Thursday, February 10, 2011

Living with a shy dog: target training with Jenny

When last I reported on the state of my shy dog Jenny, she was submissively urinating every time I went to put a leash on her. We nicely solved that problem when she volunteered to go outside and come back inside on her own and no longer required a leash. She is extremely responsive to my indications about what it is time for dogs to do next, and the elder dog in the household helps instruct her as well. So while I have continued to desensitize her reactions to the leash (by showing her leashlike things and then giving her treats), I have been focusing on other things with her lately. This is my greatest failing as a trainer: I get bored with one program and move on to the next.

These days, Jenny and I are working on target training. The idea is to train the dog to touch a particular object on command, commonly a yogurt container top, which is what I’m using. Target training is useful as a stepping stone for training more complex behaviors. You can use it, for example, to train a dog to close a door on command, by taping the target to the door and then eventually removing it. In this case, I am hoping to use it to encourage Jenny to touch me more, by giving her a way to touch me that is under her control (touching a target in my hand). Of course, we are starting out with the target on the couch next to her, where she feels safest.

The work I was doing with her before was classical conditioning, which is used to change the way an animal feels about something. I was pairing something good (food) with something that I wanted Jenny to feel good about too (the leash). In the case of target training, I am using operant conditioning. The goal here is not to change how Jenny feels about the target (who cares if she likes a yogurt top or not?) but to change her behavior around it (show her that it is useful to touch it with her nose, eventually on command).

Specifically, I am using a clicker for this purpose. I’m not going to explain clicker training in this post, but if you are interested in clicker training with behaviorally challenging dogs, Click to Calm is highly recommended.

So, Jenny is doing great. We’ve had four sessions so far. Session one: I tossed the lid in front of her repeatedly and rewarded her for sniffing it. Then I stopped tossing it, and rewarded her just for looking at it. She sniffed at it again once more before the end of the session (jackpot! Ten treats in a row and end on a high note!).

Session two: I only tossed the lid down once or twice to get her started. I still rewarded her just for looking at it. This time she showed more intention in her sniffing at it, like she was thinking about what she was doing, and she sniffed at it three times.

Session three: I only tossed the lid down once. She sniffed it repeatedly, immediately after each treat (whereupon, obviously, I gave her another treat). When it was clear that this was easy for her, I moved the lid a half inch farther away. This flummoxed her a little, possibly partly because I had moved the lid, which might have suggested to her that I didn’t want her to interact with it. So I went back to rewarding her for looking at it. By the end of the session she was sniffing it again, though not quite as regularly. Good thing I only moved it a tiny amount; she was clearly not ready for more.

Session four: she was nosing the lid so regularly that I started inching it farther away from her every few repetitions. She followed, but on the third or fourth time I moved it away, picked it up in her mouth and moved it back closer to her. Jackpot! (Lots of treats for that, all in a row.) That wasn’t what I had originally intended her to do, but I figure it’s a good idea to reward her for being assertive and really interacting with her environment.

Target training with her has been fun. She is extremely smart, much more limited by her shyness than by her brains, sort of the opposite of working with my other dog Jack, who is very outgoing but of only average intelligence. I think the signs are good that the target training work will be useful in bringing her out of her shell.

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