Tracking diary #2: shaping retrieve by back-chaining for article indication

In my tracking diary #1  I described how Forbes and I are training tracking using Steve White’s Hydration Intensified Tracking Training (HITT). The dog tracks human scent on the ground, however, just following the scent is not enough, the dog also has to somehow indicate any articles dropped by the lost person (search and rescue/tracking trials) or evidence dropped by the bad guy (police dogs). I believe that no matter what the official profession of the dog in question is, the way the dog indicates the article can be basically anything as long as it is unambiguous to the handler. The most common ones I have seen are a down or a retrieve. Which one to choose for your dog then, that is the question. For me, Steve White spelled it out very clearly in his set of DVDs on HITT (thanks again Kayla for lending these to me!): the indication behavior should be so strong that your dog is willing to perform it ten times without a reinforcement. This means that either a) the behavior has to be extremely self-reinforcing in itself to get to this point or b) you have built such a strong reinforcement history for the behavior that it can withstand a variable schedule of reinforcement where you only reward every tenth trial.

For Forbes and I the decision was easy. He has zero natural tendency to offer me a down but he loooooves to pick up objects like socks and gloves and then prance proudly around with his ‘prize’ because that always gets him attention. Just picking up an object would be enough as an indication behavior for Tracking Dog trials but I want the dog to do a full retrieve because it is less unambiguous, it is a useful behavior to have and at some point I also want to build a formal obedience competition retrieve. Therefore, we started training a behavior called: ‘Pick up an object and deliver to the palm of my hand’. As far as tracking goes, you train this behavior completely separately from tracking and once you have a strong indication behavior off the track only then you start introducing it on the track.

Unlike one might first think, retrieve is actually a rather complex behavior chain. How would you train this behavior? The first instinct is to just toss the object on the ground, the dog will probably go after it because it is a Fast Moving Object To Be Killed but will the dog want to deliver it to you? You can lure/ pray/try and catch your dog with the object in his mouth/try some voodoo, but I bet the last thing in the dog’s mind is ‘Oh I just caught my prey, why don’t I go and give it to my human because he/she will take better care of it’. Yeah, you got it, that just is NOT going to happen (even if you have a retriever!). We need another strategy and this is where David Premack comes to the rescue: more probable behaviors will reinforce less probable behaviors. If we start training the retrieve from the last element of the behavior chain towards the first one by back-chaining, the dog is always moving from a less familiar behavior to a more familiar behavior, therefore the more familiar behavior will reinforce the less familiar one. WOW, that is a mouthful, but lets break it down for the retrieve, starting form the last behavior and proceeding to the first behavior:

1. Let go of the article above my hand

2. Push the article towards my hand

3. Move towards me while holding the article

4. Hold the article in your mouth

5. Grab the article from the ground

6. Move towards the article

7. Move towards the article on verbal cue

These are steps broken down for me with Forbes, and here is our training movie reporting the progress (excuse the Finnish and the handler’s ridiculously focused expressions :-)):

Forbes loves the retrieve, I haven’t introduced it on the tracks yet but I will soon, that will be our next tracking diary.



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