Dog training stages: teach your dog ANYTHING

Blog post about the dog training stages – ‘watch me‘ protocol By Laure-Anne Visele, dog training in The Hague, June 2012.

The secret recipe for ALL dog training

Training stages are steps through which to take the dog before he masters something new. If you get the principle, you can pretty much teach anything.

In short, the steps are:

  1. Lure the dog into what you want him to do, reward each time.
  2. Introduce a command, lure, reward each time.
  3. Fade out the lure so you eventually only need the command, reward each time.
  4. Reward less and less often, then unpredictably
  5. Perfect and generalise for different durations, distractions, contexts, locations

The theory

There’s no getting around it, we need to throw in a bit of terminology. I’ll make it as painless as I can.

Shaping: Taking the dog from early, shaky, attempts, to the target behaviour through gradual stages. You do this by gradually increasing how well the dog has to perform before he gets rewarded.

The Cue: It’s trainerese for a command, an order. Make sure your cues are:

  • dog-catchy (e.g. with a ‘tch’ sound)
  • short (‘anticonstitutionally’ is quirky, but you’ll soon tire of it)
  • not likely to embarrass the living daylights out of you (‘bang!’ with a pointed gun gesture to get him to lie on his side is a hell of a lot less funny on the vet’s table or at the groomer’s)
  • not a word that you commonly use. I, am STILL teaching my dogs ‘no’ to make  him stop what he’s doing. So he is always looking quizzically if I drop the word in a casual conversation. ‘What did I do THIS time?’
  • not too close to another training word. e.g. ‘Wave’ to wave goodbye (a nice trick) and ‘Wait’

Luring: Guiding him into the desired position (e.g. by getting him to follow a treat). This is not ‘rewarding’, as luring doesn’t have to result in the delivery of the treat.

Rewarding: Anything that the dog will experience as pleasant, that will make him want to perform the behaviour again. Common pitfall: people assume some things are rewarding to the dog, but they aren’t always (e.g. kissing, hugging, tapping on the head are kind of annoying to most dogs).

Ratios of reinforcement: How many good performances it takes to get a treat. 1:1 means you’re rewarding each time. Ratios of reinforcement are interesting beasts. Check this out: on a well-mastered skill

  • If you reinforce every single time, it will all fall apart the second you don’t have your treat pouch handy. Picture this: the lift in your building is shabby and doesn’t really work reliably. If it doesn’t come immediately, you’ll keep pressing that button a lot longer than if it’s never ever ever broken down (1:1)
  • If you reinforce too predictably (e.g. 1:3), he’ll quickly suss you out and only work when he’s ‘due’ a treat.
  • If your ratio is too stretched (e.g. 1:25), he may just give up and stop trying
  • What you want, is to reinforce unpredictably, and often enough that he knows he might get one this time. Keep him on his toes.

Proofing: Honing a skill to make sure it doesn’t break down in real-life conditions. Practising a skill in increasingly life-like conditions until you can take it to even the most distracting places, like the dog park.

The dog training stages

So, I’ve kept you waiting long enough. I am using the example of teaching a dog to look you in the eyes, but you can apply this to most anything.

Stage 0 – Luring the dog into the right behaviour

Introduction

This is the first stage. Right now, it’s not about him understanding the word yet, just getting him to perform the behaviour. So we’re not even going to use the command.

Try to keep this stage as short as possible, or it’ll be really tricky to fade out the props and help.

Instructions

1. Start session: Tell the dog he’s in training. Say ‘start session’ or something similar.

2. Out of start position: Place the dog into a position that is NOT the target behaviour. e.g. for Watch me, use one hand to get the dog to look somewhere that is NOT your eyes. e.g. ruffle up the packaging of a bag of treats and get him to focus on that, or you get it to find a treat on the floor.

3. Lure: Lure him into the target behaviour. e.g. Bring one hand (i.e. the ‘lure hand’) into his field of vision, then bring it to your eye level so that he ends up looking you in the eyes. Make your eyes soft, hey, dogs aren’t exactly fans of staring contests.

4. Praise: As soon as the dog does what you want (e.g. makes eye contact), praise with a chirpy – but not hysterically enthusiastic – voice

5. Reward: ONLY THEN, reward the dog with a treat (from your lure hand). Do this immediately, so he makes the connection.

In the case of ‘watch me’, give the treat following such a trajectory from your eyes to his mouth that he keeps looking you in the eyes as long as possible.

6. Finish: Microseconds before he can’t hold on any more and you feel he’s about to give up (e.g. stop looking at you), say ‘finish’, then if he doesn’t spontaneously stop, lure him away from the behaviour.

Some notes on this:

  • ‘watch me’ really means ‘keep watching me’, just like ‘sit’ really means ‘keep sitting’. So it’s important that he doesn’t cease the behaviour before you’ve given the ‘finish’ permission.
  • You should be able to hold on for a second or two, tops, before ‘finishing’ at this early stage.
  • Remember, keep your eyes soft. Blink like a cat if it helps you remember not to stare.

7. Do it again: Start again about 5 times or so during one session.

8. End session: After a few times, tell the dog the session is over

Say ‘end session’ and casually walk away. Remember: no petting. That means no hugging, tapping on the head, kissing,… You get the gist.

Criterion for moving up

We need to focus on weaning the dog from the lure stage asap. Lots of dogs get hooked at this stage. You know he’s ready to move up when he performs over 90% of the time in at least 3x consecutive sessions.

Stage 1 – Adding a command

Introduction

Now, we’re going to add a ‘cue’ (i.e. a command).

‘Why didn’t we use the cue from the start?, I hear you ask. That’s because if we do,  he won’t be immediately successful (unless he is fluent in English, which most, well, aren’t). That means that he’ll learn that the word is either very confusing or totally irrelevant.

‘So why does it matter? I’ll just make up a new cue’ Cues are a precious commodity in dog training, so we have to keep them pristine, error-free – or we have to keep coming up with unspoilt ones. Personally, there’s only so many words I can come up with for ‘watch me’. That, and soon what you want will get really muddled as he’ll just get really confused.

 

Instructions

1. Start session: Tell the dog he’s in training: ‘start session’

2. Out of position: Get the dog in a position where he is not already performing the target behaviour.

3. Introduce command: Use the command. Remember, come up with something good. In our example: ‘Watch me’.

Important: Do not ‘bark the order’, make your tone of voice is enticing. You are not bossing him about, you are promising him a piece of cheese

4. Lure: Immediately after you said the command, lure the dog into position (like you did previously). It has to be immediate so he makes the connection between the command and the end position. The quicker the better.

5. Praise: As soon as the dog complies, praise him (voice only: no treat, no petting)

6. Treat: Immediately after the praise, reward him a treat.

In this exercise (watch me), the treat is also in your lure hand.

Remember also: soft eyes when you deliver the treat.

7. Finish: Just before he looks like he might tire of the target behaviour (e.g. looks like he might stop looking at you), say ‘finish’

If he doesn’t spontaneously stop, lure him away from the behaviour.

8. And again: Start again about 5 times or so during this session

9. Close session: Say ‘finish session’. Go through about 5x sessions a day, more if you feel like it. Definitely not more often that is fun for you and the dog.

Criteria for moving up

Keep practising the above, increasing the length of time between:

  • cue -> lure (‘watch me’ -> bringing the treat to your eyes), and
  • praise -> reward (i.e. ‘Good boy’ -> treat).

Also, play around with gradually making the lure less obvious, so that you get a feel for how close you are to being able to do away with it.

This means be increasingly discrete about the fact that you are carrying a treat in your ‘lure hand’, so that the lure doesn’t come to overshadow the command.

Remember, do not let the dog fail when trying to cover new grounds (i.e. increasing the two time intervals + fading out the lure). If performance is shaky, go back a stage/drop some criteria.

If:

  • the dog can hold on for 5 seconds or so between cue and lure; and if
  • the dog can hold on for 5 seconds or so between praise and reward; and if
  • he occasionally offers the behaviour prior with minimal luring…

… attempt moving on to the next stage.

Stage 2 – Fading out the lure

Introduction

We are now going to focus on eliminating the lure altogether. Lures have a nasty habit of hanging around too long, and it makes for sloppy dog training. It’s sloppy because the dog ends up being completely dependent on our clues, and actually doesn’t really get the command.

Instructions

1. Open session

2. Out of target position: Get the dog out of target position if relevant.

3. Command: Use the command (e.g. ‘watch me’)

4. Praise and bring empty lure hand into position: Once the dog complies, praise him.

Keep praising for the duration of the target behaviour – e.g. As long as he looks you in the eyes.

Whilst praising, bring your lure hand into position, and this time, do so with an empty hand.

5. Reward: Reward the dog with a treat from your other, non-lure, hand.

What we’re doing here is making the lure hand irrelevant. It would be too  conspicuous to remove it from the sequence suddenly.

Try to keep him in position while rewarding (e.g. by tapping your forehead with your empty lure hand), to compensate for the temptation he’ll have to look at the non-lure hand (which now has the reward).

The  beauty of this is that the dog will be starting to think and consciously decide to perform a behaviour, rather than automatically following your lure.

6. Finish: JUST BEFORE you feel he is about to stop performing the target behaviour (e.g. looking at you), say ‘finish’.

7. Repeat: You can start again about 5 times or so. Repeat this for about 5 sessions a day (closing each session with ‘end session’).

Criteria for moving up

Keep practicing until 1/ the lure hand has been completed faded away, and 2/ you can reward him for success from whatever your hand position.

Remember, do not let the dog fail whenever pushing for a higher boundary. If performance isn’t all that, go back a stage/drop a criterion. Do not push on through and get frustrated.

Stage 3 – Focusing on building duration

Introduction

Now that we’ve got rid of the lure, and the dog performs on your voice command alone, it’s time to build up the duration. A ‘watch me’ of a split second is impressive, sure, but we’re going for a dog that will not lift his gaze until released, even if that took hours (OK, a couple of minutes).

Instructions

1. Out of position: Get the dog out of target position if necessary.

2. Cue: Use the command e.g. ‘watch me’. Remember, now we DO NOT use the lure at all. No more hand to eyes for the watch me exercise. He should just do it on your voice command alone.

3. Praise: Once the dog complies (should be instantaneous after hearing the cue), continuously praise him with your voice for the whole duration of his performance.

4. Reward: Start gradually increasing the period of time between praise and treat.

Remember, the reward should be delivered from any hand position, and on-going delivery should not interrupt the behaviour.

5. Finish: You’re also going to extend the length of time between getting the treat, and  you saying ‘finish’. This means you could have to give repeat treats to keep his interest alive.

This is useful because we don’t want him to think that receiving a treat means he gets to stop the behaviour.

The best timing to announce the finish is just before he’s about to give up (e.g. stop looking at you), then just say ‘finish’.

At the beginning, it’ll be a microsecond, but you’ll gradually build on that.

Note: The signs that he’s about to give up should be subtle precursors, not a full blown panic. The last thing we want is to wait until the dog whines to get him a treat.

6. Repeat: Repeat this about 5 times a day, more if you have time. Don’t forget to open and end sessions.

Criteria for moving up

Keep working on these two durations until:

  1. You’ve reached your target duration (i.e. close to what you’ll want in a real-life situation).
  2. He does not interrupt his behaviour even when getting a treat.

And now, for the infamous ‘going intermittent’. This is where things get hairy. Brace yourself.

Stage 4 – Going intermittent

Introduction

Up to now, the dog got rewarded every single time he performed well – and he should only have performed well as you read my intro (right?). This is called a ‘continuous ratio of reinforcement’. We want to move on from this as soon as we can.

This transition can be a little delicate, as you’ll be walking a fine line between two extremes:

  1. Going ‘cold turkey‘: One day he gets a treat every time, next day every 10 times. He’ll fall apart, and soon conclude that this trick has stopped paying off.
  2. Taking the path of least resistance: It’s tempting, but don’t keep giving a treat each time forever. You might, just might, not have treats on a day when it matters that he listens. That, and the fact that it’s akin to the dog blackmailing you.

Intructions

Do exactly the same you’ve been doing, except now, one time out of two, simply say ‘good goy’, then ‘finish’, and start again.

At the beginning, try to alternate between 1:1 and 1:2, then alternate between 1:1 and 1:3, then 1:2 and 1:3, and so on until you’ve reached a ratio that is workable for you.

Stage 5 – Proofing the response

Introduction

So, now your dog:

  • performs the behaviour on command (no luring),
  • doesn’t need a reward every single time , AND
  • can keep doing it until released for a respectable amount of time.

‘Surely we’re done, right?’. Well… Not quite. If you don’t polish this off in more and more life-like contexts, you’ll have yourself a ‘star in the kitchen, lemon on the field’.

Instructions

Take the sessions in different rooms in the house, then in the garden, then try outside, then on the street, then in the dog park. Whenever you see signs of hesitation, go back as many stages as you need to to get back to a stellar performance.

Then take different people through whole hierarchy again (all stages, then all locations, in order of difficulty).

Then try with another (familiar) dog  in the vicinity, or whatever distraction he’ll need to be ready for in real life.

When can you ‘go live’?

You are ‘live’ when you can use the command for real-life situations. e.g. Another dog is approaching, your dog is staring at him, you say ‘watch me’ and he looks at you continuously as you U-turn away.

If you’ve gone through all the stages successfully yet the dog falls apart in a real-life situation, break it down to work out what factor is different than during rehearsal, and then gradually add this factor to your proofing stage.

Conclusion

Phew, you did it. And do you know what, you did better than that. You went and understood one of the most central principles of dog training. If you truly understand this, you can teach your dog anything short of flying.

Remember now: things tend to get hairy around

  • adding the cue,
  • going intermittent, and
  • proofing for distractions.

Don’t skip corners and you’ll be getting very impressive results indeed.

Some last advice

About sessions:

  • Keep sessions short and frequent (five times a day or more),
  • End each session on a good note, even if it means asking him something he knows full well how to do.

About using food:

  • Obviously, take account of food sensitivities. Adding (organic) oil to his normal kibble can work wonders to make the food more interesting, even for allergic dogs.
  • Plan a ration in the morning for the whole day, and pick from there. If  you train a lot and don’t do that, you’ll end up with an obese pet on your hands.
  • Chop the treats into tiny pieces, so you’ll have more reward instances for the same calorific buck. Play around to see how far down in size you can go before it starts dimming the response

Avoiding intimidation/discomfort:

  • Make sure your dog is not cornered for the exercise, that he has plenty of escape routes;
  • Design the exercises to minimize having to tower above/bend over him;
  • Do not pet him to ‘reward’ him. Right now, the treat is the prize, anything else is, well, a disappointment. Sure Fido loves you but, you know, ‘Not now’

If he’s not progressing despite the above, try to think:

  • Did he really master the previous stage? Go back.
  • Is he distracted? Proof
  • Is he enjoying himself enough? Relax and enjoy the exercise yourself
  • Is he a little intimidated/scared? Check this section for some useful tips on body language to pick up on this.
  • Is he motivated enough? Crank it up a little – chopped hot-dog, cheese…
  • Are you suuuure you ‘re not petting him when he does well?
  • Do double-, nay, triple-check that there is no physical reason. It could be localised pain (e.g. rheumatism, ear infection) or a sensory deficiency (i.e. sight/hearing)

If you’re really not getting anywhere and the behaviour is important enough, contact a private dog trainer in your region.

Comments

I love to read your comments, so leave me your thoughts any time. I’d particularly like to hear from you if you:

  • Have any questions on shaping/fading/reinforcing/etc.
  • Have been advised to approach this in a different way, and what your results/impressions are;
  • Have a success story, or on the contrary, on using these methods;
  • Are hitting a snag somewhere along the way.

Further references

Luring vs. prompting:

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