Tuesday, August 31, 2010

CU Seminar: Whiplash Turns

Sorry, I don't have a picture of this from the seminar.
Instead, look at this pretty picture of Maisy
at this little park near our hotel in Omaha!
Also, hey, another use for whiplash turns: taking pictures!

Another one of the foundation exercises we practiced at the CU seminar was the whiplash turn, which is a great game to play with any dog, reactive or not. Simply put, the end goal is to get your dog turning his head towards you so fast when you call his name that you think he’s going to get whiplash.

There are endless applications for a whiplash turn. It is the foundation for a brilliant recall. It allows you to get your dog’s attention when he’s distracted. It can even serve to interrupt the beginnings of a reactive response, assuming your dog hasn’t gone over threshold.

Whiplash turns are easy to teach, and the way Alexa taught it is also fun for the dog! All you do is toss a treat to one side, letting the dog chase after it and eat it. (Side note: It’s wise to give the dog a verbal cue signifying that the treat is his- something like “get it!” works great. Giving permission will help him later on when we teach when we teach leave it.) Just as he finishes eating, call his name. The timing here is important, because you can essentially stack the deck in your favor- your dog was likely to look back at you at that moment, anyway. When he does, click and toss the reward treat in the other direction.

Tossing the treat isn’t required to play the game, but it is recommended in the early stages because it helps set up the exercise again. Also, if your dog is anything like Maisy, you’ll get a dog that quickly learns where the treat is likely to show up next, and as a result, dashes off to that location, ping-ponging back and forth like crazy. That’s actually okay because you’ll end up conditioning a speedy and enthusiastic response to your cue.

Once our dogs were doing great whiplash turns with relatively low distractions, we upped the difficulty. Alexa came around holding tempting, tasty treats in a closed fist. All of the dogs naturally ran over to her to sniff her fist. Again, we tried to stack the deck in our favor by allowing our dogs a moment or two to sniff, long enough for them to realize that Alexa wasn’t just going to give up the goods, but not so long that they’d already turned back to us. The goal was to call our dog’s name right at that sweet spot so that we could get a response.

Even so, the responses were generally not as impressive as just a moment before since the exercise suddenly got much more difficult. If we had timed our cue right, the dogs generally looked, even if it wasn’t with the speed and enthusiasm we hoped for. But if they didn’t, it wasn’t a big deal. We simply lowered our criteria and accepted a smaller response. Then we built it back up in subsequent trials.

Anyway, when the dogs finally responded, we clicked and told our dogs to go take the treat from Alexa. Most of the dogs weren’t expecting this, but they sure welcomed it! Giving the treat like this was a demonstration of the Premack Principle: if you turn away from that yummy treat when I ask you to, you’ll get to eat it anyway! This allows our dogs to learn that we won’t always end their fun. They don’t need to choose between us and the fascinating environment, instead, they can get access to it even faster by responding to us.

Maisy and I plan on playing this game some more. While she has a pretty decent whiplash turn, it could be more consistent. There are times where it’s brilliant. For example, at the hotel, Maisy began running down the hallway. She was off-leash (I was tired and not thinking clearly), but I didn’t want her too far from me, so I called her name… and she turned on a dime to come tearing back to me. Talk about brilliant! Then there are the times where she barely responds, like when there are chickens around. Certainly this has to do with the level of distraction present, and like anything else, I need to proof out her whiplash turns, especially if I want them to be useful for reactivity work.

But what about you guys? Have you trained this behavior? If so, how good of a response do you get? What influences this? I’d love to hear if you’ve got any good stories!


Sara and Layla said...

Hey, those are the games I use in class! We always have so much fun with the one where the dog has to turn away from the handful of treats. Some dogs try everything they can think of to get the treats, thinking it's a weird hand signal and if they just keep offering behaviors maybe they'll get paid. Turning away is sooo hard that first time, and I love the look on their face when the owner gives them permission to eat the previously-forbidden treat!

I've been experimenting with using the whiplash turn when Layla greets another dog. She's at the stage in her training where she's ready to start meeting other appropriate dogs on leash, but can still be reactive if pushed too fast. The pattern seems to be that she does okay the first couple seconds of greeting, then starts to feel trapped/anxious and snarks to get the other dog to back off. She doesn't realize that she can move away to end the interaction.

I'm experimenting with clicking AND asking for a whiplash turn after 3-5 seconds of sniffing, jackpotting, then giving her the option of either returning to sniff more or moving away. I don't know yet whether this will work, but picture a behavior chain similar to LAT: cue to "go sniff," Layla walks up to the dog and sniffs for 3-5 seconds, click, Layla returns for a treat. I'm using the whiplash turn to reinforce the turn-away behavior, because sometimes she doesn't come away for the click alone but will usually come away if I pair both the click and the verbal reminder of a whiplash turn cue. It's an interesting experiment so far, and I hope it will help continue to build her comfort level around unfamiliar dogs.

Crystal said...

Sara, I'm just so impressed with how far you've brought Layla. It's truly inspirational, and when I'm feeling like I'll never get where I want with Maisy, I just remember how far you two have come. Of course, I think you're the better trainer :) but I'm doing my best.

I think the thing I've really learned is that all those foundations which seem small and trivial are really important in the long run. A whiplash turn may not seem like much, but look how much use you've gotten out of it!