Lewis and I have achieved two of my personal holy grails of dog training. He can both wait quietly in another room while I train Clara, and he can station successfully in the same room while I train her. Hallelujah!
The effects of these abilities are far-reaching. Since the end of December 2021 when I got Lewis, I have spent most of my training time with him. That means that Clara, my stalwart, lovely Clara, hasn’t been getting as much fun training time with me. I’ve been exhausted from training and managing Lewis. And she loves to train. As you might remember, we were working on her trick titles, ahem. We haven’t stopped, though. We’ve been working on finding lost objects and keeping her other trick behaviors alive. But we’re not working every day as we did before.
Lewis came to me with a huge Fear of Missing Out. As far as I can tell, he doesn’t have symptoms of separation anxiety or isolation distress. But he had been in a state of deprivation, living in a vet clinic for crucial months of his puppyhood. He suffered from that and learned a huge palette of demand behaviors as well.
For months, I couldn’t do something so simple as leaving him in the den while I took Clara into another room to trim her nails for five minutes. He would yell and rattle the gate. And sometimes get it open, dammit. Talk about great reinforcement.
But he has learned, over almost five months, that he will get a turn. He will get some . Not every time, but enough to make it worthwhile. (Clara would like me to remind you that he’s been getting more of everything for months.)
I am not great at precision training, but if you need patience and a slow, gradual progression, I’m your person.
Training Two Dogs
I wrote a blog post on training multiple dogs a few years ago, and I still follow that method. The principle of teaching one dog to wait while another gets the active training is very simple. I learned it from Sue Ailsby. When you are training a dog to wait on a mat or other station while you work with another dog, train the waiting dog. Don’t focus on the active dog and give the waiting dog a treat now and then, or even every time you treat the active one. Give the waiting dog more attention, more reinforcement. When you do something with the working dog, start with very little movement and immediately turn back to the waiting dog and reinforce. As you progress, build up to more movement and object interaction by the working dog and continue to reinforce both dogs richly.
The high rate of reinforcement for the waiting dog won’t be forever. You can spread out your schedule later and lower the value of the treats once they learn that in the big picture, they’ll get a turn. And getting to work can become the biggest reinforcer of all.
I haven’t found the videos where I started this with Lewis. But here is one of my old videos starring Zani where I take a methodical approach to teaching this behavior. The video below shows my latest triumph: Lewis waiting nicely on a Klimb platform while I take Clara through some very active training—getting on and in objects. This was a long time coming.
Three things about this movie.
- Sorry about the crappy camera angle; I almost cut him off.
- I think Lewis fusses as I cue him to lie down on the Klimb because he doesn’t know how to do that yet with his front feet stationary, and there’s not much room behind him. He figures it out.
- Clara has a bandage on her left front paw because of a raw spot on the side of her foot and she is holding it up (superstitious behavior) even more than usual. It doesn’t hurt her to use her paw; I think the bandage feels weird.
Next, I’ll teach Lewis to hold his position while I give Clara an object to hold, then finally while I play tug with her. This will be a challenge. Lewis can hardly bear it when Clara has something; whatever she has, he wants.
Zen/Leave It/Impulse Control with Two Dogs
Leaving available stuff alone is a lifesaving skill for dogs.
People have various reasonable criticisms of the terms impulse control and self control but I’m OK with them. They have precise definitions in behavior science. If I had a criticism, it would be that environment controls behavior. The “self” isn’t controlling behavior, but consequences and history of consequences are. But whatever we call the behavior, we can teach dogs, with positive reinforcement, to leave an available goodie alone for extended periods if we start gradually and make it worth their while.
Methods for teaching dogs to leave available food alone are becoming more and more positive reinforcement-based . Marge Rogers and I no longer use approaches based on extinction and negative punishment. There are no periods where the animal tries and can’t get the food as part of the training plan. That creates unnecessary frustration. Dogs don’t have to try to get it and fail in order to learn to leave the food alone.
Instead, I’ve learned from Marge to teach eye contact and fade in visible food as a distraction. Then extend “this food is just a distraction” to other behaviors. The presence of food finally becomes a cue to reorient to me and do fun stuff. To be honest, when I teach the behavior, I inevitably make a couple of fumbles. So there may be some negative punishment involved if I progress too fast, they go for the food, and I prevent access. That’s a mistake on my part; I’m not a perfect trainer. But I’m getting better at this low error approach.
I started with eye contact, then fading in food in my hands, then moving the food around. Then, once Lewis had the basic idea, I transitioned to teaching him to ignore food on the floor (no eye contact required). He now pauses and looks at me even in real life when I drop something by accident. Another Hallelujah.
In the video, we are working on dropped food. The dogs are on platforms but I’m not requiring a particular behavior on there. I start by placing food on the floor, then work up to dropping it and having it bounce around. Note that the presence of Clara makes the stakes higher for Lewis. There’s another dog who could get the food!
You’ll also see an error on my part where I progress too quickly for Lewis—too many kibbles coming straight at him too fast. When that happens, I don’t even try to keep him from the food. He gets reinforced for the wrong behavior—jumping down to grab the food. But I’m not worried; I can keep the matching law on my side.
I do have a verbal cue for leave it: “Pas,” the French word. I picked it years ago because I had taught Summer “Leave It” with corrections and needed an un-poisoned phrase. I sometimes feel a little silly using it (and people think I am saying “paw”). But I can say the short word with the plosive consonant very quietly and the cue is very recognizable. I think I picked a good word, after all. (Thank you, Lynn Shrove, for suggesting it. I haven’t forgotten!)
I practice dropping treats so much, though, that staying away from them becomes a default behavior for all my dogs. In most situations, I don’t need the cue.
When I have time to dig through my series of Lewis videos, I’ll post more of the steps we took for the behaviors in the videos above. But in the meantime, if I can do it, especially with Lewis, I bet you can do it with your dog, too. Please know that I understand how taxing it is to have to devote all sorts of time to the “hard” dog while the patient dog just has to be patient. The good news is that this is usually a fixable problem.
It’s such a relief to include Clara in most training sessions again.
Copyright 2022 Eileen Anderson