Those of you who follow me on FB or who take classes with me at Fenzi Dog Sports Academy know that I have a lot of opinions about how our training decisions affect our ability to move into competition. One of my favorite rants refers to the use of silence in training. Is your dog trained to love silence, or to perceive it as a no reward marker (NRM)?
Let me be specific. Do you use silence to mean, “try again” or “yes, you’re on the right track?”.
If your goal is competition then it matters. A lot. You absolutely must not train your dog to believe that silence means “wrong, try again” and click/cookie means “right”.
In the beginning phase of shaping new behaviors this isn’t such an issue, but once behaviors are on cue and your dog is performing behavior chains, it matters very much.
So, you’re in the middle of a behavior chain. What do you do if your dog is wrong?
Well, I’d suggest you start talking and find a way to end the chain while preserving your dog’s attitude.
Here’s the video I showed of Lyra’s figure eight yesterday. It’s loaded with errors so let’s go through the video together and consider how I handled them. In addition, consider how my choice of silence when she is correct will affect her sureness and confidence when she goes into a competition:
2 – 3 seconds: Lyra is correct and I am quiet.
4 seconds: She’s pushing too hard. I change direction and prevent her from forging ahead on the outside turn.
5 seconds: She “accepts” the correction and moves her rear end in. I acknowledge her decision with a verbal “good girl”, but I will not reward this because I did the work, not Lyra.
6 seconds: she’s correct and I am silent
7 seconds: she’s pushing – I change my behavior and verbally acknowledge her choice to follow me.
8 and 9 seconds: She is correct
10 seconds: Body correction; “good girl” marks her choice to get back and get in.
12 seconds: verbal and body correction.
12 seconds: she did a good job handling that correction so I switched directions to free her up a bit and let her be right.
I then remained silent until 17 seconds because she was correct
17 seconds: another body/verbal correction
Silent until 25 seconds – if she had completed that inside loop I would have rewarded but she did not make it.
26 to 31 seconds: I used both verbal and body help to try and structure her to make the next inside curve successful.
31 sec: she makes it to 34 seconds at which point I realize she’s not going to succeed so I add ANOTHER inside turn to the left.
36 sec: another attempt; she fails at 38 sec and is corrected until 39 sec.
40 to 43 sec: – she is correct and fails at that point.
45 through 48 are her next attempt – I can “feel” that she’s about to fail at 48 so I correct all the way to 53 seconds. I really want her to win soon, which is why I pushed her very hard on that one.
She almost makes the next loop and fails at 57 seconds, but notice that she’s getting slightly further around that inside pole each time and the correction comes later and later.
Lyra finally wins at 1:05; a full inside post.
For the most part, I was happy with my handling. The changes I would make (with hindsight) include a lower initial criteria – I would have gone for “half” of an inside post instead of the whole thing. I would have done a few exercises before beginning this exercise to remind her of her rear end. Finally, I would have considered using a lower value motivator to reduce some of her drive and push throughout this work.
Be aware of how you are using your voice, your body, your silence and your classic rewards in training. They all matter. I’d strongly recommend taping a short piece of your training, and then critically evaluating your work as I have done above.
Now let’s look at Brito’s turn. Here we have a young dog – there is NO WAY I’m going to hold out for perfect on a lagging dog because usually lagging gets worse with lack of reinforcement, not better. So I’m thinking a lot more about reward position (throwing treats and wrapping him around my leg) and less about operant conditioning.
First 11 seconds – I do what I think he’s capable of – I’m offering verbal support to try and keep him pushing, but I wouldn’t hold out any longer. I would have given him that cookie at 12 seconds almost regardless of his behavior.
15 seconds: I have a lot of dog at this moment and I know it. That means I can push harder and ask for more.
17 seconds: he nails that spin around so I go quiet, click and throw the cookie to reinforce the direction of travel.
25 sec: he sits crooked – who cares?! This isn’t the time to worry about that; I’ve got a ton of dog at this moment and I want to use that energy for productive purposes (driving around the about turn) not fussing over a sit.
Notice that I’m more matter of fact in my tone of voice. But…I dont like what I see here; he’s softening a bit so I reward at 30 seconds, mostly to ensure that he stays in the game and less because I thought he did anything particularly good.
36 seconds: crooked sit which I ignore.
42 seconds: this was his best one. I decided to quit there since I try hard to train him when he shows maximum energy.
I felt good about my overall handling of this exercise and I’ve noticed that his heeling improved quite a bit in the following week. That tells me that I did a good job, or at least I did no harm, which is half of the battle some days.
I do incorporate silence before rewards with Brito but it is much less obvious because his working stretches are so short. I have found that in the last few days those silent periods are becoming more pronounced.
I hope that evaluation of both dogs helps some of you understand both the role of silence in training as well as how/when to use a verbal or body correction that signals, “no cookie for that; try again”.