Of Clicker Training and Co-Dependency

Posted: March 13, 2012 in new puppy, tricks
Tags: , ,

Izzy is a somewhat aloof dog, so when I got Copper I think it provided a welcome outlet for her human’s sometimes undignified level of affection.  She never seemed particularly jealous, and once she got used to the idea that I was not always talking to her but might be directing a cue to the puppy instead, she was quite comfortable to have puppy-Copper around.

Copper, to put it mildly, is a momma’s boy. Lest you think I consider this a negative, I freely admit that we have some co-dependency issues.  Izzy is “just” a pet, rather than a performance dog, so he doesn’t really have to share me with her in the same way that he shares me with Jagger.  This has led to some amusing incidents since he’s not used to sharing the momma:

Copper in my lap

"I was here FIRST!"

I didn’t want Copper to feel left out, and I have been having so much fun free-shaping tricks with Jagger, that I figured I might as well spend some time improving Copper’s trick repertoire.

Jagger asks a question

"What, I no good enough?? I try harder, I promise! Only... I just puppy..."

When Copper was a puppy, I didn’t know that much about the importance of shaping (that is, rewarding successive approximations and pieces of a simple behavior to work toward a more complicated behavior) for the agility dog.  I also didn’t know how beneficial trick training, with its emphasis on shaping, was for the agility dog.  Copper knows a number of tricks, but most of these were taught with luring (that’s using a treat to guide the dog into positions instead of waiting for him to offer a behavior and then presenting the dog with a treat as one does in shaping).  The result of this has been a dog that is not quite as “active” as I’d like in agility and who would often default to just standing there looking at me for help.  I’ve had to go back and remedy this at various points in his training, in particular with jumping foundations, and was always pleased with the end result.

Copper does understand shaping, but he’s not as versatile at it as I’d like.  He will very quickly default to offering me a down instead of more varied behaviors.  It’s been said by far more experienced people than I that much of agility is about targeting behavior, so while Copper understands nose targeting I would like him to have the skill of targeting objects with his feet.  I very much wish I’d known about the importance of this when he was a puppy, as one of the skills I have struggled the most to teach him on the agility course is to be aware of where he’s putting his feet, aka “hind-end awareness.”  I think a lot of our early obstacle training would have been far easier had I known about this early foundation work.  Well, live and learn. I’m sure I’ll discover many things the hard way while training Jagger that I’ll swear to fix with the next dog.

My plan for my shaping sessions with Copper is that I will keep them short – well under five minutes.  Less is more with this dog, and I have also discovered that latent learning is very, very important in his process to acquire a new skill.  Limiting myself to very short sessions made it important that I have a well-defined goal for each session.  For our first project, I chose that I would teach Copper the trick of standing on an upside down bowl with two front feet, then work toward circling the bowl while keeping his feet on it.  I had just taught this trick to Jagger as part of his heeling foundation work, so I was comfortable with the method and liked the skills it imparted.

Session One:

Goal – Reward Copper for interacting with an upside down bowl with behaviors OTHER than sitting or lying down next to it.

Methods – Keep rate of reinforcement high, and make sure to reward even slight behaviors, such as weight shifts.

Results – Very successful!  By not being too picky (i.e., any behavior’s a winner), and rewarding very, very small things like head tilts or weight shits, I was able to quickly get him away from the idea that he had to lie down to earn the cookies.  I r dog trainer for reals?

Session Two:

Goal – Reward Copper for offering some interaction of feet with the upside down bowl.

Methods – Again, keep rate of reinforcement high, but focus on rewards for weight shifts, accidental foot movement, and hopefully progressively MORE foot movement.

Results – Again, very successful, though I did spend most of the time rewarding weight shifts and need to remember not to raise my criteria too quickly in expecting actual foot lifts.

Session Three:

Goal – Reward Copper for offering interaction of feet with the upside down bowl.  I kept the same goal as Session Two based on the results from last time, and because there had been a several weeks gap since between sessions due to illness on my part.

Methods – Reward for increasingly greater weight shifts and higher foot lifts in the vicinity of the bowl.  Jackpot for any “happy accidents” where contact is made with feet and the bowl.

Results – Hilarity!  I should have expected this given what a literal dog Copper is, but I very quickly shaped him to hold his left foot in the air over the bowl.  Now I need to shape him to bring it down on the bowl.  Love that boy.  We did have two times where he put his left foot on the bowl, which I rewarded with a jackpot of extra cheese and verbal praise.  I was tempted to get more treats and keep going, but stuck to my hard-learned rule about less being more with this dog.

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