Distinguishing Verbal Cues- Nose vs Paw Touches, part1

One of my current projects I am teaching the dogs is to "touch" a target with their nose and to "whack" the target with their paw.  As a volunteer at Hearing and Service Dogs of MN, the dogs in training are required to learn these two behaviors but most of the puppy raisers are having major problems in having their dogs distinguish between the two behaviors.  Most dogs randomly guess what they are supposed to do if they even fully understand their options at all.  The dogs are also eventually supposed to "get it" so retrieving the target also becomes an option.  So I decided that I would teach my own dogs the behaviors and see if I can learn anything along the way to help the puppy raisers.

Before starting the training my guess is that this verbal discrimination task is much harder then just teaching your dog verbal cues for sit, down, stand etc.  While getting a verbal only is hard for any behavior, this target task has the added difficulty of lack of context.  My dogs can interact multiple ways with a box (stand in it, pivot around it, back onto it) but the training context tells them which behavior to do.  If I'm standing they likely are going to pivot, if I start the dogs out with their butt towards it they are going to back onto it, or if I"m sitting and facing it they will likely start a shaping game to see what I want them to do.  Even without this context it really doesn't matter if they get it right on the first try as I can easily tell them what I'm expecting within a few clicks shaping them what to do.  But this target behavior must be done correctly on the first attempt and without any hand signals or gestures if these dogs are to become service dogs.

The puppy raisers are advised to first teach the paw touch, then the nose touch, and finally the retrieve (retrieving is taught with other things though during this time) since this is presumably the harder order to get the behaviors.  Most of the dogs naturally want to pick up the target right away, or at least nose it, so teaching a paw on the target first makes sure that you can actually get the dog to do this later in the game.  You basically start harder and progress to easier.  But my dogs already have a nose touch (their "touch", the service dog's "nudge") that I taught them a long time ago for agility and then for obedience go outs.  (Although technically it's a little muddled since in the obedience ring I no longer require Lance to actually touch the target with his nose he just has to go there and then sit right away and Vito is starting to stand on the target when he turns and sits.)

Anyway, I spent about 3 sessions teaching the dogs to paw at the target (butter lid).  Since my dogs already know shake I didn't have to shape this from scratch, I simply had the target in my hand and within a few clicks the dogs were targeting the lid with their foot.  I worked on short distances (sending the dogs up to 5 ft away to paw it and worked on heights (having the dogs paw the lid up to nose height on the wall, couch, my leg).  Once I was certain that they were no longer offering any nose touches, I started to say "whack it" right before they offered the behavior.  The service dogs say "touch" but that was already my nose cue, and I was using "punch it" for a little but but then realized that punch and touch sound the same.  So "whack it" is now my paw target cue!

After the 3 sessions focusing on paw touching I was certain that Lance knew the behavior well.  I knew he had zero clue what "whack it" meant but he was nicely offering the behavior.  So for the next two sessions I went back and started working on "touch" again.  I wasn't yet mixing up the two cues, but would start a session training one behavior and then end the session training the other behavior.  Or maybe I would alternate again so each behavior was trained twice, but I wasn't yet trying to alternate paw vs nose.  Lance still seemed to have zero clue what the words meant, but within a few clicks he would start only offering his paw or only offering his nose.  Basically Lance quicky started to learn what was paying at that moment.  He seemed to be more comfortable with his new paw behavior though then the old nose behavior.

With Vito, I spent an extra few sessions on just doing "whack it" before moving to doing both behaviors in one session.  He got the pawing behavior just as quickly as Lance but he also developed a nice almost flyball box turn when the target was up at any height.  Vito would very quickly brush the target with his nose before lifting the paw farthest away from me to whack the target as he turned back to me.  The tight turn actually looked really impressive but I wanted to be sure that Vito was purposefully focusing on the paw behavior instead of trying to do both.  I didn't fully solve this before moving on but went to the next step anyway since Vito was doing a paw only when the target was on the floor and plus I got antsy to go on :)

After those few sessions (2? 3?) of doing both whack and touch in each session with Lance, I then moved on to cuing the behaviors randomly.  It quickly became evident that I couldn't leave the target out after send since Lance would otherwise get his treat after the click and very quickly offer another behavior before I could cue him.  At first I tried having Lance wait with the target on the ground and then cuing a touch or whack, but Lance felt like the wait was a punishment.  So I am currently picking up the target as soon as he does something and then holding it in my hand.  I then tell Lance the cue and wait another second before putting it on the ground.  If Lance is right on the first try I reward heavily.  If he guesses wrong, I try to pick up the target before he has a chance to repeat it or correct himself.  I don't know if picking it up is necessary but I also want Lance to learn to think more instead of guessing until he gets a click.

I think I only spent 1 session with Vito doing both whack and touch in one session without them being randomized.  I probably should have spent more but I get too eager.  So Vito had his first session of me cuing whack and touch at random today.  Learning from my trials with Lance, I immediately started picking up the target between each successful/incorrect attempt and also waited 1 second after cuing to put the target down.

When I orginally started this project I thought that Lance would get the verbal cues first.  He tends to think more whereas as Vito tends to act first and think later!  Lance picks up things very quickly and is usually very deliberate about his actions although he also tends to slip into "just try whatever you did before, and if it's not working just try harder!" mode.  Vito usually spazes so much in training that I often need to pause and have him sit or down for a few seconds just to try and get his brain back.  He often makes huge leaps in learning something but I'm also much more tired after training Vito!  If I miss a click with Vito he will insist that we must be training something else then and will try several of his favorite tricks instead.

But after today's session I think that I predicted wrong and Vito will learn this faster!  Lance does not like being wrong and will shut down if he thinks that he is (see an example from learning to jump over my leg).  I have to be very careful to not show the tiniest bit of frustration and use lots of jackpots in Lance's training.  Lance also sees me taking away the target (even if he was right and I"m just setting up for the next cue) as a punishment.  He is used to offering behaviors and can't offer the target, nose or paw, if the target isn't there.  He is thinking very hard but I can tell that Lance is stressing about what I want him to do.  Vito on the other hand is spazzing like crazy and I am trying to reward him for sitting between cues (instead of trying to attack my hand/lap which holds the target).  It's only been one session with the random cues and I know he really doesn't know the words, but I feel like he actually had a really decent success rate.  Vito is also sensitive but doesn't care if he get it wrong.  He just wants to figure out why he didn't get a treat that time and how he can get one in the future.

Anyways, I will update again on our progress.  My current bet is on Vito but maybe the corgi will surprise me!  If anyone has taught their dog different behaviors on verbal only cues for interacting with an object (or even if you haven't!) do you have any other suggestions?

Update: Go to Part two, three, four

Arwen  – ( December 15, 2009 at 5:10 AM )  

I just wanted to thank you for these detailed posts about clicker training. It's very interesting to read about the learning process and how different dogs react to it. I'd love to see a video about your dogs learning this :-)

I'm hoping to get a Duck Toller sometime next year (when I have my life lined up right) and though I'd be happy with an adult dog, I think there's really no way to get a Toller without starting with a pup.. so I read your entire journal to get a feel for daily life with a pup. It's definitely given me a better idea than all those 'cute puppy.. toilet training.. aww he's all grown up!' highlight accounts.

Anyway, I especially love videos of Vito and Lance together, they're just too cute :-)

Mango  – ( December 15, 2009 at 5:34 AM )  

Uh oh. Now you have given momma an idea for what to work on tonight. I can touch with my nose or my foot, but don't really know the difference. I sure hope I can figure it out.


Ninso  – ( December 16, 2009 at 4:01 PM )  

Cool! I should do that with Jun. I was going to do some similar work with Lok the other day, till I realized that he really can't see the targets anymore, which makes it harder even if he could distinguish between a nose and paw touch.

On another note, have you ever taught the blowing bubbles in a bowl of water trick? I've been working on that with Jun, but can't seem to get her to put her face in the water. If you've trained that one, any tips?

Ninso  – ( December 17, 2009 at 8:37 AM )  

I realized last night I have a completely fresh dog to try this with! Elo hasn't done nose OR paw targeting, he is a blank slate. Last night we started paw targeting, and started putting that on cue. When that is solid I'll try the nose target. Then I'll see if I can get him to distinguish. Fun experiment! And yeah, he's still a foster. As much as I love him, I am starting to really want to go back to two dogs. So much easier!

achieve1dream  – ( December 17, 2009 at 9:11 AM )  

Yikes, I have no advice! I have trouble with verbals in general with any behavior much less two behaviors involving the same object. This is a very interesting read though and I look forward to seeing the next part! Keep up the good work!

achieve1dream  – ( December 17, 2009 at 9:12 AM )  

Oh and I like the new blog layout and banner. :)

Crystal  – ( December 17, 2009 at 8:36 PM )  

Hi, Laura! This is your friendly-but-maybe-slightly-creepy level 3 classmate! I thought I ought to actually say hi, introduce myself, link you to my blog and all of that friendly internet behavior. :) I can't remember how I stumbled on your blog- I think you left a comment over at Days at Daybreake, and I followed the link on over!

Anyway, I really like your blog. I could tell from your dogs that you're a talented trainer, but I have to say, I'm very impressed by what I've read here! This entry is really interesting- I've worked a little bit (read maybe 2-3 sessions) on paw vs. nose touches, but you've really laid out nicely here. I'm interested to read about how it all works out.


Arwen  –   – ( December 20, 2009 at 11:44 AM )  

Just thinking about this distinguising commands thing some more - would it not help to have seperate targets at first? For example, you have a bright pink and a yellow post-it. One of them needs to be touched with the nose, one with the paw. You establish these first seperately with their commands, then when that works you put the targets into the same session but about a meter apart. The dog would now have connected each command to a seperate target, so has learned to distinguish the words. Then you could move the targets closer together and eventually make them overlap or otherwise merge, so the dog learns it's the word that's the distinguising factor, not the target. I'm kind of curious if this would help :-)

Laura, Lance, and Vito  – ( December 20, 2009 at 12:22 PM )  

huh that's a really good idea! I had thought about teaching separate targets at first but rejected it since I couldn't figure out a good way to eventually merge them. But i think your idea of when you start having them in same session and setting them a distance apart is really good! It'll still be somewhat hard for the dog when they're overlapped, but by that point the dog should understand each word much better. plus you are still getting rid of any body language!

I don't think I'll do that with my dogs since that would involve going back to the beginning and my dogs are actually starting to get pretty decent at the discrimination. But I will definitely suggest this to the puppy raisers and would love if anyone else out there could try this experiment!!!

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