Training facial expressions

Publicado el 19 de March de 2015

A few days ago a colleague of mine commented to me about the difficulties she was facing in finding new suitable conducts for practicing free shaping with her dog. On the one hand, the dog knew so many conducts that it was far from easy to think of a new one. On the other hand, the number of choices was further limited by physical ailments since the dog was old and suffered from hip dysplasia. Thus my friend was afraid that her dog would be deprived of this joyful source of mental activity precisely when it was most needed.
Let me clarify from the outstart that my favorite mental activation task is not the practice of free shaping but rather problem solving. Nevertheless, I was sorry to learn that my friend and her dog were no longer able to keep on practicing the exercises that they both had enjoyed in the past.

I know what many of you would have said in my position: just be creative. I told her the same, though the tough part was to find new conducts. No matter what I proposed, this dog knew how to do it. Being creative is not that easy!

What girls! They really knew everything from A to Z. That is, until I mentioned the training of facial expressions. In my opinion facial expressions is the most challenging group of conducts one can train with a clicker and, for the same reason, the one that is more helpful for trainers who want to improve their skills.

Facial expressions can be broken down into three independent units: eye expressions, position of the ears and of the lips. Some people choose to include the head position too but, compared to the other three units, this is much simpler to capture. Thus trainers can spend many hours focusing on one of the three branches and, subsequently, merging different combinations of them. As a by-product of this intensive practice trainers will find that they become much more skillful and can capture conducts involving bigger muscles effortlessly.

Where should you start? Follow a gradual task approach and start with someting rather simple like squinting the eyes. This will take you a while because prompting and capturing conducts that depend upon such small muscles is a sui generis practice indeed. One could say that facial expressions within the free shaping domain compare to neurovascular surgery in the context of hippocampus-amygdala surgery, such is the degree of precision and finesse required.

Once you hace succeeded in scanning the eyes, try to capture an upward movement of the lips. Complete the exercise shaping the conduct of folding back the ears. But remember that you are not allowed to press on your dog to get results.

So far so good? Next step, you can create different conducts singling out isolated elements or combining them in groups of two or three. This is only the beginning for now you can start teaching different actions involving each one of the three expression units referred to above, eyes, ears and lips. Try to capture the behavior of moving the eyes downward or upward, not the head just the eyeballs. Next, scan the forward motion of the lips as if your dog was about to say “wuf!”. Try to shape tense lips, ears up …

Finally, combine all the pieces of conduct to create different facial expression puzzles. It will take you many months before you run out of options. Who said thad dog trainers cannot play with Mr Potato? A further advantage of these calm conducts is that they suit all dogs, also old ones like my friend´s.

If you are a clicker star we also have an advanced level, you know, the sort of things one is advised not to try at home without first consulting a professional. Do you think you can manage to shape a different expression in each side of your dog’s face? Try scanning one eye open while the other remains closed, an ear up and the other down, or half of the lip up, as if your dog was about to growl, while the other half is relaxed. If you are good enough your dog will be offered a juicy Hollywood contract starring as two face’s best friend, one of the villains in the Batman movie saga.

Once you have completed the training give me a call for I will be envious, though I am pretty sure that by that time there will be 15 videoclips with 300 different facial expressions uploaded in youtube by former agility world champion Pere Saavedra. C’est la vie…

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