Sei Frustration Musings

Before I picked Sei up, one of the many things his breeder told me about him was that he would demand clarity in training. While that became clear in our other training endeavors, it has become glaringly, in-your-face obvious now that I am attempting to use a frisbee or a ball as a reinforcer. Im suspecting there are two big underlying reasons for this:

1. In shaping and capturing, I am using food as my main reinforcer. Food and toys encourage very different arousal states for Sei, and the arousal state produced by a toy is much more active, energetic, demanding, and less patient. Perfect for teaching many behaviours, but less forgiving of mistakes. Which leads me to…

2. My lack of skills using toys as a reinforcer. Perrin never really liked toys enough or consistently, so they didn’t really come into his list of useful reinforcers. I am just starting to learn what training a dog in a ‘toy arousal’ state looks like: which behaviours lend themselves best, which type of play (chase, catch, tug, etc) works best for which behaviours, where to deliver reinforcement for which toys and which behaviours, which types of reinforcement/delivery locations need different marker words, etc. It’s a bit of a steep learning curve with both theoretical/judgement skills and mechanical skills to learn.

3. I am better at shaping and capturing because I have done it more, so I make fewer mistakes and set up better training plans. This leaves fewer gaps for Sei to be frustrated in.

I’m trying to do my best for Sei by learning as fast as I can, but there are going to be a lot of mistakes for a while. I am going to have to up my planning game and stop setting  Sei and myself up for failure by going into training sessions unprepared.

I’m not skilled at using toys for reinforcement in training yet, but I am just so happy that I at least had the knowledge to identify the likely problem when Sei suddenly started jumping up and biting my arms in the middle of toy training sessions. Knowing even less than I do now, I would have likely put that behaviour down to a ‘lack of self control’ around the toy, rather than recognizing it as a frustration behaviour initiated when I was being confusing and his path to reinforcement was unclear. The pieces of the puzzle that made me think frustration were:

  • It was not happening in the beginning of the session, but in the middle after the novelty of the toy had worn off a bit
  • He doesn’t do it when we are just playing with toys (and I didn’t think what we were doing looked much different than that. It was high on the playing and low on the asking for skills. Clearly Sei disagreed)
  • His body language and bark is different when he is really excited versus when he is frustrated
  • It was only happening when I was trying to cue newer behaviours that had never been practiced with a toy (and quite frankly were not on the verbal well enough for me to be trying it with him so excited and focused on the toy).

This seems childish to me, but I am also happy that I was able to think logically when he was biting me, rather than applying an emotionally driven answer (‘he is an entitled little brat thinking he can just take the toy from me!’), or lashing out when he hurt me. That is progress from where I was three years ago. The last reason is actually one of the reasons why moving to +R philosophies made my world a happier place. I find that the only time +P methods tend to pop into my head as an option is when I am extremely frustrated or in pain (usually the triggers occur in the form of constant barking or being nipped, respectively). And at that point my decisions weren’t logical, or based on behaviours science, its strictly an emotional lashing out. Then I would feel so bad because Perrin would be so sad and I was mad at myself for making him feel that way, and also for letting my emotions take over to the point of lashing out

While I may not know what to do all the time, I’m finding that I am more and more able to at least identify the problem (or at least a short list of likely ones). Which means I can think through them and try a new approach or go out and find more information on the problem. I’m slowly making progress!

So, back to the disc incidents. I continued to use my three different markers for toys that I have so far (catch = the toy is going to be tossed into the air for you to catch, tug= come to me and tug the toy in my hand, chase= I am about to throw this ball/disc/whatever for you to run after), which I think makes a big difference. He clearly knows what each of them means. I also put more thought into what I was asking him to do, where we were and how he is feeling. Rookie mistake assuming that what he can do in the house for food, he can do in the yard for a toy. After re-adjusting my criteria and ensuring I was consistently using the correct markers, I am happy to say that I haven’t been bitten since.

Its a shame for poor Sei that he had to yell so loudly (bit me twice) before I understood the troubles he was having. I will work harder to be better for him.




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