Thursday, December 30, 2010

Verbal Discrimination and Differential Reinforcement

 Cue Discrimination Work with Elo

Since THIS post, I've been working really hard on Elo's verbal cue discrimination. In the past couple of days it actually seems like we're making some progress!! The discussion came up on Crystal's blog, so I thought I would post an update on how we've been working this.

I started with just three commands: sit, down, and stand. I tried to work just a few repetitions of each command a few times a day--maybe counting out ten kibbles and just working until I ran out, with a treat for each successful response. I picked a different location to work each time--the living room in different corners, the kitchen, a bedroom. I also rotated between sitting and standing. I tried to just mix up the commands randomly so that he would be doing sits from downs, down from stand, stand from down, and all the possible variations. This actually went really well and I didn't have too many problems. He seemed to know "stand" better than I thought he did.

So I added in a fourth command, everything went to hell, and I gave up.

But only for a little while. We've been back at it after doing some significant work with taking treats nicely. It's a lot easier to be patient when your fingers aren't bleeding! I basically just fed him the majority of his dinner by hand for awhile and required him to take each kibble nicely without being told. Once he started doing well with this, I started adding in commands, since every time I gave a command he got a little bit amped up and started snapping again. We worked through this as well and it kind of progressed back into verbal discrimination exercises.

I've increased the number of repetitions. I try to stop before he gets confused, but if he's doing well I don't arbitrarily limit the number of reps I will do. We are working just four commands--sit, down, stand and bummer (the first trick he learned--head on paws)--and varying location and position as above. I've found that he does best when he is very calm, so I usually wait for and reward eye contact a few times between each command and make sure he is paying attention before I give a command. Instead of cycling through all commands randomly, I am working just a couple per session. For example, for the past few nights we've been working sit and bummer primarily. I also add in a few stands and lie downs randomly so it doesn't get to be too much of a pattern.

I am consciously physically cuing in some ways. For bummer I will lower my head slightly and look at the ground. I will also empty-hand lure a response if he fails to respond to a verbal (e.g., for stand or sit from down). So this probably isn't pure verbal discrimination work, but I am honestly more concerned about correct responses to cues than what he is cuing off of. I am also trying to pay attention to the pitch of commands and keeping them consistent.

And a Couple Thoughts on Differential Reinforcement

Differential reinforcement is another thing I've been thinking about lately--having been brought to my consciousness by a couple of other blogs I read. Differential reinforcement, as I understand it, means essentially reinforcing some instances of a behavior and not others, specifically, only reinforcing increasingly better instances of that behavior.

I am terrible at fading treats. And I have previously had this idea that once a behavior is learned you fade treats by simply reinforcing every other, then every third, and just increasingly spacing out rewards. That's not to say I still treat my dogs for every correct response to every cue, and I don't generally carry around a treat bag unless I'm training something new. But I can't say I've ever really understood the concept of differential reinforcement or ever applied it successfully. But for the past couple nights I've been experimenting with it for Jun's response to a down from a stand--she's been turning it into a "bow" first, since that's a trick we've been working on. I c/t the first bow-down after her butt hit the ground. She offered me the same thing for the next rep. No treat. The next rep was a bit better, so I c/t. The following rep was the same. No treat. The next rep was slightly better but I wanted a bit more, so no c/t. The next rep was nearly perfect, c/t. I don't know if this worked because I applied (or tried to apply) differential reinforcement, or because she realized that we were working down and not bow, but the behavior seemed to improve faster than I would normally expect it to. This is really interesting and I plan to keep playing with it. It sure seems like a more purposeful way to treat than just random reinforcement.

ETA: If I'm totally off track with this, please let me know. It's a concept I'd really like to understand and learn to use.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Lok Update

Lok's seizures continue. He had his fifth last night. It's been about a month since the last one. For anyone who hasn't experienced a seizing dog, this description is pretty spot-on:

A typical seizure unfolds like this: At 3:30 am you hear a loud bump as your dog falls off the bed. His whole body is rigid, with his neck pulled backward so strongly that his head nearly touches his back. His eyes are rolled back in his head, and his mouth is wide open - champing frantically at nothing, saliva spewing forth. His legs gallop nowhere. He empties his bladder, his anal glands, and often his bowels. This continues for up to several minutes, during which time he does not breath. Lack of oxygen to the brain means death for brain cells. As the seizure declines, he is unconscious. Suddenly he snaps into a semblance of awareness, but is totally uncoordinated and often blind. He pulls himself up and staggers into a wall or a piece of furniture. Not having an understanding of why he isn't moving forward, he continues to shove blindly against the barrier until it moves or someone pulls him away from it. Over the next 20 minutes to several hours he gradually comes back to his senses.
Then the pacing begins. He doesn't know why, but he must pace - back and forth, back and forth - without end. This can go on for hours. Finally he goes into an exhausted sleep. With some luck, he doesn't "cluster" (having anywhere from 2 to over 50 seizures over the next 2-3 days) or go into status epilepticus (continual seizing that often means death). You try to go back to sleep for a few hours, praying that the seizures are over for now, and thanking God that he lived through this one.

The "post-ictal" phase is the worst. That's after the convulsions stop when he suddenly jumps up and needs to move continually with no idea where he is going. He will walk into walls, and like a video game character will just keep trying to go forward, or will stand there confused about why he can't keep going. He will fall down stairs. I can't hold him still or comfort him (and he doesn't really seem to be un-comfortable--his tail will be wagging like crazy while he's pacing) because he just keeps struggling against me to keep moving, so I put him in his crate where he will pace in circles but he is less likely to hurt himself. I keep him there and sit with him and talk to him until he calms down and then bring him onto the bed with me when he is able to lie still and sleep. It's not nearly as traumatic for me as the first couple were--I kind of have the routine down now--but I still hate to see him going through it.

We went to the UofM several weeks ago. The neurologist decided that it was most likely "idiopathic epilepsy" which is a fancy way of saying "your dog is having seizures and we have no idea why." The other options--some kind of poison or toxin, or a brain tumor--he said were unlikely, and that it wasn't worth doing a CT or MRI at this point. A blood test showed Lok's phenobarbital was not at a therapeutic level, so they decided to increase his dose of phenobarbital to double what it was. He has been getting 60mg twice a day and is now at a therapeutic level. I realized this morning that I missed his dose last night. That may or may not have contributed to the seizure he had last night. He missed a dose last week due to having run out and he didn't seize at that time.

So right now, I will try to do better at remembering to give him his Pb. I am also switching him back from Taste of the Wild kibble to Orijen kibble. I can't remember when exactly I started mixing in TOTW to save money (it's still a pretty high quality grain-free food, but much cheaper), but I think it was around the time he started seizing. So just in case that could be a factor, I put him back on Orijen starting today. I will give that a couple months and if he's still seizing I will look into other supplement options or consider feeding raw. It seems many Epi dogs have improved when started on a raw diet. I also plan to start supplementing with Milk Thistle, which does nothing to help the seizures, but is supposed to prevent liver damage from the Pb.

The UofM also gave me the go-ahead to put him back on Prozac, so he's been getting that again for a few weeks and is doing better again with his anxiety. I'm expecting it to be several more weeks before he's back to where he was. His paw-licking is getting better, he's relaxing in the house when I'm home at night instead of standing around or pacing and obsessively bothering Elo. He's been better in his crate and isn't chewing his crate pan anymore.

So, that's what's up with Lok. He's not doing too bad, but I do hope I can take him off both of these drugs at some point. If anyone has any experience with epi or anxiety and has any input I'd be happy to hear it!

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Lok's Tongue

Haha, I figured out how to put videos from my camera phone on YouTube! How tech-savvy am I?!

Does anyone else's dog do THIS??

He does his tongue thing EVERY time he drops a toy!!

Exhibit B:

Wednesday, December 22, 2010


My dogs are not allowed on the couch.

They also do not sleep on the bed.

They wouldn't dream of getting up on the other furniture.

They have their own beds to use, and they are perfectly content to do so.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Boundary Training Take 3

I started writing about training a boundary cue Here and Here. After the second post, I kind of gave up on it. Jun wasn't getting it and I was out of ideas. Awhile after giving up on it I had an epiphany and realized that I already had a boundary cue on all of my dogs. They all stay in a car or crate with the door open until told to exit. They all auto-stop at the gate to the front yard and don't cross the threshold until told (mostly). And I tested it and found that they will all wait in a doorway if told to do so with the command "stay here" (And yes, I can use "stay" in this context because I don't use a stay command for a formal stay. My dogs just hold a position until released.)

So how did I train this boundary cue? When the dog tries to leave the area I'd like them to stay in, I calmly body block them (or block them with the door) until they stop trying to leave. Then I mark (yes) and reward them with a release. I think the reason I didn't think of this as a boundary cue was because I had never worked it for duration. I had previously used it mostly as a pause at a threshold, but usually released the dog fairly quickly. But I decided to try working duration with it and I got the exact result I was trying to achieve with the work I wrote about in the other two posts. The dogs will usually stand there for a bit, then lie down and stare at me for awhile, but when they realize they're not going to get released right away they decide to go and do other things. Either behavior, I am fine with! If they come back to the boundary and forget they're not supposed to cross it, I just remind them by body blocking. No treats are needed, since their reward is the release to cross the boundary!

Sometimes dog training is simple!!

P.S. Speaking of epiphanies, I realized the other day that Jun doesn't have a default "sit." You know--the one thing EVERY pet dog knows--sit when you want something. I'm not sure how this particular training bit got overlooked (or maybe I just let it lapse at some point), but it suddenly explained why she is always jumping up to try to grab things out of my hands (which I'd been trying--fairly unsuccessfully--to correct by ignoring, but ignoring doesn't do much if the dog doesn't have an alternate behavior to offer). So Jun--my highly trained sport dog--is now learning something that every pet dog in the world knows.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Gravity (and Cue Switching)

Jun has a gravity issue. There is a gravitational force that attracts her shoulder to my knee and makes it very difficult to work on anything that requires her being AWAY from me. Her back up is the place where this is most evident--we've worked on it in a variety of ways and every time, just as I think I'm making progress, gravity rears its sticky head again.

We made some good progress on the "accuracy" and "duration" elements of Jun's go-out. She was fine from 2-3 feet away. An inch more and the "accuracy" completely fell apart--it was as if she completely forgot that she was supposed to touch the piece of tape with her foot (or possible that she never knew in the first place and she was doing it accidentally before, but she was so consistent up close that I doubt that's the issue) or was so nervous about being AWAY that despite her best efforts, she just couldn't do it.

So we are now working on another "sending" exercise for the distance piece--going to a mat. We've worked on staying on a mat before, but never really worked the send piece much (see aforementioned gravity issues). I started working little by little on adding distance to the send with the criteria of "elbows on the mat," but was still running into trouble. I'm not sure if she didn't understand the criteria or if she was still just hesitant to get too far away from me, but the further I got from the mat, the more of her body was off of it. When she didn't get a click right away she would back up until her elbows were on the mat. I had hoped she might realize this was what I wanted and give it to me to begin with, but no luck. So I changed my criteria to one I thought would be easier for her to understand--standing up with all 4 feet on the mat. I worked that up close to make sure she understood the new criteria, and then gradually started adding distance. And . . . . she's getting it!! She was even offering back ups and staying back from me further than usual during the rest of our session last night. This could very well be another "Oh, she's got it!! . . . Aw, nope, she doesn't" moments, but I hope it isn't. She's never been so willing to be so far from me, so I think I've finally found something that makes sense to her.

Elo, on the other hand, does awesome at sending to a mat--he's not a cheater like Jun is! I was sending him around a corner with the mat out of sight last night and he was rocking it!

And a note-to-self on cue switching--you may need to keep using the old cue longer than you think. I could not figure out why Jun was responding so poorly to her new "bow" cue when clearly she "knew" it. After all, she had done it for me on cue multiple times!! She seemed confused, so I don't know why I couldn't accept that she was, in fact, confused, rather than avoiding or being stubborn. I went back to using the old cue immediately followed by the new cue for awhile. Then one rep with just the new cue, and right back to using both for several reps etc.  She is now much more confident and happy taking the new cue! I plan to still use the old and new cues together for awhile occasionally until she is confidently and happily doing the behavior every time I give her the new cue only.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Setting Criteria

Confession: I rush my dogs. I am not a patient trainer. I'm a lot better than I used to be, but I still rush. I still sometimes expect Jun the genius to jump from step one to finished products in minutes. But I'm learning.

So, I haven't had many clear goals for the dogs lately, since none of them are in any sports right now and we have no competitions to work for. Which creates an even worse situation for my rushing problems because I don't know what I'm specifically training for and have no clear goals for myself. I bounce back and forth from one thing to another and don't finish things. But in the last couple days I've been setting some more concrete goals and breaking some things down for my dogs in smaller baby steps.

I am teaching Jun a "go-out", obedience style (just for the hell of it, since I doubt we'll ever compete in real obedience). Now, I've done a ton of targeting with Jun, but I've never taught an obedience go-out and I really have no idea what I'm doing, so as usual, I'm making it up as I go along.

At first, I started with targeting a duct-tape square on the floor. Then I jumped straight to going to the duct tape square, targeting it, sitting and waiting. Haha! Yes, the mocking is well deserved. Jun was sort of getting it, but was pretty confused, obviously.

So I sat down (figuratively) and thought about my criteria and the individual components that went into the overall behavior I wanted. To do the behavior properly, I want Jun to (1) go to the target, (2) have a good level of accuracy in hitting the target with a paw, (3) remain on the target for a period of time, (4) sit on command, and (5) do all of this at a distance. Lots of steps I skipped in there. Step 1 is no problem, but 2 and 3 are really tough for Jun, so we've just been working those for the past few days. Jun was not sure how I wanted her to interact with the target--just be somewhere near it? Put a front paw on it? Put all 4 paws on it (that one was pretty comical)? Circle it? Bow on it? Her confusion is understandable, since I hadn't properly conveyed to her what I wanted. We've taken a big step back and are working very closely on hitting the target with one front paw, and standing there until released. And suddenly, with better defined criteria and clear steps to follow, we're making progress.

And oh yeah, at some point we'll have to fade the target. That one will be interesting, and I'll probably have to hit up my obedience peeps for suggestions when that time comes.

Another criteria problem I had last night that I've started working through is the way Elo takes treats. He is a shark and I will not have any fingers left very soon if things continue the way they have been!! Of course I have worked taking treats nicely and he does understand "gentle." But unless I remind him, he tends to snap for it. And even when he's trying to be gentle, he is so concerned about getting the treat into his mouth that he often adds a little snap at the end, just as I'm praising him for taking it so nicely. So last night, we worked on a different method of taking treats, wherein my fingers actually go INTO his mouth slightly. This might seem counterintuitive (and it's not the way either of my other dogs take treats), but it completely avoids the very worrisome (to Elo) possibility that he might not grab the treat firmly enough and it might fall on the floor instead of going into his mouth, thus leading to the little snap at the end that gets inadvertently rewarded too often. This has been working out swimmingly in the two days we've been at it!!

Clearly defined criteria + Clearly defined steps to the finished product = Progress! Imagine that!