Experiencing Anticipation Training Dogs – Using Time Outs versus Stops


Anticipation – Using Time Outs versus Stops

“A common flaw in stimulus-controlled behavior is anticipation: Once the cue has been learned, the subject is so eager to offer the behavior that it acts before the cue has actually been given” (Pryor, 1984, 1999).

“Doberman pinschers sometimes run into trouble in obedience competitions. Although they are marvelously trainable dogs, they are so alert that they anticipate commands by the smallest of hints and often work before they have actually been told to, thus losing points” (Pryor, 1984, 1999).

Examples given are ‘offsides’ in football and jumping the gun in footraces. Pryor suggests, using “time-outs” as a cure. Additionally, Karen Overall suggests the same strategy, but refers to this same type of use as “stops.”

I prefer to use the training correction “stops” given the context is connected with actively training dogs versus using timeouts for social corrections. There are inherent differences between the two types of context and use. To avoid confusion and provide consistent feedback between dog and owner/handler, understanding when, why, where, and for what reason should be considered at all times. Dogs learn best when provided clear rules concerning their behavioral responses, doing this avoids anxiety produced when any subject is unsure about any consequences that may result from their behavior. This also explains why using punishment, especially incorrectly, can cause serious learning deficits.

Pryor says, “if the subject anticipates the cue, and if that is undesirable, stop all activity. Give no cues and do nothing for one full minute. Every time the subject jumps the gun again, reset the clock. You are penalizing [over-eagerness] by making it the cause of delay of the chance to work. This will effectively extinguish anticipating a command when rebuke, punishment, or repetition might have no effect at all.”

Why use two signals?

Given the context and description from Karen Overall, the use of “stops” is effective when actively training dogs to learn calm behavior in addition to trained signal retention (stimulus control). A good example is teaching dogs to walk nicely on lead and/or heel. Keep in mind there are varying uses for stops, during acquisition and later when dogs are expected to understand individual signals.

When teaching heel/walking nicely on lead during the acquisition phase, with the new learner, they sometimes get the zoomies or become interested in something else, generally this is an inability of learned focus. When this occurs, simply stop all movement, cinch down on the lead if necessary, wait for the dog to calm down, look at you, pause briefly, then proceed onward, either using your intended signal or a temporary signal, for example “let’s go.”

I include temporary signals that later, during refinement of a learned behavior, another permanent signal is installed. The reason this permission could be necessary for using temporary signals/cues is to help owners who often feel helpless when communicating with their dogs. We are a verbal species, we cannot help ourselves, and expecting pet dog owners to be like professional trainers is unrealistic! If they were all inspired to be professional dog trainers, we would work ourselves right out of jobs!

In this case, there are essentially no correction signals. You have two options: 1.) Stop all interaction, including any verbal communication and 2.) For the advanced learner, the signal for a stop is asking the dog to “down/stay.”

One must always keep in mind that training dogs means one must be flexible. This means, you understand fully what you are doing at any given time and you select from your toolbox of knowledge and understanding the most appropriate response. If faced with something uncertain, the best response is stopping all movement and remaining calm. The only situation that demands anything else would be if the dog were in danger of hurting themselves or another.

Why use clickers!?

At a “Clicker Expo” held in CA recently, one topic suggested for future training dogs and other species was the notion “having separate markers (secondary reinforcers) for situations associated with calmness” versus “arousal.” The suggestion included using “soft” markers for calm behavior, while delivering rewards slowly and calmly. The opposite, teaching “high-drive” behavior using more “speed and enthusiasm” would be for training ball throwing (fetch and retrieve) and playing tug.

The proposed purpose or function for these two types of marker training coupled with the handlers same/similar action is to harness the “emotional aspect of the classical conditioning” and association with a primary reinforcer. If you are not familiar with “primary reinforcers” or any terms used herein, ask your trainer, mentor and/or do your own research. It is important that you understand proper terminology if you are to be successful in effectively training dogs and teaching your clients correctly.

If I understand this proposed use of markers and trainer/handler behavior correctly, this begs the question why the need for clickers as markers? I’m not suggesting there is never a need for using a clicker as a marker with individual dogs and behavior modification cases. I’ve found using clickers useful with fearful/shutdown (learned helpless, trauma) dogs when any contact other than protected is limited or nearly non-existent. I work with these dogs in nearly sterile rooms, sit quietly, observe their behavior carefully and click, toss treat to the floor attempting to reward any behavior that could mean the difference between a dog who is learning to cooperate and trust and a dog who hasn’t yet reached this point. I’m not going to cover all the finer points in working with dogs like this, that’s not my point. My point is, if one’s goal is to stimulate dogs to be actively engaged in learning a busy task versus learning self control, using one’s voice is likely far more effective long term than a sterile sound. Of course, this means the dog owner/trainer must learn how to modulate their voice and tone to fit with the individual and purpose/s of any goal behavior.

It’s also important to note that teaching dogs fetch and retrieve as well as playing tug requires exactly the same modulation in one’s own behavior and voice as well as the dog in front of you. A busy dog lacking learned impulse control would be a disaster if one relied on such a suggestion as rigid as using “high-drive” to describe these behaviors. I learned this lesson well working with Dobermans and later Jack Russells, both have “grab bite”, expected hard mouths. These behaviors are part of their ancestors prey drive! For example, parts defined as “prey drive” would be retained, selected as functional purposes in some breeds, and considered faults in others. For example, Dobermans function as a guard dog, the ability to “grab bite” should be expected, the opposite is the retriever, who is supposed to grab, not bite and tear the hunters prey, only pick up, and retrieve to hand!  Retrievers should have “soft mouths”. For both of these breeds, it’s always best using calm teaching methods. It’s my preference teaching dogs to perform these types of behaviors/functions using disciplined, calm approach. And to be clear, the use of discipline in this context does not mean correction, it means the subject learns the task in a meaningful way that promotes clear and decisive thinking.

So, my point is two-fold, it’s not necessary to combine or separate these forms of teaching dogs, rather it’s the same process that can simply be defined under marker training that encompasses teaching owners/future dog trainers the importance of paying attention to the animal in front of them as well as their own behavior. Moreover, generally, the best approach is teaching all subjects using calm composed type behavior.