a Taj MuttHall Dog Diary: Shaping

Monday, July 17, 2006


SUMMARY: Experimenting with tricks. Note to self: Should do more often.

I used to have a blast teaching Remington new tricks. It was always a challenge both to come up with new trick ideas and to figure out how to get him to do them. I had to keep a list of all the tricks we had worked on--there were so many, so I couldn't remember them all.

Mostly gave that up as agility became more important and as Jake came into my life: He was SO slow at learning something new, that it wasn't nearly as much fun. Sure, I got a great sense of accomplishment when we finally broke through, but waiting six months between such reinforcers was a demotivator.

But Tika and Boost are such quick learners (when I figure out how to approach it) that I should really be doing more of it, especially since tricks are such a crowd pleaser.

Nowadays I try to teach as much as I can using shaping. That is, you wait for the dog to make any motion approximately in the category of what you want her to do, and reward for it. Tika and Boost will ponder that and let it churn in their brains while trying things to see whether they can repeat the activity. Usually after 2 or 3 got-its, they start to get it (if I haven't picked off too large a chunk to process). Jake, however, just sits and wags his tail, hoping for more goodies.

Anyway--yesterday it was too hot to be out in the yard practicing agility, so we went into the living room to try some tricks, which I haven't done in quite a long while.

With Tika, I practiced some nose touches to a target--sure enough, she had gotten really lazy at it and we had to do a little remedial touch-up on actually *touching* the target, not merely swiping one's head in the general direction. I also worked on getting her to put her chin on the ground while lying down. It was interesting because she constantly wanted to stand up to try to do things; had no good idea of what she could be doing while lying down except crawling towards me. So it took a while--she'd either stand up, crawl towards me, paw at me (see later notes on Jake & Boost training for the irony) or stare at me, so I didn't even get a glance downward or a sniff to the floor or anything for the longest time.

When she finally moved her head forward without moving her body, it also caused it to move downward (because that's how dogs' heads move), and I clicked that and fed on the floor in front of her toes, and when she'd lower her head to sniff out in front of her for crumbs, I'd click that, too, and so on. Then we'd be back to square one. I *think* that after 3 or 4 sessions with a ton of clicks, she was starting to get it (she was keeping her head down and forward but not all the way to the ground and once she'd lift her head completely again, it would take a while before she'd lower it at all), but it wasn't a complete success the first time. That's OK, progress happened.

With Boost, I also practiced nose touches. She's pretty darned good at giving the target a hard poke with her nose when it's in the air, but when it's flat on the ground, she goes back to swiping. We worked on that a bit; she's a bit better now, and so I threw in some driving to it at a distance, which she took to immediately, so I just worked at reinforcing that (for use on contacts).

The practical stuff out of the way, I decided to go back to teaching the roll-over that I had toyed with once a long time ago--and she did it right away! (I did do leading on this one rather than shaping, that is, drawing her head around her shoulder with a goodie in my hand until she had to go over.) So I started putting a command to it. That was cool.

And I've discovered that a dog who only does nose touches to an outstretched hand isn't understood by the general public, so I've been wanting to teach her to "shake". So I need to distinguish between a nose-touch open palm and a shake open palm. I decided that an upward-turned palm (which I hardly ever, if ever, use as a nose touch) would be the Shake. So, to shape, I put goodies in my fist and held my fist facing upwards in front of her below the level of her nose. My theory was that, in frustration at not being able to get the goodies with her nose or mouth, she'd eventually paw at in. But noooo--she did just about everything but--backing away, lying down, turning, standing up, sitting down, blah blah. Not making progress, so time to try something different.

So I had her lie down, where her choices of movement would be more limited. Then I just waited. She hit it a couple of times with her left paw, so I got her to lie down with the relaxed rear legs pointing in the other direction from where they had been, and eventually YAY! she not only finally moved her right paw but actually touched my hand with it, so I clicked and fed, and we continued from there--which was *very* quick. More and more rapidly with each success she'd put her right paw on my fist. Hooray. So next time we'll start with that and then see whether I can get her to do it while sitting, and then move on from there.

I tried the same thing with Jake--Tika shakes both right and left on command (or with the correct hand offered), so I've thought it would be cool if Jake could do something with his left paw, too. Yikes. What a challenge. I tried all the things I had tried with Boost and then a few more--all waiting patiently for a long while to see what he'd do, and what he'd do eventually is stop doing anything. How a dog can keep one foot glued so permanently to the floor simply astounds me. He wouldn't even move it to take a step for the longest time! But that was the tactic that seemed to finally work--getting him to move so that his foot would move, and then trying to find some way to leverage that into getting him to use it to paw at the food. Which he did, eventually, once or twice, but unlike the other dogs, I don't think that he ever THINKS about what he's doing (e.g., somehow Remington, Tika, and Boost seem to be aware of the fact that they've used their paws to do something, but Jake is just a bundle of reactive nerves with no feedback connection to the brain whatsoever). But at least I got him doing *something* and trying some different things.

Anyway, it was an interesting session.

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