Friday, August 17, 2012

Welcome to Hokey's Place

Another stressful week with little time to write any posts. However, the training goes on despite my lack of time to sit down and write anything about it. Here is a post on a behavior I'm introducing into Hokey's repertoire: "go to your place". This is a very convenient behavior to have if you are busy doing something and want your dog to stay out of the way, especially if you don't happen to have a crate handy.

The most common tool used to teach this is some sort of mat, but a towel, small blanket or even a dog bed, which is what I use for Poppy, works fine. It just should be something reasonably portable and easily recognized by your dog as "their" object. Every dog in the household should have their own designated "place". I bought Hokey a small cheap utility mat with non-slip backing for this purpose.

I am primarily training this through shaping and am currently in the middle of training the full behavior. It started with me laying out the rug in the middle of the living room and hand-flashing (my "clicker" since Hokey is deaf) her for interacting with it, eventually working up to reinforcing her for standing with all 4 feet on the mat. This actually turned out to be a speedy process as she was already used to putting all 4 feet on an object lying in the middle of the floor due to the shaping work we've been doing with the frisbee. From there, I gradually shaped her to sit and maintain good eye contact with me.

Next, I taught her to lie down on the mat. This was the only time I did not use pure shaping. This is because down is not a very natural behavior for Hokey to perform while we are interacting and was, in fact, the hardest of the basic obedience commands for me to train her to do. I felt trying to completely shape a down on the mat would take a long time and might try the limits of patience for both of us. Therefore, I did spend some time giving her the hand signal for down and reinforcing the resulting behavior on the mat. 

The end behavior that I'm working toward is for Hokey to respond to a hand signal telling her to "go to your place" by going to the mat and lying down and staying there until I release her. For example, this could mean when I'm ready to sit down at the table to eat dinner, I would be able to signal her to "go to your place" and she would make a bee-line to wherever I've laid her mat down and she would then lie down and remain there until I've finished eating and have given her a release signal. I could also bring the mat on the road with us - say to visit a friend or hang out at an agility trial. I could set the mat on the floor and she would have her own space to hang out. In such situations involving unfamiliar surroundings, having a default behavior such as this while making use of a familiar object (i.e. the mat) offers some security to a dog. 

As of today, my training of this has progressed to the point where Hokey is offering a sit with eye contact on the mat and going "down" on my signal. Eventually, I want her to recognize that when the mat is out and I'm busy doing something, she should be going to it and offering a default behavior. Right now, that default behavior is a sit, but I am working on turning it into a down and today I took steps to begin to shape that. 

I decided to get the mat out and place it on the floor right next to where I was sitting and working on a jigsaw puzzle. I made sure I had LOTS of treats close at hand to reinforce any desired behavior. Since this is new to Hokey, at first I reinforced her a few times for getting on the mat of her own accord and sitting. She was free to move about and I gave her no information about what to do other than to reinforce her when she got on the mat and sat down. 

Next, I gave her a short refresher on going down while on the mat by giving her the down signal a handful of times and rewarding her for responding correctly. 

Then I stopped giving her any information to see what she would do. She spent quite a bit of time standing or sitting on the mat and staring at me waiting for information that just wasn't coming. A couple of times she wandered off the mat, but she kept returning. She wanted to find out how to earn those treats! Then slowly the light bulb started to go off. You can see her working it out in her head in the following video.

Slowly she started to get the idea of what she was supposed to do. 

As Hokey gains confidence, her speed should improve. I did want to make sure I don't let her get into the bad habit of constantly getting up to repeat the behavior - i.e. I do not want her getting into a pattern of lying down, getting reinforced with a treat, then getting up and repeating the behavior in order to receive a constant stream of treats. The goal behavior is to have her down/stay on the mat for a period of time, so it is important to build duration in. Normally I build duration into a behavior very gradually, but as she was already showing some signs of falling into the habit of repeating the behavior for extra treats, I decided to mix it up a bit by randomly and generously rewarding her for staying in the down position and, every so often, not reward her immediately upon her going into the down position. This seemed to help her hold the down position. Also, it is important to make sure the delivery of the treat is given in such a way that it does not encourage the dog to rise from the down position. Give it quickly and just below the nose while they are in a down position. If the dog starts to rise in anticipation of getting the treat, make sure they go back down into position before releasing the treat.

Hokey and I will continue to work on this and before long she should be heading to her mat to relax and chill out while the world buzzes around her.

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