When we pair two stimuli together as part of a classical conditioning training plan, it can sometimes be hard to determine when the association has been made between the old stimulus and the new stimulus… the “food” and the “bell”, to draw from a popular example. In this episode, I answer a question submitted by a patron with some ideas on what to look for to determine if that association is strong enough and it’s time to proceed to the next step.

In this episode we discuss:

  • Quick review of conditioned emotional response.
  • What happens when you pair a reinforcer with a stimulus in the environment.
  • Using this strategy to build a specific, positive CER in a training session.
  • Recap of Lindsay Wood Brown’s work on resource guarding.
  • Applying this strategy to stimulus-stimulus pairing with scent.

Links mentioned:

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Episode Transcript

Hannah: [00:00:00] The dog has a good opportunity to say, “Oh, that’s just a trash can. No big deal.” Or, “Holy crap, how many rabbits were out here last night? Well, nevermind. I’d rather train with my person anyways.” That’s the ideal, right? We wanna minimize the effect of anything that’s going on in the environment that might be functioning as either an opportunity for reinforcement that I can’t control or an aversive or negative reinforcer that I don’t really want to be part of that picture.

[Intro music]

Hey there, fellow training nerds. You’re listening to Drinking from the Toilet. If you like to geek out about combining the science of behavior with positive reinforcement philosophy in real life, you’ve come to the right place. And I’m your host, Hannah Branigan: teacher, trainer, podcaster, and author of the book Awesome Obedience and its companion, Awesome Obedience: The Field Guide, which are both available from [00:01:00] clickertraining.com.

So don’t forget, the next round of Zero to CD will open again on Monday, April 24th with the orientation for the new cohort on that following Monday, May 1st. This is a program that always fills quickly, so you’re gonna wanna make sure to get on the email list to be notified if this is something that you’re interested in joining this round. You can find out more about the program by going to zerotocd.com.

So this week we are gonna be talking about how to tell if your attempts to classically condition something, some stimulus, or develop a CER (short for conditioned emotional response) – how to tell if that’s actually working in real time and in a way that’s gonna be useful to your training on a practical level.

Before we get into that, I don’t know if you know this, but this episode is supported by the MET Conference and patrons like Michelle H who showed off her spectacularly exquisite taste [00:02:00] by joining our Patreon community to support this podcast. If you’d like to support the podcast, get your questions answered, get access to super secret extra podcast episodes in a private audio feed, you can go to patreon.com/DFTT. And if you do it quickly enough, you can join our patrons-only live Q&A where among other things, I’ll be demonstrating exactly how I put sniffing on cue so that I can use scents and smells in the environment as practical reinforcers in a training session. If you’d like to see that or have questions or concerns about using sniffing as a reinforcer, you might wanna join us, either live or by catching the recording. So again, you can do that by going to patreon.com/DFTT.

Okay. So onto this week’s topic.

So this is our second question from Cat B, who’s also a Patreon supporter. And it’s a really good question and I’m actually kind of [00:03:00] excited about it and very glad that she asked it because this is something that I think about a lot. In fact, it’s closely related to a presentation that I did at this year’s Clicker Expo Live, the virtual version, so I definitely have some thoughts on it.

Alright, so the question is about classical conditioning “and probably all sorts of stuff in this bucket,” she says. I love that because I love thinking about this in terms of buckets. So pondering on what to look for when two things are paired sufficiently to start developing the next steps. So she says “In my case, I’m pairing a defined area where I’ve walked, my scent, with some treats and I want to make the next iteration to use articles instead of treats. But I do want to make sure that I’ve done enough reps to have that association. Maybe my question is how do you tell when you’ve done enough reps that there is an association?”

This is such an important question to think about, to answer. [00:04:00] To be completely honest, one of the reasons I’m so excited is because I have an answer. So often people ask me these really cool, important questions and I don’t really have an answer, and then I just have to ramble on a bit with some thoughts and opinions and things that I might try. But in this case, I actually have something for us to work with here! I’m so excited when that actually happens! And it’s not just, “It depends.” It really isn’t. It’s a real answer this time.

So this same question, or very similar overlapping question, comes up in my training, of course, and it comes up a lot with our folks in the Zero to CD program. I’m gonna answer in a kind of a general sense with a couple of different examples and then circle back to Cat’s original question.

In the program, we put a lot of emphasis on the emotional components of fluency, because it’s not just enough to do the sit or to do the heeling. We really care a lot about those softer elements that come along with the emotional picture we’re trying to develop. So I want this sit to be precise and accurate and on cue, yes of course. But I also want [00:05:00] that “ears up, eyes bright, low latency” part of that picture too, and all of that discretionary effort that comes with training behaviors effectively with positive reinforcement. For me, that’s a big part of how I define a successful behavior. The enthusiasm matters just as much to me, if not more than the precision.

This is especially true when we’re doing our training on the road or in any kind of challenging environment. Part of how we make sure that the training session is likely to include the emotional picture that we’re looking for is to set ourselves, our dogs and ourselves, up for success. If we train the behavior – I’ll just use sit as a simple example – if we train the sit under conditions where we’ve got a lot of slow inhibitive behavior and ears down and unhappy facial expressions, that’s not the picture that I want conditioning into the sit. So I wanna make sure that I’m always prioritizing [00:06:00] those emotional behaviors and emotional state. And one of the ways that we do that is to structure the session in a way that allows the dog a framework to assimilate this new environment and the distractions that are present in it, and make sure that this session and the behaviors that it contains are driven primarily by positive reinforcement contingencies. Or another way to put that is that the dog’s behavior is mostly focused on getting access to the reinforcers that I can provide, the food, the toys, my attention, et cetera, and not being driven by avoiding aversives either in the environment or even worse, something that I’m doing to try to get behavior going in a distracting environment.

So if we’re training in a picture where I’m also getting a lot of other behaviors that I would associate with negative reinforcement or even just conflict, that’s not gonna give me the picture in my skills-based behaviors that I want. So we need to take care of that situation first.

So there’s a [00:07:00] couple of different things that we do in this space when we’re first starting out to make sure that the dog has a good opportunity to say, “Oh, that’s just a trash can. No big deal.” Or, “Holy crap, how many rabbits were out here last night? Well, nevermind. I’d rather train with my person anyways.” That’s the ideal, right? We wanna minimize the effect of anything that’s going on in the environment that might be functioning as either an opportunity for reinforcement that I can’t control or an aversive or negative reinforcer that I don’t really want to be part of that picture.

So one of the exercises that we use to accomplish this, or games, is one that I call Lily Pads. Leslie McDevitt has a really similar one that I think she calls Mat to Mat. Apologies, Leslie, if I got that wrong. And the idea here is that when we start the session, we have two or possibly more mats, which in this case, at least the way that I use it, really just function as big old targets. So they’re big, old, concrete, [00:08:00] visible object cues that are very familiar for the dog, very hard for them to miss both visually and physically, and not requiring a lot of precision or even motor control at all in order to come in contact with them. So I really want like a big dog-size mat that he almost can’t help but trip over, right? That’s part of the setting up for success.

So we work through a pattern of going from one mat to the other mat, and then back to the first mat, and then back to the other mat. So I can go into the specifics of this game itself in another episode if that’s something folks are interested in. But basically the idea is we’re playing this game hopping from one lily pad to the next, to give the dog a very easy, already trained path to reinforcement in this new environment that also gives them a chance to glance around as much as they need to before we move on to the more challenging, less familiar (and probably more precious to the human) skills training and all of those behaviors, which are probably gonna be things like the sit, like the heeling, maybe jumping, I don’t [00:09:00] even know what all.

So the question that always comes up here is, “Well, how do I know when my dog is ready to move from this mat game to working on heeling or whatever thing I was hoping to do with this training session?” It probably wasn’t just mats. It could be though, and that’d be okay. But anyways, that’s just another example of “When is it time to go from this stage, this level, this step in my training plan, to the next one.”

And this is where I have a pretty clear concrete answer that works really well for me and I think it works for a lot of folks. But to explain it, I wanna give you some background because I think it will help frame it with some context. And I gotta shout out to Lindsay Wood Brown, my friend Lindsay, because she’s the one who has really helped me distill this down to something that I could articulate. There’s a lot of places in my training where I kind of know what I’m doing by feel, because I’ve learned it – I would say “intuitively,” but that really just means like “on a non-verbal level,” [00:10:00] because I’ve certainly– It’s not like, “Oh, I just came out and was really good at knowing when to progress criteria.” No, no, no, no, no. I’ve broken many, many behaviors. I’ve had so many crappy training sessions and I have more to do as well. But I didn’t have a lot of words to identify what it was that I was doing that was working well and then communicate it to other people.

Lindsay really helped me with that by talking about kind of the same almost parallel evolution that she was going through. But she’s better with the words than I am. And hearing her talk about what she was doing, the lightbulb just went off, like “Yes! That’s exactly what I’m responding to!”

So Lindsay’s work was with – or I guess continues to be, but where I first encountered her was in her work with resource guarding in shelter dogs. So she was working on a protocol that would allow shelter workers to train through food bowl issues reliably and end up with safe, happy, adoptable dogs. It’s a really common problem [00:11:00] that shows up in a lot of dogs and it’s a factor in successful adoptions. So a lot of motivation to work through this and it needs to be reliable and needs to be repeatable at volume.

[Ad break]

You know, I am a fan of lifelong learning and I’m always looking for new people to learn from because hopefully one day I will have learned enough that I won’t feel insecure anymore. So just in case you also have this problem, I wanna tell you about the Modern Ethical Training or MET Conference, which is coming up in March. It is virtual, and yes, it’s recorded.

This is a relatively new conference that has some familiar names who have heavily influenced my own training, like Kay Lawrence and Bob Bailey, as well as friend of the pod, Leslie McDevitt (who I’m not mad at), but also some speakers that were less familiar to me, like Lenka Blachová, who will be speaking about canine greetings, Eliška Pavetta Šuhaj speaking on enrichment, and one that I’m particularly interested to hear, ethologist Ádám Miklósi, who [00:12:00] is the co-founder of the Family Dog Project in Hungary, which I realized when I was reading his bio I saw featured on the Dog’s Decoded documentary from Nova. So he’ll be presenting on social hierarchy in dogs, and I’m very curious to hear what he has to say about current research on this old and often controversial topic.

This conference is approved for CEUs for CPDTs, and you can find out more and register by going to metconference.com or click the link in the show notes.

[Episode resumes]

So I’m probably gonna tell this story very poorly and I’m probably gonna misrepresent some important factors, so you should go directly to Lindsay for specifics, but what I took away from it is what I’ve integrated into my explanation of what I do, and hopefully it’s not too far off from what was actually happening there. But this is what I got from it.

So as I understand it, part of the challenge with her food bowl [00:13:00] guarding protocol is very similar to the same thing that we’re talking about here.

So the basic strategy is probably very familiar to you. The dog has a food bowl. A person approaches the dog and then offers them something, a piece of food that’s even better than what’s in the bowl. And she goes through a bunch of stages of various progressions, very well thought out, lots of good splitting. And then the question is, how to tell if the dog was successful at one step and ready to move on to the next step and how to do that in a way that’s easy to document so that multiple people can apply it and can comply with lots of dogs, again because this needs to be repeatable.

And what Lindsay discovered was that the factor that really made the difference in the success of the protocol was looking for a head-lift behavior. And this is where I love it. I just almost came outta my seat when she was talking about this. So as the person approaches the bowl, the dog would lift his head out of the bowl and orient towards the person. [00:14:00] Orienting towards the person in anticipation of the treat that was going to appear. And oftentimes a lot of other stuff came with it. Maybe a little dancing, maybe some tail wagging, other behaviors that I think we would, most of us would call emotional. But it was looking for that head lift behavior that was the key. It was easily observable. It was very binary. The dog’s head was either down in the bowl or it was lifting out of the bowl, and so anyone could observe it and say, “Yep, head’s coming up,” or, “Nope, head’s not coming up.”

And progressing without the head lift did not result in reliable outcomes, but including the head lift as criteria. and using that to determine when it was time to progress to the next step, that made a huge difference and resulted in better outcomes. And I think that’s awesome, because of course we’re always thinking about, ‘We’re trying to go for classical conditioning. We wanna change how the dog is feeling.” Yes, all of those things are true. [00:15:00] But in real life, I need something that I can see. That head lift is a very operant behavior, but also like super practical. And again, it comes with that whole package, “all the things in the bucket,” as Cat said.

Okay, so let’s go back to the mat example with that in your mind, because this is really where I connected the dots.

When I first take my dog out and start working them in a new space, especially if I have a young dog who doesn’t have a lot of experience– Maybe they’re very interested in the world, either cause they’re worried about it (“There might be monsters; we don’t know!”) or they’re very excited (“Could there be other dogs? Could there be people? Could there be rabbits to chase or poop to eat?” Whatever they’re into).

When I first take them out into this new space, it is very common that they will pretty much just blow right over the mat the first time – maybe not, and maybe more than the first time. They’re so busy looking out at the environment, they don’t even notice the mat is there or if they notice it, they’re just [00:16:00] not operating in terms of “Oh, I’m looking for ways to access the food that my handler has.” They’re more distracted by environmental sources of reinforcement.

Now I do try very much to set things up so that, again, that mat is almost impossible for them to miss. If they are moving at all, they’re gonna come in contact with their mat. They’re just gonna to walk right across it because they can’t help themselves because it’s in the way of the path that they’re likely to be traveling. The easiest way to manage that is by starting with them in the crate and putting the mat right outside the crate so if they step out of the crate at all, they’re stepping right on the mat and they can’t help themselves. That’s a good setup. I’m arranging the environment to get the behavior that I want, which is stepping on the mat.

So a lot of times, they’re so busy looking at what’s going on out in space that they don’t even notice the mat and sometimes they appear to be nothing short of shocked to hear my click. He’s like, “Oh, are you still here? Oh my gosh, neat! Oh, and you have food! That’s fantastic!” And then what’ll often happen is they’ll take that treat and then they’ll go right back to looking at the environment. [00:17:00] And so we go back to the next mat. And once again, they’re shocked. “Oh my gosh, you clicked again. That’s so strange. Oh, but you also have food. That’s fantastic. Thanks!” And they go right back to looking at the environment.

And so we continue the pattern of moving from the one mat back to the other mat, back to the other mat, back to the other mat. And every time the dog steps on the mat, I click, I offer a treat for my hand, and then I go back to the next one. So their feet are moving pretty continuously in this exercise with the way that I like to play it in this context.

And what will start to develop is that the scanning of the environment starts to diminish and I’m looking for the moment that the dog lands a paw on the mat and he’s already turning and orienting towards me as the source of reinforcement. So you’ll also often see little bits of discretionary effort pop up in this space too. I love when I get a little pounce toward the mat as they’re approaching it or they’ll even spin in the air to face me and land on the mat at the same time, so they’re kind of tagged up but [00:18:00] also like ready to receive that treat at the same time. And when I see that head turn starting to emerge as the dog is touching the mat, I know that I’m good to move on to the next step. I don’t need the full “And he goes to the mat, he lays down, he does like all these relaxation behaviors.” I actually don’t need that. All I need is that as he touches the mat, he’s orienting towards me, ready to receive the reinforcement, and I know that, “Okay, that’s good. I can move on.”

Sometimes it takes a while to get there. Sometimes it happens really, really quickly. But of course, the more I practice it, the faster that transition happens. And I love that moment. It makes me so excited every time I get that in training.

Okay, so I wanna bring this back to scent work, more closely adjacent to Cat’s question. I don’t know any more than I’ve already said about Cat’s full training plan and what her application is or things like that. But I do teach sent discrimination and I’m looking for very much the same thing here. I’ve tinkered in tracking and I’ve tinkered in nosework as well, but [00:19:00] I have the most experience with teaching obedience-style scent discrimination exercises where the dog is searching a collection of objects or articles and I’m looking for him to indicate and then eventually retrieve the one that I’ve scented.

When I’m teaching scent discrimination this way, I’m looking for that double-take moment, which again shows up as a head turn. So many parallels here! So my dog is sniffing the articles, however many there are out there, and he’s sniffing, he’s sniffing, he’s checking, he’s checking, and then he suddenly catches the scent of the correct one. And a lot of times when this happens, he’ll often be on his way past that article already, because I often do this with younger dogs and even if they’re not younger dogs, they’re already in motion. And so he’s already on his way past that article and I’ll see his head snap back to that correct article and then roll his eyes up at me and [00:20:00] then because of the way that I train this, he’ll usually punch it again. What I’m going for, especially at the first stage of how I teach some discrimination, is he’s doing a stationary sticky nose target to the scented article and that’ll look like nose down, eyes rolled up towards me with that “AHEM. And now you will click, yes…?” 

And when I get that first double-take, head turn with that eye roll, boom, I know that I’m getting it. I’ve got the cue that I want. The association is being made that I’m looking for.

You’ve probably already seen this in other behaviors as well. One of my favorite moments with training a puppy, and if you’ve trained puppies before, I know you’ve encountered this: You’re clicker training this puppy to sit, even if you’re not using a clicker, it doesn’t really matter. You’re using food to train this, presumably. And there’s a moment that [00:21:00] comes where the puppy has connected “Oh, I sit and they give me a treat. I would like a treat. I will sit!” and now the puppy is following you around trying to get in front of you and almost tripping you trying to sit so that you will give them the treat and if you don’t give them the treat right away, they’ll sit, they’ll look you right in the eyeballs and they will “AHEM” and sit again and sit harder. “AHEM. I am doing the sitting.” And then maybe they’ll look towards your treat hand or look towards your treat pouch.

In general, what I’m looking for is an external sign, an easily observable behavior, that the stimulus that I am hoping to condition has become a cue to expect reinforcement.

So in the case of the scent, I am looking for that head snap behavior of, “Oh!” They catch the scent.

And scent makes it hard because I can’t see scent. I can make educated guesses between experience and you can learn a lot of things about [00:22:00] airflow and how scent moves in the air and on different surfaces and all the things, so you can make some good guesses. But you don’t know in the same way that I can tell if a dog’s foot is on a mat or not on a mat.

But I can see his behavior and I can see that double-take and head snap of “Oh! This is the stimulus in my environment that predicts reinforcement is coming,” and now it’s become a cue to expect reinforcement. So any behaviors that I might have seen if I were to click, so with my mat example, the dog steps on the mat and I click, and his head snaps around towards me, you get that little head turn, like, “Oh, you clicked and that means food is coming.” And now that behavior gets transferred to the tactile sensation (and probably other things as well) but the experience of stepping on the mat has become the cue for “and now you will click me.” Just like the puppies sitting in front of you, “You have food. I sit. And now you click me. This is [00:23:00] how it works. This is the game. I know the rules and I’m on to you.”

Uh, that’s what I’m looking for. You might even call it anticipation, depending on the circumstances. I think of it as a cue transfer. I wanna see those same behaviors that were cued by my event marker, transferring to that new stimulus or the new cue, whether it’s something I have set up or something that I have less control over or harder to observe, I can still see that showing up in the dog’s behavior.

And exactly what those behaviors look like, that’s gonna vary somewhat depending on exactly what reinforcement strategy you’re using, but the principle is still the same. So in the case of click and I deliver treats from my hand, I’m probably going to see, orienting towards me, orienting towards my treat hand, whatever that anticipated source of reinforcement is. If I were tossing a ball ahead or tossing a treat ahead or a reinforcer that was occurring in the opposite direction, I would expect to [00:24:00] see some aspects of that orientation emerging attached to the new principle. Again, same effect, same principle. Orienting towards that expected source of reinforcement is a pretty good universal sign that the association is being made between the stimulus that you’re hoping to condition, that you’re hoping to make a condition stimulus, and the already-known stimulus that you’re working with (the food, et cetera, part of that CS/UCS equation for classical conditioning).

So that’s what I’m looking for, that orientation effect. I hope that that’s helpful and I hope it gives you something practical that you can work with.


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