We made it! After an intense week of training and a long flight from Austria, Luka, Cathy and I are settling in to our new life. There are so many stories to tell about our time in Austria that I don’t know where to begin. I’m inclined to tell it sequentially – start at the beginning. But so much is happening every day now that such an approach seems restrictive. Instead I’ve decided to tell the story in snippets merging my current experience with moments from training week.
One of the commands Luka and I have been working on a lot is “watch.” When I give this command he is supposed to look at and focus on me, upon which I mark his behavior with the clicker and give him a treat. This is easy when there are no distractions – indeed most of the time at home or at work he he is checking in with me with great regularity. As the level of distraction increases however, it becomes much harder for him to focus on me. During these times, the chance that my commands will fall on deaf ears increases proportionally with the level of distraction (SQUIRREL!). It is of utmost importance that I enforce 100% of the commands that I issue. If I tell him to sit, he has to sit, and if he does not – mostly likely because he is distracted – it is crucial that I recapture his focus and get him to sit. Failure to do this will, over time, erode his training since he’ll get the idea that he has a choice over which commands to obey and under what circumstances he can ignore them.
It seems to me that the watch command is the bedrock upon which all other commands rest. If you can’t reliably hold or capture your dog’s attention even in times of high distraction then you will inevitably find yourself unable to control him in those situations and end up resorting to brute force or just avoiding those situations entirely – neither of which is ideal. Obviously no dog is perfect, and complete control is probably an unattainable ideal but it is a worthy goal to work towards. So we work on it every day when we are out walking. Often he turns and looks my way without my issuing a “watch” command and I reward this behavior as well. This is all part of operant conditioning, a topic I’ll be explaining in detail when I blog about Chicken Camp, and is central to Luka’s training philosophy.
Once Luka was solidy responding to watch commands and freely offering watch behavior without command I changed the game on him by varying the level of reward that he receives each time. At all times I carry four different level treats with me, another topic I’ll be covering in the future. Level 4 is dry kibble. Level 1 is a mix of chicken and hamburg that we cook on the weekends and package into single-serving containers and is only given as a reward for alerts and a “Really Reliable Recall” command. Level 2 and 3 fall on the tastiness spectrum in between. When Luka responds to a watch command he always gets a treat – I use a lot of level 4’s and 3’s but sometimes I throw in a level 2. When he offers a watch behavior without command then I use the same variable reward scheme except that sometimes I don’t reward at all.
This is called variable reinforcement and is a huge multiplyer for behavioral control. In Luka’s head he is gambling each time he performs the behavior – he never knows exactly what reward he will receive and every so often he gets a jackpot. Yes, I am turning my dog into a gambling junky. Fortunately his paws can’t hold poker chips or pull the arm on a slot machine. This method really works and I can see its impact already. When Luka looks at me there is a questioning look in his eye with a bit of excitement as if he is saying, “What are you going to give me this time, Dave?” It engages him mentally in the game and keeps his focus on me. Games of chance are highly addictive because of the way our brains are wired and I am taking advantage of that to maintain connection with Luka. But unlike in a casino where the house always wins, Luka and I both win – he gets rewarded every time, our bond deepens, and my ability to control his behavior and self-control is strengthened.
During the first two days of training I had a very hard time capturing and holding Luka’s focus. Barbara, our trainer for the week, intentionally put us in highly distracting situations to promote this connection, such as walking past other dogs in a penned area. On Tuesday, our second day of training, Barbara went into a tall fenced-in area and picked up a chicken. I had to walk past the fence with Luka and keep him under control. This was among the most intimidating experiences of the entire week. Barbara had advised me that, should Luka ignore my watch command, I should step towards him with my knees towards his face so that he pretty much had to look up, which I could subsequently reward as a “watch” behavior with a really good treat and, having regained his attention, get him to sit or lie down where he would find it easier to maintain self control. Giving the treat would be important because I needed to remind him what was waiting for him if he would choose to focus on me rather than the chicken, and I couldn’t just offer a treat for free.
Boy did Luka want to go for that chicken! As predicted, my watch commands were completely ignored so Barbara asked me to make him watch and get him to sit. What ensued was a comical dance where Luka would try to peek through or around my legs as I pushed towards him, completely refusing to look up at me and instead trying to keep both eyes on the chicken. Then he started turning in circles backwards and we danced around and around a few inches at a time while he stared excitedly at the chicken and made whining noises. I felt completely out of control. It did eventually work although I’m not entirely sure if it was what I was doing or if he just got bored with the dance. Eventually he looked at me and I rewarded him with a big dose of level 2 and he sat down because it was far more comfortable than looking straight up and eating while standing on all fours. After that, his head swiveled back and forth between me and the chicken as I continued to reinforce his self-control. It wasn’t pretty but it did work in the end. I was thoroughly exhausted!
That night as I was thinking about my day I was thinking how much I disliked that experience and that I would never want to do that again. But I realized that it was actually really valuable because it gave me confidence. Ok, it wasn’t pretty and I was definitely not in complete control. I didn’t resort to brute force to control Luka, and we made it through. There will be times when we encounter similar difficult situations and knowing that I’ll be able to handle them – with or without grace – was very reassuring.
On Thursday Barbara said she wanted to try the “chicken” distraction again. I was thinking, “no problem – we’ve really been working hard since then – this should be a piece of cake.” Then Barbara explained that the situation would be a little different. First of all Luka and I would be alone inside the chicken coop with many chickens and ducks and no fence to separate us. Second of all Luka would be off-leash. Ok – now she had my attention. I’ll cut to the chase (pun intended) and say that no chickens or ducks were harmed in the exercise. Luka did great. It was a lot of work and but I was able to maintain at least a semblance of control using just my voice and body language.
I’m writing this on Thursday, the Fourth of July, just a week after the chicken test. My life has changed so much since then, as has Luka’s. It was a week of many firsts and that’s what I’ll be blogging about next.