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.