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“Instant Results” in animal training

When I have worked with feral dogs, it’s amazing to see how quickly one dog might show or tell all the other dogs “there’s a new supply of food over here!”  Once they’ve found a hole in the fence you probably won’t need to show them that particular hole again.

But that’s not the sort of learning so-called trainers are typically talking about when they  promise they can “teach” any dog to stop jumping up or  stop barking, or come when called in just one day or one week.  Here, their instant method involves shock or prong or other painful or fear-inducing punishment.

Of course it’s true that animals try desperately to avoid pain discomfort or fearful situations, and you can see that response in so-called “instant training.” The handler shocks the dog, and the dog naturally cowers immediately and tries to avoid whatever caused the shock.

It can look impressive, if you don’t look too hard or too long, but ask to see the dog in a year. In a new location, with a new handler, a new collar or a new situation,  dog owners may feel encouraged/required to shock/prong or choke the dog again, and again.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAPunishment creates unpredictable variable results over the long term.   Some dogs (typically mature dogs who already understand many behaviors and have a confident relationship with their handlers) might actually learn to leave the horse alone. But other dogs seem to be hard as nails. Pet owners might say, “he doesn’t even feel it.” Puppies might be completely confused, have no idea how to avoid the pain and become emotionally damaged. Think of animals who’ve learned to chase cars, or hunt porcupines,  and they keep chasing cars and hunting porcupines in spite of having been run over and quilled  repeatedly. Sometimes this isn’t because they’re tough, but they don’t associate their disaster with their fun. But let’s assume that your dog does associate the shock or prong or punishment with you or your commands (or your yard). How might that effect your dog’s behavior over the long haul of the next weeks and months and years?

Animals learn by association. It’s difficult to truly associate a punishment with a behavior that is or has been naturally rewarding to a dog. If I shock you every time you eat chocolate, you might not hate chocolate as much as you dislike me. At best, you might wind up with a dog who weighs his choices, who associates his own desired choices with risks. If he hasn’t learned that polite greetings (or coming when called, or waiting quietly in the kennel) is super rewarding,  he will weigh the risk of doing what he naturally would enjoy with the risk in the environment. Is he wearing the nasty collar? Is the handler who delivers pain nearby? And if he isn’t trapped by the situation or handler, he might well do what he finds reinforcing. 100_1335

Dogs are never learning just one thing. They are processing multiple associations at the same time. I’ve seen dogs who were “trained” by a choke or shock  who no longer want to get in a car, who freak out every time the microwave oven beeps, who chronically chew their paws raw, and who physically express anxiety(diarrhea) and “learned helplessness,” or  unwillingness to play or learn or explore anything new. Punishment methods aren’t  actually teaching dogs that sit or down or come on cue are wonderful things to do. They teach dogs to fear or distrust/feel anxious and want to escape/avoid training situations.  Shock/prong can damage your dog’s ability to trust you or to feel confident and safe in interacting with the world. Anxious dogs are far more at risk of behaving aggressively in  unfamiliar or unexpected situation.  People often don’t expect much of dogs, which is maybe why they don’t realize when they turn smart eager pups into depressed nervous wrecks.

Shock and choke also isn’t great for trainers. Animals instinctively will hide their response to pain and injury, because any appearance of vulnerability can make them more prone to attack. That’s why teeny nervous dogs act so tough. Trainers may misinterpret that response. “The shock doesn’t bother him,” just because the dog is not displaying anxiety at the collar (but instead the dog is likely displaying anxiety elsewhere).

You know from your own experience that animals (including human trainers) mature and grow and learn bit by bit by bit.  Think about how long it took you  to learn to speak French. Think about how you learned to  wait patiently. Don’t begrudge the time it takes to teach your dog a language and polite behaviors based on trust and mutual understanding, rather than on fear and pain. The end result — a curious happy dog who trusts you and enjoys working with you — is worth the time spent.

 

 

Featured

No-fault No Reward Markers

IMG_6235By Jenny Ruth Yasi, Head Trainer Whole Dog Camp

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This was from before we were “Nana and Papa,” when Whole Dog Camp was on Peaks Island. We were demonstrating paired walking, where we reinforced this crazy puppy Tigerlily for walking beside us by opening the space between us as a response to her hanging back, and closing the space between us (with her behind it) as a response to her surging forwards. It works really well for partners teaching a puppy!

I love the internet’s ability to allow trainers to discuss and share experiences regarding controversial geeky training devices like no reward markers. I tend to defend the use of trained NRM, while also telling trainers, “stop saying no! Stop telling your dog that he’s wrong!”

To explain that, I wanted to tell this story of my almost 4 year old grandson, who is learning to brush his teeth.

He was spending the night, and so I gave him his own special spongebob vibrating toothbrush and stood him in front of a hall mirror to brush his teeth. Weird for him to have a Nana who is also a dog trainer, because  I know I’m helping train my grandson to brush his teeth! And frankly,  he wasn’t doing it perfectly, but there is no way I would ever dream of doing anything but praising his awesome toothbrushing. After I admired the toothbrushing for quite some time and he was done, I recall I did suggest one more round! And it was the kind of toothpaste you’re supposed to swallow, so that part didn’t matter.

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We didn’t have to say “no.” Bee was just checking, just in case it was for her, but it wasn’t.

 

We don’t need to criticize puppies, children, partners,  friends or most of all, OURSELVES. It’s empty and unhelpful when we cue disapproval, “wrong,” and turn an interaction sour, with some idea that this is wrong or not good enough, but uncertain, or even no idea, about what to do to make the wrong right.

That’s different than the way I train and use a NRM. We train reward marker signals (RMS) first of course, but animals need to know what the good choices are. Training RMS gives the dog lots of rewarding experiences in the choices you want him or her to make.   Later, when he knows at least one successful behavioral strategy or route to reinforcement, a NRM is paired with those moments when he’s not on the route, or when he is working and made a choice that is not leading to the reinforcement prize. My signal is “Oopsie!” With my dogs, a NRM is information that helps them, realize, “oh not this! It must be that!” and find the prize. It contains information my dogs want to know!  If you were accidentally headed the wrong way down a one-way street, and I hollered, “You’re going the wrong way!” You’d appreciate the information.  And you’d have a good idea about what you need to do to get back on the path. If you were looking for your wallet and I said, “It’s not on this table,” you would appreciate the information. That’s how we train and use the NRM at Whole Dog Camp, in games that could help your dog actually find that wallet.

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Papa passes on pancake making wisdom to the next generation. Tigerlily supervises.

 

Featured

Reinforcement versus Punishment, and why they are both a bit tricky

IMG_0216In behavior science terminology, Reinforcement (R) and Punishment(P) are functions or “consequences” that either strengthen(R) or weaken(P) behavior.

You won’t see reputable zoos or marine mammal trainers trying to show their animals “who’s boss,” not only because it’s a dumb idea to try to boss around a dolphin, but because punishment stimulates anxiety and unpredictable escape/avoidance behaviors. These difficult to control, potentially aggressive, destructive, and unhealthy behaviors can emerge (and continue) well after punishment has ended.

Many dog trainers now call themselves “force-free” or “all positive.” Although I too recognize what marine mammal trainers and zoo-keepers and other behavior scientists have learned about the dangers of punishment, I don’t call myself an “all positive” trainer because I know that even a leash is not all positive from the point of view of many dogs. Any dog might understandably rather avoid a veterinarian visit, a toe nail clipping, or even ending a fun game. We can and should remove aversive things such as shock, choke, prongs from pet training programs, but the function of punishment is not so easily eliminated. Eliminating punishment, sounds like a good idea, but it’s like eliminating gravity. In spite of our best efforts, punishment happens. Our job is to recognize what punishment is and where it is happening, and do what we can to prevent it from weakening the animal behaviors we want to cultivate.

Accidental reinforcement is not quite as harmful as accidental punishment. Kindness, compassion, generosity, love does not ruin animals or make us mentally or emotionally ill, as excessive punishment does. Sure excess hotdogs are fattening, but they don’t really “spoil” a dog. What “spoils” behaviors is associating desired things with undesirable behavior, thereby reinforcing (strengthening) behaviors you don’t like.

Training is about associating the desired behaviors with desirable consequences, and undesirable behaviors with undesirable consequences. With humans, we can just explain (“after you do your homework, we’ll watch a movie”). But animals learn by experience, so training requires perfect timing for animals to clearly associate behavior and consequence. Delivering hotdogs right after the dog begs at the table? Toenail clipping right after the dog comes when called? That is a confusing.

The environment delivers rewards as well as punishments arbitrarily, sometimes reinforcing bad behavior (I found a cookie!) as well as punishing good behavior (puppy sits and someone steps on her tail). Hate it when that happens! This is why trainers place so much attention on setting the animal up for success with a carefully controlled environment. But even when you are working in a carefully planned low distraction environment, and you’ve set up your dog for success, mistakes happen. One common mistake is misuse of cues.

Ask yourself this: do cues function as rewards? Or punishment? Neither? Both?

Maybe this can gets to the crux of many training problems. To the degree that any or all cues (down/stay/sit/come etc) are disappointing/oppressing or bothering your dog (or kid!), expect those cues to fail. The function of punishment is to weaken or stop behavior and it does so because animals work to escape or avoid punishment. If your “sit!” or “down!” or “off!” cue is often functioning as punishment, your dog will be working to avoid it.

But, you’re a great trainer, and your cues are welcome opportunities, fun paying jobs that your dog loves! Your cues are music to your dog’s ears, like the tinkling bell of the ice cream truck! Like Pavlov’s dog, you cue “come!” and your dog salivates!

That’s great! But if you want that conditioned response to strengthen desirable behavior, it needs to be delivered during or just after the dog is performing a behavior you like. Conditioned reinforcement strengthens the behavior it follows. So if your dog is chasing a cat and you are yelling “come!” it might actually (oopsie!) strengthen the chase response. Or, if you say “sit” or “heel” and your dog doesn’t immediately sit or heel, and you say it again, and again, you’re strengthening the dog’s poor response. Much like feeding hotdogs when dogs beg at the table, some pet owners ignore their dog’s good behaviors, and feed them cues only when they are misbehaving!

So what does this mean in real life terms? Partly it means, don’t let your dog chase the cat. Set your dog up for success and prevent rehearsal of undesirable behaviors. You know where you and your dog are and what you are doing when your dog screws up. Don’t do that! If a plan (or no plan) is not working, change it. Make a plan to set your dog up for success and to practice and reward the behaviors you’d rather see happen. When accidents happen, as they surely do, just go get your dog and leash or crate or move her away, don’t stand there delivering conditioned reinforcement (cues) when you know she is not responding.

IMG_5500When my dog breaks a sit or a down, I avoid a re-cue. Instead I can deliver a “release signal” (“okay! all done!”) which leaves her wanting more. WHAT?! The game is over? Let me try again!

Don’t set the game up to fail. That is, don’t expect to condition your dog’s response to new cues in a highly distracting environment. Condition the response you want in a low distraction environment, and then build on that by practicing in many different environments, increasing the distractions and difficulty slowly. I also train conditioned “encouragement/discouragement” signals (“yay” versus “oopsie!”) and use them to help dogs think through and solve a puzzle. Like the game “colder colder/hotter hotter,” conditioned encouragement and discouragement (“oopsie” and “yay!”) can help dogs develop confidence in solving behavior problems and finding prizes, reinforcing behaviors that I like.

“Things” can function as both reinforcement or as punishment, depending on when and how you use them, and how you build your associations. Hotdogs are not always reinforcement. Lures, for example, often appear to function as punishment when trainers withhold food too long under the dog’s nose, and the dog gets frustrated, confused and gives up. The dog might be wondering, “Can I have that hotdog or can’t I? Am I supposed to follow the food in your hand, or will I get in trouble for doing that?”

Animals work to get information, and they work to avoid confusion. Animals aren’t born with any understanding of human language. Their response to cues is a conditioned response that develops through real-life learning experiences and associations, and not because you’ve shown the dog who is boss.

That’s enough for today! I enjoy comments or questions, and specific examples if you have them, below!

Resource Guarding

From a post I wrote in 2009 on Resource Guarding

“Resource guarding” is the term we use to describe a sort of aggression that occurs around “possessions.” The possession might be a food dish, dog bone, a soft space on the couch, or even the dog’s human. Sometimes new dogs here do that. They figure out that I dole out treats, so they start to growl or threaten when other dogs approach me, as though saying, “hey, that’s MY treat dispenser.”

Needless to say, nobody likes resource guarding. It can be a bit dangerous, for example, if a dog is guarding a bone from another dog, and the handler intervenes, there is a chance the handler might get a redirected bite.

So, for some reason, a familiar guest arrived showing a bit more intense resource guarding this visit than last visit. I definitely don’t like to see resource guarding escalate. Generally it is a sign of insecurity, where the dog feels he needs to defend his stuff, as otherwise, he fears someone might take it. It’s not the worlds most horrible thing when a hissy fit is directed at another dog, but when they are a bit startling, it’s time to address the issue.

So, what I’ve been doing is practicing “trade ya” to make sure this dog is happy about giving me his bone or whatever, and flooding the environment with delicious chewable things, and giving him lots of safe secure un-threatened opportunities to chew. So, out there today are two beef bones, four pig ears, zillions of toys, and I keep passing out dog biscuits and dental chews. This is the opposite of what you might hear about resource guarding, where you have to keep toys and treats picked up. In this sort of situation, where a young dog is just starting to resource guard and it is not an established aggressive behavior, but more of a game that is just a little too serious, I think it, it’s best to FLOOD resources onto the floor, so the dog gets a sense of abundance, and gets used to having so many resources available, that the perceived need for guarding is reduced.

It’s working. He is finding out that he can chew on a pig ear, and the other dogs aren’t going to bother him, because they have their own pig ears. Pig ears are beginning to seem a little less over-the-top exciting. In fact, there are so many good things to “chews” from that he is laying here at my feet, maybe his mouth is exhausted from chewing, not at all worrying about the fact that Tigerlily is chewing on a beef bone a few feet away.

We need to teach dogs that sharing “their” stuff is fun, and painless, nothing to worry about. We can do that by reinforcing the dog’s sense that giving up any object is a low cost (there’s plenty of objects! I’ll trade you this one for that one!), and highly reinforced ( I’ll pay you for letting me have it) behavior.

In 2017 what I can add to this is, play lots of retrieving games where you exchange one ball for another, or where you trade a piece of cheese for a ball. Retrieving games are all about sharing resources for fun and profit! Make it fun! Any time you take anything away from your dog, pay him with something that he really wants! Then you will have a dog who is happy and eager to share.