Thursday, May 5, 2011

Clicker Expo 2011 (Chicago): Eva Bertilsson and Emelie Johnson Vegh- Let's Make Some Noise!

Maisy hates things that move under her feet, and she's not too fond of strange noises, either, so when I heard about this session on building confidence in dogs by using noise and movement, I knew I had to go. At the same time, I was also a bit skeptical. My general experience has been that when dog people talk about building confidence in dogs, it's in mildly worried dogs, not the truly terrified ones. I'm often left with the feeling that, yes, that might work... but not for my dog.

I did not leave Eva and Emelie's presentation feeling that way. To the contrary, I felt like they really, truly get what an anxious dog is all about. I believed that they have met dogs like Maisy and worked through their issues. They did a great job of breaking down the concepts, explaining ways to make it easier, and offering alternative solutions. I was super impressed with them, their presentation, and their ideas.

Eva Bertilsson and Emelie Johnson Vegh are agility people, and their book, Agility Right From the Start, has received a lot of positive buzz. So naturally, they are concerned about dogs learning to love noise and movement because of the agility obstacles, especially the teeter. However, they were quick to say that their session was about more than just agility, and that noise and movement is not simply a distraction to overcome. Our lives are full of noise and movement, and if a dog doesn't learn to enjoy it, his quality of life suffers.

Although they did discuss applications to agility, and used agility-related videos, as a non-agility person, I did not feel this detracted from the presentation in the least. They did a great job of presenting the concepts of noise and movement as something people like me could use to help their non-agility dogs. Again, I was so impressed.

Eva and Emelie shared that there are several ways to approach noise and movement with dogs who are cautious or fearful of it. The first is habituation, in which the dog simply ceases to respond to the stimuli. When a trainer helps a dog to habituate to noise or movement, the goal is for the dog to not mind or not notice when it happens.

The second method is to teach the dog to like the noise or movement through classical conditioning. This isn't a bad approach, and in fact, Eva and Emelie said you need to do this step before you can move on to the next one. Basically you teach the dog that when they hear a noise or feel something move, great stuff will happen. It's not contingent upon the dog's behavior; the dog is simply experiencing awesome treats and super fun games and toys as a result of noise or movement.

Eva and Emelie shared that this is a great thing to do for all agility dogs, even the ones with a solid temperament. If they love noise and movement, they'll be eager for it to happen, and you'll get a far more enthusiastic performance from your dog. For the worried dogs, though, it's vital. When you are pairing the noise and movement with good things, you'll need to gauge whether your dog was simply cautious or whether he was truly scared. Depending on where he's at, you'll need to adjust your training. Dogs on the cautious end of the spectrum can receive relatively low-value treats and work for many quick repetitions. Dogs on the more fearful end of the spectrum, though, might only be able to do one or two trials a day, and will need the awesome thing- whether treats or play (and they prefer play because it's a higher energy activity that results in a better, happier response)- to happen for a very long time.

With conditioning like this, it is vital that you get the order correct. The noise or movement happens first, then the awesome thing. This is especially true if your dog dislikes noise and movement and you do it the other way around, you'll associate the treat or the toy with bad feelings. They called this “backwards conditioning,” and said it will cause you far more headaches in the long run.

Another suggestion for truly worried dogs, is to be sure that you never use noise or movement as an aversive. Don't say “ah-ah,” don't make “sst” noises, don't yell “no!” Doing so will work against you. Your goal is for noise and movement- any noise and movement- to predict great things, not punishing things, no matter how small that punishment might be.

The third method- and the one Eva and Emelie prefer- is to teach the dog to create and then demand noise and movement through operant conditioning. While classical conditioning is controlled by the handler, operant conditioning gives control to the dog. Since worried dogs often feel like the world is out-of-control, giving them the power to exert influence on their world can be transformative.

They start by simply teaching the dog how to create the noise through the handler. They do this by treating the noise or movement as a secondary reinforcer, just like a clicker. They will shape behaviors using a noise or some movement in the place of the click. You can use any noise- jingle some keys, or hit two spoons together, or shut a cupboard door- and then follow it up with a treat. Using movement is a bit more difficult, but they recommended having the dog on a very small wobble board or even in your lap, and just moving slightly in place of the click. This results in a dog who wants the noise or movement to happen. It also lets him control how often the noise happens. They did say it should be offered, voluntary behavior, because if you use a cue to get the behavior, it can both wreck the cue (because the cue will predict something scary), and it takes away the dog's choice.They demonstrated this concept with pretty simply behaviors- turning, raising, or lowering a head, for example.

Next, they teach the dog how to create the noise and movement on his own. They shape the dog to do things that like knocking over a book or a soda can, putting metal spoons in metal buckets or on baking trays, etc. Start small- knocking a book over onto carpet is a fairly muffled noise- and build up to larger noises, like knocking over huge stacks of pots and pans. You can choose to click either the dog's movement or the product of his movement (ie, the noise/movement). Eva and Emelie said it doesn't really matter which, as long as you are consistent.

Finally, they work towards having the dog demand the noise and movement. This is really just another level of “create,” but it's a more intense, active version. During this phase of training, you will make creating the noise or movement more difficult by adding resistance. For example, if you're teaching him to shut a cupboard noise (which will both move and bang when it closes), you might hold it lightly so that the dog must push it with more intensity.

No matter which level you're working at, you want to keep your sessions very short, with very slow escalation in the amount of noise or movement. They recommend doing 1 to 3 reps at a time. Any more than that and the dog's brain starts to produce adrenaline because of the fear reaction, which makes it harder for him to learn from the process. They also recommend varying the intensity. The first rep might be very easy, the second quite hard, and the last somewhere in between.

Always watch your dog's expression as you start a session. Eva and Emelie said that the way a dog approaches a session tells you more about how he's feeling than the way he reacts during the session. That said, if you see any signs of worry during a session, do a very easy rep, and then take a break- a long one. They recommended taking breaks of a few days to a few weeks long so the dog has time to forget that it was scary. Remember the goal is to make noise and movement fun for your dog, not simply something to tolerate. Always make it a fun, easy game.

These are some pretty cool ideas, and I know my words do not do their concepts justice. How can you boil down 90 minutes of brilliance into a thousand words? Like I said- I walked away really believing that this would work with Maisy, and that doesn't happen too often! Their video was amazing, and really helped clarify how to use these concepts.  Still, I hope that this at least gives those of you with cautious or fearful dogs some ideas of how to proceed. I'd love to hear from anyone who has tried these ideas!


Ci Da said...

I don't have anything particularly helpful to add, but your post served to remind me that I need to work on improving my dog's teeter performance. Because of the noise/movement combo she's a bit hesitant. Every once in a while she'll tackle the teeter with enthusiasm which results in a bigger bang and faster movement, and she scares herself back down to a more controlled performance.

I think one day I'll start reteaching the teeter from scratch using a similar method outlined above: shape a quick bolt to the end of the teeter without it dropping, while also working on acclimatizing/CCing/OCing her to the noise.

Kristen said...

We use these activities (from their Expo sessions and the Agility Right From the Start book) in our agility foundation class. And I've also been using it in the basic manners classes for any dogs who need "Brave Dog Games."

Just tonight, we were playing this with a giant breed dog who can be nervous. We had graduated from knocking over stacks of plastic bottles to stacks of pop cans!

Laura, Lance, and Vito said...

This was outlined in their book pretty well and was one thing that really stood out to me when I read it. I will definitely be doing more shaping games with movement for my future dogs. I also like Silvia Trkman's recommendation to teach a paw touch to close drawers for a movement exercise.

Sophie said...

The seminar sounds pretty cool, and I'm definitely going to try some of their suggestions with Lola! She tends to get worried around fast movements and loud noises, so I'll work on getting her to push over a soda can and work up from that in the next couple of weeks.

Crystal Thompson said...

I'm excited to hear that this info is in their book! I've never read it (not an agility person, remember?), but it sounds like it might be worthwhile anyway.

Laura, Lance, and Vito said...

Well I own it if you want to borrow it sometime. I just never see you!

Kristen said...

I recommend the book to everyone, and except for the length, it is a GREAT intro to'd love it... the training strategies and specific ways to get behavior, the activities, and explanations are fabulous. You NEED it.

Crystal Thompson said...

Thanks for the offer, Laura! I've had others offer to lend it to me, but I've got a lot of books in my "to read" pile, and at the time, not much use for agility books, so I've always declined. I guess perhaps I should take a look at it after all...

Kristen said...

It's much more than an agility book! The "Aim for it" and "race to reward" parts are especially useful. I often lend it out just so people can read those pages.

Joanna said...

I have that book too, and I'm slowly making my way through it. So far it's been great! I've been working on teaching Dragon these kinds of tricks a little bit -- knocking over a plastic soda bottle (onto carpet), knocking over a stack of wooden coasters, pawing at some jingle bells, and most recently Silvia Trkman's closing drawers/cabinets trick, which he's picking up with much more enthusiasm than I was expecting. He's getting better with noises already but movement is more difficult because we don't practice it as much. I need to think of move movement games.

Crystal Thompson said...

I hope you share the movement games when you think them up! :) We need those too.