Reply To: Week 5 Assignment


This is a follow up narrative explanation to accompany the videos I posted about how to teach putting a toy in a basket. (I thought the assignment said that we could post a video of how to teach the new behavior, but as I re-read the assignment, I realize I must have made that part up…So here is the narrative as assigned.)

Hi Tim,

Because Molly is becoming more reluctant to relinquish the ball after her reward, she may enjoy performing the task of dropping the ball into your backpack. Not only does this trick eliminate the process of you taking the ball away from her (this trick can make her feel like she’s DOING something, as opposed to LOSING something, and that it’s by her own choice), but it also allows for the opportunity to deliver a different reward for returning the ball to the backpack. (That reward may be food or praise/petting—whichever is of highest value.)

I have posted a couple videos showing the way I teach my dogs to drop toys into a receptacle. In this case I use a basket with a large opening, as I find that a large, rigid opening makes it easier for both dog and handler when teaching the behavior. After the behavior is solid and on cue, the type of receptacle (bag, basket, bucket, etc.) won’t matter much.

Step 1:
I start with a cue my dog—and Molly—already knows: “Drop It”. (I’m not sure what your actual verbal cue is, but I know you have a good one from watching your videos. 🙂 ) I hold the ball over the opening of the basket, allowing the dog to take it (I even cue the dog to “take-it” if they know that command), and then quickly ask her to “drop it” while she is still in a position where dropping it would cause the ball to land in the basket. I repeat this several times, offering a food reward each time the ball falls into the basket. (In my first video, you will see me click and treat a few times early on for dropping the ball, even when it didn’t land in the basket. I did this because my dog kept taking the ball and running around with it, tossing it and chasing it all around the room. So I needed to start by rewarding any dropping of the ball on cue, just so she had the opportunity to learn that a) this was not time to play with the ball, and that b) the behavior we are working on is all about dropping it.)

Once the dog is consistently dropping the ball straight down into the basket, then I move to Step 2.

Step 2:
At this step, I transition to training by shaping rather than prompting. I place the ball on the floor right next to the basket. I wait for the dog to pick it up, and if she is right next to the basket, then she may already be in position for the ball to land directly down into the basket when she drops it. Anytime the balls lands in the basket—even if it wasn’t a deliberate placement (if it was by accident)—I click and treat. Any sign of a deliberate effort to drop the ball in the basket gets a jackpot.

This phase can be a little frustrating for both dog and handler, so be patient and try not to allow Molly’s frustration become too stressful for her. A little stress can be good since it can be the catalyst for a dog to do some serious problem solving. But too much stress will incur a negative association, or even cause a dog to shut-down. If Molly is consistently performing behaviors that don’t result in the ball falling in the basket, then spend a little more time with step one. A rule if thumb I have is the rule of 3—after 3 wrong attempts, do something to change the situation so that the 4th attempt is a guaranteed success—even if it means going back to a step that has a lower criteria. (You can see me do this in my video—even after my dog has several successful reps dropping the ball in the basket, she goes back to playing with the ball or dropping it outside the basket. So I go back to Step 1 to get her back on track and back to consistent successes.

It is a good idea at this stage to place the ball in different places around the basket (but still right next to the basket) so she is repeating this exercise from a variety of angles. This will help her generalize the behavior so she can approach the receptacle from any direction.

Once the dog is consistently picking the ball up off the floor and dropping it into the basket, then I add the verbal cue. It is important that the dog is easily and reliably offering the correct behavior so that I can insert the verbal cue just before she drops it into the basket. Saying the cue before the behavior is executed is the key to teaching a verbal that is solid and that is clear to the dog.

After spending a little time pairing the word with the behavior, then the dog is ready for Step 3.

Step 3:
I place the ball on the floor a short distance away (about 12-18 inches) from the basket. Again I use shaping here to allow the dog to do the problem solving necessary to determine that picking up the ball, then stepping up and placing it in the basket earns the click and reward.

Always go back to Step 2, or even Step 1, if the dog is showing stress, or if there have been more than 2-3 incorrect reps in a row.

When the dog can consistently step up and deliberately place the ball in the basket, then she is ready for Step 4.

Step 4:
Place the ball further from the basket in positions that require approaching from various directions. Experiment with distance, direction, surface types. Experiment also with different toys/objects, and different receptacles. Since many dogs are not very good at generalizing on their own, you may need to go back to any or all of the earlier steps as you make changes to the toy type, receptacle type, distance, etc.

Molly is very bright, a hard worker, and fares well under a little “problem-solving” type stress, so this process will probably be pretty easy and fun for you both! Just keep in mind a couple rules when training something new:
1) Have a plan and train in short sessions (I recommend no more than 8 minutes or so)
2) Utilize jackpots!
3) Take playbreaks between sessions or when a success has occurred after a period of stress/frustration.
4) Have fun and enjoy watching how brilliant Molly is during the shaping process! You will both do great! 🙂