Anatomy of a Behavior

Most of the behaviors that we create with our dogs are really chains of small concepts and chains are only as strong as their weakest link. Dog trainers and dog sport handlers need to be able to break down complex behaviors, isolate the weak concepts and mark and reinforce them to make them stronger. We also need to be able to tear behaviors apart if we are going to create an efficient plan for teaching them.

This ability to break behaviors down to their component, conceptual levels is a key part of being a successful dog trainer.

Anatomy of the Retrieve

Go Get It and Bring It Here are too vague and too complex to effectively train, tune up and/or troubleshoot. This vague definition of the Retrieve behavior leaves too many gaps in understanding to teach the skill.

Falling Into the Retrieve

The reason that so many people can be relatively successful with the Retrieve behavior with high drive dogs is because it is easily back-chained. In fact, building a retrieve with Bitework is all about back-chaining.

Back-chaining is teaching a behavior by starting with the last piece first.

If we look at the Retrieve Anatomy, we see that the last piece of Behavior is the Release of the target in the handler’s hand. If our dog has been well reinforced for putting an object our hand, with Bitework perhaps, then it is likely to happen.

Of course if the Dog wants to put an object in our hand, he must be carrying it, so we don’t have to worry about that part. And of course for the dog to carry the object, he must have picked it up, and to have picked it up, he must have gone and gotten it.

Aah! So now we see where the Go Get It – Bring It Here-Give understanding came from.

Who Cares?

Now, Go Get It-Bring It Here can and does work for teaching a dog to Retrieve, and we’re going to use it here in this Bitework class, but doing things and understanding how to do them or to improve them are not always the same thing.

There are going to be times in our dog training where we have to stop what we are doing and look at what’s actually going on. We will have to find out what part of the behavior is weak and figure out how to strengthen it.

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  1. Jeff

    I’ve been thinking about the problems we’re having playing the Bitework game in terms of this post and the idea of anatomy. Specifically, I’ve been thinking about this:

    “We will have to find out what part of the behavior is weak and figure out how to strengthen it.”

    The problem Sam and I are having is that we can’t get into the bite-drop-bite loop– that is, we can’t really play the game– mainly because Sam won’t bite. Big problem, obviously. So on the one hand, a major component of the game, which has its own anatomy, as it is composed of a few different behaviors, is missing.

    As for the “bite” in particular, its anatomy (from Sam’s point of view) looks something like this:

    1. attention on me
    2. attention on the object when presented
    3. move toward the object
    4. place mouth around the object
    5. close mouth on object
    6. take object from my hand

    Sam will do 1-4. 5 and 6 are the weak parts of the behavior that need to be strengthened/reinforced. How to do that? Well, my thought is this: Sam is very clicker savvy; I’m fairly confident I can teach him most anything that way. So I think I should just clicker-train the “take.” This runs the risk, of course, of introducing a cookie when, ideally, we want the bite to be the cookie– right? But I think I’m not worried about that since: (a) he really likes to tug and I can gradually increase resistance on the “take” until the tug becomes a part of it (at which point we’re already starting to play the game!); and (b) the tug will make it easy to fade the treat (and I’ve never had much trouble fading the treat with other behaviors); the tug will become the reward. And when that happens, we’re pretty much in the game, in the loop!

    We did this for about 60 seconds this morning and seemed to have more success with the “bite” than we’ve probably had all of the last week combined.

    What do you think, Ron? Am I making a mistake with this idea? Are there unforeseen problems I might be creating?

    p.s. I know I’m a total windbag; sorry (but I just LOVE being in school!)

    1. Ron Watson Post author

      Great comment. There’s a lot to dig into here…

      First off, way to take in the spirit of the post.

      You already are clicker training the Bite, Jeff, the only thing is that you are reinforcing with a lower value motivator than food. You can totally add food into the game if you want. If you think it will be successful for Sam, go for it.

      I’d just like to talk a bit about your layout of the anatomy of the Bite and about how I’d handle this, theorhetically, as I’ve not worked with Sam.


      So, Sam is doing 1-4. What happens when he doesn’t get reinforced for performing this chain?

      Personally, I would withhold reinforcement after 4.

      I would Mark Attention (1), pop the bite cue out as a cookie (2). No move towards it… it disappears (3).

      Because the presentation of the target is being used as a cookie for a bonafide behavior, Sam should jump on it.

      Pattern Training Action
      You can also condition Sam to respond sharper to the Reward for Attention by setting up a pattern with tossing the toy.

      Attention/Yes!… toss toy… Drop/Yes! (cookie is oppty for Attention)… Attention/Yes! Toss…

      If we can get Sam to believe that Attention = Opportunity to play, and prove that it is an active skill he should get a bit caught up and make a ‘mistake’ and fly in and bite.

      If this is done before we try to frustrate him, he’ll have the experience of a kick ass game as a consequence for good performance and he will be high from the game and be likely to make that ‘mistake’.

      Lower the Criteria
      So now we are left with 4-6.

      4-6 are the handler’s responsibility. Once the dog has 4, then we drop the toy – let him take it, marking the removal and setting the criteria as removal from the hand.

      When Sam makes a move on the object, I’d mark it. When he touches it, I’d mark again when I drop the toy. 4-6? Mission Accomplished.

      This is really subtle stuff, Jeff. You should try to make it out for a Drop-In so we can get a look at Sam.

      Drop ins are Sunday Noon-?

      1. Jeff

        Would love love love to drop in– and we absolutely will eventually. Unfortunately there’s pretty much no way that’s going to happen until the semester is over in the spring.

        I think I understand what you’re saying (and I knew you were going to say that I’m already clicker training the Bite!). Getting Sam to make that “mistake” (what a great way of describing it!) by setting up a pattern makes perfect sense. In fact, that mistake has happened here and there in the past. I will keep trying the pattern training action.

        But here’s the thing: it’s clearly #5 that is the problem (closing mouth on the object). I wish you could really see it (I can try to get it on video). I mean, on the one hand, it’s the most adorably polite and gentlemanly thing you’ve ever seen. But on the other, it stops everything.

        So I DO withhold reinforcement after 4. And what happens? Well, he sort of has his mouth around the object rather timid-like, while I’m egging him on. Then he’ll kind of stop and stand there or sort of look at me out of the corner of his eye, incredulously, as if to say, “Dude, you KNOW I’m not supposed to rip things out of peoples’ hands!”

        I still suspect that someone in his (troubled) hunting-training past taught him that– probably with very harsh consequences. For example, Sam used to be very fearful of hands near his head or of men– and that pretty much meant me– with objects in their hands, such as the tongs for the grill or a screwdriver or something; he’d just shrink away).

        So anyway, what I was describing as clicker training a take was really my way of lowering the criteria by just isolating that behavior– reinforcing the close mouth/take from hand. That way he learns that it’s okay– and fun. (And I think it’s working.) That’s not that different from what you’re saying here, is it?:

        | “When Sam makes a move on the object, I’d mark it. When he touches it, I’d mark again when I drop the toy. 4-6? Mission Accomplished.”

        That’s the only part of what you said that I’m not entirely clear on.


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