Three Free-Shaping Games

Last Meals: I May Be Slow, But I Am Trainable!

Jumpin’ Jack seems to be about as recovered as he could be.  His appetite is back and he’s eating everything I give him….No wonder! He’s getting hamburger, steak, and pork chops.  Frankly, I’ve started cutting back on the meat and cooking eggs to mix in so his stomach doesn’t freak out on him.  Ha!  It’s really so I don’t go broke.  I do have a tiny bit of regret about not having dispatched him earlier, but he seems to be enjoying the one-on-one time he’s been getting and gets up to go out and walk around and sniff the neighborhood.  Really, what else is there to life?  Eat, sleep, check out the world. I mean, I like to get a little more distance and reckless speed by doing it on a fast bike, but a dog’s is pretty much my ideal life, too. And while the cold rainy weather slows me down, it’s always made him perk up over the years.  This weather, along with all that one-on-one time may be another reason he’s sticking around.  Or maybe he just likes proving me wrong.  Whatever, it’s good having him for one more day.

While Jumpin’ Jack is joking around with life and flauting death, the rest of my crew have been gearing up for our sixth annual production of The Mutt-Cracker (SWEET!) that will be at The VORTEX again this year.  There is still way too much to do but we are looking forward to another great show, that’ll be almost a totally new presentation, even for us.

More about the changes another day, but Moose and Mouse have continued improving on their base tricks and I’ve added a few new things for them to do. Jingles will of course be the star dog of the show again—she’s just too cute, though one of the new puppies is certainly starting to crowd her out of the cute category.  That’s Squirrel.

Squirrel, while incredibly cute, is a total conundrum to me.  I don’t quite have a handle on her yet.  She is a combination of Buda and Bully.  She is a third of the size of her younger brother, Coyote, yet bosses him around mercilessly.  Generally they play fairly nicely, though extremely roughly.  But every time I let them out without guarding against it, Squirrel gets out first and waits for Coyote to get outside and she ambushes him.  Not to hurt him, but just chatters at him, attacking over and over, telling him what to do, not giving him any peace to do his business until he jumps up on a platform I built specifically for him to escape to and Squirrel is too small to get up on. I’ve even started putting Squirrel in a pen by herself before letting Coyote out so she doesn’t get the chance to start her bullying.

And lest you misogynists out there get the idea that it’s a female thing, let me mention that Squirrel was actually born a male.  But she gender-identifies as a female.  That’s fine with me since her ability to procreate has been catastrophically compromised by her responsible care giver, so it’s an open question as to whether she is technically a boy or a girl–I suppose eunuch might be the most technically correct but whatever.   Who, outside of a judgemental busy body, would ever care what a dog wants to gender identify as?  Might as well start criticizing her species identification of being a squirrel.  Might as well criticize nature for not making the Earth the center of the universe or coal identifying as a diamond.

The point I’m trying to make is that I’m trying to discover who Squirrel is through free shaping.  Squirrel, as any dog does, loves free shaping. The only thing I do while free shaping is remain as still as I can, observe her behavior closely, and CAT (click and treat-and always remember: CATs make the best dog trainers!).  That’s it.  If I do anything else observable, I’m sabotaging the training.  What is it that dogs love so much about free shaping?  They can try anything they want! To start, I’ll click Squirrel for pretty much anything to let her know that the free-shaping game is on.  I mostly reserve the clicker for free shaping to make the clicker especially special to her and to emphasize to myself to be as true to proper training methods as I can.  I am still a failure, but have heart! Dogs are extremely forgiving!

Once she’s gotten a couple of clicks–and I try very hard to get them in before she has a chance to start exploring the environment–she starts looking at the clicker, trying to will it to click.  She’ll make a small head movement, CAT!  Jerk sideways, CAT!  Then she’ll just start doing lots of stuff, CAT! each time until she finds one of three things happening.

The first is that there are times I’ll have something in mind that I want her to do and will shape towards that goal.  Going onto a mat is always a good example, and very useful if you’re wanting something to work on.  Any accidental head or body movement in the right direction, CAT!  CAT! at the slightest move until you get a solid, automatic, and predictable movement, and then wait for millimeter more movement once.  Be sure you can get a click in.  Then relax back to the original slightest motion.  I love that alacrity–the immediate response.  Lots of very fast starts being reinforced create cheerful eagerness, and that’s what I try to get in all of my behaviors, every interaction with the dogs, actually.  If you click for small, immediate movements you’ll be training for quick responses for everything you ask from your dog.  Get a fast response on one behavior and it generalizes for all other behaviors. I simply cannot emphasize this enough.  And I won’t.

A second free-shaping game is to capture a cute behavior Squirrel just does naturally. These are things that it might be difficult or at least more time consuming to shape totally from scratch, but once captured they can be strengthened to good effect.  Often Squirrel will scratch, as I’ve clicked that often enough she knows it’s on the table.  It isn’t on cue yet, but she’ll get a good scratch going twenty times in a row in one short session so I’m reasonably sure she’s doing it with intent.  The idea here is that if, early in a session, she does the same behavior I know I eventually want on cue several times in a row, I’ll start doing CAT! for only that behavior.  In addition to scratching, things that might work for Squirrel include head shakes, a quick bounce to the side (as in a feint while playing), a quick lunge combined with an immediate backwards hop, and my favorite: sneezing.  And my other favorite–anything fun!

A third free-shaping game is to click anything she does, but never the same thing twice in a row.  Sometimes she seems to realize that there’s no pattern and stops and tries to figure out what’s getting clicked, or what she should do.  Motionlessness is the arch enemy of this game.  So I either CAT! immediately (it is a different behavior, after all!) or, when I’ve waited too long, hoping for something to happen, just give her a treat with no click for trying to figure out what’s going on, and to get her moving again.

One quick additional note is to mention that in none of these free-shaping sessions do I ever say anything, make any movements, or even sound.  It is strictly verboten. I have many personal examples to back up extensive scientific studies that show that these extraneous prompts do nothing but confuse a dog.   And by this I mean that I am a total hypocrite and often make a sound or even say, “Squirrel” to get her attention or, “Leave it,” hoping to keep things moving along.  But you can be better than me and never make a distracting sound or movement.

Anyway, Jumpin’ Jack has kept getting up to go outside, barked for attention, and told the little dogs to back off, so I guess I’ll take him out for one more walk off the property to get his appetite going for another meal before heading to the store to get him some hamburger. They are all last meals these days, or at least that’s what he’s trained me to think.  It only took 16 years.

Jumpin’ Jack 2013_November_24

Hey-I Have My Own Problems

Well, back on Thursday I woke up and Jumpin’ Jack was not moving and pretty much completely unresponsive.  I was sure Jumpin’ Jack would be moving on that day and thought I might murder him in mercy.  But he was sleeping and not in pain so I just swaddled him up and gave him lots of loving.  I sat with him and thought about our life together.  The number of things I’ve learned from this dog–When I got JJ, I already had Chickendog, a competition frisbee dog that had made it onto Letterman. And then I couldn’t get JJ to even sit on command….he was the dog that got me into clicker training and he developed into a dog that had as many tricks as Chickendog and was a rock solid, totally dependable performer with just a great temperament.   This from a dog that I, at one point, would have awarded myself “Greatest Dog Trainer Of All Time” if I could train him to simply sit on command.  He was a project for sure and in many ways the opposite of Chickendog.

He made it through the day and I went to bed and woke up to him in pretty much the same condition.  I made sure he was in a comfortable position and sat with him some more through the morning.

Jumpin’ Jack grew up out at a house that I’ve had renters at over the last 10+ years and they’ve moved out, leaving holes in half the walls, not a single interior door, 69 bags of trash tied up and deposited in a back room before they stopped bagging stuff–there was probably that much more trash left loose, but I digress.

My point is that I have work to do out there and couldn’t keep my death vigil at home-life goes on.  I also want to bury him out with the rest of his crew who are out there, so I loaded him up, got him comfortable in the mud room that he spent much of his time in as a puppy, and got to work expecting to be able to bury a still-warm body.

Then he lived through that day and I got him back home and comfortable again, sat with him reading for awhile and fell asleep.  He woke me up barking around 1 am on Saturday and I started regretting not putting him down earlier.  I spent the entire night sitting with him, petting him, thinking about his life and reading.

The book I was reading is, “What is the What?” by Dave Eggers and there is lots of meaningless death in the book.  It chronicles stories of The Lost Boys from Sudan and the incredibly complicated situation in the region.  Sitting with JJ and seeing how hard it is to actually die makes the stories quite poignant.  The kids, according to this account, would be walking, sit down, and literally be dead in minutes.

One of the things I remembered about JJ is how tricky he is.  He could always watch for a moment of inattentiveness and make a break for freedom.  Even in his old age, as slow as he has been.  I left him with a friend overnight recently and she tried to get him out the door after waking, but he wasn’t moving yet so she sat down for liquid elimination, saw him walk by, and by the the time she got outside he was nowhere to be seen.  Score one for the 105+ (dog) year old codger!  He had a good hour of freedom and was found belly deep in a creek a hundred yards from the house. A great adventure that I’m really glad that he had. I often feel bad for my dogs that I am so on top of their activities.  At one point I realized that dogs aren’t as smart as humans and we manage to keep some of the most creative and adrenaline junkies confined–I could at least be as competent as a prison guard, right?  That’s my line of thinking when someone says their dog gets loose regularly.

For what it’s worth, I surmised where he would be based on knowing how hard it was for him to walk combined with the general sloping of the ground from the door.  “Keep going downhill,” I said.  “He likes to go in the wooded areas.” I guessed he’d be down at the creek.

Well, turns out he seems to have just been punking me again….I cooked some eggs around noon on Saturday before needing to get back out to the house to work again-I would have gone earlier, but I really couldn’t believe he was still hanging on.  JJ perked up a bit, so I gave him a bit and loaded him into the van and we went back out to do more work on his puppy home.  While there, he barked intermittently and after a few hours, just as I was ready to head home, he started barking and flailing in his swaddling so I unwrapped him and he started trying to get up.  So I helped him up and used my hands under his belly to act as a sling so he wouldn’t fall and he went to the door, down the steps, and pooped!  Then he explored his surroundings a bit–of course it’s impossible to know what even your best partner is thinking, let alone a dog, but I like to think he recognized the play area right outside his primary door from puppyhood and enjoyed being there again.

Another JJ story:  I had an old dog, Hefty Hefty Hefty Peterson, when I first got Jumpin’ Jack, and Hefty would go explore in the quarter acre lot that I had and be slow to come when it was time for meals or bed.  Jumpin’ Jack learned to go harass Hefty and herd him back to the house when it was time to come in.

A little joke I played on JJ:  After Hefty died I would still cue JJ to go find Hefty.  JJ would go searching for a good 15 minutes before coming back disappointed.  HA HA!

Anyway, with JJ perking up and ambulatory I didn’t feel too bad accepting a dinner invitation for homemade burgers.  I loaded JJ up and headed over and he ate most of a burger patty, five slices of Kraft singles cheese slices (hey-you can’t live forever), delicious homemade ranch dressing with buns, and assorted other stuff.

Another super funny story, for me anyway:  A girl I was going to marry was really into dogs and had 12 or so before we split up…..she HATED JJ.  It was visceral.  That’s how insanely wily JJ is.  Most dogs are smart enough to be trained, some are smart enough to be super well trained.  JJ was so smart that he knew how to ride the wave of getting what he wanted by doing what you asked and then getting what he REALLY wanted at an opportune moment.  This female made the point that JJ was old and would eventually die-she could wait him out.  That must have been five years ago.  A lot of misery saved from that break.
We got home from that culinary delight and I washed and dried his bedding, put him to bed, and woke up this morning, Sunday, to him waiting at the door to go out to do his business. He went out and mostly walked around unaided-I was there “just in case” but he seems back to 70% of where he was on Wednesday before his death vigil started-and honestly, I’ve expected he could go at anytime for six months or so. He’s been slowing down for awhile and he’s slower now than back on Wednesday but don’t feel bad for JJ—he might yet outlive all of us.  Ok, actually that might be a reason to feel bad for him.  How ‘bout:  Don’t feel bad for JJ-you have your own problems.