The Norbert Experiment, part 4: adjustments

So much to learn from yesterday’s session!

The reason I ran out of both high-value treats AND kibble is that I did not expect to go more than 2 or, at the most, 3 sessions. But such is life! I learned:

  1. As long as the toy is out, Game will keep going.
  2. Game is indeed able to choose the toy over the cat after running down the staircase several times (her motivational state is likely different at that point due to being hot and tired because neither of us is used to this climate).
  3. Game can take kibble within this staircase marker game – at least starting at the 4th round.
  4. Once in the bedroom after the 7th scatter (no sight contact to cats or toys), Game is able to relax right away.

Based on this, I will adjust in the following way:

  • Remove the toy during the scatter (leaving it on the floor until then will give Game the option to grab it if she needs to earlier on).
  • Only go down the staircase once.
  • Move swiftly to the bedroom after the scatter and take a break – no matter whether there are cats or not.

Making it measurable

I’m going to do a session like this, and then decide how to best measure our progress. I also realize this is not necessarily going to be easy to measure because there are different cats, and the distance at which they appear often differs, too. Sometimes they move, and sometimes they are stationary. Sometimes there is only one at a time – and sometimes there is more than one. Sometimes, they stare at us (we are in a display window at this AirBnB – for people and cats). This means the sessions are not directly comparable, which is a shame. We don’t live in a lab!

If anyone readong along wants to throw their suggestions of how they’d measure this at me, go right ahead! I’m writing this up more slowly than I’m training, so by the time I read our suggestion, I will likely already have implemented whatever I came up with myself. But if you want to think along and decide what you would do in my situation – go right ahead and have fun with this in the comments, and I’ll be sure to get back to you there!

Since I have no video for you today – take one of the cats instead:

The Norbert Experiment, part 3: a long session filled with information!

I’ve dug the harness out of my luggage – still looking for the longer line (when you live a mostly off-leash life, you tend to lose track of your lines). We’ve been on a long walk, it’s hot (significantly warmer than at the previous place we were), and Game and I are both tired. Lazy play is just right for both of us today!

Here’s Game’s marker/arousal staircase image, with time stamps for each of the steps below.

Video A

Round I

Step 1: Consider the lobster cat

00:00-00:10 Considering the cat (longer than ideal but I wanted to show you all the cat)

Step 2: Tug

00:10 Tug marker. Game responds well!

00:30 I realize I had closed the glass door and can unclip Game from the tether.

01:05 A quick look at the cat, and then Game disengages and keeps playing! Yay!

Step 3: Chase high value food

01:37 My first tossed treat cue. Game is slow to let go of the toy here! These are the things I pay attention to: does she respond to marker cues at baseline speed or below? This response is below. I may have caused it by my teasing tiny tugs on her toy right before the marker though. It is not clear whether the latency is cat related.

01:45 I remember I was going to leave the toy out, and see whether Game will gravitate towards it if she needs to sink her teeth into something after the first run down the staircase.

01:50 I was not planning on tossing the treat at an angle that would let Game see the cat easily right after eating – she does really well though, and does not get stuck.

02:13 Team work!

Step 4: Eat high value food from hand

02:16 First click for eye contact!

02:25 That look may have been at the cat (who is still under the white table) or the person walking past. I can’t tell.

02:29 This look is clearly at the cat – the person has passed already. This is okay: looking at things in the environment/pointing them out by looking is just as clickable as looking at me. This is a both/and, not an either/or paradigm.

02:34/35 Another one for looking at the cat! You just look where you need to look, Game.

02:37 I shift a little to make the different directions of looking more salient. Now, looking at me is clearly looking away from the cat, and looking at the cat is clearly looking away from me.

Step 5: Scatter

02:46/47 First scatter cue, marking eye contact.

Round II

Another round! Game is looking at the cat again. Calmly so – but she’s looking. For now, I will take this as a cue to restart the staircase.

Step 2

03:32 Tug cue. Game is looking at me (she knows what’s coming), and I can mark that. If she were to continue looking at the cat, that’s what I’d mark with “Tug!”

04:27 By moving away and allowing Game to bring the tug toy back to me, I’m giving her the opportunity to restart the game. This is how I keep things cooperative.

Step 3

04:40/41 That response to my “Get it” marker was perfect: that’s Game’s baseline speed, and what I want to see! As soon as I said, “Get it,” she let go of the toy.

04:45 Again, tossing into the cat corner is not what I had in mind when coming up with my training plan.

04:47 … but Game handles it well! So well, in fact, that I might want to add a sprinkle of the Give Me A Break CU game to our cat sessions!


Sidenote: this is what Give me a break looks like: the treat can eventually be put down close to a stimulus, and the dog will dismiss, like Game dismisses the police person in the video below:


Step 4

04:56 Click for eye contact.

04:58 I’m moving to give Game more of a choice in terms of whether she wants to look at the cat or at me – now we are obviously in different directions.

Step 5

05:11 Scatter cue for eye contact.

Round III

05:37 The cat is still there, and Game is watching again. She is not in predator mode (which may be because of the scatter … or because she isn’t used to the heat. Being hot (or cold) influences motivational states.

We start over with step 2 after video A ends.


Video B

Round IV

Step 2

00:00 The last part of toy play. Game went back to cat-watching after the previous scatter, and I started over at step 5.

00:08/09 You can see she’s tired. She isn’t super fast and intense, and holding the toy gently rather than hard. But keep going she wants, and I want to keep experimenting – so we keep going.

Step 3

00:26/27 Realized the treats from my pocket were gone; had to get them from the counter. At this point, we are using kibble – I have gone through all the high-value treats I cut up already.

00:37 Game doesn’t mind chasing kibble – this is good!

Step 4

00:58 Waiting for Game to offer eye contact …

Step 5

01:11 Scatter cue for eye contact. Kibble again. Game doesn’t mind.

Step 6?

01:39 She starts circling here – she considers laying down for the first time!

Round V

Step 2

01:43 Then she circles past the tug toy. This is a training toy, not a toy I usually leave out for her to disembowel. She can’t resist it, and asks for another round.

This is good information for me: she did not look at the cat, and then choose the toy. She was going to do step 6, then saw the toy and changed her mind. I’m going to need to adapt this approach (leaving the toy out) since this is not what I’m aiming for.

01:50 I mean it’s a good decision to bring me the toy rather than get sucked into cat watching. But watching this video back, I can see that the decision she made was not “do I stare at the cat or get the toy,” but “do I lie down or get the toy.”

We continue down the marker cue staircase again after video B ends.


In round 6, Game looked at the cat, and then channeled her cat thoughts into the toy unprompted – that is awesome and exactly what I was going for! Good girl! I’m not showing you video of this because by that time, the camera had fallen over.

There is a 7th round. Rounds 4, 5, 6 and 7 were all played with kibble rather than high-value treats. By round 7, I run out of kibble as well (I only got her portion for the day from the car, and have no refill at hand). So after the round 7 scatter, I encourage Game to follow me into the bedroom and close the door (no sightline to the cats). She is able to relax right away.

Lots to learn from this long session! Tomorrow, I’ll share the adjustments I’ll make based on what I’ve seen in this session. There is lots of room for our cat experiment to grow!

The Norbert Experiment, part 1: Game’s cat baseline

We got to a new AirBnB the other day. Turns out there’s a lot of cats in the shared yard space the apartment opens out into! It’s also warm here, so for the most part I’m only closing the screen door, but not the actual glass door. Screen dors are not Malinois-proof barriers, meaning I need to tether my dog to keep the risk of cats (or screen doors) being harmed as low as it can be.

I’ll be here just long enough to turn this into a fun little training project. I’m finding this project particularly intriguing right now because I’m also working with someone on household-cat-acceptance using a different (tried and true) approach – more in that below. The approach I’ll be using with Game in The Norbert Experiment (1) is a bit more experimental, and it’ll be fun to compare the two.

Baseline response to tongue click, treat toss cue, and “leave it”

Today, I’ll show you Game’s baseline response to cats outside the apartment (glass door closed here, not just screen door). I know she wouldn’t be able to take the treat from my hand (this is kibble; I can usually work with it on almost anything). I’m only clicking and offering it to her to demo to you all that she can’t take it, not because I expect her to take it.

I was not sure if she would be able to chase kibble. Chasing food is higher value and higher arousal for Game than the same kibble from my hand, and she is able to do so in many situations, even when she can’t take treats from my hand. Game says, nope, can’t do.

I am surprised that she is able to respond to my “Leave it” cue – twice, no less – in this clip, but maybe I shouldn’t be: I have reinforced “leave it” as well as recalls with permission to chase cats, and that is the functional reinforcer Game is after in this situation.

From this clip, I learn two things:

  1. I need higher value treats for this project.
  2. I’ll want to consider adding toy play to my reinforcement/arousal shifting approach. I suspect (but will have to ask Game to know for sure) that tugging is equally high value as considering out-of-reach cats.

Speaking of reinforcement value and dogs who like to move their body …

Game could not chase treats here, but Keeshond Via below sure can. I love this clip because it shows that for Via (who just saw a deer), chasing treats is possible even when taking treats from Allison’s hand (“Yes”) is not. I love marker cues! I also believe we are severely underutilizng them in the dog training world. (Keep your eyes out for anything Karen Deeds has to say about this topic!)

Thank you, Allison, for allowing me to share your clip!

Chasing as a reinforcer (for coming back, leave it-s etc.)

With the cats in the alleys of Guanajuato, I used chasing as a reinforcer, just like I do with birds or squirrels who can easily get to safety. Guanajuato’s alley cats are dog-savvy and know that they just need to jump up a wall or roof and can give Game the finger from up there. I did not feel like I was adding substantial stress to their lives – just a single jump, which is something they are used to doing in their environment. I know this is an ethically foggy area. Personally, I’m okay with chasing as a reinforcer as long as it does not (and this assessment will be subjective, too) unduely stress the animal(s) being chased.

Here’s Game chasing birds (I don’t have a video of her and an alley cat). You can see how when I start the video, she is not mindlessly going after the cattle egrets. Quite the contrary: she waits for me to ask something of her so she can earn egret chasing. And as the video continues, she gravitates towards focusing on me rather than the birds. It is SO powerful to harness your dog’s greatest distraction, and turn it into a reinforcer! It removes the conflict of either/or (either I do what my human wants, or I do what I want) and replaces it with a both/and paradigm.

LAT on a mat for cat acceptance

The team I mentoned above is currently doing LAT from a mat, with the ultimate goal being acceptance of the household cat: the dog is on a mat, and gets marked and fed in a specific way for either pointing out the cat to her human or offering eye contact to her human. We keep the sessions to one minute and track the looks at the cat versus looks at the owner, and have a certain threshold point where we reduce the distance between cat and dog by one carpet square. This method is tried and true, and should also work for the goal of the dog learning that she will never chase that cat (anything CU means there will be no direct interaction with the stimulus). Once the dog is aware of this, it removes a lot of uncertainty from interactions. Uncertainty is stressful for many dogs, which is one of the reasons CU can be so powerful.

This is what this looks like with Heather’s cat Vignette and her Dutch Shepherd Saphira:


Sidenote to stress the beautiful training in the LAT clip above

Note that there are a several foundation behaviors that go into a training plan like the one Heather, Karl, Saphira and Vignette are implementing. If you don’t know what to look for, this may look effortless – but it is, in fact, amazingly complex and based on strong foundation behaviors, clear communication, and an excellent dog trainer (Heather) working with an excellent cat trainer (Heather’s husband Karl). Not only are they really good at what they are doing with their animals – they have also managed to build a habit for themselves: the habit of working on this together every evening they are home.

A training plan that requires time usually also requires us humans to develop a strong habit to keep at it. We can trick our own minds a bit here by clearly defining when that habit is going to happen, and turning an already established preceding event or behavior into our prompt for that new habit. Heather and Karl have been making great progress because they have committed to working on this at a particular time every day. The more we make something a habit for ourselves, the easier it feels to make time for it, and the more progress we are going to make.

Saphira’s foundation behaviors that need to be in place before a session like this is even possible:

+ A strong station-on-cot behavior

+ Understanding that the marker cue “ground” means a treat will materialize on the ground in front of her (in this case, on her cot bed, between her paws). The reason this is the marker cue we chose is that it resets Saphira: when taking a treat from between her paws, she is looking away from both Vignette and Heather, and can then make a new choice: does she want to look at Heather or does she want to look at Vignette? Both behaviors get reinforced equally.

+ The LAT game in easier contexts (knowing that pointing out a stimulus in the environment is a reinforceable behavior).

+ Knowing that eye contact with Heather is a reinforceable behavior.

Vignette’s foundation behaviors:

+ Relaxation in the presence of dogs.

+ Wearing a harness.

+ Walking on a leash and harness voluntarily. Karl isn’t pulling Vignette up to Saphira – they are just walking up together.

(The leash and harness are for safety, to make sure Vignette doesn’t run up to Saphira, just like Saphira is wearing a leash that Heather holds for safety. We don’t plan on needing them, but it’s good to have them – like seat belts.)

Shout out! Heather, Karl, Saphira, Philo (their second cat) and Vignette – I LOVE the work you’ve been doing, and the progress you’ve been making! You make a fantastic team!


Back to the Norbert Experiment!

Since I don’t mind sending Game to chase some of the time (I just need it under stimulus control), I don’t need (or even want) a purist CU approach here. Instead, I want to marker-cue her down every time she sees a cat outside of this particular apartment.

The idea is that eventually, seeing a cat through the screen or glass door will become a cue to ask me for a toy. This may not happen before I move out of here – I’ve got about two weeks. OR it just may. We’ll have to find out! I enjoy playing prediction games with myself, so I predict that I will see some kind of progress in these two weeks.

The image below is what I suspect Game’s hierarchy of arousal and reinforcement value looks like. She might proof me wrong, which is okay. I’ll have to ask her in order to find out if we’re on the same page about this! I suspect that considering cats is as arousing AND as valuable as tugging with me. The shift from step 1 to step 2 is therefore a horizontal one. It is not a shift in reinforcement value or arousal level, but a shift in attention (from cat to toy/me).

From step 2 onwards, I can then – theoretically – go down the arousal and reinforcement value staircase, shifting vertically down from one step to the next lower one until we are at step 6 and can move on with our lives, not thinking cat thoughts.

I may be wrong about the value of considering cats outside the apartment versus the value of tugging in their presence. That is okay – I am going to ask Game if this reinforcement hierarchy is indeed hers, and adapt based on her response.

I’ve used this method with different dogs in the past, but this is the first time (and I might misremember because human memory is not reliable) that I consciously include a potentially competitive toy game: tug. Tug can easily turn into a zero sum game, which would further increase arousal. I’ll try hard to keep it cooperative rather than competitive. I do not want Game to fight me for the toy. In order to keep it cooperative, I will make sure to keep letting go of the toy and allow Game to restart the game. I will also push back against her chest at least as much as I’m pulling on the toy, and I’ll work with her on the floor rather than standing up. This way, I hope to play Game’s calmest version of tug.

Should there be toy play around cats?

I’ve thought about whether tug is a good idea at all, because it will likely keep Game’s arousal at cat-level, and it is directly related to sinking her teeth into a toy – someting I would very much not want her to do with a cat.

Since this is my own dog who I like to experiment with (and know I can keep the cats safe from), I am going to go ahead with it and find out what happens. I believe, based on Game and my history of toy play, that this is going to increase her impulse control around cats – and that’s what I want. I don’t need relaxation right away, but I want cats to mean tug.

So at first, I will take her focus vertically from cats to a tug toy. Then, I’ll bring her arousal level down horizontally by switching from tugging to chasing high value treats, from chasing treats to treats from hand for offered focus (“Can you offer a behavior with a strong reinforcement history?”), and then to a scatter. Sniffing for treats is a relaxing behavior. Seeing whether Game can or can’t engage in it will make an excellent gauge of whether she is able to move on. Since most (not all) of the cats out there walk past rather than staying right outside staring in, by the time I’m all the way down to the scatter, the probability that Game will be able to move on (because there is no more cat) will be high, too. If not, I’ll do another round.

Keeping data

I’ll need a way to track my progress or lack thereof. My preliminary plan is to switch from high value treats to kibble every fifth time I go down this staircase. Will Game be able to do it with kibble or not? I’ll also keep recording video after the scatter to see what happens, and find a way of coding her body language to know how long it takes her to truly move on (maybe how long it takes her to lie down in a relaxed position and not stare catwards.)


(1) I’m calling this The Norbert Project because I just met Kayla’s cat Norbert, and sadly, I could only invite Norbert into my previous AirBnB when Game and I were out. It would be nice if the next time Norbert and I crossed paths, he could actually be inside at the same time as Game – even if only for a little bit. Also, meet Norbert, travel cat with Kayla of K9 Conservationists. A shout out to Norbert for inspiring the name of this training series, and for being his amazing van life travel self! Cats don’t get much cooler than that!

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!

The Puzzle Week – Part 21: Social Learning

I used to call dogs learning about social interactions from other dogs “social facilitation” – but I just learned in Kristina Spaulding’s excellent Fundamentals of Ethology course1 that this not technically the correct term! Turns out that social facilitation does not meet the criteria of social learning: it just means that a certain behavior increases in animal A when animal B is present. When B is not present, animal A does not show the same increase in behavior. No learning has taken place!

So … what is social learning?

What, then, is social learning, exactly? And what’s the correct term for the interaction I used to call social facilitation? Let’s see. Social learning is learning by means of observing others. Kristina (again, in her fantastic Ethology course, which you should definitely take the next time it runs) refers us to a definition by Wynne and Udell2. They have three criteria for social learning:

  1. The behavior is not innate – it must be learned.
  2. It must be learned in a specific way: by means of social transmission.
  3. As a result of the learning process, the behavior also occurs in the absence of the demonstrator.

There are four kinds of social learning: imitation, emulation, stimulus enhancement, and local enhancement. Note that social facilitation is not on this list: while there is social transmission, a socially facilitated behavior does not occur without the demonstrator being present.

What is social facilitation?

Dancing might be an example of sopcial facilitation: I’m not into it. But if a friend convinces me to go out, I’ll dance if they do (preferably after having a beer or two). However, I won’t dance in the absence of said friend. Having gone dancing with my friend will not cause me to go back to the music venue, and dance on my own, or with other people. Once my friend has gone home, so will I, and I’ll be glad to go back to not dancing. I’d venture my dancing meets the definition of social facilitation, but not the definition of social learning because it does not occur in the absence of my friend, the demonstrator.

Back to social learning!

What are the 4 types of social learning?

Imitation

Imitation is a goal-directed behavior resulting from the observation of another animal. The learned behavior replicates either the motor pattern or the form of the behavior.

Say an alien just landed on earth and sees a human drop a coin into a coke machine, and then drink a refreshing beverage. The alien, who has never encountered a coke machine, then also drops a coin in the machine and enjoys a soda. Going forwards, the alien is able to get a coke whenever they want (as long as they have access to coins and coke machines): through imitation, they have learned to work coke machines the same way humans do. If they used their hands to drop coins into the slot, we’d call it true imitation (they imitated the motor pattern). If they used their trunk to drop cpins into the slot, we’d call it functional imitation (they imitated the form of the behavior, but not the exact motor pattern).

Emulation

Emulation is also a goal-directed behavior resulting from the observation of another animal. However, unlike imitation, the form or motor pattern of the behavior isn’t directly imitated. Instead, the observer just recognizes that a solution to a problem is available. Let’s look at a different alien. They watch a human drop a coin into the coke machine, and out comes a refreshing beverage. Yummy! Looks like it’s possible to get cold drinks from that big box with the Coca Cola logo on it! The alien now smashes the coke machine with its trunk, pieces of broken glass and plastic everywhere, and in the midst of it all, there are bottles of cold beverages, which the alien now enjoys. Assuming that I understand things correctly (no guarantee there), this is emulation. When the alien encounters another coke machine in the future, even if there’s no human present to demonstrate the coin-inserting action, the alien will know that there are likely cold beverages in it, and, if thirsty, will smash it with its trunk to gain access to it.

Stimulus or local enhancement

Animal A’s behavior causes animal B to notice an environmental stimulus, or a particularly interesting spot in the environment.

Dog A sees a cat and stares at it – dog B sees dog A staring at something, and follows their gaze – now dog B also sees the cat, and stares as well. Ta-da! Stimulus enhancement!

Dog A sniffs a certain spot. Dog B notices dog A’s interest in said spot, and heads over to sniff it as well. Ta-da! Local enhancement! Look how easy I’m making this sound!

Let’s clear up my former misuse of the term social facilitation!

So what do we call a situation where animal A observes animal B’s interaction with animal C, and doesn’t only copy their behavior right then and there (imitation), but learns something for the future? What if dog A is shy towards other dogs, but, after observing dog B’s confident interactions, becomes less shy themselves, even in B’s absence? Well, we’ll just call it social learning. Plain and simple.

If A copied a specific play move of B’s, we’d call it imitation (especially if it wasn’t an innate play move, I suppose). If A learned that it was possible to get strange dogs to play (there is a solution), but came up with their own way of initiating play (different from B’s play style), we’d call it emulation.

Once A is confident around other dogs, they might notice a potential playmate after B does, and then initiate or join the fun: stimulus enhancement! In case of doubt, just call it social learning.

And what the heck is social contagion?

Social contagion is a subtype of social facilitation. It is not social learning. In social contagion, observing a behavior causes the observer to engage in the same behavior – without knowing why they are showing the behavior.

Maybe this is social contagion? In any case, it’s hilarious:

Maybe this is social contagion, too! Game is chasing something to fetch it. Puzzle doesn’t know why she is running – she just does what Game does:

What about social support? Yours truly has been throwing that term around, too!

Indeed, I probably have. It’s such a lovely term, isn’t it? Social support. I want to give and receive it from my friends! I want to bathe in it! I want to be socially supportive of my dogs! That said, I don’t think social support is an ethological term. Assuming there is no agreed-upon ethological definition, it won’t serve us in the analysis of dog/dog interactions. It’s a nice buzzword though, so I might keep it around to spice up my paragraphs when its meaning is clear from the context. In any case, since you asked, I looked up its definition in the APA dictionary of Psychology. According to them, social support is

the provision of assistance or comfort to others, typically to help them cope with biological, psychological, and social stressors [my emphasis]. Support may arise from any interpersonal relationship in an individual’s social network, involving family members, friends, neighbors, religious institutions, colleagues, caregivers, or support groups. It may take the form of practical help (e.g., doing chores, offering advice), tangible support that involves giving money or other direct material assistance, and emotional support that allows the individual to feel valued, accepted, and understood. […]”3

The first sentence is useful for observers of canine behavior. The rest is anthropocentric, and irrelevant for our purposes.

Where are all the puppy videos?

I know, I know, you’re here to watch puppy videos, not to get hung up on terminology. But I want to get better at using the correct biological terms for the situations and encounters I’m describing. Explaining them to other people and making up examples is my favorite way of remembering stuff. So here you go! All mistakes and all misleading explanations and examples are my own, and not Kristina Spaulding’s. She actually knows what she’s talking about, while I’m only just learning. As Brené Brown would say, “I’m here to get it right, not to be right.” Feel free to point mistakes out to me (kindly and constructively, because that’s how we do things around here!). And if you are hungry for more geeky ethology, check out Kristina’s classes on her website and at the IAABC foundation.

Alright – back to the cute puppy videos! My next post is going to have lots and lots of dog/dog socialization videos. I promise! To keep this fun, we’ll be playing a game! After reading this post, I want you to tell me what you see in the upcoming videos: social learning? What kind of social learning? Social facilitation? All or none of the above? Hang tight – my next post is coming soon, and it will be gameshowesque.

Sources

(1) Spaulding, Kristina. Fundamentals of Ethology. IAABC Foundation, January 2022. (Will be running again in May – don’t miss it!)

(2) Wynne, Clive D.L and Udell, Monique A.R. Animal Cognition: Evolution, Behavior & Cognition. London, Red Globe Press: 2020. (Note that I have not read this book, but I believe this is the resource Kristina Spaulding is referring to.)

(3) “Social support,” in APA Dictionary of Psychology. Accessed March 9, 2022.

The Puzzle Week – Part 20: The not-so-blank slate, and Puzzle’s Socialization Plan

The (not so) blank slate: what the puppy brings to the table

The laws of learning apply to all puppies equally. Also, every puppy is different. Both of these things are true: sadly, things are rarely as black and white as we control-loving dog trainers would like them to be.

I was pretty certain my neighbors hadn’t done strategic socialization before the puppies left their nest. However, they likely grew up in a family environment, around young children, cats, ducks, and their dogs (apart from the dam, they have a small male that looks like a Miniature Schnauzer/Chihuahua mix). That’s a good foundation!

As soon as they were ready to explore, on their own time, they started venturing out into the alley with their mother, a little bit braver and further every day. This is one aspect of growing up free-roaming I love: it’s up to the puppies when they are ready to leave the nest, and how far they are willing to go. Their humans just let them be.

Out in the alley, they would meet passers-by and the occasional dog or neighborhood cat. They were also always able to retreat behind the safety of their gate, and had a mom who’d defend them fiercely against passing strange dogs (but not against known neighborhood dogs) until they were between 6 and 7 weeks old, when she intervened to a lesser and lesser degree.

There were five puppies, and this is how I see their baseline temperaments on a scale. Note that my scale only goes from the shiest to the most curious puppy in that litter. It is not a scale of all puppies, or of puppies in general.

Puzzle is a 3 on her litter scale that goes from 1 (most fearful puppy in the litter) to 4 (most confident puppy in the litter). The scale only reflects this particular litter of five puppies.

The parents’ temperament and stress levels

We also know a little bit about the parents’ temperaments: the mother is neutral/friendly towards all people outside the home. She’ll bark briefly when someone enters her yard. She is neutral/friendly towards known dogs, and slightly suspicious of unknown ones. The father (assuming he is who I believe he is) is confident and mellow around all dogs and all people.

Genetically, this is a nice combination for a free-roamer or a pet dog: mellow and neutral, leaning towards confidence from the father’s side; no exuberance or red flag behaviors in the parents.

I don’t think either one of the parents has a particularly stressful life. They have lots of freedom, plenty of food, and a routine that rarely changes. This should result in a good in-utero experience for the litter. (Mothers who are stressed during the gestation period are more likely to produce pups who are prone to depression, anxiety, and social deficits. This is known to be true for rodents1,2,3 and assumed to also be relevant for other mammalian species such as humans and dogs.)

Two sets of experiences for Puzzle

I wanted Puzzle to have two sets of experiences: one set would prepare her for a potential pet dog life, and the other one would allow her to thrive as a free-roamer and scavenger. The second set was taken care of by the environment she lived in and the freedom she had. I focused on the first set. I wanted her to experience living inside a house, being left alone, being crated, mat work, walking on a leash, being in busy places with lots of people, being in stores, being handled and carried, being dog-neutral and dog-confident as well as people-neutral and people-confident, starting housetraining, getting used to traffic noises and other city sounds, being inside moving vehicles.

Not all of these experiences fall under the category of socialization – some of them are more general pet puppy skills. I also did not get through all of them while I had access to Puzzle. However, I think we did pretty well, given the fact that we only had a few weeks together. The aspects I’m going to focus on in my next two posts are socialization to dogs, and socialization to busy urban spaces/feeling neutral and confident around strange people.

Sources

(1) Weinstock, Marta (2016). Prenatal stressors in rodents: Effects on behavior. Neurobiology of Stress, S2352289516300133–. doi:10.1016/j.ynstr.2016.08.004

(2) Cabrera, R.J.; Rodríguez-Echandía, E.L.; Jatuff, A.S.G.; Fóscolo, M. (1999). Effects of prenatal exposure to a mild chronic variable stress on body weight, preweaning mortality and rat behavior. Brazilian Journal of Medical and Biological Research, 32(10), 1229–1237. doi:10.1590/s0100-879×1999001000009

(3) Soares-Cunha, Carina; Coimbra, Bárbara; Borges, Sónia; Domingues, Ana Verónica; Silva, Deolinda; Sousa, Nuno; Rodrigues, Ana João (2018). Mild Prenatal Stress Causes Emotional and Brain Structural Modifications in Rats of Both Sexes. Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience, 12, 129–. doi:10.3389/fnbeh.2018.00129

The Puzzle Week – Part 14: Reaching Our Superbowls Goal!

Puzzle makes it all the way to bowl #5/5! I release her when she doesn’t offer eye contact quickly after the fifth bowl. The amount of time I waited her is out right for this puppy – this is what we’re aiming for.

I’m curious whether she can approach again, and give it another go after the treat toss release. She doesn’t make it back to the last bowl. This is good information: my gut feeling was right. With Puzzle, I should end sessions after a treat toss release, and try again after a break. (This may differ depending on the dog you are working with! Some will do better in later approaches within the same session. Others struggle more and more as the sessipn continues. Always train the dog in front of you (as Denise Fenzi would say)!

Puzzle goes all the way to bowl #5 in the first round of the session. We approach again after the release, and only make it to bowl #4. I don’t want to push too hard – at this point, Puzzle is a one-approach-at-a-time kind of puppy. However, eventually, I want to get to a point where we can cheerfully approach and retreat several times in a row. That’s when I’ll know that Puzzle truly understands that she will never have to directly interact with a trigger in the context of the Superbowls game!

Puzzle makes it all the way to bowl #5/5 AND BACK! YES! You go, puppy!

Puzzle leads me all the way to bowl #5! She hesitates at the fifth bowl, and I opt for a treat toss release rather than waiting for her to give me eye contact. Since she was so brave, we do another approach. At 00:36, right after eating her release treat, she offers eye contact again: “Let’s keep playing!” So we start over with the first bowl. She’s being a superstar, and makes it all the way to bowl #5, and then back to bowl #4. On her way back, she starts feeling uneasy about the vacuum. That’s okay – treat toss release, and end the session! A well-deserved break!

The most amazing puppy makes it all the way to the vacuum – not just once, but twice, and if I didn’t run out of treats, she’d have kept going! You go, Puzzle!

This ends our Superbowls adventures with the vacuum! Tomorrow, I will show you the Leslie-approved video I submitted for my CU instructor certification, and share some wrap-up thoughts. No worries though: the fact that we’re almost through the Superbowls videos doesn’t mean there will be no more Puzzle posts. Stay tuned!


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

The Puzzle Week – Part 12: Braving the Live Vacuum

We stay at the very first bowl, and then end the session. Puzzle lets me know she wasn’t ready to approach the live vacuum any further, and I listen. CU is all about communication!

In her second session with the live vacuum, Puzzle is being very brave, and takes me all the way to bowl #4. At that point, she does not make eye contact again. I listen to her, increase the distance, and end the session.

Followed by another short session:

We make it up to bowl #4/5 again:

… and again:

In the next session, you’ll see Puzzle reach the fifth and last bowl for the first time! Stay tuned!

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

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!

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