Tuesday, April 19, 2011

De-popping on water marks

Rolling Ridge

Today was sunny with temps in the 70s, though the ground was soaked from torrential rain last night.

I decided to start Laddie's session with a big water triple.  I thought the marks might be a bit challenging, and Laddie would also get in some conditioning.  I even brought Lumi along for some water retrieves with one of her puppy bumpers.  She was injured recently and shouldn't be doing much land activity, but I thought the swimming would be good for her.

It turned out, however, that Laddie's work turned into one of our most intense sessions, while Lumi was primarily interested in playing tug with me when I had a spare moment.  :0)

The reason for the intensity was that the set-up I designed happened to trigger pops on two of the retrieves. I didn't plan it that way, but once it happened, I decided to take advantage of the situation to really work with Laddie on it.

The strategy I chose was somewhat controversial based on conversations I've had with others on the subject of popping in the past.  The problem was that I've already tried freezing when Laddie looks at me, and I've also tried calling "back" when he turns or, if possible, just as he's starting to turn.  I haven't noticed either strategy causing Laddie's popping to diminish.  I don't think either one set up a structure of operant outcomes that produced changes in behavior.  Worse, I was and am concerned that the behavior was becoming somewhat habitual because it has gone on for so long, however rarely.

So I decided on this strategy: At the moment that Laddie turned to face me, I would call him back to me.  In some cases, I'd then leave him at the SL, run/walk around the pond to where the mark was, show it to him or re-throw it, run/walk back to the SL, and send him again.  In other cases, I'd just spend some time with him lining him up and chatting to him for encouragement, and then send him out again.

The reason that's a controversial strategy is that a trainer might be concerned that being called back — quitting and returning to Daddy's side — is exactly what the dog is hoping for when the dog pops, so calling the dog back would act as reinforcement for popping.  Today's work showed in no uncertain terms that that is not the case with Laddie. To Laddie, it meant having to come back without the bumper, which is highly undesirable to him, and worse, it meant having to make another long swim back, and then another long swim out, just to get back to where he was when he popped.

Laddie and I worked on this for a long time, I'd estimate six attempts on each of the two retrieves where he popped before he made it all the way across without popping.  The swim was a good hundred yards, so Laddie got in a great deal of swimming, more than I had planned on and enough that by the end, I think he was starting to be a bit tired.

He was also frustrated enough to yelp a few of the later times I sent him.  And as he started his long swim, a couple of times he barked, as if talking to himself and reminding himself not to look around this time.

It was fascinating watching Laddie fight his urge to turn around and look at me.  In the later outruns, getting closer and closer to a full traversal of the pond, he would start to turn, then catch himself and turn back toward his destination.  These visible displays showed how habitual the popping behavior has become, and it showed how effective today's callbacks were in training him not to pop.  Apparently he figured out fairly early in the day that it was the pop that was causing me to call him back and repeat the send-out, but then the urge to pop would take precedence and he'd lose that battle.  As with any extinction process, he also needed to learn that I was being 100% consistent, and that no pop would result in being permitted to continue that outrun.

The fact that he finally made it across for the first retrieve, but then had to relearn not to pop all over again on the second one immediately afterwards, shows how ingrained this behavior has become and how difficult it was for Laddie to combat it.  I looked for every way to further reward his eventual success, running around to meet him on the side of the pond so that he didn't have to swim all the way back, and of course lots of extrinsic reinforcement as he reached me.

But before those successes, the amount of swimming and frustration were clearly grueling for Laddie, not the kind of day I'd want him to have very often. It was also grueling for me, first because I felt deeply for the frustration Laddie was experiencing, and second, because of my own physical exertion when I sped out to show him the marks and back again to re-run him.

By the way, apparently the trigger for popping on today's marks was a combination of two factors.  One factor was the fact that the fall was either invisible (one of the marks was behind a stretch of reeds) or had a confusing picture (the second mark was among a repetitious assortment of saplings and debris on the hillside beyond the pond).   The other factor was the big water.

I'm not sure that a confusing fall and distance are what cause popping when Laddie does it on land, but it's a working hypothesis.

I'm also not certain that a callback on land would work as well to discourage popping, since that's a lot easier for Laddie to carry out.  However, a Walk Out, the same mechanism I've used to discourage refused whistle sits and delayed water entries on returns, might be the ticket for land popping if we can find a set-up that triggers it.

Meanwhile, over the next few days, I'll try Laddie out on more set-ups like today's, though not every day in a row, lest he suffer any damage to his motivation.  I'd certainly like to stamp out this problem entirely, and get Laddie to the point where the habit is gone, and he can just focus on carrying out the retrieve without having to fight an urge that costs him.  But I just have to remind myself that we don't have to keep working on such an uncomfortable project day after day, we can spread the training out and have some easier sessions in between.


On Apr 19, 2011, at 9:15 AM, Jody wrote:

My thought is the fact that you "forced" him to do it correctly is a good thing.  Laddie hasn't had much force work (or you could call it pressure) of any kind.  This should help him understand that he is to do what he's "told" to do.

Good job in my opinion.

On Apr 19, 2011, at 9:30 AM, Lindsay wrote:

Hi, Jody.  In terms of OC, I think it's no different from interrupting an unsuccessful trial -- the no-reward marker was "Nope, come on back".  However, it shows that +R training can be unpleasant at times, no matter how much we try to make it a positive experience.  Frustration, and in this case some physical exertion, still occur.  I saw no way to obtain a high success rate on this particular session once we started, though ordinarily that's a mainstay of our training.

I didn't mention in the post -- I probably should -- that there wasn't the least recrimination when I would call Laddie back, and I praised him when he would get back for responding.  To be honest, I was immensely proud of the spirit Laddie brought to this session.  I wish the learning could have been easier for him.

If I had had access to more variety of water, and if I had anticipated the popping, it's possible I could have found a smaller crossing to work on first.  But I don't know that that would have triggered the pop, and I also would not have want to quit venue A, to switch to easier venue B, once he did pop at venue A.  I think switching might have reinforced the pop -- "Oh, if it's too hard, you can give up on it and we'll find something easier and more fun for you to do instead."  Nope, we'll just have to keep trying -- it was getting dark and I was soaked from Laddie's shaking off by the time we quit -- until you can do the job.

Thanks for your feedback, Jody.  It always means so much to me.

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