What Are the Best Learning Environments for Your Puppy?
Start in a familiar environment (at home with familiar people). Choose the basic skills you need your puppy to know. Don't flood him with too many behaviors.
One person teaches him one skill at a time.
Teach the basic behavior (either by capturing, luring or shaping). Wait to add the hand cue until the puppy is clear on what the final behavior is.
Take him to at least 4 more rooms in the house and reteach the behavior from the start. This helps him to learn exactly what the behavior is and what cues you use for him to know what you are asking (they might be your body position relative to him, a prop you might use, a hand signal, and lastly the verbal cues you might use.) Most dogs learn body language easiest as that is how they communicate with other dogs. Each room will have different distractions. The more behaviors you teach and the more locations, the faster the pup will relearn them. This is calling 'learning to generalize".
Next add some distractions like you clapping hands, turning around, placing treats on a nearby surface, and cue him to do the behavior. Start with low-level distractions and progress to higher level distractions. Progress to doing jumping jacks, jogging by him as you cue him etc. Get family members to help add distractions incrementally. Give them specific instructions of what you want them to do,
Next, start generalizing the behaviors to other slightly more distracting environments out of the home: the deck, back yard, front yard, driveway, sidewalk, park etc. Before you start each session though, give your puppy time to explore the new space. That will help him get the sniffies out of his system and to get comfortable in the environment before you start reteaching him.
Now it's time to think about adding the presence of strangers, other known dogs, swings swinging etc. Ask neighbors and friends to come over for puppy training sessions. Retrain the behaviors with them watching, then adding mild distractions.
Now the pup is ready for puppy class. Choose one that has a clear structure and does not offer free-for-all play sessions. The point of classes is to teach your puppy to work with you in the presence of the distractions. Get permission from the instructor to bring your puppy into the environment to sniff around before the other puppies arrive. That way he will be comfortable in the environment before the other puppies arrive. This is called "acclimating".
Take the class and participate with your puppy as she can do. You will find that she is already far ahead of other pups in class as the foundation for learning has been laid.
Once the classes are over, continue training more complex behaviors at home, then away from home as before.
Then sign up for adolescent classes and advanced distraction classes. Each time, your pup will be exposed to new dogs and people in class. Ideally, find different location to take classes.
Then start to work on behaviors in more public places where you have previously taken the puppy when you were socializing her as a small pup (up to 16 weeks). This lays the foundation for public access later on.
How to Use the Clicker to Shape my Dog's Behavior
Your job is to find out what food or toy rewards are meaningful enough to your dog to make him want to play the game with you. And training really is a game to the dogs and you too!
Psychologist Skinner called the tiny steps in developing a new behavior “successive approximation” and he was right! If you reward really simple behaviors that are part of a more complex behavior, you can get the dog to change that behavior little by little into the more complex final behavior. The dog is “approximating” a behavior at first. Today we call this "'shaping".
Shaping a Behavior
If we first asked your dog to shut the door and just waited for the behavior to happen, we would be waiting a long time. So that method doesn’t work for this complex behavior. But by asking the dog to do a tiny bit of the behavior (touching the nose to the door), we now have the dog doing something that will lead to closing the door.
Next, we ask for a harder touch (as this will be needed to shut the door). Next, we can open the door a crack and ask him to push it closed. If he does not, we can get the dog to increase the behavior by simply waiting. Your dog will likely offer another touch, giving an extra hard push (as if to say, “Hey! Did you see that?”) and you click as he does so. If you reward him with a couple of treats, most dogs remember this and are more likely to do that same harder push again.
Practice at that level for a few clicks, then ask for a little more by opening the door slightly wider. And so on until the behavior is complete.
Have a look at the video to see how shaping is used to teach a dog to close a door.
A Written Plan
It is very helpful if you have a written plan of what the shaping might look like before you start training a task. Start by brainstorming: at the bottom of the page, write down the final behavior you want, then at the top, write down the first behavior you would think your dog might offer you. Most behaviors start with a sniff or a look in the right direction, the progress to a nose touch, paw or other foot movement etc.
Try to figure out what the steps would look like in between to get you there. Number them if it helps. You dog may not follow your plan, but at least you will have an idea of where to go with what he does offer you. If you get stuck, break each step down into 4 more micro steps. Make it as easy for him to take each small step as you can as this is how you can quickly progress to the more complex final behavior.
Jessie learned the basic idea of how to close a door in about 30 minutes of actual training time when she was about a year old. We had not done much shaping before this so it was new to her. I was cooking her treats on the BBQ and needed to take frequent breaks to check the meat. This was perfect as it gave her a chance to wander off and sniff, then she was eager to come back and try again. Perhaps she was processing the information she was learning.
For some dogs, shaping occurs quite quickly, while for others (especially the first few shaping exercises you do) each step may need to be broken down even simpler. The more experience a dog has with shaping, the more quickly the final behavior is offered. Now at almost 2 years, Jessie can move through a shaped exercise quite quickly and has the final behavior accomplished in record time (for her).
For practice before trying to teach your dog to shut the door, try shaping a firm nose touch to a piece of tape on your hand. Then try moving the tape to the door. Your pointing finger becomes a target to help the dog to learn that you him/her to touch the tape.
What Else Can I Do with Shaping?
Now that you know how to shape, the world is your oyster! You can train your dog to do anything! Start with simple behaviors and progress to more complex ones. Starting with Object-based shaping where your dog interacts with a physical object such as a target, book, chair, box etc is much easier than non-object based shaping like swinging into a heel position or giving you eye contact in distracting environments.
Choosing a Breed or breed mix for a Service Dog
How do I choose a large breed dog for my needs? I was considering German Shepherd Dogs but have been advised against them for many reasons. I need a dog that is sensitive to me as I have anxiety.
The key thing about any breed of dog is to choose one that matches your lifestyle. If a dog doesn't fit into your life, it won't work overall.
Another thing to look at is what specific tasks are you hoping the dog will do for you. Obviously, the dog will need to be able to physically do the tasks and you want to choose one that can be sensitive enough to be connected.
Any of the gun dog breeds generally could do well as they are sensitive and love to work with their person. A Golden Retriever, Labrador Retriever, German Short-Hair Pointer, Hungarian Vizsla or Brittany might be a few breeds to look at. A Standard Poodle might be another dog that is sensitive but level-headed.
One thing to be aware of is that in many breeds, there is a difference between the hunting lines and the conformation lines. Look at the specific lines they come from and what they have been bred to do and what titles they have. Hunting lines alone tend to need more exercise than those from conformation lines. A great example of this is the Golden Retreiver. There are field lines can be very high energy dogs who need much daily exercise, and then there are conformation Goldens like the dog off "Homeward Bound, The Incredible Journey" with Michael J Fox who are more laid back for both exercise and temperament. I've had two of the latter and they were wonderful family pets and made great therapy dogs as they loved people and were sensitive to their moods.
Another thing to consider is to look at how the general public views the breed. This dog will be at your side in public and will affect how the public, managers, and co-workers interact with you. A friend of mine noticed that people were much more friendly, helpful and tolerant of her needs when she retired her Belgian Malinois and got a yellow labrador. She felt they were uncomfortable with the Malinois as it was a protection breed. He was actually a very people social dog but people's perspectives do affect their interactions. If you get an unusual breed, you will be stopped frequently to be asked "What kind of dog is that?" which you may or may not be comfortable or have time to do.
Go meet the actual breeds!
Go to dog shows and meet breeders of your chosen breeds. Talk to them, interact with the adult dogs.
Find out if they possess the characteristics you need in a service dog and if you could live with the general nature, grooming needs, exercise etc of the breed. What are the pros, cones and health issues of the breed for your specific needs?
Find average people who live with the breed and talk to them. Arrange to see the dogs at home and away from home. Check out dogs at dog parks and talk to the people who accompany them. Observe how attuned to their person they are. Find out what the person likes and dislikes about the breed and their specific dog. Even within breed lines, each individual dog can vary quite a bit in his or her attentiveness, sensitivity, awareness etc. so choosing a breed doesn't ensure that you will get the dog you are hoping for. It comes down the individual choice of the pup. Check out a previous post on temperament tests of young adult dogs and puppies.
Allow yourself at least 6 months to find a pup or adult dog. Allow longer if you live in an area with lower numbers of breeds or dogs in general.
A BIG TIP:
If at all possible, go to see the adult dogs you will be getting a puppy from. Breeders interpretations of what you are looking for and what you actually get may be very different things.Their definition of 'sensitive' or 'low exercise needs' may not be the same as yours. If you see the adult dogs in real life, you can judge for yourself if you can live with the characteristics their lines have in them. Just because a breeder has had a few dogs trained and used as service dogs does not mean they actually understand your specific needs (especially since there is such a wide variety of types of service dogs) or can select a pup for you without ever meeting you. Since you are going to be investing so much time, money and energy in this pup, it is wise to arrange a visit with the parents, even if it costs you money on travel and an overnight stay or even a flight. Basically, this may limit you to pups that are within a days drive but at the very least, start there. Shipping a pup during the fear period can set her way back in confidence and socialization. Ideally, if you can go get her and bring her home, you can start the bond on the journey home.
Answers to Video Observations
You may see more than this!
1. Grinning Dog
Front legs shifted
Fold left leg under
Looks at ground (or shoes?)
Looks at owner (with eye contact)
Blows his cheeks out
Dips his head
Briefly stands still
(In case you are interested, many of these are calming behaviors meant to calm both the dog himself and the owner. The behavior context is that the owner just came home from being away at work. The dog could also be offering the behaviors in response to seeing the video camera.)
2. Dog Doing Nothing
Dog runs to edge of bed
Looks to left
Looks to right
Raises left paw
Looks to left
Folds ears back
Eyes look to right
Looks to left
Ears perk up
Opens and closes mouth a few times
Stops panting (as camera approaches)
Looks directly into camera
That’s a lot for doing nothing! 30 (or more) behaviors!
3. Papillion close up
Moves head to left
Rotates eyes to left
Moves chin down
Looks back at camera
Moves head back towards camera
Opens eyes wider
Looks to left
Moves chin down to left
Looks back at camera (as camera pans away)
Lifts head slightly
Turns head to right away from camera
Rotates ears away from camera
Looks back at camera
Looks down as turns head past and away from camera to left (avoids eye contact)
Looks up past camera
Looks down and up
So, what did you learn from watching the dogs behaviors in these videos?
Hopefully, that dogs offer many clickable behaviors all day long. We trainers just have to improve our observation skills and our clicker timing to be able to capture them to use them to shape behaviors we desire!
Hone Your Observations Skills!
Practice Without Your Dog
Take a break during a walk to sit where you can see people and their dogs walking by. Choose a behavior and watch for clickable behaviors in the stranger’s dogs. A clickable behavior is any behavior that the dog does is part of or shaping towards a specific desired. For example, greeting a person politely. Watch that dog closely and use your pointer finger as a pretend clicker and tap it on your leg when you observe any behavior that is part of greeting a person politely. They might include sniffing an offered hand, dropping head when approaching, sitting when approaching, looking away, looking back at their handler, standing calmly after approach etc.
Any behavior is fair game, including mouth movements, more subtle body movements, etc. When you have tried this on three or four dogs, count how many clickable behaviors another dog does. You might be amazed!
To continue your practice, start looking for more subtle behaviors. Watch what a dog does with his eyes and ears. If you watch your own dog closely you can start picking out blinking, relaxed eyes, wide eyes, pupils dilating during play, subtle breathing patterns, muscles relaxing or tightening and much more. For some training situations, you may need to click these as a tiny step in the start of shaping the direction of the new behavior.
You can also watch videos or DVD's of dogs to see how many behaviors they actually do offer that could be clicked! As you learn the bigger behaviors, such as scratching, yawning etc, you can start looking for smaller behaviors. The more subtle behaviors may be hard to see in videos so that’s why watching real dogs up close is best.
Watch these short video clips and make a list of how many different behaviors you can observe. Turn off the audio so it doesn’t distract you. For a list of behaviors that can be observed, see the next blog post.
1. Grinning Dog
2. Dog ‘Doing Nothing’ (according to the owner)
3. Papillion close up
4. Daxie head pictures look for more subtle behaviors
Dogs Do Behaviors All the Time.
Some behaviors are for movement, some are for communication with other dogs and humans, some express emotions, some are just dog behaviors! Most behaviors are clickable in the training context. As your powers of observation improve, you’ll be able to capture not only head turns, chin dips, and tightening muscles, but even eye movements!
(Aside: If you are interested in learning what many of these behaviors mean, you can read books such as “On Talking Terms with Dogs” by Turid Rugaas which explain the meaning and context of social interaction behaviors and help you understand dogs better.)