Speeding learning through positive reinforcement.


Well-known field trainer George Hickox uses a clicker to gain the attention of Gun Dog writer Lisa Price’s German shorthair puppy, Viv, during a training seminar.

Problem
I have enjoyed reading your column but I never thought I’d feel a need to seek your counsel–until now. My female German shorthair pup is my fifth dog in 40 years. My previous dogs were three Brittanys and an English setter, in that order. All turned into satisfactory bird dogs and house dogs, with no noticeable behavioral problems.

Sadie is now nine months old, and although far from being completely trained, she is coming along well in the field. She started pointing wild birds (bobwhite quail) at seven months, and she minds well in the field, but only when wearing an e-collar. She responds to the pager/tone sound to come back, and seldom needs more than this in the field.

It is her at-home/yard training that is giving us cause for concern. Although she housebroke and crate-trained easily, she is very strong-willed and full of strange behavior at home. She sleeps in a travel crate in our bedroom. When my wife and I get up mornings, she refuses to get to her feet, or come out of the crate willingly. When we open the crate, she just remains lying there.

When I reach in to bring her out by her collar, she feigns biting at my hand. It’s not really a serious bite, but a puppy play biting display of defiance, never growling, but she will bite us, albeit gently. I never let her win these contests of defiance. Sometimes when we’re relaxing, I just reach down to pet her on top of her head, and she will snap at me like this, in a rough but playful manner.

She repeats this display of puppy biting whenever/wherever we have to grab her by the collar for disobedience. An example of this would be in making her go outside when she doesn’t want to, which is quite often. She will simply play “keep away” from us when we try to make her go outside, so I have to corner her someplace and drag her to the door.

She has never growled at us, showed serious “teeth,” or displayed a mean manner.

This hardheaded refusal to come when called (indoors or outside) is something I have not experienced with my previous dogs. I have tried the age-old “reel her in on a rope” technique and she just jumps around, winding the rope into a bird’s nest from her end.

She does not appear to have a desire to please. She is however, an affection-seeking dog that loves to be petted in our home–but like everything else, on her terms.

You are probably by now wondering about my earlier statement, regarding my satisfaction with her progress in the field. Because of her strong-willed temperament, I introduced her to the e-collar at six months. She quickly became a pup that would respond to the pager/tone when she realized that a momentary nick would follow if she didn’t obey. The e-collar was soon employed at home to get her to come when called.

Let me assure you that I am not one of these trigger happy e-collar trainers. I use it only to enforce known commands when they are disobeyed, and with as little voltage as possible. She definitely knows what “come” means, but without the collar, chooses to obey it only if the mood suits her.

At home, like in the field, the pager/tone sound is all it takes for her to come running 90 percent of the time. The biting can be nipped in the bud if I am holding the transmitter when she does it. I just give her a momentary nick on a very low setting, and she stops immediately. This dog is very “collar wise.” With the collar off, she does as she pleases.

Another detail that I know I should share with you is this: she was taken from her litter earlier than the often recommended 49 days. I bought her from a litter whelped at a local shooting preserve. When I went to look at the pups and picked her, the breeder told me they were 42 days old but had already been weaned from the bitch for three days and were eating dog food readily. He encouraged me take her with me, and because it was a 60-mile trip (one way) and I was anxious for a pup, I took her home.

Yes, I can still hear the words of the late Richard Wolters ringing in my ears, “Forty-nine days!” I have since done some reading about behavior problems associated with “picking them too green.” I learned that excessive biting is thought by some to be a result of the bitch not being there to teach the pups not to bite during the crucial final days of the litter’s “family unit.”

I suspect that part of my problem is that my past four dogs were from softer, more biddable breeds, and I am probably better suited to dogs that take less force than a hardhead like she is. She does have positive qualities that we like, and I know that most pups at nine months are going to mellow considerably, given time. My wife and I are committed to keeping her as part of our home.

My concern for our future with her can be summed up as follows: (1) This continuing biting is hard to abide. (2) When she pulls away from us when we reach for her, after disobeying, it appears that we have beaten or abused her. We have not. (3) I do not want to continue having a dog that requires an e-collar to make her come or obey. On the other hand, had I bought her years ago when we didn’t have e-collars, I think I might have gone mad by now.

Any advice that you have would be greatly appreciated.

Solution
Your GSP sounds like a puppy refusing to grow up. I agree that she was taken too early from the litter, before she knew she was a dog, before she understood “dog language” and how to relate to people as a dog and not as a spoiled brat. I also think Wolters’ recommended seven weeks (exactly 49 days) is too early. I want breeders to keep the pups until 10 weeks before letting them leave the litter. That way primary and secondary socialization have a chance to be completed. But that doesn’t help you now.

As you have seen, neither pushing nor pulling her is working. She isn’t really getting it.

You can’t have her collared all the time and you see what she does without it. A dog that only does things under duress is not going to make a good working gun dog. I want to suggest a different approach and I think it will work to make her into a good citizen.

Have you heard of clicker training? It is all positive, treat-oriented training. A clicker is just a piece of spring steel in a resonating box. It clicks when pressed down and again when released. So it is really “click, click,” very close together. You can get one in any pet store. The advantage of the clicker is
the consistency of the clicking. No matter how mad you get you can’t make it louder or a different frequency. The sound stays the same.

To start, cut up a hot dog or a piece of cheese into ¼-inch cubes and put a bag of them into your pocket. Begin by giving the click/click and giving Sadie a cube of hot dog.

Repeat it, say, 15 to 20 times, always the click immediately followed by giving her the treat. Soon the click will mean treat and the click itself is the reward. This is the old Pavlovian classical conditioning.

Now let Sadie wander around you. Be ready with the clicker. When she turns to look toward you, click and give a treat. Repeat it but this time, wait until she takes a step toward you before you click and treat. Repeat, but wait for two or three steps toward you before you click.

At this stage, give her a treat each time she earns her click. Later you will give her a treat only on the third or fourth trial and you should vary it. Soon she will come quickly to you to get her click and treat. Then wait until she is farther from you and as she turns toward you, click. Soon she will be running to you.

Now you can add a command word. When she is some distance from you and looks in your direction, say her name, tell her “Come,” then click as soon as she makes an intention to move toward you. Repeat a few times, telling her “Come” and a click and then treat. Quickly the word will become the signal to come and she will be rushing toward you.

You can do this in the house. After she is doing it well in the house you can apply it to getting her out of the crate. Just ignore her while you get dressed and when you head toward the kitchen, call her name and say, “Come.” Click and give her a treat when she gets to you.

To get her outside, it is the same trick sort of backwards. When she looks toward the door to the yard, click, treat. Then when she takes a step toward it, click, treat. Next open the door and as she goes toward it click and treat, then outside, click and when she goes toward the spot you want her to use as her bathroom, click, treat.

You can direct her to go toward any place you want as long as you click and treat for any movement in the right direction and keep insisting she does more on each trial. You can teach her to walk at heel, to retrieve, to ring a bell when she wants to go outside, almost anything using this technique of rewarding her for approximations toward some goal you set. This is referred to as shaping.

If you want to work her on the whistle, add it to the front as you did with the word “come.” In the field, the whistle or voice commands will replace the click or be given in conjunction with it when close.

If you would like to read a book on this, try Don’t Shoot the Dog by Karen Pryor. She used the technique originally to train dolphins, porpoises and whales for the aquarium shows. She used a whistle initially because it penetrated the water better than a clicker.

When your pup is working for you by doing what you want for her click and treat, the biting will pretty much have taken care of itself. For those times when she is not working and you both are just resting, don’t pet her unless she comes to you, sits and is asking for care and affection, then pet her. But if she starts the play bite, stop and just ignore her.

She will soon learn your hand is not a chew toy. There is no need to reprimand her or even tell her “no” or “stop.” Ignoring her will be a stronger message. Always keep reinforcement positive with her, never negative and you will come out way ahead.

For solutions to your dog’s behavioral problem or behavior related training problem, you can contact Ed Bailey at: edbailey@uoguelph.ca

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