Distractions as cues, day 0: the theory

I want to add a new adventure to my Out & About class – these videos, or segments of them, will probably be a part of it eventually! For now, I’ve just been playing around with this and it isn’t a finished lecture yet, so I’m sharing it publicly here instead!

One of my students has been thinking of turning food distractions on the ground into a recall cue. I’ve been thinking of various ways to get to that stage, and am going to share my experimentation journey with you all. You could use this protocols for distractions other than food, and behaviors other than a recall.

Foundation behaviors for our example:

  1. A strong recall away from food. Ideally, you will already have a recall no matter whether the dog is approaching the food distraction or already in the middle of eating it. Alternatively, an equally strong “Leave it” cue will do the trick as well.
  2. A marker cue that means food from your hand.
  3. A release cue that serves as a release to the environment (in our case, to the distraction). I have several release cues; in this case, I am going to use my generic “Okay.” It’s a marker cue that releases the dog to whatever the previous cue told them not to access.

Goal behavior:

Dog sees or smells food —> dog returns to handler —> dog gets rewarded from handler or with permission to access/eat the distraction.

Game is used to scavenge on our walks, and I am not going to take this behavior from her. It’s one of her biggest joys, and she’s got a stomach of steel and is surrounded by amazing street food to be found. So I’m only going to teach the goal behavior (use the distraction as a cue to come back towards me) with her kibble (which isn’t something she ever finds on the street). I don’t want her to show me all the food sources she finds in the street. I want her to continue to be able to freely scavenge.

In any case, assuming you don ‘t want the free scavenging, your steps will be the following. Game and I will skip the generalization steps, and we will start this video series with the foundation behaviors already in place.

Steps for turning a distraction into a cue:

  1. Teach your foundation behavior on a verbal cue to fluency and generalize it until you can use it anywhere and at any time, off leash, no matter what distractions are present (with our food example, this could be a watch the handler, a leave it, a recall, or even a sit or a down, or barking – whatever you want the distraction to eventually be the cue for). It just needs to be incompatible with accessing the distraction.
  2. Practice your verbal cue with an easy version of your distraction in an easy location (at home, in your house). Make sure to cue the behavior after the dog has seen or accessed the distraction (new cue – old cue, in this situation, means first comes the distraction, then the verbal cue). We want the distraction to predict the verbal cue.
  3. Stay at step 2 until your dog complete the behavior you are looking for on the first rep of a NEW session, without you having had time to say your verbal cue between the dog seeing/smelling the distraction, and you saying the old verbal cue. You now have a distraction as a cue in one location: at home!
  4. We want to only increase one criterion at a time rather than several criteria at once. We also know that dogs don’t generalize well – so we are going to need to train this behavior in several locations, and with all kinds of different food distractions (in our example). You will only either change the food distraction, and keep the location the same, or change the location, and keep the food distraction the same. In the example videos I’m going to show you, I’ll use the same food distraction (kibble), and show you how to reach the goal behavior (the distraction becomes a recall cue) in two locations. You will want to train this in more than just two locations (3-10, depending on your dog, should get you location generalization), and you’ll want to use more than one food distraction (again, 3-10, depending on your dog, should get you the desired results). I am guesstimating that most dogs will need around five kinds of food in five different locations to generalize.
  5. Use it in real life, and keep rewarding most reps really well – either from your hand, or by releasing your dog to the distraction! That last step is important because you will sometoimes come across distractions you can’t trump with your reward. A dog who believes that the fastest way TO the distraction is to come back to you first will come back – even when they know you have nothing higher value on your body.

Why is this working?

We are using a cue transfer process for this, and we are going to use an environmental reward (the distraction itself becomes the reward; many trainers refer to this as “Premacking“). Therefore, we need to start with a strong verbal cue that we will eventually transfer to a visual or olfactory cue (the distraction): the distraction comes to predict the strong verbal cue, and eventually, the behavior will be exhibited as soon as our learner sees the distraction.

The next post in this series is going to show Game’s first session (step 2)!

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