I asked Tootsie to rollover a few nights ago. She just stared and puffed her cheeks a couple of times. There may have been the start of a head tilt, but that could also have been my own ego conjuring up a mirage.
I spent the next few days working out a diagnostic training session in my head. I thought it reasonable that Tootsie had forgotten what “roll over” meant. It had been a long time since she had heard the cue. I also thought it likely that she may not physically be able to roll over. She’s a healthy old dog, but she is still old. And old dogs can be weaker, less flexible, and even a little stiff/sore.
After mulling over how to approach the session, I decided to act as if I were shaping the behavior from the beginning, but experienced clicker trainers and shapers will observe that I violated a few of the tenets associated with good training:
(Sorry the video is cut off. Sometimes phone storage space is scarce.)
- Multiple criteria per session. I went into the session without knowing my exact criteria. Therefore, I was all over the place with my clicks; I reinforced everything from starting to lie down to weight shifts that were obviously the beginning of a roll.
- My rate of reinforcement was too low. Because I didn’t know my criteria, I decided what to reinforce in the moment. This caused a noticeable lag in reinforcement time, which is why Tootsie almost let out a frustration bark (1:05 on video).
This definitely isn’t good practice for teaching new behaviors, but I leveraged “bad” training to figure out my particular issue.
She demonstrated knowledge of all of the steps involved in rolling over (lying down, shifting a hip, tilting her head, using her legs to push herself over), but she could not develop enough momentum to complete the rotation. I saw tension in her face (0:50 on video) when she tried; she was experiencing discomfort and/or slight pain. Tootsie’s nonresponse “roll” was one of ability, not memory.
So what am I going to do? Nothing. It’s just a trick; she doesn’t have to do it. I may, however, up her NSAIDs.