CHAI’S DISTRACTION RECALL TRAINING, ROUND 3.3.1: breaking down the transition from barrier to off-leash recalls

After succeeding at the barrier level, I came up with a plan of how to – potentially – set myself up for off-leash recall success. By now, I know that Chai is either a pragmatic dog or is going through a pragmatic phase (she’s a juvenile pup – a different dog every day!)

Either way, I don’t want to wait for her to be older to continue training my formal recall. I’m very much enjoying our strategy game here: Chai’s goal is to get to the distraction as fast as possible, and mine is to convince her that it’s worth her while to come back to me as soon as I call. We are playing a game in which the two of us have different goals. My way of getting closer to my goal is to set up the game board in such a way that it maximizes the probability that I’ll get a recall. Chai’s way of getting closer to her goal is to try and see through my game board set-ups (OR train me to up my reinforcers!)

I’m having fun with this, so I’ll continue. If you were a student of mine, I might ask you to take a training break and revisit the challenge when your dog is a little older. That would be to make things easier for you in case it was a phase rather than your dog’s personality.

In any case, I decided, since Chai has “won” when I presented her with unprotected food distractions in the past, to break down the big step from protected to unprotected distractions by using an in-between step: opening the barrier she has already succeeded at, but leaving that same barrier there in order to remind her of how well things used to go for her when she recalled away from said barrier. After recalling her away from an open barrier (in my case the open plastic box), I’d then recall her from the same distraction without a barrier present.

Note that at this point, I am not following my recall protocol anymore, and quite consciously so: I’m just experimenting with my own dog and I am also curious what I can get away with and how Chai will respond to different set-ups. Having eliminated the empty plate at our last stage, I’ll also eliminate distraction B (the bag that used to have food in it) at this new stage I’m inventing for Chai:

While I’m breaking down the step from closed to open container, I’m no longer splitting down environments. I want to find out if we can take this additional step (open kibble container) as a short-cut to off-leash food success (kibble without barrier in the real world). Note that experiments like this, where I don’t know what the outcome will be, are something I LOVE doing with my own dogs but wouldn’t ask a student to do. My students get tried and true protocols – it wouldn’t feel fair otherwise.

(Still) July 17, 2023: our first park experiment with the open box!

We play at our usual spot, but it’s unusually busy – and a number of the people out here are eating. So we have people weirdness and distracting food smells, which leads to a slower recall response and to a hesitant approach of the kibble box once I release Chai. Since I want to see a response at baseline speed (as fast as if there was no distraction) and the usual joyful approach of the distraction itself after my “okay” release, I’ll repeat this same set-up before checking the box off the list above. She did very well though and recalled despite all the distractions!

We hung out and explored the park for 15 minutes, and then tried again:

Oh puppy! You are making me laugh! This session was really interesting!

Sometimes, the best way is to end and go back to the drawing board, which is my plan here. Nevertheless, I couldn’t help but wonder on our walk back from the park: WHY did Chai blow through this recall after nailing it the first time? Here’s a few possible explanations I can imagine:

  1. She only recalled the first time because the people were confusing and Chai didn’t realize what she was even recalling from.
  2. She didn’t recall the second time because the first time, she learned that the kibble container was open. in the second session, she KNEW that we were working with an open rather than closed container and went for it. In the first session, she may only have learned that the kibble had been accessible all along after my “okay” release.
  3. She didn’t recall the second time because right before, during our break, I had removed her from eating something that looked and smelled like a mixture of poop and unidentifyable dead animal (Chai has a sensitive stomach; if not, I would let her eat whatever she finds, like Game) – about 3 or 4 times. (I kept releasing her once we were at a distance from the disgusting food source because she wanted to play with her adolescent Doberman friend Sam. However, inevitably, after a little play, she ended up back at the food source and I ended up walking up and removing her again – it was too good for our “Leave it,” which is still under construction, to work.) Maybe this frustrating experience did not set her up for success in the recall session right after.
  4. We’ve worked on impulse control (“Earn it”/Zen bowl/a marker cue for taking food from a bowl) quite a bit today. Maybe after all this impulse control – impulse control is hard for puppies! – she couldn’t help it and HAD to go for the distraction right away.
  5. Or one of countless other possible reasons!

In any case, I’ll need to come up with a game plan! This distraction recall step is tricky – it keeps coming back to bite us in the butt! I might need to gamify this for myself some more …

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