Monday, March 28, 2016

The Name Game: one word to rule them all

"Aipa, come!"

"Aipa, find!"

"Aipa, sit"

"Aipa, leave it"

Which of these cues is most important? The recall could save my dog's life. But then "find" could save a missing person's life! I can drop my dog instantaneously with a down or stay. But there's one cue that trumps them all because it's part of almost everything else that I use to communicate with my dog: her name.

No matter what she is doing - working a search exercise, playing with her best friends, chasing a deer, gnawing a fresh bone, or sleeping - saying her name instantly locks her eyes onto mine, allowing me to then signal whatever it is that I'd like her to do. It was the first human sound that was ever directed at her, and it was the first verbal cue she was ever trained to respond to. No matter what else we have learned together in the past eight years, nothing will ever be as strong as her first cue, her name.

Compliance is easy, once you have attention.

The fact that your dog's first cue will likely become his strongest is not the only reason why The Name Game works so well as a first training exercise. Chances are, you want your dog to make and maintain eye contact when you say his name. This behaviour is so simple, well-defined, and easy to capture that you can actually condition your secondary reinforcer (e.g. clicker, light flash, neutral tactile stimulus, or marker word) while teaching it! This conditioned reinforcer is not a method although you may have heard the somewhat misleading term "clicker trainer" or "clicker method". It is simply a timing tool that allows you to reward your dog slightly after the fact as long as you use the conditioned reinforcer to mark the behaviour when it happened. You can't train your dog to retrieve by feeding while he still has a dumbbell in his mouth, but you can click, then feed, so that he learns to repeat the action of grasping the dumbbell because it has been paired with a sound that's predictive of a reward. If your dog is not deaf, then I strongly recommend beginning with a clicker because it is crisp, consistent, and unique. Because a conditioned reinforcer is helpful or even necessary in so many aspects of training, it is frequently recommended that the association be made prior to beginning training. However, if you use a simple enough behaviour (making eye contact), then there is no reason not to simply condition it while teaching what you want to become your dog's strongest behaviour: her name.

Now that you understand the concepts behind The Name Game and the conditioned reinforcer, you'll need a few supplies:
  • video camera
  • clicker
  • bouncy ball
That's right, no dog. You are going to practise your conditioned reinforcer before you try it on your dog.
  1. Set your camera to start filming yourself.
  2. Drop your ball 10 times, clicking each time it hits the ground.
  3. Review the footage to critique your own timing. Repeat until you reach 80% reliability with your click timing.
  4. Toss your ball upward 10 times, clicking each time you catch it.
  5. Review the footage and repeat until you reach 80% reliability with your click timing.
Now you're ready for your dog! To play The Name Game, you will need
  • dog
  • her breakfast*
  • clicker
*This is easiest if your dog eats some form of kibble. If your dog eats canned food, then you can use a treat tube, such as the aptly name Treat Toob, to dispense licks. If you're a raw or home-cooked feeder, then you might consider puréeing into a Treat Toob, puréeing and freezing into bites, or using bite-sized frozen (e.g. Nature's Variety Instinct raw bites, Primal Pronto, Stella & Chewy's), refrigerated (e.g. FreshPet), freeze-dried (e.g. Stella & Chewy's), or air-dried (e.g. ZiwiPeak, Wellness Core Air-Dried) food for part of your dog's breakfast.

Play The Name Game in as uninteresting an environment as possible, perhaps where you normally feed her:
  1. Wait for her to look at you. Click the instant her eyes meet yours.
  2. Deliver a single kibble within 1 second of the click, but be careful that no motion predictive of food delivery occurs before or during the click.
  3. Once she is reliably making eye contact in order to earn the click/treat, precede her behaviour with a verbal cue: her name. In other words, once the sequence is look-click-treat-look-click-treat with very little pause between the treat and the next look, squeeze the new cue between treat and look so that the sequence becomes look-click-treat-name-look-click-treat-name-look-click-treat.
Now that your dog is reliably looking at you when you call her name while holding her breakfast in the kitchen, you are ready to gradually introduce the 3 D's of dog training: distraction, distance, and duration. Only increase criteria in one category at a time, and in such a small increment that your dog doesn't notice. Practise to at least 80% reliability before taking another small step. This should give you an idea of how gradually you'll want to introduce new distraction criteria alone:
  • Call your dog's name while she is focused on neither you nor anything else (i.e. just bored, doing nothing)
  • Call your dog's name while she is glancing casually at an uninteresting object, such as a watering can
  • Call your dog's name while she is looking more intently at - but not moving toward - an uninteresting object, such as a watering can OR call your dog's name while she is glancing at - but not moving toward - a slightly interesting object, such as a shoe rack
  • Call your dog's name while she is looking at an interesting object, such as a toy. Encourage her to play with the same or a better toy immediately after her click/treat.
  • Call your dog's name while she is looking at, and moving casually toward, a toy. Encourage her to play with the same or a better toy immediately after her click/treat.
  • ...(continue gradually increasing criteria until)...
  • Call your dog when she is glancing casually at another puppy but not straining toward him. Reward with happy play after her click/treat. If this was a setup with a known puppy practising a similar exercise in a safely fenced area, then reward them after their click/treat by cueing them to play with each other off leash!
  • ...(a year or so later)...
  • Call your dog while she is chasing the cat who has strayed into your yard. You won't need to mark the behaviour by clicking anymore, but you do want to continue reinforcing with a spicy variety of unpredictable goodies: immediately take her for a walk, play fetch with her, replace the cat with yourself in a frenzied game of keep-away that will have your neighbours calling your physician, or grab a steak from the freezer.
Last week, my coworker and I diffused a potentially dangerous situation between two large, powerful shelter dogs by having played The Name Game with one of them for four months, averaging one training session per week. He was winning a game of tug-of-war with the other dog's favourite toy, and she was beginning to snarl. Although he was attempting to appease her with flattened ears, body, and tail, he was still having too much fun to let go. They were a good 50 metres/yards away from me when I yelled his name, causing his head to turn toward me even while gripping the toy. With his attention and eyes focused on me despite being in the middle of an intense tugging match with another dog, he immediately responded to my "drop" cue and came tearing across the field to catch the discs that my coworker had run to equip us with because they are his favourite toy.

There is nothing more powerful than putting your dog's undivided attention on cue. Play this game, play it well, and the rest of your training journey together will fall into place.

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About the Harenbergs

Audrey, Aipa, and Steve Harenberg on the Blue Ridge Mountains

We build strong working relationships between dogs and handlers through the use of modern learning theory and the development of technological aids.

Audrey has been involved with numerous non-profit organisations, as foster mom, therapy dog handler, and obedience instructor. In addition to teaching private lessons, group classes, and in-home training, she's busy creating free blog articles and books to help make progressive dog training accessible to all.

Steve is finishing his PhD in computer science and will be taking over technological development once he is freed from academia.