The Puzzle Week – Part 9: An Introduction to the Superbowls Game

Superbowls is a pattern game that allows your dog to direct you towards a novel/potentially suspicious stimulus. It consists of a row of bowls. The dog learns that by giving you eye contact, they can cue you to put a treat down in the respective next bowl in the line. In the very end of the line, there’s your stimulus/trigger. Your dog will not directly interact with it within the structure of this game – that’s why it feels safe for your dog. They get to decide how close they want to go. If they stop offering eye contact, you will stop at the bowl you are at, or further increase the distance.

If they lead you all the way to the stimulus you plugged into the end of the line (it could be an object, or a person on a chair – anything goes as long as you can guarantee that the stimulus won’t approach your dog), the next eye contact rep cues you to turn around and move back along the line of bowls in the other direction: approach – retreat. Approach – retreat. Approach – retreat. In CU, when we approach, we will also retreat. Dogs NEVER get stuck near the stimulus you are working with in the context of Control Unleashed.

The first step of the Superbowls game is teaching Puzzle that eye contact makes things happen. In this case, eye contact will cause me to click, and put down a treat in the first bowl. We’ll stay at this stage until she offers eye contact without latency after swallowing the previous treat, and predicts where the next treat will show up: right there, in the bowl. For the first step, you’ll only use the first bowl in your line.

Puzzle doesn’t yet know that eye contact is a payable behavior. You’ll see her figure it out over the course of the three sessions below. Which brings me to yet another reason I love CU games for puppies or dogs who are new to training: they organically pick up different skills along the way! In this game, the meaning of the clicker gets reinforced, and Puzzle learns that eye contact is a behavior she can use to earn treats.

First session:

Second session:

Third session:

Next time, we’ll start moving between bowls!


For more dog training tips and videos, join Chrissi’s February class at FDSA: Calling All Dogs!

The Puzzle Week – Part 8: Teaching the Look at That! game on a mat

Puzzle has strong foundation mat skills. She’s ready to take her mat work to the next level!

What that next level is depends on your goals for your dog:

+ You could start using the mat to relax under the table while you’re eating out at a restaurant.
+ You could use it as a station while you train your other dogs.
+ You could use it while your dog waits their turn at seminars or group classes.
+ You could use the mat to teach the “look at that!” game.

This is what I’m going to show you for Puzzle’s final mat video: how do you teach “Look at that” (LAT) to a dog on a mat?

Note that there are different ways to teach LAT. This is just one of them – but it’s a particularly nice one because it has relaxation built into it. To learn more about the LAT game, what it is, what purpose it serves, and the different ways to teach it, check out any of Leslie McDevitt’s books:

Control Unleashed: Creating a Focused and Confident Dog
Control Unleashed: The Puppy Program
Control Unleashed: Reactive to Relaxed

This is the video I used for my CCUI homework: Puzzle assists me in demonstrating how to teach LAT on a mat! Thank you also to my helper Zane!

The 4 steps of teaching LAT on a mat. Image based on a graphic by Leslie McDevitt.

The coffee can serves as a target for my helper. Part of setting your dog up for success is making sure your human assistants knows where to stop!

This post is the last one in Puzzle’s the mat work series.

The Puzzle Week – Part 7: Hang out on Your Mat in Everyday Life

Puzzle’s got the first 6 foundational mat skills:

Graphic by Chrissi. Steps inspired by my own mat work/crate protocol and Leslie McDevitt’s mat work steps.

Now it’s time to move from structured training sessions to real life: when using mats in real life, you won’t be focusing on your dog – you’ll be busy doing other things! You’ll want your dog to stay parked and feel comfortable on the mat even when your attention is on something or someone else. This is our sixth step:

7. Casually hanging out on the mat while life happens around the dog.

This is best started at a time of day your dog is naturally calm. Depending on your dog, this may be in the evening after dinner, or after a walk … Whatever your dog’s natural down time tends to be.

Here is Puzzle relaxing on her mat while I do housework. I leave the room and go out of sight now and then, I do the dishes … Puzzle gets a treat every once in a while because the mat exercise is still relatively new. Game gets one too, of course – I don’t want my bestest big girl to feel left out!

PS: What you can hear in the background is this episode of the Huberman Lab podcast. If you’re not familiar with Huberman Lab, check it out – it’s one of my favorite podcasts!

The Puzzle Week – Part 6: Mat Work Outdoors

We’re starting over with the first mat work step – outside! After dropping treats all over the mat, I help Puzzle settle down with my treat placement – and then I start counting again to build duration.

A person walks past, and she looks at them and back while staying on the mat and not being concerned. Good girl! Mats are safe spaces. Strangers don’t interact with dogs on mats. That’s just the way it is – always. As long as you’re on your mat, you’re in a safe bubble. (Don’t you wish your life had more mats in it? I certainly do!)

Another session outside … with lots of people walking by, and Puzzle being a superstar!

This area is usually pretty quiet! I didn’t expect there to be so much foot traffic. Turns out that between 5 and 6pm, it really comes to life with people walking home from work. I hadn’t planned on introducing passers-by or the Look At That game at this stage, but since Puzzle was doing so well, I went with it. She’s sitting here rather than lying down – no surprise, since the commotion is new. I mark looking down/lowering the head and use my treat placement to encourage her to lie down, but I don’t mind if she’d rather sit up while people-watching. This is not an obedience exercise – it’s an exercise in trust, and being comfortable in her own skin and in the world.

At around 1:25, I stop marking for looking at the mat. Just nice, calm placement to encourage her to lie down if she’s ready to do so. At 01:31/32 you can see me wait for a moment with the head down to treat. I go back to clicking for looking at people a few seconds later (you can’t see the people at first – they are to the right, outside of the frame of the camera – but you can hear them talking, and Puzzle can see them).

03:48 YAY! Puzzle lies down!

Now I start counting again to lower the rate of reinforcement.

04:10 Moving around the mat is not a problem, either.

07:31 Now that’s relaxation! I curled-up puppy with her head resting on the mat!

In the last 3 or 4 minutes of the video, things get exciting. First the neighborhood dogs start a bark fest. Then, a guy walks by up close. Puzzle gets distracted by a fly that needs to be chased. And then there’s people yelling! This is a lot of stimulation all at once – and it’s visual as well as auditory. Puzzle is a superstar though, and at 09:00, she’s lying down again.

This session was quite long. I wouldn’t train an obedience behavior or tricks for such a long session with a puppy like Puzzle. But relaxation is a low-key activity. Puzzle was doing really well. She is ready for mat work to go on for 10 or 15 minutes. Not every dog will be! Remember to listen to your learner.

The Puzzle Week – Part 4: CU Mat Work and Counting

In the session following the last video in my part 3 post, Puzzle started sitting down on the mat. With the help of strategic treat placement, I got her to lie down. At this point, I stopped clicking, too – I just calmly delivered treats in order to increase her relaxation. I sat down next to the mat, and slowed down my movement. No video because the camera angle was off.

In the next session after, Puzzle was ready for the next step: Down for the Count! The Down for the Count game is Leslie McDevitt’s way of building duration on the mat. Count to one – feed a treat (place it on a spot that encourages a relaxed body position!). Count to two – place a treat on the mat. Count to three – place a treat, and so on. If the dog gets up, gets fidgety, or breaks their position, lower criteria by decreasing the duration. Depending on the dog’s behavior, I might start over with one – treat, or just go back by a number or two.

At this point, the only behaviors that are reinforceable on the mat are relaxed ones: taking a breath is okay; calmly looking around is okay; eye contact is also okay – but we don’t want the dog to be in a working mode.

Puzzle here is doing really well in her counting session. She shifts positions now and then, but not because she’s restless – she’s simply figuring out how to best combine resting/relaxing and eating treats.

I tried singing the numbers like a lullaby, letting them bleed into each other. I’ve seen Julie Daniels do this, and really love the way it set the matwork mood of relaxation for both dog and handler.

At this point, I can kneel in front of the puppy: she doesn’t interpret my posture as threatening anymore. She trusts me! Look how fast she lies down! She is an ambidexturous curler-upper: she can curl to the left and to the right. I’ve seen her curl to her left a bit more often than to the right, so that’s the direction I’m aiming for when helping her lie back down after she got up. Strategic treat placement for the win! Sadly, my camera stopped recording after the first minute.

Another counting video – this time, the camera did its job, and you get to see me count from 1 to 10, CU-style. Puzzle is turning into an expert mat relaxer! This is the first time I sneak her “Station” cue in as well.

The Puzzle Week – Part 3: More Mat Work, CU-Style!

Now that I’ve built confidence around my presence and movement, and Puzzle is drawn to the mat, we’re ready for some actual CU-style treat dropping: I am wandering around the mat, clicking for being on the mat and for sniffing for treats, and dropping treats all over the mat while she’s busy eating. We continue building the association mat equals treats (rather than handler equals treats).

As a side-effect, Puzzle gets introduced to her second marker cue: the clicker.

A snippet from her fifth mat session (Day 2), showing that she has become magnetized to the mat:

A snippet from session #6 (Day 2), showing both attraction to the mat, CU-style treat delivery, and how she learns about her release cue – another useful word she is learning on the go in the context of mat work!

In session #7, Puzzle and I talk some more about release cues, and the fact that the mat goes offline when there’s no puppy on it. Backing up off of the mat works, too! Watch until the end for the cutest part:

The Puzzle Week – Part 2: Starting Matwork

Day 1

Puzzle kindly agreed to assist me in teaching CU-style matwork from scratch. This is how we started out on our first evening together. This session was filmed just an hour or so after Puzzle temporarily moved in with me. She’s still new to the apartment, new to me, and new to the mat. Rather than doing any actual CU matwork here, we are working on feeling comfortable. Notice how my body language impacts her!

Day 2

Second session – first session of Puzzle’s second day. I’m still not standing near the mat, but sitting in the way that helped Puzzle be comfortable earlier. I am being mindful of what I’m communicating with my body language – I don’t want her to startle. She starts out more comfortable, and is starting to become magnetized to the mat: it’s hard to lure her off!

Our third session! I’m being more mindful of dropping treats CU-style: they show up at random spots all around Puzzle. I want her to believe that the treats are coming from the mat rather than from me. This is one of the elements that distinguishes CU matwork from other protocols: we do NOT want handler focus. It’s about the mat, not about the human. You’ll also see me drop a treat off the mat after the click in the middle of the session. Will Puzzle go back to the mat to reactivate it?

Day 2 was all about matwork. Mat work is a low-energy, relaxing activity. It’s hard to overdo it! So Puzzle ate most of her daily meals on the mat that day, and made some lovely progress! At the same time that she is learning about mats and about the fact that I am safe, she is also learning the meaning of her first marker cue, the tongue click: food is about to appear!

The Puzzle Week – Part 1: Introducing the Puppy

My neighbors have a litter of puppies: two brindle ones, three brown ones, all of them cute. I’ve watched them grow up, and slowly follow their mom out into the callejones of our neighborhood. They are eight weeks old now, and while they are looking for homes, my neighbors are letting one of them stay with me for a week.

Old enough to venture out into the world! They live behind the red gate.

This is their mom. A little Schnauzer mix, two ducks, and a cat are also part of their family.

I’m working towards my CU instructor certification. Puzzle is going to assist me by means of learning matwork CU style. And perhaps Superbowls to help her get over her fear of the vacuum? We’ll see how things go.

Of course, I’ll also take her places while she stays with me. Socialization experiences are incredibly important at this age.

If you liked the Brindle Girl series – I’ll be doing something along the same lines with my little pandemic companion, Puzzle.

Why Puzzle? Well, she didn’t have a name yet, and on the first evening, she fell asleep in this box:

There may be another wave of Covid raging outside – but we’ve got it nice and cozy at home. Life could be worse!
It just gives me a boost of feel-good hormones to look at a snuggly sleepy puppy!

Stay tuned for videos … And more puppy cuteness!

Travel thoughts E1: dog/dog sociability

I had fun with The Brindle Girl series, and decided to do more video-style posts. I’m hoping this will tie me over until I go back to speaking in front of groups of people. I was going to record these while driving across Guatemala and Mexico – but it turned out that the AC blasting and the car were too much background noise. So I’m only recording these post road trip. They are still travel thoughts, so I’m keeping the name!

The first video post below is my musings about dog/dog sociability. After recording this, I remembered that I recently learned something that contradicts my anecdotal experience: dog breeds, it turns out, are much less predictive of an individual’s behavior and personality traits than we conventionally think they are.

How do we know that? As of today (May 27, 2021), the Darwin’s Ark project has analyzed 3,056,323 answers provided by the owners of 29,233 dogs. At the 2021 Lemonade Conference, Elinor Karlsson explained their approach in a captivating talk that was amazingly understandable even for someone like me, with zero training in data analysis or statistics. If you get a chance to catch one of her presentations – make sure you don’t miss it!

Based on what Elinor Karlsson and colleagues have found, you should take my video musings with a grain of salt! So before you watch my video – here’s the scientific caveat:

In relation to predicting sociability, we’ve learned two things from Darwin’s Ark:

  1. An individual dog’s behavior and personality traits can not accurately be predicted if all we know is their breed.
  2. Dog breeds have some subtle differences in behavior and personality when compared to all (pet) dogs.
    However, these differences are not clear for all factors examined in the Darwin’s Ark project. For example, there are no statistically significant breed differences when it comes to factors like agonistic threshold, and dog sociability – two factors relevant to my musings below.