Environmental Factors

Or….Turning Scary into Fido’s Favorite Thing

Well, it’s been a busy time for us here at Circus Chickendog Ranch. I just got moved and installed a new kitchen-cabinets, sink. I wound up on The Jimmy Kimmel Live show and it was a fun fun day spent with lots of friends I wasn’t expecting to get to spend time with. I caught up with an old friend who was a clown with Ringling Bros. and heard about his baby and some great stories about him. I learned that a stilt walker I’ve known for awhile also does a hypnosis show and actually has a hypnotherapy practice and says he improves peoples’ lives-I’m normally a hardcore skeptic in these matters but I somehow believe him. I guess he’s just that good at hypnosis!

Another item of note is that I recently came into contact with someone who’ll be on a TV show and needed a dog to retrieve something after pushing a button. Another post on this Diary page talked about how much trouble I’ve had with Moose being scared of things and how I’ve tried to address the problem with improving her toy motivation. That’s been an ongoing training theme lately, but like any good program, I’ve managed to work it into the regular training. Sure, I spent quite a bit of time simply improving the toy motivation but now it’s just fun throwing things for the dogs. I get to be a quarterback. With six of my best friends in the whole world!!! No, they are literally my best friends.

And now, since Moose was already having fun retrieving toys I tried getting her to carry this large metallic object that might not be naturally pleasant to hold. I did a lot of free shaping…. getting close, nosing it, mouthing it. That probably didn’t take the first couple of sessions. I shaped her grabbing it from my hand in another session. Then it was a series of shaping the full retrieve.

No problem! Classic, well-known process! We were getting the full behavior on video starting with the first take in a new environment. Well, almost. We were having a little trouble with getting the camera started soon enough-It seemed to take a second to start recording and Moose was so eager that she’d already be off the couch and halfway to the object by the time the recording started. We made an adjustment and took three more takes, any one of which was good enough and had the needed video in the can, no problem.

I’d like to brag that it was Moose that sold the idea to the show. The truth however is that this idea is so good that the inventor didn’t even get 10% of the way into his pitch to one of the producers before the producer was like, “Dog does X? I LOVE it!!!” (where X is the very highly, much proprietarily guarded idea).

So now we were tasked with actually using the device-and this is where things started going terribly wrong.

Moose decided that she was scared of this thing! It just looks that nice, I guess-nothing like the normal environs of a circus! I was working with her, shaping her getting close to it and a related issue was the tile floor. The thing is that I really want to be sure that we don’t harm this device. It’s just a prototype and, while it seems really well-made anything is at risk around six circus dogs who are encouraged to explore their environment with gusto. They were trained to try everything and not get in trouble. Ah, permissive parenting. So I put this thing in a room that I’ve been working on. It’s totally empty except for some building materials leaned up against the wall.

I had spent four short sessions getting Moose to start approaching the machine, and I’d deploy the triggering mechanism, paired with a click, and throw a treat to her. She so didn’t like the process that even when I resorted to holding her totally in my arms for comfort she still didn’t like the process. It was starting to concern me-normally you get total pawing of a new object on practically the first introduction. I’ve had dogs start hitting a new object after I put it down before I even get to treats-that’s how used to trying things out my dogs are-hitting something or picking it up if it’s small are the first things they do to a new object-they just expect to get a treat for engaging in anything new they see around. This morning when I walked into that room I somehow saw it from Moose’s perspective, strange (she’s never allowed in there), echoing from the emptiness, the tile is slippery, and then all of that scary stuff is being connected with the new object! Well, I immediately put that thing at the end of Moose’s favorite safe place in the whole world-our bed-and left it unplugged. That was all that was needed. She immediately would sit in front of it, though at quite an angle to make escape easier, and then quickly started raising her paw on cue, which is another behavior we have recently been working on improving. We got her to hit the lever in that very first session and after two more brief sessions she managed to hit the lever 18 times in three minutes.

To reiterate, Moose went from being too scared to approach this device to sitting in front of it, touching the thing that triggers the scary noise, and then staying in front of it for several minutes-all in one day. Now we “just” have to plug it in, get her to realize that noise is a harbinger of really great fortuitiousness, and make that harbinger for her be the great joy of taking an object to her daddy. At least the path is clear! Now for the hard part-IMPLEMENTATION!