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Motivational Training. Until….

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It’s easy to be a “motivational” trainer when everything is going right.  Feed cookies, play with toys and watch the behaviors accumulate.  It’s all good!

What do you do when it’s not going so well?  When you have a problem and you are struggling to fix it?  When all of the common  solutions offered resort to traditional methods that involve compulsion?  When you’ve run out of ways to make it clear to your dog what you want?  When your dog knows what you want, but chooses not to perform because disobedience is more fun than obedience?

Well, that’s pretty much where the rubber meets the road, isn’t it?

I’m in the midst of this right now.  I came very close to failing a trial a few months ago, because my dog didn’t much want to to let go of the protection decoy when I called her.  Biting is fun.  Recalling to mom – not so much.

I went into the trial knowing I wasn’t properly prepared, so my results weren’t a surprise and at nine years of age, it didn’t  seem wise to pass up the trial opportunity when I knew no harm would be done.

You can see the biting exercises here; note the multiple whistles where she goes into a barking guard rather than returning to me:

I’m going to explain the required behavior, where my dog is failing to perform, the traditional solutions, the traditional downfalls, and then I’ll go into the decisions I made and where I’m at now.  Many of you will want to stop reading right now, because this is quite detailed and specific – unless you are interested in ringsport or my approach to problem solving with my own dog, you can move on.

The required behavior is that Raika release her hold on a decoy who is fighting with her when I blow my whistle, and then immediately return to heel position.  I will be anywhere from five yards to fifty yards away, depending on the exercise.

The problem is that Raika almost never releases on the first whistle.   She often releases on the second whistle, but doesn’t necessarily return to me.  On the third whistle, she almost always returns correctly to heel.  The further away I am the worse she is.

The traditional solution would involve either a prong collar or an electronic collar.  Any failure to release and recall would involve a collar correction.  If the collar were a prong she would either be corrected by myself (holding a long line) or the decoy (reaching for a tab on her collar).  If the collar were an electronic collar, then I would supply the correction from across the field.

These methods would likely work on Raika.  She’s a sensitive enough dog that she would respond if she were compelled through pain compliance techniques.  Or at least they would work for awhile; it’s certainly possible that the pressure would have to increase over time or under high stimulation levels as she adapted to the training, or that I could inadvertently create other problems which would then need to be fixed.

The downfalls to this method could include the following:

1) Dogs learn when they can or cannot be corrected – wearing the special collars or being attached to a long line signals to the dog that they must be obedient.  That leads to the classic problem called “trial wise” behavior.  The dog learns that when the place “looks” like a trial – complete with a nervous handler, a judge on the field, no rewards visible, no collar on the neck, and all of the other cues that signal an “event”, then the corrections will not happen.

Another downfall includes the potential development of nervous or hectic behavior on the part of the dog.  Instead of focusing on the job, they remain in conflict between what they want to do (bite) and what the handler wants them to do (obey).  Note that I didn’t say the handler wants them to “release” because that is incorrect.  We are not trying to extinguish biting, we want them to release AND bite.  Corrections can create a dog who refuses to bite at all, or who becomes very nervous and frantic in their work.

Both of the above scenarios are more or less avoidable by a very sophisticated handler with good timing and a clear headed dog that isn’t easily stressed or worried.  Then again, very sophisticated handlers with good timing have fewer problems in the first place.

Regardless of whether pain compliance would give me my recall, I’m less interested in solving the problem than in seeing what I can accomplish using motivational techniques.   For all I know she’ll never compete again, but I still want to figure out the puzzle.

Solving the problem:

I started by teasing apart the problem – determining what she knew, what she might not know, and under what circumstances could she perform correctly, if ever.

I believe she knows the meaning of the whistle when she is not in drive.  If I blow the whistle while she is running about, she comes immediately and with  a bright attitude.

I believe she knows the meaning of the whistle when there is a toy she wants nearby.  If I blow the whistle she will come back to heel position and wait to be sent to the toy.

On the other hand, if I whistle her back when she is engaging another other person with a toy, then her rate of return suffers quite a bit, even if I also have a toy that is equal or better to use as a reward for her return.

If I have a toy and a second person is wearing a bite suit, then her rate of return is even lower.

From these data points I believe that she is able to respond to a whistle cue under simple circumstances, but not when her drive levels are brought up higher through the addition of a second person or a higher value bite toy (suit or sleeve).

Unfortunately, I rarely have an opportunity to work with a second person, so testing my hypothesis can be tricky.  Only so many people enjoy playing tug with my dogs, and even fewer want to wear a bitesuit.

I started experimenting.  She returns on the first whistle the vast majority of the time when she is not actively biting, even if she is facing the other person.  Good!  This reaffirms my belief that she understands the whistle.

Next, I had a friend play with a low level toy and then I whistled.  Failure.  Sometimes she comes back.  Sometimes she lets go but stays with the person.  And sometimes she thrashes all the harder.  Hmm.  She either doesn’t understand when in higher drive or  she simply doesn’t want to return so she refuses to recall.

I decided to try negative punishment.  I allowed her to play tug with my helper.  If she returned on one whistle, I immediately sent her back to play some more.  If she failed to return or went into a guard, I placed her on a “time out” in a crate or alone in a training room for a minute or so – no more biting.  She didn’t like this at all.

After several sessions, I saw no improvement.  Indeed she appeared worse; becoming more hectic, barking, and even less likely to return at the whistle.

The hectic behavior suggests that she truly doesn’t understand what I want or is unable to perform in her current drive state.  She gets hectic because she knows she is about to have a  time out, but she is unable to make a good decision to avoid that scenario.

If she is not learning from punishment, then I need to find a way to make her right often enough that she can keep a clear head and make the decision that will get her sent back to her bite as soon as possible.  But what exists between facing a dead toy on the ground and being whistled off (at which she runs close to 100% success)  and a dead toy that my friend is holding (at which she runs no more than 30%  success and declining?)

Logically, if she understood why she was getting the time outs, she’d simply change her behavior and cooperate.  She is not.  Now what?

Who could I ask for help that would understand the problem and possibly have some solutions?   Very very few people have experience with this sort of challenge and motivational problem solving.

I called my friend Shade Whitsel, a motivational trainer who competes primarily in Schutzhund.  The first ten minutes was a thorough review of what I had done along with a description of Raika’s temperament and training background.  After this initial discussion, Shade suggested the following directions to explore:

1) separate out the whistle/recall from the release.  Whistling off of an object requires two behaviors; the first is letting go and the second is returning. To begin, I was to play tug with my dog.  On the whistle, I was to ask for a release, until the whistle automatically meant release.  That part was easy since I could work on it as much as I like – it didn’t  require another person.  After very little time, Raika was cleanly releasing her toy on the whistle command.  Her reward was re-engaging her in the game.  So far so good.

But I still had the recall to work through.  How to do that without a second person?

Shade suggested hanging a bite suit to a strong object.  Send Raika to bite the “dead” bite suit.  Whistle off – and immediately send back if she succeeded. I haven’t tried this yet because I have to hang the suit somewhere.  Also, I’m not sure how enthusiastic Raika will be about biting a suit with no one in it.  Regardless, it is a path to try.

Finally, she mentioned another ringsport trainer who trains alone. This person taught her dog that the whistle meant release the suit and return to a spot behind the dog (the start line).  Basically, teach the dog to go back to the line of departure where the handler would normally be standing on the whistle cue.  Hmm.  Interesting.  Now the whistle would no longer mean recall as much as run away from the direction of the bite.  if a second person were available, then I’d be standing at that spot (start line).

I thought about this last option.  My biggest concern was teaching her that my whistle meant to leave me (the handler) rather than to recall.  On the other hand, once I’m wearing the bitesuit  I’m no longer the handler, I’m the decoy.  There is no handler.    Play tug, whistle, and send her back to a spot.  Over time, work to the point where the whistle was the cue to go back to the spot.  The reward for cooperation?   Let her bite again.

Then I asked Shade the classic question that I get asked all the time by traditional trainers.  What do I do if she does it wrong?  And she gave me the answer that I should have known – do nothing.  The same as when she learned the out in the first place – be patient.  Wait, and let her be right enough that she can succeed.  Focus on what I want, not what “might” happen.  Ignore the mistakes in the training process and work hard to set her up for success.

And we’ve begun.  If this program doesn’t work then I’ll try something else.  Eventually one  of two things will happen.  Either I will decide it is a viable training option (in which case I will suggest it or variations of it to others struggling with this problem), or it will fail, in which case I will not suggest it to others, and I will go back to finding a solution.  Regardless, I have won.

There’s nothing like having someone to brainstorm with, so thanks to Shade for talking me through this.  And thanks to the many folks and decoys who are intrigued by my challenges with no force training and who give a good effort to implement whatever plan I come up with – whether they agree with my choices or not.

Note:  Nine days later: It’s clearly working:

Note: Sixteen days later:  Tested with a new decoy working Raika – not perfect but a huge improvement in whistle recall.  *happy dance*:).

Working through this has been a huge high for me – applying what I know,  asking for help as needed, staying true to my beliefs, and making progress.  I’d guess that we will kick this in a couple of months – then we need another trial.

About dfenzi

I'm a professional dog trainer who specializes in building relationship in dog handler teams who compete in dog sports. My personal passions are Competitive Obedience and no force (motivational) dog training. I travel throughout the world teaching seminars on topics related to Dog Obedience and Building Drives and Motivation. I own Fenzi Dog Sports Academy, a comprehensive online school for motivational training of performance sport dogs.

28 responses »

  1. Awesome! It can be so hard to work through a problem, especially working on one’s own. Inspires me to do more thinking when things aren’t going how I’d like. 🙂

  2. Great work! Loved watching the videos.

  3. I found this fascinating Wonder if a whistle (PO-Lees type) would help in the War of Posession I liked “even fewer want to wear a bitesuit” Sent from my iPhone

  4. When you work with hanging the bite suit… I wonder if you could come up with some way to hang it on/with bungees, so it moves and “pulls back” when she bites and pulls. I’m envisioning it something like the way PB people hang tires on ropes in trees for their dogs to chew and tug on. It might give you another increment, between a dead bite suit and one on a person.

  5. I found this fascinating and someday want to train a dog again in this kind of work. Back in the 90’s I trained my Bernese Mtn dog in this type of work (Project Safe Run), and he did awesomely! One of the best bite dogs which included Rotts, Dobes, G.Shep, etc. It was a job and he did it from a place of confidence and the game. But we did use old style training to teach release and to NOT respond unless the handler told them too. Even though I had great timing and used a lot of positive reinforcement, there were repercussions to using those old methods, which I do not want to repeat.
    So, I am quite interested in doing the training with only positive methods and no pinch collars, etc. But struggle with HOW to do that. So I especially Loved your writing and thought processes in working through the difficulties!!

    • Denise, I’m just up here in Eugene Oregon. Maybe when I can afford the gas, we could get together and work together from time to time. I gave up on the idea of ever doing bite sports again because I wasn’t willing to use the old methods. I haven’t found any schutzhund or other bite sport folks that are trying to NOT use the old methods anywhere close to me! I know I have a non-traditional breed, but I’ve found that Berners have much the same temperament for the work as a well raised Rottie. They love the job, no matter what it is!

  6. Thought provoking, I don’t do bitework but love how people break down problems into smaller pieces. I still don’t feel like I can do much of this alone, but am getting better and inspired by trainers like you who do and still seek help sometimes.

  7. I swear sometimes I think you write these just for us.

  8. Congratulations! It takes people willing to work through a problem and figure out alternative solutions, for new methods to really make progress in a sport, especially one that has relied on “tried and true” methods for many years. Glad you and Shade were able to come up with a training plan!

  9. Haha. Love the “even fewer want to wear a bitesuit” line. You are such a thoughtful and entertaining writer and trainer. C/T

  10. Well reasoned out Denise! Having other trainers to consult with is a great thing! I train alone myself the majority of the time…Very well done!!

  11. Thanks for sharing the breakdown of your behavior and thoughts on how to fix it. I don’t do bitework, but I do have an occasional recall problem 😉 In my case it’s sniffing – more distraction than drive/arousal, but nevertheless more interesting to the dog than me at times. One approach is to make the release to “go sniff” or “bite” more rewarding than the dog choosing to do it on their own. This seems like what you are doing be teaching “go back to the start line” – the dog gets more opportunities to start the game again.

    I realize you don’t often have a partner to work with, but am curious whether you tried having the decoy become “dead” if she didn’t release on the whistle, i.e., all bite work fun stops if you don’t release, which is a common way for motivational trainers to teach a prompt release in the first place. Then as the dog’s release becomes more prompt, the reward becomes bigger (more animated decoy, for example).

  12. Thank you so much for sharing! Reading this, I could think of only one person, Susan Garrett. Her thought process is much the same. As she calls it, it is a balance. For her, it’s agility so balancing the reward of doing the obstacles vs. the reward of being handler focused. Constant balance. Glad to see there are ring sport trainers doing it all positive. Way to go for you!

  13. I have shared your pain Denise with that exact same issue – teaching a positive release/recall during high levels of arousal. It seemed like everyone automatically thought that if the dog could do the exercise then he should be corrected for not doing it when a fight was involved. My best progress was by gradually increasing the level of arousal/fight but that also involved long drives to get to a decoy who would do what I wanted. I experimented with hanging the suit as well and it helped work on the mechanics (I looped a rope attached to it over a barn beam so that I could make it fight back from a distance) but this did not really create the level of arousal I was looking for. P.S. If I lived closer I would be happy to wear the bitesuit! 🙂

    • I’m discovering that if you want to do bitesports, and if you are mostly alone, you absolutely must develop a very strong foundation of behaviors that can be taught and reinforced without a second person. believe me, I’m discovering them:).

      • Or if you are not alone but people don’t share your training philosophy. 😉 I found it easier (and less stressful) to problem solve on my own rather than in certain training environments that I could not avoid. But then, like you, I had to find ways to develop the behaviors so that they would hold up with more arousal/excitement.

  14. I’m curious why you chose to continue to use the same cue (the whistle) for multiple behaviors (first release, then release and send back to something, and later you’ll want it to mean unequivocally recall)? Is this a time when using a temporary cue, while you work thru the various topographies, would be helpful, so that the whistle is only associated with the final, correct behavior rather than with several different behaviors which have all been reinforced? Or do you plan to change to a new, unique cue when you get the final form of the behavior?

    I also wondered if you have ever used negative punishment with Raika before, do you have a verbal conditioned negative punisher that you use to mark the moment of the error? I was justing thinking that another reason why it might not be effective, besides the excellent ones you mentioned, is because the timing between the error and the application of the punisher is too great for the dog to make the connection between their behavior and the punishment. I would think you would need a verbal conditioned punisher to mark the error because walking the dog back to a crate or to the trg room would take too long for the dog to make a quick association between the behavior and the consequence.

    • actually there is no conflict; the whistle no longer means recall. it means let go/turn away and run back to something to circle – currently a garbage can but now I substitute for the can with no confusion on her part. Last I’ll add a stop at the garbage can and then me. I’m training up my young dog the same way and I love it. Will not go back.
      Raika is rarely rarely punished – if she understands and is free in the head, then she cooperates. So the act of taking her away is enough for her – my walking and the end of the fight from the decoy makes it clear to her that she has displeased me. What she didn’t master was how to do better when she’s excited.

  15. “The traditional solution would involve either a prong collar or an electronic collar. Any failure to release and recall would involve a collar correction. If the collar were a prong she would either be corrected by myself (holding a long line) or the decoy (reaching for a tab on her collar). If the collar were an electronic collar, then I would supply the correction from across the field.”

    NOT TRUE, Denise! The traditional solution would be a ring foundation. Raika is out guarding when in drive, true to her Schutzhund roots. 😉

    But, since we are where we are, there’s an old Belgian Ring trick (not an oxymoron, lol) to try:

    1. You first need a good play relationship with your dog (check).
    2. Next, you do need a helper, but a helper with a lower value toy/wedge/jambiere.
    3. You need to have a high value toy (mine likes the wedge over the long tug or ball on string).

    Send Raika to play with the helper. Walk up close to her on either side, but you should be at an angle so she needs to out and turn to you. While she’s biting, whistle and present the tug. Of course your helper has to be dead as a door nail when you whistle. As soon as my dog releases, I yip and holler and run backwards. Repeat this process until the out is mechanical; Muscle memory. Then you can add distance, and begin to phase out the motion. The biggest problem I’ve seen is rushing through the process. I made this mistake myself!

    The other thing we do is I whistle while she’s on the tug while we’re playing. She outs and moves to recall postion. I mark it and we play again.

    Asking Raika to return for another send is also a common fix, but it can create stability problems in trial.

    Anywho, I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know. But I just wanted some of your readers to know that the prong and ecollar aren’t always the traditional ‘fixes’ in ringsport. 🙂 Because as you pointed out, the collars have fallout, and not just morally.

    Disclosure: I did use prong and ecollar to try and teach the return, without a high rate of success. I switched over to this method after another trainer helped to guide me (Sean Miller – the decoy Raika didn’t want to leave!). My method of training is developing. I’m relatively novice to the dog-sport world. I’m learning about the consequences of developing a dog using different learning quadrants. I don’t think I have all of the answers. But since this is a topic I was able to work through with an extremely high drive dog who HATES to leave the decoy, I felt I had to share!

    • OOOH! Just saw the video at the end. 🙂 So glad it’s working!

    • My experience is that ring dogs are put on the e-collar early with the assumption that it will be needed; that is a fundamental part of their foundation. However, what you describe is excellent (ideal?) training, and I agree 100% that a super foundation is paramount.
      Where you and I would possibly disagree is the meaning of tradition. I believe the tradition of ring is compulsion based – regardless of a motivational foundation, when the dog fails to obey later in training then the solution is power tools. Indeed, where I train I am normally the only person working an advanced dog without them. That is my definition of tradition – what the majority of people consider normal and required.
      I would argue that would you have described is both excellent foundation and progressive problem solving, not tradition.
      I think your method is super but I do not have access to a second person often enough to get where I want to go. So…I improvised, and I’m fairly happy with it.
      Thanks for writing.

  16. Even though I have no interest in bitework myself I loved reading this post. Re-examing ALL our assumptions about what an animal (including the human one) can learn & how to teach it is the essence of positive training–& the boundaries of the possible get pushed fourther every day. Everyone see the BBC video of dogs driving in New Zealand?
    I especially love applying new methods to old problems–people have been training animals for thousands of years, after all, & assumptions get set in concrete very quickly.
    Question everything. Even this.

    • This is absolutely the most interesting article I have read. I love solving problems with a positive attitude. You have over the topped this. I admire your tenacity and endurance, in order to give all dogs a better game. Kudos to you; and how blessed I am to have known you in my life time. Of course, it would never have happened, if you were not such a generous and sharing person with the rest of the dog world.

  17. Ditto everything Margaret said! Taking a creative and more objective look at what are dogs are doing and why can often tease out where the lack of understanding is. Good for you for hanging in there and being open to ideas!

  18. Well done! What I love about the positive group, so many are willing to help, one question and you get 10 new different ways to resolve it. I find shaping and using the ‘look for the behaviours you do want rather then worrying about the behaviours you don’t want approach has served me well regarding the sport dog work. 🙂 Love your candid approach! Well done! Cheers, Teresa

  19. Pingback: The Week In Tweets – 1st February 2013 | Some Thoughts About Dogs

  20. I am about a year late to the blog, but found this very helpful in working with a pointer on both recall issues when he’s in the field, and also on thinking about ways to keep him from chasing birds once they flush. The interesting rub with him is that his hierarchy of motivations is roughly birds, then food, then play and praise only as a distant third in my view. Thanks for such clear breakdowns of your training process!


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