t need to look away after the fraction of a second, but could keep her focus on me longer and longer, up until a few seconds. When I saw her ability to do so grow, I started marking not only for looking at me, but for keeping up the eye contact, and I started rewarding several times in a row. This is also when I started going from offered focus to extended focus to a little play. Game stayed engaged when I played with her, starting from her third time at the puppy class. I didn’t have to work hard to keep her attention – she had told me she was ready, and I responded with short play sequences. I always make sure I end the play while Game would still like to continue.

Look at Stuff (orange)

Look at stuff is just that: looking at the world. In the puppy class situation, the world includes the other puppies (an aussie, a lagotto, a dachshund, and two staffordshire bullterriers) and their people (men, women, and a 6 year old girl). It’s an outdoors class, so there’s also the occasional bird to be looked at, and various passers-by outside the training field: people on bikes, hikers with dogs, nordic walkers, cars). It’s not a heavily trafficked area, but there are a few people passing by every time. Plus, of course, there is training equipment in the training field.

You can see in the charts that the first three times, Game had to do a lot of looking. Everything was new – of course she had to look! I didn’t worry about it. We came into the training field (or the adjacent field, in case of the very first class), and I’d just let her look for as long as she wanted. I stayed at a distance where she’d be okay looking and didn’t need to fight the lesh, trying to get to the people or dogs. With Game, I never, not even once, asked for engagement. She’s environmental, and I’m not sure I could win. So rather than trying to compete with the environment, I gave her all the time she needed. Eventually, she’d look back every time, and I could click and reinforce that. The first part of every class we were just hanging out and looking at stuff. Then, there were a few clicks for auto check-ins. The time Game needed to look at stuff before she was ready to check in grew shorter and shorter every time. By the third session, she began offering extended focus after a few auto check-ins. And again, with each new session, the extended focus happened sooner and sooner.

So the biggest junk of looking happens at the very beginning of a new class. Then we’ll go to check-ins, extended focus, and eventually play, and then work. After a circle like this, I circle back to looking at stuff and/or sniffing. Game is a puppy – I don’t expect her to pay attention for several minutes at a time! There’s maybe three minutes of doing stuff, and then I encourage her to sniff or look at the world again. She’ll do that, and once she’s done, she’ll let me know with check-ins. When she gives me extended focus again, she’s letting me know she’s ready for another round of play and work. The time we keep playing and working grows longer the older she gets.

I don’t want to overwhelm the environment, and I don’t want Game to forget her surroundings. That’s why I keep going back to looking and sniffing after each little round of work and/or play.

I stay connected to Game when she is watching the world by her leash. Sometimes, I’ll also sit down with her, calmly stroking her back while we both observe the class together.

Sniff (red)

Game loves to sniff. In fact, I don’t think I’ve had such a nose-driven dog since Snoopy, my Dachshund. Game can spend a long time sniffing a leaf, or a twig, or an interesting spot on the ground. She can even spend a long time sniffing my pants or shoes when I come home, savoring every scent molecule of information.

Like with looking at stuff, I doubt that I can compete with sniffing, and I don’t worry about it too much. Game is a dog, and dogs like to sniff! So when we get to a new place – such as the training field that lots of different dogs and people have walked through since we were there the last time -, Game gets time to sniff and look around until she lets me know she is ready to work. Every time we go, she has needed a little less time to sniff and look. This reinforces me for my approach and let’s me know I’m on the right track.

In between play and work sessions, I’ll also give Game opportunities to go back to sniffing. Sometimes I’ll cue “Treats!” and scatter a few treats for her to find in the grass. Sniffing isn’t a bad thing; in fact, it’s relaxing and helps to ground the dog because it requires her to breathe consciously, like we do when we do a breathing exercise.

In the first 4 sessions you can see in the pie charts, I stayed in the same general area of the training field for the entire time. There were more than enough new impressions there! The last two times, I’ve walked a few meters around the periphery between our play and work sessions, giving Game time to look and sniff as we strolled forward on a loose leash. She gets to sniff the ground, the equipment, the water bowl … until she lets me know she’s ready for another round of play and work.

(1) If you want to learn more about how to improve your training by means of using different marker cues, check out Shade Whitesel’s toy classes at Fenzi Dog Sports Academy.

Grit and Game: Similar, but Different …

I just LOVE seeing Game develop and thinking back to Grit at the same age. They are the same breed, after all – but from two very different lines, and two very different personalities. It’s fascinating how much variation there can be within one and the same breed!

Let’s look at them through the categories Denise Fenzi developed in Train The Dog In Front of You:

Grit (Igrit vom Heustadlwasser)
Austrian IPO line

Grit as a puppy

Grit as a puppy.001

Grit today

Grit today.001

In many respects, Grit is exactly what I’m looking for in a dog. I’ve never had a dog I found as much fun to train and live with, and I honestly can’t imagine I’ll ever love a dog as much as her. She has four qualities the person and trainer I am today loves in a dog: she’s a serious dog (as opposed to a goofy one), she is a one-person dog (as opposed to a very social one), she’s got a perfect balance between handler focus and environmental focus, is biddable and has lots of working drive, but medium energy (the perfect combination), and she is able to think when under stress (which can be eustress or distress – she can problem-solve even if her arousal is high because of a toy, and she is able to listen to me even if she’s in a situation she is overwhelmed by). She is extremely smart and learns well by shaping. Puppy Grit really was perfect. The one thing I’m not so happy with in Grit today is the fact that she developed a fear of people. She had one bad experience at a highly impressionable time in her life (when she was 6 months old), and having the wrong experience at the wrong time triggered a general weariness of people. We’re working on it, and it’s slowly getting better – but at this point, it’s hard to imagine her being happy in a trial environment (and I wouldn’t want to take her there if she felt bad). But we’ll see what the future brings. Step by step, I’m trying to help her re-discover her confidence.

Game (Ygame van’t Merlebosch)
Dutch KNPV line

Game as a puppy

Game as a puppy.001

Grit was a self-confident puppy – Game is even more self-confident. She is fearless when it comes to new people and dogs. Unlike Grit, who would challenge new dogs even as a puppy, Game is open and friendly to new dogs and people. Game is also my first environmentally focused dog since Snoopy: Phoebe, Fanta, Hadley, Grit – none of them are environmental. Game is interested in everything around her, particularly all these interesting sights and smells! Currently, the world is more fascinating than me – but we’re working on it, and I can see that she is able to engage better and better. I also haven’t had a nose-driven dog since Snoopy! Game loves to follow her nose and explore the scents of the world. I’ve promised her she’ll get to do nosework! She has more trouble learning through shaping, and learning in general, then Grit had at this age. But we’re getting there and improving a little bit most days. Game is higher power than Grit. That is to say, she is determined to get what she wants – and she’ll complain or fight back if she doesn’t get it. I also suspect that Game is what people call a hard dog (which is not unusual in KNPV dogs). She has a high pain threshold, and she works for the reinforcers rather than in order to please me. She’s still a puppy, so these qualities aren’t written in stone. I believe that biddability is at least partly built by means of the relationship we develop with our dogs. Since I’m plannin gon building a great relationship, I’m positive that her biddability will increase, and her hardness will not. She has already started caring more about my opinion than when we first met. For example, she will now let me redirect when she’s puppy-biting my sleeves or tugging on my pants: unless she’s overly tired and overexcited, she’ll be like, “Oh, I see, you don’t want me to tug on that or bite that? What can I bite or tug on instead?” And I respond by offering an alternative. Her attention span and her rate of auto check-ins has already increased, and I am starting to see her happiness to play and work with me awaken.

Training Challenges

I see two training challenges in Game’s future: her environmental focus, and her lower biddability, which – unless I change it – will make it hard to work when I don’t have access to classic reinforcers. Again, she’s a puppy, so this may well change completely in the course of the relationship we develop! Most of these categories aren’t really suited to be applied to puppies anyways. But it’s fun to do all the same: I’m taking a snapshot of the puppy in front of me right now.

I’m excited about this new training challenge, particularly the environmental part. When I had Snoopy, I really struggled with his environmental focus. I’m excited about tackling the same challenge with the knowledge and greater experience that I have today. I’ll keep blogging about how I work with it, since I think the approach I’m taking is non-traditional (and, like so many things, inspired by FDSA).

It’ll be interesting to see if and how both dogs change in the course of time. Personality traits are a result of both genetics and environment. There is a STRONG genetic component – it sets the frame of what is possible for a given dog. That frame is always a lot smaller than the entire scale – but it’s still a frame, not just a point. What point within this frame the dog falls on can change depending on her environment and her experiences. Think of human traits like introversion and extroversion. You’re usually born an introvert or extrovert and stay that way all your life. However, it’s entirely possible to start out as a strong introvert, and get more and more social in the course of your life. You’ll still be an introvert, but you’ll have moved away from extreme introversion and more toward the middle of the scale. You’ll surround yourself with people more often and need a little less time to recharge.

In Grit’s case, you can see that two values have already changed between her puppyhood and now: both her confidence and her handler hardness decreased. I’ve lots to say about these two factors and how and why they changed – but that’s a post for another time.