April 27th Training Log

Finally back to lunch time training!

Today we worked on some of our homework for the canine fitness course. Today’s work was getting some sits-to-stands videoed. The first part of the video is a portion of our lunch work, and the rest was filmed earlier for the course homework.

Perrin is looking much heavier than I would like. I did a quick rib/spine feel, and he doesn’t feel any heavier, but he looks like he has gained weight. This is a bit odd as he has been getting much more exercise now that the weather is nice, and he has been eating less. So I went to the vets office and weighed him. He was 108lbs, so 4lbs lighter than the last time he was in. Weird. I will continue working at weight loss, as 98lbs is a better weight for him.

I also worked on some quick position changes with Perrin at my side on the front lawn of the building with lots of traffic distractions.

Tonight we went for a lovely run (jog? hobble? crawl? I am not a runner) out on the forest trails, then worked on some disc stuff. My throws are improving! Using real discs (rather than dollar store toys) helps immensely. I mainly worked on improving my vault throws, and Perrin even managed to get in on it once or twice, but he wasn’t in a very boisterous mood this evening.

After that we met up with two friends to do some dog training in the local Canadian Tire. All three dogs are young, so we worked on being calm in public, walking side by side nicely and not trying to play with each other the entire time. We spent about two hours there, and they all did really well!


April 26th Training Log

Perrin’s discs came today! Whoohoo! Naturally I couldn’t wait to try them out. Unfortunately I don’t have any video of it because I forgot my camera at the office today.

Perrin doesn’t like fetch, and has little toy drive in general, so I was really just going to go out and start practicing some throws while he ran around and sniffed things to his heart’s content. Which he did! But after, he started coming to me and showing some interest in the discs, so I tossed a few (terrible) vault throws and he was trying to catch them! I worked on him just taking the disc from my hand and tugging it and he loved that! I can work with this! We still won’t be working on any jumping stuff due to his hips, but I will see if we can build a little bit of the flat work.

There were some unexpected discoveries with the discs though. They are so hard to hold onto when Perrin is tugging with them! I bought a couple of soflite’s because I thought part of Perrin’s dislike of discs was due to how hard they are. I think this was partially true, but even beyond that, they were much easier to tug with because they bend. Also, discs get really slobbery! That definitely doesn’t help with the grip when tugging. Perrin tugs hard (which is kind of funny. I spent a lot of time encoraging his tug, and now he tugs so hard that I can hardly keep on my feet. Be careful what you wish for!), so that is going to be tricky.

I was super surprised by how soft Perrin’s bite is. The soflite disks are made of a very soft material, and the Hero disc I got is not one of the durable ones, but none of them had any teeth marks in them at all after we were done. Even after Perrin tried to snack on one. Hopefully that means we will go through fewer discs! Our only large source of destruction will be from Perrin pouncing on downed discs (because he thinks they are foot targets that I want him to stand on) and deforming the tops .

I am excited to work with Perrin more on this, and to start improving my throws!

April 25th Training Log

There was no lunch training today, as I had to stay at work for a meeting.

Tonight at the training building we worked on more swing finishes, lots of stays with the distraction of Perrin’s Lab friend running agility close by, and then worked on some agility ourselves. I had two jumps set up and worked on some back sides and the beginnings of threadles and serpentines. Perrin did amazing! I am truly the weak link here. I consistently cue him too late, so I was actively working on that today but I still made many mistakes. I don’t use voice cues often, but I am half heartedly working on adding them. He mostly follows my body language, and I think I am just going to commit to that. If I am going to commit to a silent handling system, I need to practice running sequences without the dog so that I don’t confuse Perrin with so many of my own screw ups. No voice cues really well for us, I have done very little training with this and he just picks it up so fast! I really wish I could do agility with Perrin, but alas, I do not want to push his hips lest it cause him problems later in life. Hopefully I can find some NADAC trials out east so we can do hoopers.

April 24th Training Log

This weekend was low on training, and high on fun walks in the woods (I refuse to call anything under 4 hours and/or without a destination and/or with no elevation gain a ‘hike’).

Today’s lunch time training consisted of some very informal work on putting swing finishes on cue. I am on a cue crusade! I got some of the most awesome enthusiasm with the swing finishes today, but the precision was a little lacking. Luckily with Perrin, the precision is the easy part if I can get the enthusiasm.

This evening we went for a trail ‘run’. I tried to run up hills, and Perrin moseyed along.

Training was a whole laundry list of bad choices on my part. We tried shaping ‘4 feet in a box’. The first box was way too high. The next one too small of a foot print. I knew better than this, because this is a new behaviour; I needed to start with an easier problem to solve. He started to get frustrated, so we stopped that for now. That was about the only good choice I made today with the boxes, haha.

We then worked on putting finishes on cue. Marginally better training, but not much. I ‘help’ him get straight rather than not reward him at all. I need to split this out better to avoid frustration (start cuing from a lesser angle, so it is easier for him to be right, than build up to larger angles where he has to spin around into position), the ‘helping’ will just lead to bad things. Despite my bad choices, he did a few really nice ones. He also clearly knows generally what the cue means, which is definitely a success! He didn’t know it a week ago.

In the spirit of authenticity, here is a video of that mess. I don’t often see trainer’s ‘bad’ training sessions, so here is mine! Most of my really bad training sessions are caused by a complete lack of planning or forethought on my part. I need to get better at that. Also, ignore the disaster that is my living room. I am starting to pack to move, and that has led to a giant mess. Warning: this is not an entertaining video, I am keeping it here so I can come back and see it later for progress tracking purposes, or solidarity purposes for other people who are having poor training days.


April 20th Training Log

Today was not about training, but rather just being friends and enjoying one another’s company.



I found a new place to go exploring where there wasn’t a soul, and took advantage of today’s beautiful weather to go check it out with Perrin.







He noodled around and sniffed all the things and peed on all the things, ran around like a fool, chewed on some sticks, and went wading in a swamp.









It was so lovely just to be outside with my best friend. We didn’t even work on recalls.



I do have to say though, that I am glad his trained retrieve is better than his play retrieve!

April 19th Training Log

As usual, Wednesdays are a short day. No awesome group stays with Perrin’s best friend like yesterday!

Lunch was more work on putting key retrieval on cue:

After riding we went to the woods and went for a nice long sniffy walk with a few recalls thrown in. I tried a few swing finishes and he gave me the most awesome one ever! It was amazing, I wish I had it on video. His happiness in doing it would have made everyone smile.

April 18th Training Log

Our lunch session today consisted of some precision work for heeling and retrieve practice.

Over the last two months Perrin has progressed from right side pivots on a platform, to off platform pivots and some short stretches of heeling on the right with lots of turns. Through this, I have been heavily rewarding engagement, enthusiasm, and closeness to me. Because of my priority choices, I have lost some of the awesome muscle memory for straightness that Perrin had developed through the pivot work, so I have decided to go back and brush up on that skill for a bit. His muscle memory for right turns is very good, and I also want to go back and develop the same for left turns, as well as begin on some left side heeling foundations.

We also worked on retrieves for a bit. I am working on putting the retrieval of my car keys on cue (‘Keys’). We did some basic retrieves, and I am using the standard protocol for putting a shaped behaviour on cue I learned in one of Donna Hill’s classes, and at the moment we are on step one: set up the environment, say the cue as the dog does the behaviour for ~50 reps. I also started adding some distraction, but I really should have waited on that until I have the cue stronger. I shouldn’t be trying to mix those two right now. I could feel the retrieve behaviour eroding every time he brought me back the wrong object and he didn’t get reinforcement; his retrieve isn’t a heavily reinforced enough behaviour yet. However because I was trying to put ‘Keys’ on cue, I also didn’t want to confuse the meaning of the cue to mean ‘retrieve anything’ rather than ‘retrieve the keys’. I didn’t put enough thought into that up front.

It did give me a good idea for another differential reinforcement exercise to set up though and I think I will try it for tonight’s session. I like the idea for this stage of learning because then he still gets something for completing a great retrieve but gets something better for retrieving the object I want.

In my head it looks something like this:

  • set up a number of retrievable objects in the work area (dog toys, brushes, keys, mittens, socks, containers etc)
  • Have a low value and a high value reinforcer (in this case it will be my standard homemade training treats and some cheese)
  • Pick a ‘target’ object (in my case it will be the keys)
  • For every non-target retrieved to hand, give a low cookie. For every target object give cheese
  • Retrieves that are dropped, or otherwise don’t make it to my hand are not reinforced.
  • I will not use a cue unless/until he is consistently getting the keys, so I don’t confuse the meaning of something I am still working on putting on cue.

I tried to set that plan up tonight and it didn’t go the way I expected at all! Perrin never brought me the wrong item!

Because Perrin had brought me different items during our lunch session, I just assumed he would do the same later. I forgot to take into account the reinforcement history that Perrin has for retrieving my keys, especially when I had never asked him to retrieve any of the other items in the pile before (so zero reinforcement history). It was mediocre retrieve training, but a bad experiment. To make it better retrieve training, I needed to wait until all objects are stationary before sending Perrin out to retrieve. For much of the video, he is just going after the object that had most recently moved. When I did a better job of setting him up, he searched a bit longer (but still brought back the right one!).

If I wanted to test that theory more cleanly, I should choose a pile of objects that have a similar reinforcement history (most easily achieved by using all novel items). Perhaps tomorrow.

ETA: I just thought of another potential issue with that experiment design: Perrin goes and picks an item out of a pile of novel objects and retrievs it. Then he gets a low value cookie, and then continues to just bring me that object. If that happened, he would be unaware that a higher value reward was available, and would be quite happy to keep working for the low value cookie. If I were to make whatever object Perrin brought to me first the ‘target’ object, I may end up in the same place, but just giving cheese rather than cookies. I will  have to set this up and see what happens, and go from there.


Experimentation in Training: Differential Reinforcement, Shaping and Errorless Protocols

Heads up: This is a long one, but there is a cute video at the end if you just want to skip to there!

I am at the stage where I’ve read a lot of dog training theory, and understand most of what I’ve read in an isolated, academic way. In the real world though, where everything is interconnected and every dog is different, I have been having issues connecting that sanitized academic understanding to reality. How do I apply this new knowledge?

How do I choose a method for this behaviour for this dog at this time in this place? How does a particular approach work with the temperament of dog I have? How does that change with different types of dogs? What approaches can I combine, and which are not really compatible?

Yup, I have reached analysis paralysis.

I spend so much time agonizing over what the ‘BEST’ approach is that I never get started. I quickly came to the conclusion that the solution to this is experimentation. I just have to get out and start trying things with my dog and see what happens. Right now I’m in a training phase where I am getting great enjoyment out of experimentation.

I am incredibly lucky that Perrin is also happy with this plan, as my changing approaches would unsettle many dogs. It also helps that we don’t have any super important competition goals in the near future, so I am not too worried about breaking behaviours without having the time to fix them. This is training for the fun of training and for learning more about how this works; there are no behaviour goals attached to this right now.

My most recent case studies on experimentation has been with shaping, differential reinforcement, and errorless learning. How to design training plans to use them, when to use them, how to execute them and how my dog reacts to them. It has brought up a great many questions, few of which I know the answer to at the moment. I wanted to record those questions and musings for the future, as it will be interesting to come back and see them a year or two down the road. I am excited to keep working at it and see what I come up with, but for now, here are my musings on the matter as of April 17, 2017:

I will start with some definitions. These summaries are my understanding of each method in my own words (which may or may not be actually technically correct, and will likely change over time as I learn more), and are as follows:

Differential Reinforcement: The use of two different value rewards in a training session to mark more or less desirable behaviours. In the definition I have been working with lately, this includes jackpots, but whether that truly fits here is debatable. I still don’t have really good definitions for things, hence the experimentation.

Errorless Protocols: A training plan design where I have not used error as a learning tool for the dog, and I have thoughtfully set up the environment or progressions to maximize success.

Shaping:  A dog-led activity where he offers behaviours and I reward successive approximations of the target behaviour until the final result is acheived. Sort of like a game of hot-and-cold. Except there is no ‘cooler’ or ‘hotter’; only yes or no. The only information is ‘I liked that one’. This inherently splits behaviours into what is ‘right’ (dog receives reinforcement) and what is ‘wrong’ (no reinforcement).

When I execute shaping poorly and wait for too large of a next step, Perrin gets frustrated when the expected reinforcement is withheld. I have been getting better at avoiding this frustration by getting better at splitting behaviours, keeping sessions short, avoiding the ‘just one more’ syndrome, and particularly by being generous with my criteria. Whether this last item affects the quality of the training I do not know, but I have observed that it GREATLY reduces frustration behaviours, with the pace of learning remaining the same, so I am sticking with it for now. I have been criticized for this approach in the past, but I guess I would rather have Perrin get some extra cookies and training take longer than have him just get frustrated and quit. If he quits and doesn’t want to play the game with me, then training would take much longer in the long run. I was vindicated on this subject recently when I listened to a conversation about it in Hannah Branigan’s podcast Episode 9, during a conversation with Amy Cook. They discuss simply slowly dropping the least close approximation (behaviours fall on a continuum, where some are closer to the target behaviour than others) rather than having one very stringent, ‘right’ answer. They explain it much better than I could around the halfway mark!

While that was a bit of a tangent, the element of frustration in shaping is what started me on this. Much of it is caused by poor training procedures on my part (and that is getting much better with thought and time), but I always love an excuse to try something new and see how it works.

I have been mixing shaping and differential reinforcement for a while now, in the form of jackpots. For his ‘closest’ attempt to the target behaviour, or breakthroughs, Perrin would receive a hand full of cookies. For  approximations that are still right, but farther from the target behaviour than his ‘best attempt’, he gets one cookie. This has been in an effort to establish a way to communicate “hotter” and “cooler” in the shaping process; to add more resolution to my communications in order to make it easier for Perrin to understand. I have read a bit about how the jury is still out on the science of the effectiveness of jackpots, but it seems to work pretty well for Perrin and I. Maybe the ‘low value’ cookies were just keeping him engaged and in the game rather than actually giving him more information to process and use to make better decisions. If that is the case, I think it still worked well enough for me to keep playing with, even if it didn’t work the way that I thought. I can always stop using it if I find out differently later on.

I read about errorless protocols a few months ago, and have been playing with them ever since (although I unknowingly used one to house train Perrin). I thought that adding this approach to my toolbox would be a nice change of pace for both Perrin and I at a time when I was frequently frustrating him during shaping. I was still working on fixing that problem, but in the mean time I wanted to give Perrin a frustration free option (and I am always trying to learn new things, so that ever present motivation was in play too). The first training plan I built this way was for adding distance to position changes. I started with a foot target as I added distance in tiny amounts, then starting the distance over again without the target. I have also been working on recalls with an errorless mindset and have been progressing really well. The rate of reinforcement for both parties (cookies for Perrin, and success for me) was quite high and it kept both of us engaged and eager to work. I have found that being in the mindset of using errorless protocols makes it extremely clear to me that it is MY responsibility to set Perrin up for success (as it always is). I am much more careful to set up good antecedents, to be mindful of Perrin’s frame of mind and his ability to work at that moment, and to not over-face him with environmental stimuli. That is something that I really need to take away and do better at that in all of our training.

The differential reinforcement came in to the picture with errorless learning when I was screwing up on designing errorless protocols. I would be in the middle of a training session where I was trying new errorless protocols, and things would not go as expected. In an effort to avoid frustration, I started using some lower value rewards to fill the holes in my errorless plan to stave off the frustration I was attempting to avoid. Good training? Nope. But it got me thinking…

I have a cursory understanding of all three methods, but even basic experimentation has given me so many more questions!

  • Why and where would I use one versus the other? With this dog? With others?
  • Where to use errorless protocols over shaping or vice versa, and what affect does each have on my learner?
  • How do the three interplay?
  • How can I combine them to maximize the benifits and minimize the downsides?
  • On what points (theoretical or mechanical) are they not compatible?
  • How do I define for myself how errorless protocols are different from differential reinforcement protocols where the dog always receives some sort of reinforcement, but they are of different value?
    • The differences there can be nuanced. The differences in value of your chosen reinforcers would dictate how different from one another they are. A very low value treat versus a very high value one might be more akin to shaping? Two closely valued reinforcers would be closer to ‘errorless’? Personal play vs a cookie for Perrin would yield vastly different results than a cookie vs cooked chicken, and still different results from a tug versus chicken. Depending on the environment we are in and the training item we are working on those results would all change yet again. As always, choosing an appropriate reinforcer for the activity matters.
  • Is ‘errorless’ defined by the intention to design a training plan that does not use errors as a learning tool, or is it defined by a situation in which the learner is not aware of ‘errors’ because they still receive reinforcement, and therefore avoids frustration? To some dogs is a vast disparity in reinforcer value (or type) going to cause the same kind of frustration if the plan is applied poorly, as a poorly executed shaping session?
    • For Perrin it seems not to matter as long as both reinforcers I have chosen are things that he ACTUALLY finds reinforcing. I lose frustration, gain enthusiasm and resiliency to my mistakes, and I don’t sacrifice much learning speed by using kibble and chicken. However if I try to use a tug (low value) and food (high value), he just gets frustrated, as he never wants a toy when there is food available as an option.

I am starting to see this as a sort of continuum with errorless protocols on one end and shaping on another; differential reinforcement could be anywhere between those points depending on how you design your training plan and choose your reinforcers and how those variables affect your dog and their learning. Naturally, as soon as I start thinking that way, I come across interesting things about micro shaping and it being damn near errorless. I need more info, but I know that I definitely do not have the skills to pull that off. I will do more research on that subject and come back to the drawing board on this one. And I love the fact that I have to go back and re-think everything.

I am usually an outcome driven person. I knit because I like mittens. I cook because I want the food. As such, I am continually surprised by how much I love the process of dog training in a way that I have never enjoyed any process before. I love learning about all of these different methods and approaches, thinking through how they work, how they may interact with other methods, how my dog may react to them, how dogs with different temperaments may react to them, how the gel with my abilities and strengths. It is all a big, open ended problem to solve; I love complex problems and dreaming up out-of-the-box solutions. This love may have led me to study engineering, but I am finding that I am more able to apply this love and the skills I learned in school to dog training better than than I can in an industrial setting.

Fittingly enough, I listened to a podcast today while out on a walk in the woods with Perrin that I identified greatly with. It is about passion and success and how most successful passions are not a lightning bolt moment. It really struck me, and think that others may find it very much worth the time to listen to. It can be found here if you want to hear it!

That was a rambling monster of a post! So here is a video of Perrin having the zoomies in the snow:

April 15th Training Log

It is a boring weekend to be a dog around here! I have been working on packing and wrapping up some quilting so that I don’t have to pack half finished projects. Perrin pouts about this:


We have been doing some sniffy walks, and some quick shaping (getting roll over on a cue, shaping a head nod, etc) but not too much else. Perrin and I will both be happy when this move is over!

April 13th Training Log

Today’s lunch involved a brief walk.

After work we went for a long off leash walk, then worked on recalls, around finishes (I know those have a real name, but it is elluding me at the moment), and go-arounds for the disc course we are working on (with sticks instead of discs because Perrin kind of likes sticks). This was a little bit of the video I got of the around finishes before my camera fell out of the tree it was propped in.

He really just wanted to roll in the snow.

We then got in out of the horrible weather and went into Canadian Tire to work on some heeling and pick up some moving materials. Soon after arriving home, my trainer friend had some unexpected time and asked if we wanted to come over to and do some fun training. So, we turned back out the door and went there! Because Perrin’s brain was fried from our earlier work, we mostly worked on down stays at a distance while his friend (the 1 year old Lab) worked in the same space. This is a huge leap forward from where we were six months ago when Perrin could hardly keep his head from exploding 30 feet away on the other side of the fence when there was a friend around to play with. We did a little bit of fitness work, and I acted as a faux judge for the Lab’s conformation training.

I did video some of the fitness work we did. I’m not sure if Perrin is taking his feet off the disc when he sits because the exercise is too hard for him, or if it is because he doesn’t understand that he needs to keep his feet on the disc. I will have to go back and do some work on a stable platform to check his understanding.