Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Teaching a dog to back up

Over the last week, I've been trying to teach Liam to back up on command. It's a useful command, especially at mealtime when he likes to crowd the bowl before you've put the food down. With just two words, I can keep him away from the bowl long enough to let me get away before he starts eating.

The command is pretty simple. I place him in a sit position, and then I ask him to "back up." He has to take about 3 steps and then return to a seated position. To teach Liam this trick, I:
  1. Placed him in a sit position while I kept a hot dog slice in my hand. 
  2. Said "back up" as I moved the hot dog slice over his head. 
  3. Clicked with the clicker and gave him the hot dog when he scooted back to keep tracking the hot dog as it moved. 
This is a form of training called "shaping." The idea is to reward the dogs for doing things that are similar to the final command you want to see. You give them tons of feedback as they learn, so training sessions are fun and easy. And as they do those shaping steps consistently, you make the task harder. 

He's at about 85 percent accuracy right now, but he sometimes gets confused and tries to go into a "down" position instead. I think my hand signals aren't quite clear enough. (You can see him glancing at my hand gesture in this video.)

He also dashes to the camera at the beginning of the video, as he sees me digging the hot dog slices out of the dish. And he has to think about the command a little, hence the delay. (As an aside, you don't hear a clicker on this video, basically because I don't have enough hands to hold a clicker, a hot dog and a camera all at the same time. I subbed in "Good job" instead.)

I am probably shaping Liam's commands too quickly. I need to go back to keeping the treat by his head consistently. Only when he's doing the command 100 percent right can I make it harder.

The next trick we'll try is something I'm calling "shimmy," which is essentially a full-body shakeout on command. This might be harder to teach, but I have high hopes.