The Fish Stick Theory

For those of you who may not know, Elsa and I run a publishing house in Sweden, Klickerförlaget, that publishes dog training books with reward-based training as a common denominator. Among the competent and experienced authors who publish books with us is Susanne Lindberg, who runs Rackarungarnas dog school and has written the book “The 10 most important things your dog should learn”.

The book is a book on everyday obedience with the 10 top challenges that her students have come to her with over the years. In one place in the book, she says “Don’t just stand there like a fish stick” as a description of a somewhat baffled dog handler. 😉

From that quote, we have built the “Fish Stick Theory”. When we held a course together last winter, Elsa just said to me at one point, “Time for some Fish Stick Theory, maybe”? Yup, I started right away. 🙂

That, in turn, is part of another favorite that we bring up time and again in blogs, books, in lessons, and courses; the motto TRAIN PREVENT INTERRUPT. We have written so much about it that I won’t bore you with more text 😉 but if you’re one of those who still don’t feel like you really understand what we mean, you can find a post here and another here.

The Fish Stick Theory is about ONE of those three words, namely INTERRUPT. It is SO common that you don’t even suspect it, that we get students who stand like a fish stick when the dog self-rewards in all sorts of ways and learns completely wrong things. Some examples:

  • The dog runs in and runs at full speed towards the retrieve 50 meters away; the handler stands like a fish stick and watches the dog run out and retrieve the item and come back at full speed.
  • The dog walks away when the handler stretches out his handto prepare for a blind cast, before the handler has had a chance to say anything (in other words, runs in) and the previous point is repeated. The handler? Like a fish stick!
  • The dog does not stop at the stop whistle but happily looks for something that should be there. Handler? Crosses fingers and hopes the dog will stop soon.
  • The dog suddenly pulls away from the handler’s side while walking at heel, as it must explore the exciting thing that happened over there. Handler? Like a fish stick, in syrup.
  • The dog steals the toy/dummy from its handler’s hand and runs away. Handler? Fish stick… Again.
  • The dog comes in at full speed to deliver the retrieve but three meters before it changes its mind, throws the dummy into the air, and moves to the side instead. Handler? Yes, you get it, standing there like a fish stick.
  • The retriever that continues to search with the game it just found in its mouth because it is more fun to search than retrieve. And the handler? Fish stick;)
  • The spaniel searches more and more uncontrollably, and the handler sees how the dog slowly but surely – it takes at least a few seconds 😉 – loses control. The handler? Turns to the instructor and asks, “What do I do now?” 😛 Fish stick deluxe!
  • The dog chases a hare and runs away. Left behind is a helpless and paralyzed fish stick.

And YES! We have been fish sticks too, and YES, it still happens that we end up there, but less and less. Because we have trained not to just stand there like fish sticks. And yes, it can be VERY DIFFICULT, but it can be trained up. 🙂

To ensure that your dog truly listens to you and doesn’t try to solve things on its own also means that tasks should be performed in an efficient way. The thing is, as a reward-based trainer, you need to lay the foundation well and not let the dog make too many big mistakes because some mistakes are so incredibly self-rewarding that they will take a lot of time and energy from you to correct.

It seems to be a common misunderstanding that if your training is reward-based, you cannot interrupt the dog when it makes a mistake. Perhaps one is worried about correcting the dog in a way that creates discomfort, and that is the training we want to avoid. But we have good news: you can almost always interrupt without it being scary for the dog, creating pressure, or a conflict. But of course, you should interrupt in a way that doesn’t scare your dog. And you can teach your dog that it’s a good thing to be interrupted sometimes – and it’s worth listening to us when we interrupt. If you know your dog – and if you are good at reading it – then you know what you can and cannot do. Sometimes our interrupt has even become a punishment (meaning that the dog perceives it as discomfort), but we usually see it directly on the dog and can quickly smooth it over by, for example, starting to play.

So, what can be the problem or challenge with this? The number one problem is that if we start talking to people about interrupting their dogs, 9 out of 10 suddenly get ANGRY with their dog. That wasn’t what we meant. 😉 But that’s how it’s interpreted. Both Elsa and I have an error signal that we teach our puppies; we laugh when things go wrong and can also say a cheerful “oops”. However, we almost never teach “oops” as an error signal to our students because suddenly people start raising their voices and sounding strict and irritated… So we really try to focus on teaching good training; that you set up the training at a level that the dog can handle, are precise with the basics, and break everything down into small parts, etc. But sooner or later, most people reach a point where it becomes anti-training if you don’t interrupt the dog quickly so it doesn’t self-reward.

When you have read this far, you are probably up for a little deep dive into this with CONSEQUENCES. Can we really know if the dog perceives something as an unpleasant punishment or not? If you are good at reading your dog, you can probably see it in the dog’s reaction, and you can see it in how the behavior changes – or doesn’t change – when you try to redo what went wrong. So you can draw a conclusion by looking at the consequences of what you just did. Because punishment works like a reward but the opposite; if the punishment is unpleasant enough, the dog will not repeat what it did. BUT the fact that the dog doesn’t repeat the mistake can also be due to the fact that the dog was deprived of its reward. IF you interrupt a retrieve and the dog loves to retrieve, then it is a kind of punishment in itself – and it is the type of punishment we work with as clicker trainers – we deprive the dog of the reward. And that’s what we want INTERRUPT to be about. We want the dog to think “damn it, I have to do this in a different way so that I can get what I want”. 😉 This sketch describes the consequences of what we do:

INTERRUPT can end up in the wrong box. As clicker trainers, we work with the two GREEN boxes in the sketch: “Positive reinforcement” and “Negative punishment”. We want our “interrupt” to end up in the box called “Negative punishment”, but if things go wrong, it can end up in the box called “Positive punishment” – and that’s not our intention. But by teaching the dogs to respond to our interrupt by getting a little “oomph” (they become a little frustrated) instead of getting depressed, we believe that we mostly end up in the right box.

So, we teach our dogs that being interrupted is okay, and they are rewarded for interrupting when things go wrong. “Wait, won’t they learn to make mistakes then?” the skeptic might ask. No, that’s not our experience. Sure, we may not reward quite as well when we interrupt the dog when it’s doing something silly as when it’s doing something really good. But we reward it for listening to us in all situations – which is essentially what interrupting is.

When teaching the dog to be interrupted, choose a relatively easy behavior where you know you have a good chance of getting through by laughing and cheering a bit. Reward generously when the dog interrupts – especially when you see that it’s difficult for it to do so.

Our interrupts may look and sound a bit different depending on the situation. When my spaniel Flippa went on a couple of runs and the two dogs got a hare up together and then started chasing it with a baying sound, competing to be the first, over a Danish, very long field – do you think I stood there laughing and saying “oh my” in a happy voice? No, I yelled and ran after it like crazy. Did it help? Not at all, haha. The reward of chasing the hare was a skyscraper higher than my yelling and screaming. She was completely unaffected by the fact that smoke was coming out of my ears when she eventually came back. I don’t think she even heard me. Sometimes the battle is lost, and here I might as well have stood there like a fish stick – I just had to accept that I needed to go home and retrain the hare bumping. (It took a year and still isn’t completely established, but that’s another story 😉 ). But. Most of the time, we shouldn’t stand there like fish sticks when things go wrong. However, if I had raised my voice even slightly when one of my cockers had started prematurely on a blind retrieve, I would have had to fetch the retrieve myself afterwards; that type of interrupt would have ended up in the completely wrong box. So, adaptation is really required in interrupting. I celebrated the last hunt of last season when Flippa made a double stop on a hare – chased after five meters but then turned on my loud interrupt, which made it a FULL PARTY when she came back to me, of course.

In summary: Don’t stand there like a fish stick if something is going wrong and the dog is rewarding itself! Interrupt as cheerfully as you can, reward the dog for listening when you interrupt, and teach the dog the concept of being interrupted. 🙂

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