Guest: Ashlee Osborn
Ashlee Osborn is a certified dog trainer with over 10 years of experience caring for and training dogs and their people. She founded Pawsitive Pups Academy in 2021; an Omaha, Nebraska based mobile training service specializing in holistic behavior plans and off leash adventure camps. She also offers virtual training and coaching services both for pet owners and other professionals.
In this episode we discuss:
- The importance of getting really, really good at working with reinforcement.
- How the topic of reinforcement and using it in training is FAR more nuanced than most trainers recognize.
- Food is probably the most convenient reinforcement but it does require specific conditioning and strategies to use effectively in training.
- Ashlee’s game, Clockwork – a fancy application of treat tossing that specifies where and when to toss for clients.
- Building motivation for food even when dogs are really just not into it.
This podcast is supported by: Zero to CD
Zero to CD is an online group mentorship program designed to provide support, structure, and accountability for people who are new to competition obedience and looking to earn their Novice level title AND to make competition obedience accessible to all dogs and handlers through force-free, positive reinforcement-based methods.
Hannah Branigan: [00:00:00] Yeah, the dog does what you want; you give the dog food. Exactly! That’s how we explain it, right? “What’s positive reinforcement? Well, that’s when the dog does something that you like and you give him a treat.” End of story.
Ashlee Osborn: Yep, and it works super well and easily for every single dog. And if it didn’t work for your dog, you didn’t do it right.
But you have dogs that will not take food and so often, the only advice you get is “go up in value.”
Hannah Branigan: Hey there, fellow training nerds! You’re listening to Drinking from the Toilet. If you’d 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 clickertraining.com.
[00:01:00] I also happen to run an online mentorship program called Zero to CD, which opens for enrollment again in just a couple of weeks, very soon.
On the surface, Zero to CD is a comprehensive program that is designed to give you everything you need to earn your first obedience title. And not just the skills! Of course we cover that too, but also how to put it all together. How to build duration, add distractions, and dot all the I’s and cross the T’s to make a cohesive performance. But what it’s really about is accomplishing your training goals through practicing good positive reinforcement techniques, using strategies and concepts like training with loops, using strategic reinforcement, building fluent behaviors, building your dog’s confidence, building your confidence, and structuring your training in both the short term and the long term so that you really feel like you’re making progress, which I think is something [00:02:00] we all need. Your reinforcement matters too.
So, it is true that some of our members join because they have competitive goals, but also a lot of our members join because they just really love doing good training and are looking for structure and support and want to hang out in an awesome community of other folks who also love doing really good training.
So we do encourage setting concrete goals (because it’s just one of those things that makes planning easier; it’s not specific to dog training) but you absolutely do not have to be a serious competitor to fit in here. We do support regular old in person competitions, but we also support video titles, which are accessible to almost everybody. So there are a lot of ways to participate. The main real requirements are that you love dogs, you love training, you love learning about training in new ways, and you’re committed to positive reinforcement with both dogs and people. Because we are pretty intense about both of those.
We only open for enrollment twice a year, and we have limited spots [00:03:00] available each time. Every time I’ve opened, it has filled really quickly, sometimes in just a few hours. So if this is something you are hoping to jump into this round and you would be disappointed if you didn’t get a spot, make sure to mark your calendar for October 23rd. You can get more info at zerotocd.com or follow the link in the show notes.
So this week we are talking with Ashlee Osborn about going deep on making your reinforcers work for you, especially in the area of building food motivation with dogs that aren’t super foodie out of the box, and then how to use it, what to do with it.
But before we get into that, I gotta send a shout out to a couple of awesome folks for supporting the podcast on Patreon. So thank you to Chia R., Yulia L., and Lois H. If you’d like to join these folks and support the podcast, get your questions answered, get access to some super-secret extra podcast episodes, go to [00:04:00] patreon.com/DFTT.
So let me tell you about Ashlee. So Ashlee is one of those trainers that I met, “know,” through through the Internets, specifically TikTok.
And the first thing that I noticed about Ashlee was that she’s really funny and I was enjoying her sense of humor and I thought, “You know, I think we could be friends. I think we should be friends.”
And then the next thing that caught my eye or my attention is that she’s doing really good training. I really like how she talks about the training that she’s doing and specifically how she talks about building food motivation, which is something that I am also… I wouldn’t say “interested in,” but have become more skilled at out of necessity. A lot of stuff that she said totally matches my experience but with a little bit of different twist, coming at it from a little bit of a different angle, which I really get a kick out of. In fact, I used [00:05:00] a video from her clip of her training in my Clicker Expo presentation last year.
So Ashlee’s a certified dog trainer with over 10 years of experience caring for and training dogs and their people. Her business is Positive Pups in Omaha, Nebraska. She does mobile training services specializing in holistic behavior plans and off-leash adventure camps She also offers virtual training and coaching services for both pet owners and consults with other professionals.
So during our conversation, we talked a lot about my personal top passion, which is reinforcement, specifically how to get it, how to increase it, how to use it, how to use it most effectively, all the stuff that if we’re going to be committed positive reinforcement trainers, we got to get really good at doing – because it’s not so simple. And can you believe how long– Well, you’ve already seen how long this episode is, so you know, how long we can [00:06:00] talk. And this is just a slice of the stuff that we have to say about working with reinforcers.
So of course, we talk about how food is the probably the most convenient reinforcer, but doesn’t always come easily, so what are some of the things that we can do to build motivation for food, either to take an average dog and build them up even more or take, I don’t know, a Border Collie that doesn’t really eat food or other breed and take that dog and build enough motivation for food so that we can use it effectively.
I think we also talk about some of the stuff that we tend to do by accident that might accidentally be a decreasing motivation for food. And we also talk about some of the specific games and strategies that she uses and teaches to her clients to make the most out of the reinforcers that they have to work with to be most efficient and effective. And I am [00:07:00] always about efficient, effective training and efficient and effective use of positive reinforcement. So I had a really good time. I got a kick out of the whole conversation and I know that you’re going to enjoy it as well.
So I talk a lot about how reinforcement drives behavior, and I do think that probably the most important, most critical skill or category of skills (because it’s kind of a meta skill. I’m already on a lot of parentheses and I’ve just started!) that we need to develop to be effective trainers and to move training as a field forward is figuring out/developing skills around how to use reinforcement, how to manipulate reinforcers. And I don’t mean that in like judgmental kind of way, but like, “how can we work with the knobs and switches around reinforcement processes to get the best effect?”
And certainly most of us, probably all of us, certainly [00:08:00] most of the folks who are listening to this podcast, are using a lot of food in training specifically. And I do think that force-free or positive reinforcement training, whatever sticker we wanna put on that box, is usually equated with treat training, right? Like, “cookie pushers,” air quotes.
Because we do use a lot of food. Food is a really convenient reinforcer! I mean, I work for food. I don’t know about you, but food’s pretty high value for me, even like anything, any kind of food. Animals have to eat to survive so it’s got that “primary reinforcement” quality (again, I’ll use some air quotes there).
But I also think that because it’s so ubiquitous, we gloss over the top, like we take it for granted, until the universe presents us with a dog to teach us not to take eating food in training for granted.
I know you’ve [00:09:00] had that dog and I’ve had that dog. We still have that dog, in addition to having encountered it working with client teams. But it is a little different when it is your own dog, in terms of causing you to question all of your life and career choices and just self-worth in general when you’re confronted with a dog who doesn’t eat food.
So before I hit record, we were talking about just all the complexity and nuance that lies under the surface of reinforcement (and food reinforcement specifically) that that makes a huge difference in the outcome of a training session.
Ashlee Osborn: Yeah, and it’s funny that you mentioned– You have dogs that will take food and you take it for granted and then you get that one dog that doesn’t. It just brought to mind:
My original– I have four dogs, but my first two, they’re little yappy [00:10:00] terriers that I didn’t do anything with. They’re monsters. I love them so much and I like them that way. So I just left it that way. Then I got my bully mix, who was a whole different story where it was like, “Oh, when you act like that, umm… it’s worse.” It’s not as easy to handle as when the 16 pound dog acts like that. But she is the dog all the way on the “if you put ketchup on a rock, I would swallow it and I would walk on the ceiling for this rock with ketchup on it” [type of dog].
And then I got my puppy, Pretzel, my English Shepherd, and he’s like, “If there’s water touching my foot, I’m not going to eat steak. I won’t eat anything. Someone is looking at me funny, so I can’t eat cheese anymore. I don’t like this. You’re gonna have to be… You withheld the [00:11:00] treat one time when I thought I did the right thing, so I’m actually not going to eat for 48 hours. Thank you.”
Hannah Branigan: Yes, yes.
Ashlee Osborn: And working with him, actually like thinking about food more instead of taking it for granted with my bully mix Millie, actually made me a lot better at using food with her more strategically.
Because so often I could get her to do anything for food, so I didn’t have to be very smart about it. But I always thought of her as like just a high arousal, kind of difficult dog to work with because she’s one of those dogs that’s throwing you 10,000 things at once. She’s spinning out all the time She’s 10 years old and she’s still parkouring off the furniture every single day of her life.
And I realized that like, “Yeah, she’d eat anything. She would walk through fire for one single kibble but because I’m taking that for granted and I’m not being super smart [00:12:00] about how I’m training her, I’m making life harder for both of us.” And I’m getting what I want eventually, because she’ll try anything and everything, but I’m also getting so much superstitious behavior. I’m getting so much barking. I’m getting so much frustration. I’m taking forever to teach things that shouldn’t be taking that long to teach because I had never thought about using food better.
Hannah Branigan: I mean, I think that’s a lot of us. And as you’re talking, I’m thinking similar thoughts. My first dog as an adult, the dog that got me into dog training because he had a lot of problems (I think most of us have that dog). He was a hound mix and so he would eat anything. He would do anything for food, like he would get very aroused and he would foam at the mouth and drool bubbles would fly everywhere and he would keep trying.
So he [00:13:00] had a lot of– I was going to say reactive, but he was aggressive. He bit dogs, he bit people, he bit me.
Ashlee Osborn: Yeah, Millie too.
Hannah Branigan: Yeah, so there’s no reason to sugarcoat that. And trying to train initially with– “Train” isn’t even the right word because I wasn’t approaching it with any kind of skill or experience of any kind. And the very first trainer that I tried to work with was just your typical old school, big pickup truck and German Shepherds… And that one session made it much worse rather quickly and I was in despair.
And that’s when I– It was not this direct of a path, but when I ended up with a trainer that used food and clicker training, all of a sudden, he’s like, “Oh, I would way rather eat food than bite someone, so I’m very happy to eat your food.”
And I’m like, “Holy crap, I’m pretty hot shit. Look at this, I took a dog with a multiple bite history, [00:14:00] and in a matter of weeks, he can do all things.” I took that dog to sports, I did obedience with him, because it was so easy to motivate him.
But like you’re saying, one of our big obstacles then became that we had 300 different behaviors, none of them under any kind of stimulus control. When I was exposed to clicker training and training with food originally, I think it was like “old clicker training style” where there’s no real strategy, all of the emphasis is put on like criteria and raising your criteria. So you sit in one place and you wait and you watch the dog until they do something and then you mark and you throw them a treat or you hand them a treat, and so there’s a ton of waiting and there’s a ton of garbage. And for a hound mix or probably your dog, they’re very happy to cycle through as many behaviors as they can think of with increasing amounts of what I would now call frustration.
Ashlee Osborn: Yep! And for my dog, one of them specifically is always going to be to punch me [00:15:00] in the stomach with both her front paws as hard as she can. That’s one of her first ones to go to. It’s just like, “gut punch! Did you like that?”
Hannah Branigan: Yeah, I bet you’re gonna love this one.
Ashlee Osborn: “Is that it? This one has never actually gotten me the treat, but I’m gonna keep trying!”
Hannah Branigan: But it’s been on the path, so it got wrapped into the loop, because if I gut punch you and then back up and then spin and then bark at you and then lift my paw and then I get the treat.
Ashlee Osborn: Yep. We had a really bad one where she would run over and smack one of the little dogs in the head. Like, she would just go over and just stomp on one of them and then run back like, “Is that it?”
And I think that it came from really poorly doing Look At That with other dogs, because she’s dog aggressive and dog reactive. And so I think doing Look At That, but then we also separately from [00:16:00] that free-shaping like a retrieve type of thing where we were, instead of back chaining it, starting from “I’m just sitting there and you look at the thing and I reward that and then eventually building that up to you go to the thing and you mess with it all kinds of ways and then you pick it up and you start chomping on it.” And so she connected those two things together and then was like, “Okay, sometimes I look at a dog, sometimes I look at a thing, and then I get told to go over there and interact with it. There’s a dog, gonna go interact with it and gonna smack her with my paw.”
Hannah Branigan: Yeah, it doesn’t take too many slightly late clicks to accidentally buy something completely different from what you were intending to train.
So I love that, that you said – because it’s a really good point – “It wasn’t until I had dogs that made me think harder and be more careful about [00:17:00] how I was using the food.”
Even my tervs, which I got after I had my hound (I mean, I still had him at that time), they were not as food motivated as a hound. They’re herding dogs. Very few herding dogs are. And so to me, they seemed like, “Oh, well, this is what a not food motivated dog looks like.” Ohhh, foreshadowing. And so they did make me think harder, especially my male Gambit, because he would not work as hard or as long. He would go flatter much faster. I really had to think about how I was using the food.
And at that point, I was also more interested in the “how” of the behavior, like the more precision, more specific criteria in mind for what I was trying to train, I was less thrilled with just sit being “butt on the ground,” which is where I started. But now I can get ridiculous – and frequently do – about just sit as a behavior. So many behaviors! But that’s not what we’re here [00:18:00] to talk about.
And then the universe gave me Figment. “Ham. Is that poison? Are you trying to poison me? There was a ceiling fan in this room that was on three days ago and so I can’t now eat in this room in case the ceiling fan moves again,” or I mean, I don’t even know. Sometimes I don’t even know why he was why he wouldn’t eat. “It’s Thursday. On Thursdays, we don’t eat.” And he would not eat dinner and he would not reliably take food. Sometimes he would take it. Sometimes he would eat a few mouthfuls and then just walk off and do something else. Stare at things. Stare at the cat. Stare at other dogs. You know, good border collie stuff. So he really made me think about every choice that I made around that.
Ashlee Osborn: Yeah, that’s how Pretzel is too. Pretzel, my English Shepherd. And he is also one [00:19:00] of those dogs that’s the same way with toys too. It’s not like– A lot of times you get one or the other. But he is just like, “if I don’t feel good, I don’t want anything.” And I guess the nice thing is – it’s not nice nice – but he does stress down, so at least I don’t have all of this and also he’s spiraling out. He’s just like, “I’m really sleepy. I want to lay down and take a nap.” Though it does make me sad.
Hannah Branigan: I was going to say, it still feels like shit. You’re like, “Oh, I’m trying so hard to be a motivational trainer and I’m like doing all of the things that you’re supposed to do and you act like I beat you. And you just won’t engage, you just disengage, and I’m doing all of these things.”
Ashlee Osborn: Especially in like a sport class and everyone’s got– I took him to flyball and he did this and everyone’s got their like crazy labs that are like [00:20:00] “TENNIS BALL, TENNIS BALL, TENNIS BALL!” and Pretzel like slinks off into the corner and lays down like “everyone’s barking and I don’t like it here and I want to go home.”
Hannah Branigan: I mean, I understand that. Yeah, in flyball in particular. Which is a fun sport, there’s a lot there. But it’s also a lot.
Ashlee Osborn: And he did end up enjoying it and then ended up even working for toys, being able to be in the class from being a lot more strategic with how I was using food all the time.
Like, I couldn’t just start with there. Right? Like I think a lot of times we are like, “Okay, well, how can I fix this right now? I’m gonna go buy you a cheeseburger. I’m going to try and get excited and run around and have you chase the food.” That might work once, but it’s not gonna work twice. Like I may be able to go and get you to eat this food because I pretend like it’s [00:21:00] my food that I’m just sharing with you because I take a bite of the cheeseburger first and then I give you some. But it’s probably not gonna work twice because you’re gonna eat it and then you’re still gonna feel bad. And then you’re gonna be like, “Actually this didn’t help me, so next time I don’t want it.”
Hannah Branigan: I mean, I also try to eat to feel better when I feel bad.
Ashlee Osborn: I do too, so I don’t understand why people don’t–
Hannah Branigan: Did you try carbs? Like mac and cheese maybe? What about an entire bag of Tostitos while standing in your kitchen? Did you try that?
Ashlee Osborn: I did once feed him a turkey sandwich when we went to an obedience fun match, but that was after I had figured out the food thing and I simply had forgotten to bring treats, but had brought myself a turkey sandwich. And so I fed it to him. And I did drop bread crumbs all over the floor and someone did get mad at me because I dropped bread crumbs all over the floor. [00:22:00]
Hannah Branigan: Ah, people.
So that kind of brings up something that, that I think about a lot. When I was a baby trainer teaching pet dog classes, working with my own dogs, when I wanted to train with food, if I wasn’t getting the engagement that I was looking for or needed, the only tool I had at that point was to go – I’m going to say “up in value,” but asterisks because I want to unpack that a little bit more. By that I mean we might start out with something dry, a commercial dog treat of some kind. And if that wasn’t working, if they weren’t taking it or they would do– All of my pet dog classes at that time were filled with 9-18 month old lab/shepherd/pit bull mixes so they were very good at arousal and usually had some learning history [00:23:00] that was not not helpful by the time they came to class, so maybe they would take the treat but they would immediately go right back to lunging and barking at the other dogs across the room. So if the commercial treats didn’t really work, then the next thing I would maybe break out was some chicken or a hot dog. And then if that still wasn’t it, then maybe we would try cheese. And if that didn’t do it, then we would go to roast beef. And if that didn’t do it, I kept cans of cat food in the cabinet. And I would pull that out and say, “Well, cat food always works.”
And all I really had was this linear progression of trying different things to land on the specific food type that would do the trick. If that didn’t work or I ran out of food types to try, then I felt like I just had to throw up my hands or probably more likely the clients wouldn’t come back. They would find someone who didn’t use food to train, which again, a whole nother conversation there.
But now I feel like there’s so much more – and that’s why I get so kind of worked up and excited [00:24:00] talking about training with treats, which again, on the surface seems so simple!
That’s how we explain it, right? “What’s positive reinforcement? Well, that’s when the dog does something that you like and you give him a treat.” End of story.
Ashlee Osborn: Yep, and it works super well and easily for every single dog – which you do hear all the time. “Well, positive reinforcement works for every dog and if it didn’t work for your dog you didn’t do it right.” But a lot of times, you have dogs that will not take food and so often the only advice you get is “Go up in value.”
And I taught an entire 45 minute webinar and I think I broke down six different reasons the dog could not be taking food with number one being health. And I can’t even tell you how many dogs have come to me and they won’t take food and I’m like, “It looks like they’re trying but they can’t,” and I send them to the vet and they come back and are like, “Yeah, she had a broken tooth.” [00:25:00] And that’s the only tell is the dog just won’t eat.
Hannah Branigan: Yeah, dental pain. I always feel like whenever we’re talking about using food and we have a dog that’s not taking food, first thing, like don’t pass go until we have a thorough vet visit, not just like a typical physical exam, but we have a dog that’s not taking food under normal circumstances, something is not quite right in there. And so before I go down the path of doing a bunch of behavioral manipulation, let’s make sure the dog doesn’t have dental disease or IBD or just general food allergies, with or without food allergies, if they’re itchy, if they’re painful. All of those things are very, very common.
Ashlee Osborn: Or even just generalized anxiety! And I think a lot of people that don’t work with the general public in a training capacity would be surprised at how many times someone will come to me and say, “Yeah, my [00:26:00] dog skips meals for days at a time. They won’t take treats when we’re training.” And then I’m like, “Do they throw up all the time?” “Yeah, they throw up two or three times a day.” Probably we should check that out first before we just add higher and higher values of food.
And sometimes we get that taken care of or sometimes it’s not there and the dog still won’t take food, right? It’s not a health issue. So my second one that I go to – and this is usually it. I would say if it’s not a health issue, it’s usually a social pressure issue. It’s that the dog doesn’t feel comfortable with the way that the food is being delivered because it’s being delivered either with too high of expectations for what the dog needs to do in order to get it, so we’re like asking them to do things and then also every single time wanting them to sit. That’s one thing that [00:27:00] I see a lot, or the dog is kind of sharky, but instead of addressing the dog being sharky, we’re focused on something else and then the dog goes to take the treat as their reward and we yank our hand away because they’re about to put my whole hand in their mouth, which I don’t want that.
I’m not saying you need to just let the dog bite your fingers off, because that hurts and I don’t want to do that either! But you need to focus on that specifically rather than “Well, I’m going to work on loose leash walking. I’m going to ask you to do this behavior of walking right next to me, but then every time I go to give you a treat, I’m going to be like, ‘Gentle! Gentle! Stop doing that! Stop doing that’!”
And a lot of times it’s as simple as we need to break the behaviors down smaller because we are making it hard for the dog to eat, because we don’t like the way that they’re trying to do it. [00:28:00]
Hannah Branigan: That’s a really good point. I’ve definitely been that person. And I’ve seen that person.
One of the things that I’ve learned about working with food in training is that, one, the dog that is like too excited about the food and the dog that’s not excited enough about the food are often two sides of the same set of problems. I mean, it’s kind of nice when generally the same approach is going to help either version, the dog that’s like out of their mind and they’re snatching at you–
But you’re right. I have definitely ruined a training session with a poor reaction to getting pinched or when they get their incisor right up underneath your thumbnail. My response there is a purely reflexive emotional pain/rage thing. It is not a training [00:29:00] strategy and there’s no frontal lobe involved at all. But yeah, it can be intense and I’ve absolutely seen dogs go, “Oh, I’ll never take food from you again then.” Or, flip side, “Fine, then next time I’ll snatch even harder because you’re weird and unpredictable.”
Ashlee Osborn: Yeah, “I gotta get that treat fast because you keep taking your hand away!”
Hannah Branigan: Exactly. So I learned to recognize that earlier, fortunately, and find workarounds when I know that that’s where we’re at. But yeah, it can’t be while I’m working on whatever, loose leash walking, heeling.
Ashlee Osborn: And I think a lot of little baby puppies – because they have those needle teeth and they’re not very coordinated, they have no motor skills – I think that a lot of our dogs that come to us at a year and a half and they’re really weird about taking food. They learned it as a puppy. Right? They were little needle teeth [00:30:00] herding dogs that were already kind of inherently sensitive and then they were chomping on everybody, and it hurts, and they’re probably making you bleed.
There are some dogs, like with Pretzel, my first herding dog, my dog that’s weird about food, he was just inherently sensitive about that space bubble. Like, he was just sensitive about coming into my space and taking food out of my hand in general, and also very sensitive about the idea that he could ever get anything wrong. Even though I’d never told him he got anything wrong, he knows. He knows if he didn’t get the treat right away. He knows if I look a little bit disappointed. He knows if I breathe wrong. He didn’t get it quite right. And he has a very sad spiral where he is very ashamed – or I’m projecting that on him because that’s what it looks like to me – that he’s very ashamed that he [00:31:00] got it wrong and so he’s not going to try anymore, which I can relate to.
Hannah Branigan: I can definitely– I think about this too, like how it flows both directions. The arrow points both ways between the difficulty of the criteria of the training session and we’ll say “value of reinforcement” or “motivational value of a reinforcer in the moment,” where the more they already value it, the more willing they are to try harder, put more effort in, try more behaviors before they shift to seek other reinforcers elsewhere in the environment.
But also I just have personally had plenty of experiences where, if trying to get the thing turns out to be so hard, I no longer want it anymore. “Screw you. I don’t want what you have. Forget it.” So like having to work too hard devalued whatever the reinforcer was going to be. [00:32:00] I’m also stubborn and kind of oppositional, so I probably run up against that a lot, but I’ve also seen it show up with dogs.
It has a lot in common, I’ve noticed, with kind of a poison cue effect, where context cues are present for, “Oh, this is going to be a training session and it’s going to be kind of hard, because it’s when it looks like this, it’s always hard.” The same reinforcer that, under other conditions they might be into, they’re not into it now. Everything else being the same.
This is separate from like, “Oh, well, there’s unfamiliar dogs there.” I mean, that could be part of what makes it hard. But even like working for a particular behavior that was not well broken down, if you raised criteria too quickly or there’s a missing skill that we weren’t accounting for so they don’t know how to do it. They go “Pfft, forget it, I don’t care. I would rather starve than continue to try to figure out what the hell you want.”
Ashlee Osborn: And I think [00:33:00] it’s poisoned by frustration. The poisoning cues doesn’t necessarily just come from punishment or some adding– Frustration is very aversive for me. Honestly, I would rather you pop me in the head than be super frustrated and not know what you want me to do. Like, that’s going to be much more upsetting to me. Being frustrated is like one of the worst feelings in the world. And so I think a lot of times just not having a clear enough path to reinforcement and also not having, in that same vein, not a clear enough kind of skill set for how to take the reinforcement? Like having that be confusing too, how to get the reinforcement?
Hannah Branigan: YES. We’re kind of getting into reinforcement strategies here and reinforcement procedures [00:34:00] and where I think about the reinforcement process as being a behavior, as involving a series of behaviors, and that’s where I find it to be the most helpful in terms of making choices with the training, over only looking at the object of the reinforcer itself and then it’s a dead end.
I mean, it’s great if all I needed to do was switch to FreshPet. Like, fine. I would love to put that little thought into trying to solve motivational problems. And sometimes it does! But, but then when it doesn’t, looking at the behaviors–
And then there’s the two sides of that, right? Because the reinforcement process is not something the dog does. It’s not something the human does. It’s the interface between both of our behaviors. It’s me being able to present the reinforcer in a way that’s going to be effective, so timing and mechanics there, but it’s also the dog having the skill to receive it.
And that’s definitely something that I [00:35:00] really notice in puppies, especially like really young puppies where they’re new to solid foods in general, right? Like, they’re so adorable. They’re three weeks, four weeks, however old, you put down the dish of the mush and they don’t know how to eat it, so they just fall in it and walk in it and then it’s not even really food and you do that several days in a row and then the story I make up is that one of them falls and then gets in it and their litter mate then goes to bite them like, “Oh, wow, you actually taste better than usual today and now it’s in my mouth. Well, that’s kind of good. Oh, this is actually food. I can swallow this!”
But there’s absolutely skills to eating the mush out of a pan. Then I think that extends up to when they’re five weeks old, six weeks old and I want to do some training because I’m very, very excited about doing the training and trying to hand them a treat. And they may be all into interacting with me and climbing around, but they don’t seem to be able to get their mouths on the treat. [00:36:00]
And I run into the same thing even with older dogs who literally do not know how to access the treat that I’m trying to deliver to them. And I own half of that because I need to be able to deliver it in a way that’s going to be effective. But they also need the opportunity to learn how to receive it and how to take it.
And I don’t think we pay enough attention to that. I think there’s a gap there in a lot of our conversations.
Ashlee Osborn: And I think it’s also hard, when you’re coaching clients, to explain it to them and teach them how to do it, because it’s like, “Well, I just give them a treat,” you know?
I have a golden retriever that I work with who is super food motivated because he’s a golden, but truly when I first started working with him, I was like “Why don’t you know how to [00:37:00] swallow? Like, what is happening here?” Because I would go to give him the treat and he would just smash his face against my hand. Like, buddy, what are you doing?
And he needed a ton of help on learning how to open his mouth all the way, put the treat in his mouth and then swallow it instead of just kind of pushing his nose up against it and licking it? It was very strange what he was doing. But then I thought about it and was like, “Well, they have two young kids. I’m sure that the kids are trying to feed the dog and not opening their hand or yanking their hand away a lot and he’s learned that the best way to get them to eventually open their hand and give the treat is to very gently lick at them.” So when I would go to give him a treat, instead of opening his mouth and using his teeth to take the treat, he would just try and like slurp it in [00:38:00] because he didn’t want to use his teeth at all, because he didn’t want me to yank my hand away, because that’s what he was used to.
Hannah Branigan: Or bump their hand enough and the treat will fall on the floor and then you can eat it.
Ashlee Osborn: Yeah, but when I’m trying to train you to do something and every time I go to give you a treat, it takes you 30 seconds of just licking at my open palm until it finally flings into your mouth. It was very strange.
Hannah Branigan: Yeah, dogs are so weird.
One of the strategies or techniques that I use for shaping stuff when I need a a third hand (you know, the third hand that you’re supposed to have as a dog trainer?) is I hold my clicker and my treats in the same hand and then [use the other hand] if I’m working with a dumbbell or a target or leash or whatever.
I’ll show videos of me doing the training and people are like, “How are you doing that? Wait, wait, how? That’s magic. How are you doing that?” And I’m like, “How am I doing what?” “You clicker and your treats are in the same hand!” [00:39:00] I would try to explain it and it was like three iterations before I figured out what was missing from my explanation. What I was actually experiencing and why it didn’t seem like that huge of a magical thing that I was particularly doing – and it’s not because like, “Oh, I’m just a natural and these things come easy to me,” that’s that’s absolutely not true – it’s that I wasn’t trying to like pincer grip a treat with my pinky finger to deliver it. My dog was actually taking the treat from my hand because he had the skill of being able to use his tongue to scoop a treat, so I only had to do half of the work. And then he had the opportunity to learn how to access it in this particular picture. I don’t have to do all of the work. I should do some of it. And then I have to give him a chance to figure out how to do that and it needs to be in a context where I’m [00:40:00] not asking him to do like a lot of other physical and cognitive work learning a new skill.
I’ll hold the clicker with my thumb and my forefinger and then I’ve got a handful of treats that my other three fingers are holding onto and the dog takes the treat from the pinky finger side of my hand. And it’s because that’s a skill. So he needed to have the experience of, “Hey, sometimes they’re gonna offer food to you like this,” and I would make it very obvious by halfway opening my fingers, and then by the time I’m actually working on shaping formal retrieve stuff, I can just use my pinky finger as a little valve to let one treat be accessible, and he could scoop that out, and we’d go on and do another treat.
But he needed the chance to learn how to do that in the same way that he needs to learn how to take a treat from my hand the more traditional mainstream way [00:41:00] with more your thumb and first fingers the way most people deliver treats.
And it definitely can be frustrating. And yeah, frustration is super aversive. And I’m sorry, but I’ve never found my “tolerance” for frustration to improve based on exposure, so I don’t– That’s a whole tangent, but I feel pretty strongly about that, compared to having a repertoire of behaviors and the confidence that you’re going to be able to access your reinforcers, at least eventually.
Ashlee Osborn: Yeah. When I have a dog that gets super easily frustrated– So like, my bully mix, in addition to her “I would eat any food, I’m super highly aroused by food, I’m also super easily frustrated because I want the food so badly,” waiting her out never did anything for her, right? Like, working on building tolerance to frustration never did anything at all besides add [00:42:00] in more frustration behaviors.
Hannah Branigan: Practice those behaviors, yeah. Get really, really good at them.
Ashlee Osborn: Yeah. She got really good at barking, and barking, and barking, and now she can bark for a really long time, if you ignore her.
Hannah Branigan: Those lungs! Cardiovascular fitness, so important, yes.
Ashlee Osborn: But giving her coping skills– So one thing that I work with on my dogs is being able to tell me “I don’t get it and I give up, give me more information, you need to fix it.” So anytime that my dogs lay down within a session for any more than like three seconds– So if they lay down as like “I’m trying this behavior to see if that’s what you want” and then kind of pop back up and go right into something else, then we’ll keep going, but if they lay down and lay down for like a solid three seconds, I reward it, I end the session and I reward with a scatter so that it is like, [00:43:00] “Okay We’re taking a break.”
Hannah Branigan: We’re pulling the pulling the ejection cord or rip cord or whatever
Ashlee Osborn: We’re gonna bring your arousal level down a little bit because you getting to that level of frustration means that your arousal level has probably spiked. We’re going to chill out a little bit and I’m going to go back and rework the session rather than allowing you to spin out and spin out and spin out, because I have never found that to be effective for helping you get to anywhere. With her, she either spins out until she’s smacking the other dog in the head, smacking me in the stomach, barking at me for 30 minutes straight or with Pretzel, my opposite end of the spectrum dog, he’s not going to take food from me for the next week and a half. Because he gives up. Because now “you’re a bad trainer, Mom. I don’t want to do this anymore.”
Hannah Branigan: “You need to find a different [00:44:00] job.”
The down thing is so interesting because that was something that I observed coming up in teams that I would work with and it took me probably embarrassingly long to catch on to the pattern, because at first it would look like they were just offering a down like, “Oh, they’re just confused. Oh, we’ve been doing a lot of tracking lately and the article indication is a down so that’s why that’s showing up here.” And it’s not every dog, but it’s enough dogs in enough of a pattern that something about it seems to be… if I see a dog starting to throw it down (particularly the ones that are not “I’m folding back and then popping up,” but “I’m laying down), it seems to come up so often in dogs that are like, “This is really hard and I don’t understand” or “the session has been going on too long” or “there’s something about this and my brains are fried and I need a [00:45:00] moment.”
I’ll see that come up and be like, [automated announcement voice] “This session is now over. We will be commencing a new session with a slightly different training plan in five minutes. Please stay tuned.”
So that is really interesting. And I love that you reinforce it, because it’s not a dog that– Even when we’re trying to do our best in terms of progressive reinforcement forward training, it’s still a little scary to think of the dog ending the training session instead of us and then like to reward it, because then what if he just chooses to never train again?
Ashlee Osborn: And I’ve heard that when I’ve talked about it, specifically on the internet where everyone has big opinions. I have heard, “Well, if I did that with my dogs, if I did that with client dogs, we would never get anything done because dogs don’t want to train.”
Hannah Branigan: Nobody wants to work anymore. Kids these [00:46:00] days!
Ashlee Osborn: Lazy, freeloading dogs.
Hannah Branigan: Okay, Boomer.
Ashlee Osborn: But I think that’s the point. Like, if the dog doesn’t want to train with you, I feel like we’re doing something wrong.
Hannah Branigan: We need to take a look–
Ashlee Osborn: Let’s see this differently.
Hannah Branigan: Which I hate. To be clear, I hate that. I do prefer, even though it is silly, I do prefer my dogs to want to train with me just because they love me. That would be my choice.
Ashlee Osborn: I would like a dog that a lot of people seem to think that dogs are, but seems to be a mythical creature that does any and everything out of love and is just undyingly loyal and would never leave me to go and chase a squirrel because they love [00:47:00] me and they’re obedient and they want to do anything to please me at any and all times. Instead of the exact opposite. Isn’t that the dream?
Hannah Branigan: Yeah. No, it would be nice. So I really, I do hate that.
This is just so interesting to me because everywhere that I look where there’s a pattern like this, where– I just realized this is like a topic I should bring up in therapy next week. When I’m trying to manage the outcome by controlling everyone and everything, one, it doesn’t work because they can’t actually control other people. (But if they would listen to me! but anyways.) But two, when I let that go and I put a snuffle mat out there and send the dog away and maybe I’m doing something as structured and formal as Give Me A Break from Control Unleashed, but maybe I’m not, maybe I’m just like “get in your kennel and have a treat, because I don’t know what the hell to do now. I need to go [00:48:00] call somebody, I need a drink, and then we’ll try again tomorrow, or I’ll quit, and I’ll get another job, and I’ll rehome you to someone who can do a better job–” you know, all the things and the thoughts.
But when I do that and I take all that pressure away, like you can get the same reinforcers [by taking a break], that actually has the opposite effect most of the time.
Ashlee Osborn: If you want– I’ve found that by training this way, things like “impulse control,” which I don’t love most impulse control stuff in general, but what people think of as impulse control, because I train this way, because my dog can always earn reinforcement by literally just laying down, because I have to work harder to make sure that they’re enjoying the training, I found it very, very easy to get to a point where I could like proof to having food laying all over the floor [00:49:00] and my dog is heeling over it. Because I had to make my training good enough that he is training because he enjoys what we’re doing, not just to earn the food. And that’s actually a much more reliable dog.
Hannah Branigan: It is really interesting. When I do like a stationed reinforcement kind of game or exercise where I want to be able to have like no food on myself and then the food is somewhere else and the dog comes over here and does the thing to access that food, there’s a lot of ways you can set that up. It’s a necessary skill for most sports – most sports, we can’t have the food with us. So we need something in our training plan that’s going to start to introduce that to the picture.
And the way that I teach it is just an open dish of food – I call it a zen bowl but you can call it anything you want – that’s on the floor, relative to a machine like a Treat and Train, or a Pet Tutor or whatever’s out there right now, [00:50:00] or a Tupperware container with a lid on it. In both of those cases, I’m controlling the access and I do both of those things at times, but it’s a different exercise.
What I love about the open bowl strategy is it really makes me be honest about exactly what I’m doing, because if my dog could leave at any time and just help himself, then I really need to be thoughtful about exactly how I’m setting up that training session if I want to get anything done. I think it does result in stronger behavior, because I’m doing a better job from the beginning of splitting things and thinking about how I’m setting up the environment, thinking about how long the session is going, all that stuff – whereas if there’s a lid on the dish and my dog leaves me to go to the closed container, I can sit back and feel smug. Then I don’t change the session and I feel like I’m doing a pretty good job. I’m not training what I think I’m training. When it’s an open dish, it’s very clear if I am not training what I think that I’m training. [00:51:00]
Ashlee Osborn: Yeah, and it happens. One of the big things that I struggled with– I do agility with Pretzel, my English Shepherd. The only way that he likes to play with toys (which is like a whole separate thing of reinforcement strategies, figuring out how he likes to play, because he’s not a dog that came pre-programmed with tug or fetch) is that he very specifically likes to go find a toy and bring it to me. If we play any other way, he doesn’t like it. Or he wants me to put the toy down and he likes us to race to it together. But I have to let him win. If I don’t let him win, then he gets upset.
So when we’re doing agility, if I want to reinforce with a toy, the toy has to be out there. And if I ask him to do anything that is too hard, he leaves and goes and gets the toy and then runs in circles around me.
And then because I think we all get greedy, [00:52:00] that turned into like, “Okay, shortest shortcut, gonna put the toy away.” Right? Then he started jumping out of the ring and going to say hi to people and sticking his head in people’s purses and training bags and pulling toys like keys and Kleenex and whatever he could find out – just pickpocketing people, essentially – and then bringing that and being like, “Yes, I did the thing! It was really hard. I don’t think I did it the way you wanted me to do it, but I think you’re wrong actually.”
Hannah Branigan: “I’m going to be seeking reinforcement now and you can either be involved or not involved, but I will be seeking reinforcement at this point.”
Ashlee Osborn: Yeah. “And look, there’s six or seven other people here that think what I’m doing is very charming and everyone’s laughing at me and I think that’s fun.”
Hannah Branigan: I say Rugby, my terrier, has definitely taught me a lot [00:53:00] about splitting and training. I thought I was planning training sessions until I had a terrier, but I was not. What I was doing before is not really planning a training session. Rugby forces me to really plan my training sessions because he is just as happy to go seek his reinforcement out in the world.
He doesn’t need me. When the rapture comes, he will be fine. I mean, all my dogs will be fine because I’m not going anywhere, but if I were to be abducted by the aliens who are now coming, or if they wanted me to come up and like hang out with them or something, he would be fine. He would be able to get his needs met out and about. And he’d be fine with that. I don’t think he’d even notice me. Maybe air conditioning.
So you really have to factor in that they’re going to find reinforcement because reinforcement does drive behavior. It also drives behavior that we don’t want as much as it drives the behavior that we do want. So there will always be reinforcement. We can’t really control all of it, so [00:54:00] we may as well harness it.
Ashlee Osborn: Yeah. And because then we’re in the habit of, “Well, now I jump out of the ring, right?” Pretzel’s very tall. Pretzel is 23 and a half inches tall. So he’s huge. He’s a very tall dog. I think he’s the biggest out of his litter and his whole litter is big for English shepherds. He’s a giraffe. Like he is lanky. He also only weighs like a little over 50 pounds. So he just has legs that are three miles long, so he can hop right out of most rings. It’s barely even a thing for him.
So I had to really work on his ability to stay with me. And a big part of that was not trying to get him to ignore the things around, but to disregard them. Right? So, not necessarily focusing [00:55:00] on me, but focusing on– Especially because he’s also nervous, right? Like there’s so many things going on in that little head where he’s like, “Okay, there’s there’s stuff outside of the ring. I think there’s a my toy is over there. My stuff is in my kennel. I know this lady. I know a lot of times that she has stuff in her purse and she laughs really hard when I stick my head in there and I think that’s very fun. I don’t know this guy. He is making me nervous. I think I might want to go up there and bark at him really fast and run away.” So there’s so many things ping-ponging around in his head.
So if I were to be like, “Okay, well, I’m going to use super high value food and ask you to just focus on me,” the second that I ask him to do anything away from me, I’m going to lose him, right?
I had to also work a lot on being able to bounce back. Using [00:56:00] strategic– Going back to using my reinforcement strategies and the reinforcement strategies that I taught– Rather than feeding out of my hand and keeping his focus on me, I started feeding away from me but having the really strong foundation of “The way that we do this reinforcement is you go eat and you bounce back” so that I could reinforce him close to the other things that he’s worried about and/or intrigued by, and then he could bounce back to me.
It doesn’t matter how much we’ve worked on conditioning him to the social pressure– Eating out of my hand, now he’s comfortable with that. I’m making sure I’m splitting enough, so now you’re comfortable with that. Now we have all of these things going on that he’s really interested in, and if I ask him to just stay away from them, they get more interesting or more concerning. And so now I need to work on you being able to go over there and bounce back from it.
Hannah Branigan: I was [00:57:00] not sure what you meant, but now I’m getting a visual. I agree. I like to approach distractions in the same way.
When I was first training, what I thought success was, was the dog never looked at the thing, particularly with a reactive dog. And so I would do a lot of body blocking. I would do a lot of stuff like “watch me, watch me” and not very successfully. And I can’t remember who it was that finally– Maybe it might’ve been like Patricia McConnell. Somebody made the analogy of, “it’s like telling someone not to look behind them.” “Oh my god. Now I need to know! Why, what’s behind me?!”
And yeah, it made it worse, especially for something that you’re afraid of. And I mean, that makes sense to me. If I know there’s a spider in the room with me, I would like to have visual contact with that spider. Having a spider in my room and not knowing where it is? That’s a very different emotional experience for me.
So I do train– And even with less [00:58:00] serious than spiders, less serious threats. Like just distractions in general. I think where I have gotten the best outcomes is, again, rather than aiming for “My dog will never look away from me. He’ll never look away from me in the ring or during heeling or whatever,” to “Something is going to happen outside of the ring. He’s going to notice it and then choose to continue to engage,” because he’s a living organism that should be responsive to his environment. Like that seems adaptive.
So if somebody drops a chair or a dog barks or there’s a sudden noise and he goes, “Oh! Well, I’m heeling.” He knows how to recover and I think that’s a really important skill, probably more important than the not-looking, that’s what I’m saying.
Ashlee Osborn: Yeah, because the not-looking can also get you like [00:59:00] really unpredictable behavior when they get too close. With Pretzel, he’s a little iffy with men because there’s no men in my life. He had never met one until he was like a year and a half, because I didn’t really think about it. We had a male judge in Barn Hunt and if anyone is unfamiliar with Barn Hunt, you’re in a little tiny space and the judge is right in there with you. And one thing does come naturally to Pretzel, which is really high prey drive. Which of course makes life so much easier and it’s super useful when your dog doesn’t like food that much, but they will hunt any and everything.
And so he’s in there and he’s so focused. This would be the equivalent to, if I had a really food motivated dog and then I also had steak where they’re just so focused on me and he’s hunting and he’s hunting and all of a sudden he finds [01:00:00] the rat, he alerts the rat, I pick up the tube, I hand it to the rat wrangler outside of the ring and Pretzel turns over and looks and there is a man right there. Lurking. Lurking suspiciously. Lurking a foot away from him and he about jumped out of his skin! I probably wouldn’t put a dog that had like any real aggression issues in that situation, and luckily he’s not. But he barked at him and then came and like jumped into my arms, like jumping out of his skin, like, “Oh my God, hold me. I’m so scared.”
I’ve had that happen with my bully mix with food, where she is dog aggressive and I would be working with other dogs and she’s so focused on the food, so focused on the food, “Oh my God, there’s a dog there and they’re really close now!” [01:01:00]
Hannah Branigan: Yeah, I’ve definitely seen that. I’ve also seen where we’ve accidentally created like an avoidance of the distraction. When I was training with leash correction, then it made sense because another dog or person represented an opportunity where a potential punisher could be involved. Even when I stopped punishing looking at the other thing and just tried to reward only not-ever-looking, I still got a lot of weird avoidance. “I can’t walk towards the audience, because if I do that, I’ll have to look and the only way to not look is to not walk towards them” and we would get very stuck or we get weird bulging away.
In some contexts, it would be really easy to [01:02:00] write that off as, “Oh, well, you know, she’s anxious about everything. She’s afraid of that other thing.” But in other scenarios with other dogs, I don’t think so. I think it was that the only way to be successful at not-looking is to make a big arc away from that distraction because otherwise it’s too tempting. “I can’t have the doughnuts in the house and not eat them.”
And I got much cleaner results when I let go of the don’t-ever-look and focused more on the “if you look, keep going, like come back to me. If you glance, come back to me.”
So tell me more about how you go about setting that up with your dogs.
Ashlee Osborn: Yeah, so I have a really structured way that I do it so that I can give it to clients too. That’s my clockwork thing that I mentioned.
So essentially you start with a game of find it, right? And you teach a really, really good foundation of “go find the food, [01:03:00] immediately turn around and come back to me.”
I toss the treat out and then I break down that original behavior into eat the food and then I mark eating the food with coming back to get it. So I mark with my yes, which is my location specific for “eat food out of my hands.” So they eat the food and then I say yes and they’re like, “wow, more food!” and they turn around and come running back to me.
And when I get that bounce-back, then I put it on my clock. I’m the center of the clock and then we’ve got really four main directions: to either side, in front of me or behind me. Typically if I’m working with a distraction or a trigger or whatever, that’s going to be at my 12 o’clock, and I’ve got then three different levels of where I’m delivering my food with my end goal being “I deliver my food at 12 o’clock towards the distraction, you eat the food, you turn around and you bounce back towards me.”
So, [01:04:00] using a specific example of Pretzel and our agility coach who fed him a piece of doughnut one time and now he’s like, “Maybe if I go over there and hop out of the ring, she’ll feed me another piece of doughnut.” And so he is very, very obsessed with this. So I would go into the ring and if I were to immediately throw my food towards her, he would just hop out of the ring and go jump all over her.
So what I do is I throw my food away from her, testing just by his response, “Do you try and run past me or do you come straight back to me? Okay, cool. You come straight back to me. Now I’m going to throw my food to either side. So to my three o’clock or my nine o’clock, just depending on which one is easier in relation to where she’s at. Can you come back to me? And are you just coming straight back to me? Or are you looking over at her as you’re running? Do you slow down a little bit? [01:05:00] Do you get that little slow trot like you’re considering, ‘Maybe I’m gonna just bypass mom and run over there to doughnut lady.’”
And once he’s coming back to me right away, then I can turn around and I can throw the food towards her and see, “Can you go and eat it, and do you stay there staring at her for a second, or do you immediately turn around,” and I’m going to keep doing that until he eats the food, immediately turns around.
Then I’m going to go and run the course, or do whatever it is we were just about to do, because I know that when I send you to a jump close to that edge of the ring, you’re not going to go, “Okay, jump and jump over the ring gate and go say hi to this person.”
And I can do the same thing with triggers, using all the safety measures that I need to use. I’m not just seeing if an aggressive dog will run up to another dog [01:06:00] and “we’re just gonna test it out and see what happens.” But I’m gonna use muzzles and leashes and fences and all of that stuff, until I get a dog that goes and eats the treats as close as I think is reasonable to that trigger and disregards and turns around and comes back to me.
And that was a really easy way for me to explain to clients for when I’m not there, when I’m not there to read the body language and all the intricacies of that. For you to be able to know exactly how, when and where to deliver your food to eventually get to a point that your dog is able to not ignore triggers or distractions, but disregard them.
Hannah Branigan: Notice and still choose to come back, orient towards you. Are you teaching this pattern like at home separately, or? [01:07:00]
Ashlee Osborn: I typically teach the find it distraction-free at home separately and then I teach the pattern in a lower distraction area, but it is something that if the dog has a decent find it, which you can typically teach really quickly, it is something that you can just start doing like on a walk. I use it also a lot for off leash skills, for teaching just like that bungee cord of “no matter what direction you go in, just come back and check in at some point. Whenever you feel like it, just bounce back over here.”
It’s something that I use as often as possible, right? So that it’s really, really strong as a behavior, right? Not necessarily just as a reinforcement strategy, but that bounce back becomes a really strong behavior.
A big part of my job is that I do off [01:08:00] leash hikes. So I take like eight dogs– Separately, not all together as a group. I’ve done that one time and it was very overwhelming. There were too many dogs to keep track of. But I take small groups of dogs. And one thing that I found is they’ll find other forms of reinforcement and then bounce back to me, right? So they’ll find a cool hole that had some type of prey in it. And they’ll be like, “wow, that’s cool!” And then bounce back to me. And then they bounce back to the hole. And then they bounce back to me. And they bounce back to the hole. And they bounce back. Because I’m part of their game now, right? And part of the game is coming back and being like, “look what I found!” and then bouncing back to it. They tend to generalize that basic motor pattern really well.
Hannah Branigan: Yeah, I agree.
Ashlee Osborn: Which works well also for like a loose leash walk because they go off and sniff something, and then they [01:09:00] bounce back. And they go off and sniff something, and then they bounce back.
Hannah Branigan: They know how to come back to you, having moved away from you. Which I really do think that’s a skill. I agree
It’s most obvious to me in heeling, just because it’s so narrow and structured, but the pattern exists I think everywhere. I’ve seen so many dogs that when all of the effort was put into being in heel position and then something inevitably happens where they end up out of position, they don’t know how to find their way back. And even if it would only take like two steps! And I see them freeze and stare and your heart just breaks for them because you can see them going “Something went wrong” and they’re stuck. “Where am I? I’m cold and scared.” You’re just like “I’ve never seen my mama from the back right quarter.”
Again, having had that with a dog, I put a [01:10:00] lot of effort into “no matter where you’re coming from, you can always find your way back to your position.” So if I mess up an about turn and we end up in a traffic jam, you can circle back around and find out where you’re supposed to be. Maybe there’s a tuft of hair, and even though we’ve trained for that, but today, this tuft of hair is different and you momentarily break out and you look up, or if you miss a halt cue, you can fix it.
Like, fixing it is just such an important skill for confidence, right? For me, that’s such a confidence builder, because if I know that I can screw up and figure out a way to get back on track, I’m gonna be much more resilient. I’m gonna be much more willing to go out and do stuff.
Ashlee Osborn: Resilience to frustration. That’s where you get an actual resilience to frustration, because it’s, “Oh, I can fix this.” Right? Like, “I can figure it out.”
And so you can take that same type of skill and put it into [01:11:00] a shaping session. Instead of it being, “Okay. Here’s here’s my step of criteria.” And the dog is not quite figuring it out. I can reset and the dog knows how to come back and try again. I can use that exact same type of skill set of go eat the treat, bounce right back and try it again. And there’s no conflict.
They really understand that and they’ve been successful with that pattern. Like regardless of how successful you are or aren’t with the specific skill we’re shaping, you are always going to be successful with this reinforcement skill. And so you can always fall back on that.
With my dogs, having like that down as the tap out, they can always ask for me to deliver reinforcement in a way that’s familiar and then they can bounce back from it.[01:12:00]
Hannah Branigan: They have the confidence that they know how to operate in their world and that they can get their needs met, access reinforced, whatever language you want to use there.
And I love it when they apply it on their own. I love several things about this. I do very similar things, so I love hearing like other skilled trainers having evolved like similar procedures, because that means there’s probably a core universal principle under there. I just think that’s very cool.
But that particularly that thing where– I think Rugby found some kind of poop on the trail and then came to check in. It’s like, “Hey, yeah. There’s poop on the trail. How cool is that?” And I’m like, “Yeah, you’re a real good boy. Good boy. Here’s some cookies.” I don’t want to think about what kind of poop that was. It’s not deer. I’ve noticed the same thing. They’ll break away, they’ll flush a wild turkey and they’ll come right back. [01:13:00] Really useful in so many different ways.
Ashlee Osborn: Well, I think part of it’s also that they know that we’re not going to ask them to ignore the thing. So because the pattern is “you come to me, you go back, you come to me, you go back.”
Going back to the original example of my agility instructor who Pretzel loves very much, “You get to go over there! You don’t get to jump out of the ring and go get her. You do fully have the ability to do that but I’ve set up the conditions so hopefully you don’t want to and you’re not rehearsing it over and over again. But I’m not going to ask you to stay with me until you have decided you no longer care that much. Because you’ve gone over there and you’ve sniffed that area.” Right?
Because a lot of times, the first couple times, he goes over, he eats the treat, and then he kind of lifts his head up in the [01:14:00] air and sniff, sniff, sniff, and I bet he’s just like, “Okay, I don’t think she has a donut this time.” And then he comes back.
The same thing applies when– for him specifically, he finds roadkill a lot. So the same thing kind of applies when he’s like, “Oh, I found this roadkill. I’m gonna go tell mom that I found this. It’s very exciting. I’m sure she’s going to be just as happy about this development. I really love this one!”
Hannah Branigan: “This one is at least four days old. It’s been here a while.”
Ashlee Osborn: “This is great. This one’s great. This one has intact teeth. Oh. Nice.” But he knows he’s going to come to me. And what I’m going to do is reward that with a piece of food thrown back towards the roadkill. And that does avoid… because he used to like to pick up the roadkill and bring it back to me and shove it into my legs as if I am going to want to take it and throw it for him.
Hannah Branigan: You can only bring a hundred pounds of [01:15:00] meat back to the wagon, though. So.
Ashlee Osborn: So I can throw my food over there, he can go eat the food, see the roadkill again, come back, and we keep doing that until he’s not really checking out that roadkill anymore and that’s when we’re gonna move on.
So he’s super willing to come back to me because he knows I’m not gonna go “Oh no, you can’t interact with that in any way.” Do I want you to roll in it? No. Do I want you to chew on it? No. But you you can check it out. That’s okay.
Hannah Branigan: I really think a large part of success– We’ve gone more into distraction proofing. But I think it does tie into the value of reinforcement, and food in particular, because if you’re not having to make the economical decision of which reinforcer, I can only have one, so there’s an opportunity cost. Do I want the roadkill or do I want the treat? If I leave the roadkill for the treat, I won’t get roadkill. Or if I leave the person that I want to visit, I won’t get it again. And we take [01:16:00] that choice and we make it so you don’t have to choose. You get both. There’s no conflict there.
And I think the motor pattern training is probably part of it as well. Then they aren’t as suctioned to things out in the environment because they’re not going to lose it. We’re not going to take it away from them. A lot of us have done exercises like in a puppy class where like you send the puppy in to go play and then you call the puppy out of play, you give them a treat and you send them right back and then it really helps them disengage from the other dogs because they’re going to get a treat and get to go right back to playing. It’s not “come away from those other dogs and you never get to see them again.” Because then you do have to choose, which one do I want more? I think when you don’t have to choose, I think it gives more value to the food that you’re trying to train with. I think it gives you a lot more practical leverage to use it as a motivator in the training.
Ashlee Osborn: And especially when we’re [01:17:00] working with– Like I said, Pretzel has super high prey drive. We’re off leash hiking all the time, like that’s how I prefer to walk with him. I do not remember the last time I took him on a leashed city walk. I simply have no interest in doing it. I don’t want to. We are usually out in the woods, and there are plenty of things to chase, and there are plenty of places to go. If I ask him to just ignore those things, eventually, especially because he’s a dog that’s not all that motivated by food intrinsically–
Hannah Branigan: You’re eventually going to run out of string on that one.
Ashlee Osborn: If we’re talking about prey versus food? Food is so low on the list for him and prey is so high. But not only am I saying “chase it a little bit and then bounce back to me,” right? Like, don’t chase it to the point where you’re almost gonna catch it, but if you flush out a rabbit and take a couple steps towards it and then also you get to keep moving your [01:18:00] body, which I think makes a big difference. I’m not asking him to come to me, eat food out of my hand, and then be released to go run, and then come stay with me and be released to go run. It’s come to me and a lot of times I’ll throw the food before he even gets all the way there, so there’s an immediate run and then go chase, find and consume this piece of food. So you’re still like getting to do what it is you want to do, which is go catch that rabbit and rip it apart. But I don’t want you to do that. Especially because I have a pet rabbit and I don’t want to see that happen. Also, I don’t want you to do it to the rabbit that lives in the house. So, we really need to practice not doing that. So allowing him to– using a reinforcement strategy that most closely simulates what [01:19:00] it is that he wants to do, I think makes a big difference too.
Hannah Branigan: I agree. I’ve definitely have more success if I can make it a more even swap. I’m going to ask you to do a down stay in the face of some kind of moving– other dogs playing agility, and I’ll give you room service style feeding while you do the down stay while other dogs are running agility. That’s a hard choice! Versus I’m going to bring you back over here and I’m going to let you move your body back and forth and you can still do chasing. You just need to do chasing for my toy or chasing for thrown food and not chasing of other dogs because that’s not socially acceptable in this context. It definitely is much easier to make progress much faster.
And that can be hard. Maybe other people have had a different thought journey. But I spent a lot of years thinking, “Oh, well, I don’t want to use– [01:20:00] He’s too aroused here, so I need to like make him be very calm here. I’m going to have to put him in down stay, put him on a mat, put him on a station, depending where I was in my training there, but feed him slowly. Everything has to be very slow and very still because that’s what relaxed looks like. If I use a toy or if I let him move, well that’s just going to be more arousal.”
And I didn’t have a lot of success. I mean, sometimes, but not predictably. Versus “Okay, so you want to do that and my compromise is this, which is very similar in a lot of ways that matter but we won’t be asked to leave.” That’s a better shaping– That’s like step one of the shaping plan is rather than trying to go to the hardest behavior for you to do in this context, a much easier behavior for you to do in this context, because it has a lot of the same reinforcers involved. And [01:21:00] again, there’s no conflict because you’re not having to give up a reinforcer.
Ashlee Osborn: Yeah, definitely. And I think with with arousal in general – and this might be totally off topic, I don’t know – but I think it works so much better, just like when you’re working with proofing a distraction, I think it works better when you work with the distraction. I think arousal also works better when you’re working both sides of the same thing. So if I have a dog that truly struggles to calm down, I want to learn how to get you a little bit riled up and then bring you down and get you a little bit more riled up and then bring you down, as opposed to avoiding the arousal. Right? I want to work with it and bring you back down the other side and then work with it and then bring you back down the other side. So I have a circle instead of the straight line where then you’re like stuck up here and you’re spinning out and spinning out and spinning out and you don’t [01:22:00] know how to come back down.
Hannah Branigan: Yeah, that’s very similar to the bouncing back, recovery, find your way back kind of pattern for sure. Like on the inside.
For me, it’s like, “Oh, I should be doing meditation.” But for me, sitting still is the hardest behavior that you could ask me to do. It is very boring. I do not ever hold still. So I thought I was bad at meditating. I mean, I am bad at meditating, but I also thought that I hated it a lot. And some would say that I love it. But I’ve been able to finally come up with a shaping strategy where like, “Oh, you could do it while walking.” Oh! Walking is a much better step one for me than trying to sit still. I tried all the little apps that people were very into a few years ago. And it’s like, “oh, start with just ten minutes.” 10 minutes of sitting? Are you [01:23:00] kidding me?
Ashlee Osborn: I have also been told to meditate and I am someone who sometimes listens to music and a podcast at the same time. So if you want me to clear my mind, when sometimes I am doing 15 things at any given time. Sometimes I’ll be driving and I’ll put headphones in and listen to a podcast and then I’ll turn the radio on because the podcast is not enough. I get bored and then I can’t focus on the podcast. So I have to have the music of the radio in the background. And I’m also driving. And don’t worry, I’m focused very well on driving – much better than if I was not listening to two things at the same time, because then I would be scanning all around for something to look at. Because I’d be very bored.
Hannah Branigan: I get that. For me when I was trying the shaping strategy that seemed to be the obvious one, like, “Well, okay, if 10 minutes is too long, what about 5 [01:24:00] minutes? 1 minute.” Just trying to manipulate duration, but still asking for the hardest behavior? I just hated it and gave up for a long time. When a meditation instructor (I was not taking classes, it was unrelated, but anyway) said, “Well then you should walk. You don’t have to sit there.” OH! So walking and for one minute of the time that I’m moving my body, I can do the thing? That was much more accessible for me.
Ashlee Osborn: Especially if you’re already nervous. And a lot of times when we’re working with our dogs, I think that sometimes or even a lot of times, I think we mistake any type of arousal for being excitement, especially if they’re in a situation where it’s an exciting thing and it’s something they love to [01:25:00] do, like being in agility class, being at an agility trial. “My dog loves agility, so they’re just excited to be here.” We take away the idea that there could possibly be an icky emotional component. But I know for me, it doesn’t matter how excited I am to be there; I’m anxious. The more excited I am to be here– just because I enjoy doing the thing doesn’t mean that I don’t also have icky feelings. And so then asking me to sit still with my icky feelings is going to make them much, much worse. What if you have thoughts? I need to work it out.
Hannah Branigan: Yeah, if I sit still, I’ll have thoughts. And nobody wants that. That’s terrible.
Ashlee Osborn: I agree. Walk around in circles really fast, maybe.
Hannah Branigan: Pace back and forth. Find a loose piece of paint. Start to pull it off the wall.
Ashlee Osborn: Someone give me a task.[01:26:00]
Hannah Branigan: As Pinkie Pie says, nervous sighted. We think about that a lot.
There are always many contingencies in play at the same time, because the world is complex and multidimensional and there can be a lot of overlap and all of those things can be true at the same time. I like doing this thing. I like the– I frequently– “Like” is a sticky word. I get nervous using it. Because I like a lot of things that are bad for me and I do a lot of things that I say that I don’t like, but apparently they’re reinforcing something because I continue to do things that I would tell you that I do not like and I cannot seem to stop doing them. Well, anyways, therapy later. Where was I going with that?
So we’ll bring it back to your game. And I love the name Clockwork. That’s a great name for it. [01:27:00] It’s about choosing the contingencies.
I want to know that my dog is solidly in the contingencies that I can control – my food, my toys, my training cues, my training reinforcers – and not operating in the contingency that is less convenient for me today, which is other people’s training bags or the gophers that have made holes in the far side of the field or barking at the other dogs. The contingency might be negative reinforcement contingency as well.
Using that that like a treat tossing kind of pattern, you go out, you get the treat, you come back and the treat itself cues you to come back because consuming one treat off the ground has become a cue for turning back and finding mama or your human.
And it’s nice that it’s so modular. Like you have the component, which is go get the treat and then come back for the second treat. But then you can build your [01:28:00] clock out of it. And the part that really matters is the component, because you can do a lot of things with it. So then you have this system that allows you to strategize the exposure to the other distraction from least to most.
Ashlee Osborn: Especially when working with distractions in particular, because it can be really easy– I think there are very few things that are more frustrating and embarrassing than your dog leaving you.
Hannah Branigan: Even when no one’s around to see it, it feels terrible. And then if it happens in front of people, it’s just awful.
Ashlee Osborn: It’s extra embarrassing. Even though usually people are laughing and I think that they think they’re laughing with me and it feels a whole lot more like they’re laughing at me.
Hannah Branigan: Especially if they know you’re supposed to be a professional and that you actually take money [01:29:00] from people to train their dogs.
Ashlee Osborn: I try to keep that a well-guarded secret. Otherwise, I think I might throw up when I am in class and my dog does something embarrassing. But because we can get so emotional about it, I think having a really– And because a lot of us, myself included, we tend to get greedy with it. Pushing the limits on distractions and triggers, I think is something that everybody does. So having really clear guidelines for “when do I get closer to this trigger,” right? So you could put it in a desensitization process where we are also working on distance, we have distance as a factor, but until I get that–
Let’s say I have a setup where I’ve got my trigger 40 [01:30:00] feet away, I’ve got a 10 foot leash, and I’m working on the clock. And so now I get to the point where my dog is running towards the trigger to the end of the 10 foot leash. They’re eating food off the ground, and then they’re turning around and coming back to me. Now I can move 10 feet forward, be 30 feet away from the trigger. Start throwing food back away from me, and then see if I can move towards where they’re going 10 feet out in front of me. And now I move to 20 feet, and when I move to that 20 feet, my dog’s already been doing it, and I’m throwing my food away. So they’re going back to 30 feet, for sure being successful. I just– I like a map. I like instructions that are very clear, because otherwise it’s so easy to just keep getting closer and closer and closer until the dog freaks out and then going, “Oops, bad session.”
Hannah Branigan: Yeah, and it’s building– There’s lots of ways to frame it. I talk a lot about “easy, hard, easy” as a pattern. So [01:31:00] every time I increase criteria, I’ve already planned that the next one is going to be an easier version. And the main reason I like that is because it’s insurance for when I inevitably ask for a little bit too much. I don’t have to wait for the self awareness to kick in and notice that I’ve asked for too much because left to my own devices, what I’ll do is ask for the same thing again and let it break. And then “well, that’s the fluke. Let’s try one more time and see if we can get it.”
But instead it’s like I throw it and– You know, it’s that when you’ve raised criteria and you get away with it. Like the dog does the thing, they go out and they get the treat and they look at the person, but they do come back to you. And then you say, “Great, I’ll toss it. I’ll toss it two feet closer next time.” And then that’s where the failure happens. But if I’m like, “Oh, he looked at it, but then the next one I’m going to toss easier.” So you’re bouncing back.
I agree. I love it. I like a system like that. It’s almost a ritual. This is how I [01:32:00] introduce another distraction and the whole framework stays the same, it’s a template and I can just pop in whatever the current distraction of the day is and I can just train it in the moment. It’s familiar for me, it’s familiar for my dog or if I’m teaching a lesson, their dog. I’m not having to make decisions in the moment.
Because you’re exactly right. If someone is watching me, I’m not going to be able to make good training choices. I’m very much less likely to be able to make good training choices from that emotional position. I’m much more likely to power on ahead for no reason. Because I look for the same thing. Like when I’m tossing the treat, I’m specifically looking for that topography where the dog is approaching the treat on the ground, but he’s already weight shifting. So he’s actually taking the treat slightly sideways because he’s already [01:33:00] on trajectory back to me, versus he goes out and he gets the treat and his head lifts up and he’s glancing around and the glance will get a little smaller, a little smaller, a little smaller, and then he starts just head goes down and he’s already turning before his head comes up and then I know that I’m in good shape, so I can add to whatever is relevant there.
And looking for that particular head posture does make it a very yes or no question, which is what I have to distill things down to.
Ashlee Osborn: And you also have a clear– I like having a clear way to come back down to– So if my dog runs out and they eat the treat and then they look up directly at the person and bark even once, I’m going to turn around and I’m going to throw my treat away and I’m going to work my way back up the scale, because something went wrong. And maybe it’s that we’ve been [01:34:00] doing this for too long. Maybe the person moved. Maybe the wind shifted. Who knows? Who knows what happens? But I have an immediate thing that I can do. And I think that’s also really important for clients to have an immediate thing that they can do to not necessarily completely scrap the session. Just to restart it a little bit.
Hannah Branigan: I’m a huge fan of contingency plans. And I think about that as well because if it’s that hard for me as a professional to make objective training choices in the heat of the moment, how would a non-professional be expected to do better than that? And they’re not.
So anytime we can take a decision– Are we losing nuance? Yes, of course. But there’s time for that later. We need a concrete strategy right now. And really that’s probably going to [01:35:00] cover 80 percent of what we need and then we can come back in and scoop out details if we need to.
Ashlee Osborn: And you can, because I could– I was about to say “I could spend all day talking about body language.” I did. I have had sessions where it’s just an hour and a half of me talking about body language. And one, that’s too much. Two, if I think about the way that I read dog’s body language after years and years and years of learning about it, and specifically, I worked in dog daycare. So I spent years and years of being the only person in a room full of 16 dogs. I can’t expect other people to– I mean, maybe I can send you off to a camp where you sit in a room alone with 16 dogs for a day and then you’ll be really good at reading body language and probably really [01:36:00] good at breaking up dog fights. Or not.
Hannah Branigan: There’s two ways that could go.
Ashlee Osborn: Or you’ll be traumatized forever and you’ll be scared of dogs from now on.
But having just like… “Okay, here’s what we can do.” And there’s a clear criteria. Once it’s become almost muscle memory for that human, instead of them having to focus on like doing five different things at once, now I can explain to them how to read those little nuances. Because a lot of times I do move into getting to the point of social play, so they do need to learn that eventually for other things, but for just this– And this is also a really good foundation, because if we’re going to do social play, I’m taking your dog’s leash off or we’re dropping the leash. Having that foundation of your dog is not just ignoring the other dogs that they maybe have some conflicting feelings [01:37:00] about, they are going up, intaking information and then bouncing back to you.
Hannah Branigan: They can always come back. No, I like that. That’s good. That’s useful.
Then to bring it back full circle and we’ll wrap up. My experience has been using strategies like this where the treat is cued, the return is cued, it’s like built in and supported by environmental cues. Taking of the treat off the ground over time increases the likelihood that they’re going to take the treat from my hand as well. It builds both the reliability of the eating of the food and on both ends of that, even in the face of increasing distractions, conflicting motivators. And I think this and like other similar– adding predictability, [01:38:00] structured cueing, all of those things have a big impact on cultivating those reinforcers as useful, practical reinforcers that we can use in training, even with dogs–
Ten years ago, if you would have asked me, I would have thought, “Well, first they have to be hungry enough in order to play a game like that.” And now I realize that actually I can get them playing a game like that and it will appear to make them hungrier. So it’s really very interesting how it can sort of act as a conditioned motivating operation in a way.
Ashlee Osborn: Yeah, it’s the ritual of it, I think, and the ritual makes them feel better. So we can take a dog that doesn’t have that “food makes me feel better,” like they just didn’t get that gene.
Hannah Branigan: I have two copies, so I wish I could give them one!
Ashlee Osborn: It puts the eating into a ritual that does make them feel better.
Hannah Branigan: So it brings [01:39:00] predictability into an unpredictable situation.
Ashlee Osborn: So now I can take Pretzel, my dog that will refuse food, and bring this game out, and because that game makes him feel better, and because that game is so clear that it doesn’t involve the weird icky social pressure stuff– He feels weird about the environment. It helps with that without asking him to ignore the environment.
Hannah Branigan: It gives you a means to help him assimilate other things that are going to be in there. Stimuli that are possible.
Ashlee Osborn: And I can put it anywhere, right? So if his safe space is the back of the car, okay, well that now that’s the center of the clock and now you’re running out to get the food and then you’re coming back and you’re jumping into the back of the car and you’re running out to get the food, you’re coming back to jump in the back of the car. We do that from every angle.
And now that you are going out to get the food and you’re perfectly happy with that. Now I’m going to get out and close the car and we’re going to go on our way and do whatever it is we need to do.
Hannah Branigan: Yep. I’ve done the same thing in and out of the training building [01:40:00] door. If going into the train building is very, very hard. And we can do quite a lot from the parking lot, through the doorway.
Cool, awesome. That was a lot of– I don’t even know what I’m going to title this one. I’ll have to think about it, because we covered a lot of stuff. All reinforcement related. Is there anything else that we should have talked about that we haven’t hit on?
Ashlee Osborn: I don’t think so.
Hannah Branigan: I have no short term memory, so I already don’t remember.
Ashlee Osborn: No, I don’t remember what we’ve been talking about.
Hannah Branigan: Cool. Well, I’ve lost all of it. We’ll call it good. Well, thank you so much for coming to hang out with me today.
Ashlee Osborn: Yeah, thank you!
Hannah Branigan: Thanks for listening. If you like this episode, well, you have good taste and I hope you’ll hit the subscribe button on your podcast app to make sure you don’t miss the next episode. It might be even better than this one. If you are already subscribed, well, thank you. I really appreciate it. And there are still some ways that you could reinforce me if you were so inclined. You could always leave me a five star review on iTunes or [01:41:00] Stitcher or wherever you happen to be listening to this podcast. And you can also check out and support the sponsors because they help make the podcast possible.
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There’s also some other articles and previous podcasts and that sort of thing, which you could always find if you were interested. So until next time, happy training!