Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Stop the Flooding!

It's no secret that I like dogs. It's also no secret that I'm not a huge fan of spiders. I know they have a purpose and I really appreciate that they eat other bugs, but I feel a little uneasy when a spider is skittering across the ceiling in my bedroom. My husband thinks this is hilarious. He likes to catch spiders and hold them up to my face, or worse, over my hair. Uggghh. I don't mind spiders outside- that's where they belong. My face is not any spider's natural environment and I do not like them there. He even went so far to yell "SPIDER!!" while we were swimming in the ocean one day. I won't lie to you- I did look around frantically and start swimming. After a few seconds, I realized how ridiculous it was and proceeded to laugh with him. In addition to the good belly laugh he gets out of it, my husband claims that he is trying to help me get over my spider aversion. The problem is that he is going about it all wrong. He is only making me trust him less, not feel any better about spiders.

My husband is attempting to habituate me to spiders- to get me used to them by exposure over time. His idea is that the more I see spiders, the less scary they will be. This could work, if he was using the correct method of habituation. With putting spiders close to me (or pretending to do so), he is using a technique called flooding- repeated exposure to a high intensity stimulus without any means of the subject escaping or changing the situation. This can work in some cases, where the stress level is relatively low and the animal is very resilient. What usually happens is that the animal becomes so stressed that it physiologically cannot respond any more and shuts down. To the untrained eye, it looks as though the animal is fine. What is really happening is that the animal is so terrified that it has accepted it's fate and stops responding, even though it still feels that anxiety/stress/fear. The other response of flooding is that the animal turns it's frustrations on someone or something else. The case of me hitting my husband repeatedly with a foam baseball bat is an example of the latter.

This actually happens in dog training all too often, especially by those on television who are looking for drama to increase ratings. That may make for good television, but it does not make for smart dog training. I have even seen trainers do this who are not on television, trying to pass it off as a legitimate training method. When flooding is used in training, the dog will sometimes respond well and no longer exhibit fearful behaviors. Most of the time, we get one of two results though: fighting/bullying of people or other dogs, or a complete shut down and cessation of responses across the board. Here is how you can tell the difference: a dog who is properly habituated will learn to perform simple commands in the presence of the scary stimulus; the will have relaxed body language and will happily take a treat (as long as they are a food-motivated dog). A dog who is flooded will still respond the same way to the stimulus- act out aggressively, try to get away, or shut down and not respond to anything- not the best treats or a simple cue. They are in "flight" mode but cannot flee; it's pretty heart-wrenching to watch. Those trainers who use floding along with tools like prong, pinch, or shock collars do so when a dog is already over threshold and over-reacting. The reason pain works is that this is one of the few things that any animal in this state can actually respond to, unfortunately. Trainers who use these methods in flooding are taking a stressed out dog and making it worse, which only reinforces the dog's fears about the situation.

So, what should we do instead? I'm SO glad you asked! Two of my most favorite words are coming up, are you ready?
Desensitization- presenting stimulus at a low stress level (at a great distance, or a less scary version), then gradaully increasing the intensity of the stressor over time
Counter Conditioning-pairing scary stimulus (at a low level) with something the dog loves

Think of it this way: habituation has two kids, flooding and desensitization. They are capable of all the same things, but flooding is kind of a jerk all the time- in your face and loud. Desensitization is more reserved and calm. If they are both means to the same end, why not hang out with the nicer one? When desensitization is used in training, the dog is exposed to a low level stimulus, so their reaction will not be so severe and they actually have the opportunity to learn that it's not scary. This is the technique that my cousin uses with spiders- she sends me pictures of spiders and fills my Facebook page with posts about spiders. I still don't like spiders too much, but I don't jump out of my chair when I see a picture of one and I would trust her not to toss a spider at my face, unlike my husband (ok, he probably wouldn't do that). With desensitization, the stress level is gradually increased over time and the dog remains under threshold so they can actually learn that the scary stimulus is not really a threat.
It is worth mentioning that habituation is something present in our dogs minds (as well as ours) for a very specific evolutionary reason- so they learn subtle differences in situations to properly asses threats in life. A small spider isn't as scary to me as a big one; a spider outside hanging out on it's web doesn't bother me like one skittering across the floor in my kitchen will. It's all part of the habituation process. Like so many learning processes, habituation can be really slow, as it should be. To learn all the possible different situations I may find myself in with a spider can take years. With training, we add in counter conditioning as a means to speed up this process a bit. Instead of nothing bad happening when I see a spider, what if I am offered a cookie whenever I see one? Since I am food motivated and enjoy cookies, I would begin to anticipate the cookie when I see a spider, then I would actually look forward to seeing spiders because it would mean more cookies. I would learn that not only are spiders harmless, but they also mean that good things happen when I see one. It's not that I am so happy about the cookie that I forget about the spider, but since the spider is small and far away, I don't feel threatened and can actually enjoy my cookie. Counter conditioning changes the emotional state of the subject, and changes the association they have with the stimulus. With dogs who bark out of fear or excitement, we work on getting them to sit and take treats and enjoy petting and praise from their people in the presence of that scary stimulus. As we change the way they think about the stimulus, we change their emotional state from a reactive one to a relaxed one. This change in behavior causes the external signals (barking, jumping, etc) to cease because they don't fit well with the relaxed body language. Since we are letting the dog decide on his own and set his own boundaries, they learn that they have control over their own life and are less likely to over-react in the future.
The very last piece of the training process is to use operant counter conditioning to train different but appropriate behaviors in response to the stimulus. My favorite example of this is teaching dogs who like to chase cars to sit every time they see a car. I bring this up because other trainers like to show off videos of dogs who are doing down-stay on sidewalks or parking lots with cars driving through. Many times, these dogs are laying down and not getting out of the stay, but they are terrified- there is tension all over their bodies and their eyes are darting all around in search of safety. Having a dog sit-stay or down-stay no matter what is certainly an important skill, I'm not debating that- the use of coercive techniques in these situations is what does. In my experience, a dog who is scared is more likely to react in an unpredictable way and that's not what you want next to a busy street. Generally, dogs chase cars because they are moving and it's fun to chase things. Some dogs don't like things that move in a way that doesn't make sense to them (cars can fall into that category), and other dogs don't like engine sounds, so they chase the car to 'get rid of it'. By training more relaxed body language (sit, down), the dog learns that it is more rewarding to relax when cars go by. By not forcing the dog to lay down and shocking them or jerking their collar when they get up, they actually are relaxed and not fearful. Again, we do this by starting with the cars far away and move closer over time- it takes longer and makes for really crummy television, but in the long run it makes for a healthier dog and better relationship.

Exce-Erated Learning by Pamela Ried, PhD
Reaching the Animal Mind by Karen Pryor

Today's question:
What is your dog afraid of and how have you tried to change it?

Saturday, September 3, 2016

Doggie Outtakes; Whispering Dogs Part 2

This week, I want to see if you paid attention to the last post. It's like a little quiz, with pretty pictures of cute pups and a great sense of pride if you answer the questions correctly.
So, last week time (was it three weeks now or a full month?!) I wrote about how dogs have basically three levels of communicating: whispering, talking, and yelling.
Here's a recap of the things you want to look for at each level:

Whispering: lip lick, short stare, slight head turn, scratching frequently or out of context (like in the middle of play), sniffing the ground out of context (in the middle of play or when meeting someone), leaning away, looking away, low tail, yawning, moving slowly
Talking: hyper-vigilant (looking around quickly), excessive yawning, panting when it's not hot, freezing in position, moving away, "whale eye" (looking so far in one direction that you see the whites of the dog's eyes), sudden loss of appetite, tucked tail, curved spine, dilated pupils, shaking/trembling, shaking off (this is a displacement behavior that we see frequently in play)
Yelling: lip lift, closed mouth, showing teeth, snarling, growling, barking, lunging, biting 
Now, I have some outtakes from graduation photos. I love keeping these to look for little body language cues. In reality, the time from the first shot as dogs get lined up and that final shot where three out of four dogs are lined up for a half decent picture is three to five minutes. I probably get 30 pictures in this time, and each one can capture at least one different signal from each dog. Most of the time these dogs are just excited and want to play, but you still see the displacement and calming signals. My goal in training, especially in group class, is to keep everyone under threshold. That means you won't get the chance to see much "yelling" in these pictures. I'll work on that for next time. 

First up, who in this picture is nervous, who is excited and who is blurring the line between healthy interest and play and over-the-top play?

The lab-pit mix on the left has her ears pinned back, probably because she just wants to go play with her big brother next to her and mom is asking her to hold still. 
The big mixed breed in the middle there is very uneasy with the dog all the way on the right. He is turning away, looking away and has a little paw lift going on. All of this tells the other dog that he is no threat and really doesn't want to do anything. 
The pit mix on the right really wants to go investigate the other dogs. She is very sweet, but her normal play level would be way too much for the arthritic big guy next to her. Her weight is to the left- in the direction of the other two dogs. She wants to go check them out and her human mom is blocking her. 

What do you think of this guy? Happy? Sad? Mad? Scared? A little warm?
You may have to turn up the brightness on your computer, but look at Howie's eyes- he's squinting. It's not because it's bright out, but because he's uncomfortable with the fact that I had been taking his picture for a couple minutes at this point and he thinks the camera is scary. 

Here is the first picture I took of him, about 35 seconds before the above picture:
By the time I got that second picture, he was squinting and turning his head away from me, whereas here he is looking right at the camera. His ears are pinned back because he doesn't like the sound the camera makes when it takes the picture in addition to the big, scary lens.

Contrast that with Gracie, who doesn't really care that I'm taking pictures. Her face is relaxed with the exception of her panting because it was about 80 degrees out on graduation day.

Next, is everybody alright with what's going on in this picture?

The chocolate lab on the left is watching the other dogs, because she wants to play.
The doberman in the middle is in the middle shaking off- she really wants to play with the lab but we told her she has to wait util class is over. This is the human equivalent of an exasperated sigh. 
The little schnauzer on the right is really not sure about all this movement. She has a history of reactivity and the fact that she is at such a low stress level around two other dogs and four people who aren't mom is really good. She is still unsure- leaning away and looking away from the other dogs. I intentionally put her on the end next to the doberman for the picture because I knew the lab would be too excited to be next to her.

So they are all ok, because they are communicating well with each other and I won't make them maintain that close proximity too much longer! 

Look close, how has the dynamic changed from the previous picture?
The doberman in the middle wants to play with everyone with the full exuberance of a 1 year old pup, but the schnauzer is standing her ground as well as she can. She's got extra confidence because mom is there, so her weight is evenly distributed on all four legs, indicating that she doesn't want to back down.
The lab on the left is in the middle of a lip lick as a way to diffuse the tension of the two dogs next to her and is probably wondering why she can't bum rush the other dogs to play. 

Ok, I tricked you. Those last two pictures were switched in reality. There was a moment after this last picture where everybody needed to refocus on their owner and then be asked to sit down. Everything worked out just fine and they finally relaxed for a decent graduation picture. This happened because the dogs were all communicating and their owners were paying attention to them! 

Last one, I promise. The two dogs you can see, the Labrador and the Wheaten Terrier, how are they feeling about this situation?
The dog you can't see (because she is blocked by one of her humans) is jumping up to get a treat. 
The Wheaten Terrier in the middle really wants to play with the lab but his mom is trying to hold him still so he's not fighting it too much.
The Lab is trying to go smell the terrier but his dad is adjusting his harness and he is holding still. 
If you look at both dogs, you will see they both have weight evenly distributed on all four legs and they are panting with open mouths. It was really hot by this point in the day- graduation for the noon class was about 1:00pm and it was one of those oppressively hot days. 

Now go out and watch your dog! Watch your dog play with a doggie friend! Take notes and learn about your dog so you can be a better human companion! 

Sunday, July 31, 2016

Whispering Dogs

There's talk of dog whisperers and horse whisperers and ghost whisperers- wait, that last one I'm not so sure about. Anyway, people can call themselves whatever they want, but it's actually more important to hear a dog whisper than whisper to a dog. How does one listen to a dog? It actually has much more to do with observing than listening, though your ears will come in handy.Dogs are always communicating with us and we are often too ignorant to realize it because they communicate mostly in tiny signals. It's not entirely our fault that we are ignorant to these tiny things; they are tiny and fleeting and generally below our eye level. The thing is, we owe it to our dogs to try a bit harder. This guy summed it up nicely:
“A dog is the only thing on earth that loves you more than he loves himself.”
—Josh Billings 

It's usually those little things that tell us what our dog is feeling and thinking. By understanding these little things, we can actually be better people for our dogs. Imagine, knowing the instant your dog is bothered by the toddler grabbing his tail (ok that one is pretty obvious), by the heavy-handed petting by crazy aunt Myrtle, or that the new puppy is just too much for your 13 year old dog to have patience for. When we see and understand these things, we can get our dog out of situations before anything bad happens and we can be much more successful with training and behavior modification. If you can't tell when your dog is going over threshold when working with a scary stimulus, how can you be sure you are doing behavior modification correctly? If you can't see that your pup is getting more and more agitated in class, how can you expect them to focus on you or learn anything?
I'll put this in more human terms to demonstrate the escalation of behaviors. In a way, dogs have three basic levels of talking to us- whispering, talking, and yelling. 
Whispering is the first signal they are uneasy about something and they will try to whisper until they feel they are not being heard. Whispers are little body language signals which a dog exhibits to express their discomfort. A lot of whispers are actually displacement behaviors and calming behaviors, which are used by dogs in an attempt to diffuse stressful situations and communicate that they are not a threat to that scary stimulus. 
If their whispering is ignored, dogs will try talking, which are signals that are a little more obvious (at least to the dog). Dogs will usually still offer displacement and calming signals at this point, but will probably offer more stress reactions to let you know that they want out of the situation. 
When those two are ignored and the dog feels under severe stress or pressure, they start yelling. As people, we tend to wait until our dog is yelling to do anything. Dogs will no longer offer displacement or calming behaviors at this point, because they see it as pointless- they have been trying those for so long and they have been ignored so they need to protect themselves at this point. The yelling is actually what we people are great at seeing, but by then your dog is at or way over threshold and might as well be having a panic attack. 
This is where people who use shock collars make their money- a dog who is way over threshold cannot be lured back with treat or toy and can't be called back with commands, just as you would not be talked out of a panic attack by someone saying "oh, it's ok, just calm down- have a cookie." That's not how the brain works. By the time a dog is that upset, they are in fight or flight mode and digestion is the last thing (literally) on their mind. Then, someone comes in with a coercive method like a physical correction. Aside from removing the dog from the situation, something like this will unfortunately be the only way to get their attention in that situation, because pain or discomfort is the only thing that will register with the part of their brain that has taken over. The problem with this method lies in the fallout- a dog is unsure of kids on bicycles, then one day one gets way too close and the next thing that pup knows, she is getting yanked around by the neck or shocked. Why on earth would she ever begin to like kids or bicycles?! That only reinforces her beliefs that kids and bicycles are dangerous. A much better method is to first know when a dog is showing little signs of stress and help them cope at that level, then gradually add in higher level stressors as long as they stay under threshold. Ideally, this is done under the instruction of a professional trainer or behaviorist. Here are a few examples of each:
Whispering: lip lick, short stare, slight head turn, scratching frequently or out of context (like in the middle of play), sniffing the ground out of context (in the middle of play or when meeting someone), leaning away, looking away, low tail, yawning, moving slowly
Talking: hyper-vigilant (looking around quickly), excessive yawning, panting when it's not hot, freezing in position, moving away, "whale eye" (looking so far in one direction that you see the whites of the dog's eyes), sudden loss of appetite, tucked tail, curved spine, dilated pupils, shaking/trembling, shaking off (this is a displacement behavior that we see frequently in play)
Yelling: lip lift, closed mouth, showing teeth snarling, growling, barking, lunging, biting 
Look back over those signals. There are a lot of them, and that's just the ones we humans can easily perceive. Dogs will always use these signals before they do something like biting. The only times they don't are when they are consistently ignored or punished for whispering or talking; then they go to just yelling all the time. This is how we get dogs who seem to bit out of nowhere, or dogs who "seem fine" and then "suddenly bite". Short of a chemical imbalance, it is quite rare for a dog to go from "fine" to biting. 
Usually, a dog who is just not reacting visibly is what most people see as "fine". A small dog who is very still and looking away from a big, scary dog is just "fine", right? Wrong. They are uneasy and trying to say so as politely as possible. If you don't give them some distance from that big scary dog, they will start talking louder and yelling. 
I hope this gives you some insight into your dog and can help you to be a better dog owner. Don't you want to be the best possible person for a face like this?

Resources and recommended reading on this topic. 
I have included so many resources on this one because I believe that understanding your dog is the most important part of owning a dog (short of feeding and medical care, that is).
Interview w/Pam Dennison on reactivity Talking Terms With Dogs: Calming Signals, Turid RugaasCalming Signals: What Your Dog Tells You – DVD – Turid RugaasThe Other End of the Leash – Why We Do What We Do Around Dogs, Patricia B. McConnell, Ph.D.Stress in Dogs, Martina Scholz and Clarissa von ReinhardtThe Language of Dogs – Understanding Canine Body Language and Other Signals- DVD’s – Sarah Kalnajs


Sunday, July 10, 2016

The Nitty Gritty of Clean Training, Part 2: Reinforcement Schedules

As someone who uses reward based training, I hear this one all the time: "but if I train with treats, my dog will only ever listen when I have treats!"
That could be true- if you never change your reinforcement schedule and never fade out food treats. If you work with a trainer who understands reinforcement schedules and how to use them to fade out food treats and fine tune behavior, this is never a problem.

I will fight my natural tendency to give way more information than is necessary in this post, but this is one of those topics that gets a bit tricky so I use extra words to explain and re-explain myself. I apologize in advance for all the repetition.

A reinforcement schedule is a rule or pre-set program that determines how and when a response will be rewarded. Different stages of learning use different reinforcement schedules- when learning a new behavior we reward differently than when strengthening or proofing a known behavior. We also use different reinforcement schedules for different reasons in training, depending on the behavior we are encouraging or discouraging.

Look at you, learning about training! 
Easy, painless, and you are still awake. 
Let's dive in to the good stuff! 

When I being training a new behavior or cue with a dog, we will begin with a Continuous Reinforcement Schedule, which abbreviated as CRF. In this type of reinforcement, the dog gets a reward every time they offer the desired behavior. We use this when teaching new behaviors because we want the dog to learn that the new behavior is a really great thing to do- it always gets attention and a treat! If your dog gets a treat, pat on the head, and an enthusiastic "good boy!" every time he sits; he's going to try sitting more often. This comes in handy when we build behaviors on top of each other, because they always have a strong base behavior to fall back on if there is a regression in training. Regression can happen because training suddenly stops for a period of time or because of a change in environment/stimuli. When using a CRF, it is important to only use it until the dog understands the behavior, then switch to a less predictable schedule (this is also when we begin to give different rewards based on the quality of response, but that's covered below in Differential Reinforcement Schedules).

Partial Reinforcement Schedules (PRF) reward the desired response only after certain responses, either after a set ratio (number of responses) or interval (period of time). We can use these schedules to fine tune behavior once the basics are understood.
Within this schedule, there are five different types of reinforcement:
  1. Fixed Ratio: The dog gets a reward after a predetermined number of responses. For example, you can train your dog to "count" using this method by rewarding after say, three barks and labeling it "count to three". This could be done with any number, of course! 
  2. Variable Ratio: The dog gets rewarded after a different number of responses, but the average of them getting the reward is determined by you. If you want an average of three responses, you would reward for: 1, 4, 2, 3, 2. The average of these responses is 3. This is what I use to start fading out treats in training the 'heel'. At first, the dog is rewarded every step for staying in the 'heel' position. As the get better with staying in position in anticipation of treats, the treats are given after one step, two steps, four steps, three steps, two steps. They are getting rewarded on average every three steps, but it's not always three exactly and they are getting fewer treats than in initial training. Over time, we simply make the average a bigger number. 
  3. Random Ratio: This is the other way to build strong behaviors. In random ratio, the dog gets a reward sometimes, but not other times. It should be as random as possible. Truly random rewarding is hard for us people to wrap our heads around; we try to make patterns so it makes sense in our minds. Dogs are great at figuring out patterns, so they soon learn if we are actually making a pattern and predict it. This can be used in training the 'heel' just like the above example, but we would want to keep it random, instead of aiming for an average number of steps. 
  4. Fixed Interval: The dog gets a reward only when the behavior is offered when a set period of time has elapsed since the previous response. This is something that we don't really use much in training because it actually isn't terribly useful in most training situations. The idea is that a dog offers a behavior, like 'sit' and gets a reward. There would be a predetermined interval, lets say 4 seconds, that the dog needs to wait until it can offer the 'sit' again and get a reward. If they sit at 1, 2, or 3 seconds, they get no reward. Any 'sit' after 4 seconds gets a reward. Over time, responses on the part of the dog go up because they know they have to offer the behavior to get a reward. It's a fun thing to do, but really has little real use in day to day training. The problem is that a dog can get distracted and forget to respond with the correct behavior in that interval, so we can't effectively train anything that's well remembered.   
  5. Variable Interval: Just like variable ratio above, this is a reward for different responses, averaging a number you have picked. The difference is that this is rewarding for a period of time instead of a number of responses. The dog would get a reward for the correct behavior after a period of time has elapsed, but that interval of time will vary within an average. Like fixed interval this can result in a steady string of responses, but since the response is dependent on the animal offering it, can be tricky to use in training. 
When using a Differential Reinforcement Schedule, rewards are given after certain types of responses are offered or after certain rates of response are offered. Basically, this means that the dog gets a reward based on the quality of their response or the frequency of offering the correct response. This is what we use to fine tune behaviors, to build complex behaviors, or work with especially nervous, anxious, or reactive dogs.

 1. Response Type schedules are simply the quality of the response- a 'down' with the belly all the way on the ground is preferred over a 'down' with the belly tucked up and not touching the ground.

Within this, there are three types of schedules which we use to get the desired behavior and remove unwanted behaviors:
      a. Differential Reinforcement of Incompatible Behaviors (DRI): A dog jumps to greet people will be rewarded for any behavior that they can't do while jumping. Sitting, laying down, or simply standing would all be considered incompatible behaviors. These incompatible behaviors become more rewarding than the problem behavior (jumping).
      b. Differential Reinforcement of Other Behaviors (DRO): A dog who barks at passers-by on walks can be rewarded for doing anything that is not barking. These other behaviors become more rewarding than barking, so the barking starts to diminish. 
     c. Differential Reinforcement of Excellent Behaviors (DRE): A dog who perfectly heels on command when asked the first time, then sits in position when the handler comes to a stop would get a reward because that is an ideal response. We tend to reward these great responses a bit longer because they are the ultimate goal and we want them to become the normal. By rewarding these great behaviors, all others extinguish themselves. 

2. Response Rate Schedules are ones that require a dog to respond at a certain rate for that reward. The reward is based on the offering of the correct behavior within the correct time period. Much like fixed interval and variable interval training, these aren't of as much use in dog training, but here you go anyway. 
  • Differential Reinforcement of High Rates (DRH): A dog is only rewarded for offering the 'look' behavior if it occurs within 7 seconds of the previous response. If the dog looks at 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, or 7 seconds, they get a reward. If it is 7 seconds or more they get no reward. This is used to build a steady stream of responses.
  • Differential Reinforcement of Low Rates (DRL): A dog is only rewarded for offering the 'look' behavior after a specified period of time has elapsed, lets say 7 seconds. Any look after 7 seconds gets a reward, anything before 7 seconds does not. 
A Duration Reinforcement Schedule requires the dog to respond throughout a set period of time; these periods of time can be fixed, variable, or random. The classic example for this is the 'stay' cue. A dog is asked to hold the stay position for a period of time. Initially in training, we work with a short period of time and build it up gradually to longer duration and out of sight stays.

  • Fixed Duration: The dog has to stay for 1 minute to get a reward. If they get up before that minute is up, there is no reward. 
  • Variable Duration: The dog has to stay for an average of 1 minute to get the reward. This is the best way to lengthen the duration of a stay because you are on average staying within the time period you know the dog will tolerate, but can gradually increase the duration by increasing the average.
  • Random Duration: The dog is asked to stay for random periods of time, rewarded only if they do so. This is a great way to lengthen duration also, because the dog can't predict how long you will be gone. If we simply leave for longer each time, the dog predicts that the time period will be longer, since they are good at putting together patterns. 

Still awake? Good job, you're almost done!

So what does all that mean? It means that you can fine tune and train different behaviors using different reinforcement schedules. Within this, you can even give different types of rewards based on responses (more on that another day).
There are three lessons I want you to come away with from this:
1. there is strong relationship between continuous reinforcement and degradation of behavior even before the food is faded.  If a behavior is always followed by a treat, over time the dog has no motivation to offer the behavior quickly or perfectly. If a behavior is always followed by a treat and the treats suddenly stop, the behavior stops too because the behavior is no longer paying off as it had been! Dogs who are on a continuous reinforcement schedule too long end up with sloppy or slow behaviors and behave like spoiled children, demanding things they want.
2.  Random and variable reinforcement always result in the strongest behaviors, with much lower incidents of the behavior extinguishing as rewards fade. If a behavior is always rewarded initially and then randomly or variably rewarded, there is still always the possibility of a reward, so the behavior continues with the same strength. This is how a slot machine works. The machines pay out on a variable or random schedule, though it is very difficult to predict exactly when it will. The longer you keep putting coins in, the more convinced you become that it will pay off next time.
3. It is very difficult for us humans to be truly random, which is why we tend to use variable rates of reinforcement in training. That way, your human need for some order is met and your dog is still not getting rewarded every single time, so we still get strong behaviors. 

The real point in telling you all of this, aside from giving you great reading material for your next bout of insomnia or a new drinking game (count how many times the word reinforcement is in here) is to demonstrate that the person who trains you and your dog should know a LOT about learning and training. It's not just a matter of tossing a collar on a dog and grabbing some treats- my 3 year old son can do that. It's not a matter of putting a pinch, choke, or prong collar on your dog and yanking him around to demonstrate "who is boss". Training and subsequent learning should be intentional, systematic, soundly based in science and well executed. There should be some room for flexibility with each individual dog/human pair and nobody should be pushed to the point of breaking or shutting down in training. Once you reach that point, nothing good is being taught.

 Excel-Erated Learning; Explaining in Plain English How Dogs Learn and How Best to Teach Them by Pam Reid, pgs. 48-59

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Conditioning: The Nitty Gritty of Clean Training, Part 1

Did you know that proper conditioning is important for your dog?

In training, we use both Operant and Classical Conditioning and I am using this post to tell you all about Operant Conditioning and hopefully not bore you too much. I'll go into Classical Conditioning in the next couple weeks, but for simplicity sake we will say for now that it's the part of training is learning by association.

Operant conditioning involves using reinforcers and punishers to get the desired behavior or stop an unwanted behavior.

Reinforcers-generally speaking, this is something the dog likes. It is important to keep in mind that reinforcers are not universal and therefore depend on the individual dog. Most dogs like food, so using treats in training will work for most dogs. Some dogs prefer a tennis ball, squeaky toy, belly rub, or playtime with another dog or their handler.
Reinforcers are used to encourage the repetition of a behavior. 
For example, a dog is asked to sit. If they sit, they get a tasty treat or a squeaky toy to play with for a minute.
Punishers- generally speaking, this is something that the dog doesn't like. Just like reinforcers, these also vary by individual dog. Some dogs don't like a stern verbal correction, some don't like being ignored or denied the opportunity to play. Most dogs don't like physical corrections because they are uncomfortable (or painful).
Punishers are used to decrease the repetition of a behavior. 
For example, a puppy starts biting their owner's hand during play. The owner can say "no" and walk away as a punishment. The puppy is losing the opportunity to play and has been given a verbal correction. 
I want to highlight again that there are many different types of punishers and many different types of punishers. In my experience, a lot of folks out there assume that a reinforcer is always food and a punisher is always pain. Since reinforcers vary by dog, how on earth could this be true?
I'll tell you a secret- it's not. I use both punishers and reinforcers in training: I don't limit myself to only rewarding with food and I steer clear of using physical corrections as punishers (we will get into why a little later). 

The next part of Operant Conditioning involves the application of these reinforcers and punishers and here is where it gets a little tricky. I have included a couple of great visual aids that I had nothing to do with creating so I'll credit them to where would up when I did a google search of the quadrants of Operant Conditioning. 
I'll start with the pretty pictures that I didn't put together:

This is from Fed Up Fred

This one is from a dog training forum, originally from a ClickerExpo: 

To use these reinforcers and punishers, we can give or take them away from our dog. Giving or adding a reinforcer/punisher is considered positive (+). Again, positive isn't necessarily a good thing, it simply means something is being added to the scenario as a result of the dog's behavior. It is being added to either encourage or discourage the behavior. 
Taking something away from the dog is negative (-). Negative isn't exclusively a bad thing, it just means we are taking away something from the situation or from the dog. It is being taken away to either encourage or discourage the dog's behavior. 
So, now we have reinforcers (R) and punishers (P); and positive (+), or negative (-) applications. 
Take a look at those charts again, or just look at the one you like best. 

R+ is Positive Reinforcement= something the dog likes is given to the dog to increase the behavior that immediately preceded it. The dog who gets a treat for sitting is getting positive reinforcement. 

R- is Negative Reinforcement= something the dog does not like is removed in an effort to increase the behavior that immediately preceded it. Pressure from a choke or prong collar is released once a dog stops pulling on leash. 

P+ is Positive Punishment= something the dog does not like is given to decrease the behavior that immediately preceded it. A "collar pop" is given as a response to a dog lunging on leash. 

P- is Negative Punishment= something the dog likes is removed in an effort to decrease the behavior that immediately preceded it. A dog jumps to greet me as I reach for a treat- I immediately put the treat away and turn to ignore the dog- he has (momentarily) lost the opportunity for treats and attention, which he likes. 

Now, remember earlier when I mentioned that people generalize reinforcement as treats and punishers as pain and how they are wrong in painting it all in black and white? Well, you can read that fourth paragraph again but I really did say it. I do use mostly R+ training, though I will use P- and R-. 
Here are a few examples that I have used just this week:
-A dog who runs to me quickly and immediately when I call him will get a treat and lots of praise and attention as a reward (to increase that behavior). This is R+
-A dog who jumps to greet or play will experience me walking away, putting my treats away or will get a 5 minute time out if he can't be redirected from the jumping. Since he is jumping for attention, I remove the thing he wants to decrease the jumping! This is P-
-A dog who is fearful of men in hats will get more distance from that scary guy in the hat 20 feet away if he can look at me or sit when asked. Something he doesn't like goes away when he offers the behavior I want, which is paying attention to and trusting me. This is R-

P+ is the one I really do avoid using, but that does not mean I don't understand how it works. I know that it is meant to stop behaviors quickly since the dog will be trying to avoid something they do not like. I know it can work or seem to work on plenty of dogs, my concern is more with the fallout from using such methods. Some dogs will react quite adversely to corrections like this and become aggressive or reactive in defense. This is because we can't actually say to a dog "ok, you will be getting a shock or "collar pop" now, because you ran after that kid on a bike".  For all we know, the dog just wants to run and play with the kid on a bike, but he may have different ideas and need to attack those scary tires. All our dog knows now is that whenever a bike goes by, something not so fun happens. This is where aggression and reactivity can increase because of P+. The other thing that I have seen happen is a dog actually shutting down and becoming fearful of bikes, children or their handler. If you want to really ruin your day, read about Learned Helplessness experiments that were done on dogs in the 1960's. You may be outraged about the fact that it happened 50 years ago, but what I agonize over is the fact there are trainers out there using very similar methods today in an effort to extinguish behaviors and train basic obedience skills. 
In addition, what usually happens isn't that a behavior is stopped- it's just suppressed. It may stay suppressed forever, or the dog can become like a ticking time bomb and one day they can't take it anymore. That's pretty extreme but I have seen it happen. I have seen playful, carefree puppies change to reactive, shut-down pups when a shock, prong, or choke collar is used. By studying canine body language, you can see for yourself that a dog who is being walked "under total control" is actually fearful and unsure. I don't know about you, but I'd rather my dog have a good time and be relaxed. So, yes P+ may work on dogs, but why take a chance on traumatizing your dog, ruining your bond and changing their personality? 

For more on why I don't like to use P+, check out my post on how a "calm, submissive" dog is an oxymoron. 

Next time, I will delve into using conditioning over time to ensure that your dog will respond in a variety of situations. 


Excel-Erated Learning: Explaining in Plain English How Dogs Learn and How Best to Teach Them, By Pamela Reid

Don't Shoot the Dog: The New Art of Teaching and Training, By Karen Pryor

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Setting Up For Success and Other Reasons Your Dog Trainer Sounds Crazy

One (yes, there are more than one) of the things I say to clients that gets eye rolls/giggles/crazy looks is when I tell them about setting their dog up for success. It's not because the idea of setting up your dog for success is a crazy idea, but more the way I say it. Usually it's something like this:
Me: "Since he's good and tired from that walk, let's go ahead and work on the 'stay' cue."
Client: "Well, that will be easy.."
Me: "Yes! That's the point! Practicing a new behavior like 'stay' when he's tired isn't cheating, it's setting him up for success!"
Client: (Laugh, snicker, eye roll, general puzzled look)

The thing is, it's not cheating when it's a NEW behavior. If I waited until my 8-year old dog started circling on her bed before I asked her to 'down', that would be cheating. She knows 'down' and can do it at the drop of a hat (usually). When we teach a dog a new behavior- especially a puppy, especially teaching something like down or stay to that puppy- it is essential to put that pup in a situation where he has the best chance at success. Without a chance at success, there's no way that puppy can learn.
This is why with training, we start with minimal distractions- so that your dog has the best chance at paying attention to just you and learning what you are teaching them.

Just as you wouldn't enroll in an advanced physics course at your local university without some knowledge of at least basic physics, your dog can't succeed without some solid basic skills. Setting up for success allows our dogs to develop these basic skills.

To continue with the same example, I'll use the 'stay' cue to further explain.
I think that anyone who has had a puppy or adolescent dog understands that the stay behavior can be tough for some dogs and puppies because they don't want to sit (or lay) still. There is a lot going on in the world, and they don't want to miss any of it! In our human life, we like our dogs to sit in one place from time to time for various reasons. As long as we are reasonable and aren't using this to harm our dogs or other animals, that's just fine. The stay can actually be really useful for anxious or hyper active dogs- they sometimes need to be reminded that it's ok to relax and turn off for a few minutes and trust their human(s) to keep an eye on things. A dog who can hold stay for a long period of time can go out in public, to restaurants, to events, to places where there are people and food and attention!! As much as we explain the benefits of a good stay to our dogs, they usually don't give a hoot. Instead we start out slow; we do a short distance, short duration stay and build up their skills with practice over time.

I'll put it this way, would you go out and expect to run a marathon in under 2 hours on your first try? Since the world record is currently 2 hours, 2 minutes and change, I doubt it. Would you expect to walk out onto the mound a pitch a perfect baseball game the first (or even second) time you pick up a baseball? You would sure have high hopes if you did, but I don't think it would happen. Why not? Because you need to learn how to run first, or how to pitch a baseball. Setting up for success is the first step in teaching them, then they get to practice their new skill.

You start your dog out with basic skills like sit, down, come, and stay. Then, you combine sit and down to do puppy push ups. You have your dog hold the sit or down to get a stay. You combine the sit and stay at your doorway to greet visitors politely.
Your dog learns to look at you on cue and how to walk politely on leash. Your dog then learns to combine leash walking and the look cue to pay attention to you on walks. Your dog then learns to walk next to you on leash, which is the heel behavior. You combine this with the look and you have a dog walking next to you, maintaining eye contact.

Everything in training builds on simple behaviors, or at least it should if you want to train your dog in away that makes any sense.

In addition to practice, dogs need to work on generalizing these new skills. That means they typically need to learn that the same rules apply in different situations. Dogs aren't always good at generalizing the things we teach them, so we need to work with them in new situations with their new skills. This is where we humans really get tripped up with training- we don't always recognize that a situation has changed. You sitting on the floor next to your dog and asking for a 'down' is not the same situation as you standing next to your dog, asking for a 'down'. It's not the same to your dog. Dogs are really good at taking snapshots of a given situation and understanding that if everything present in that snapshot is present, there are clear rules that they have practiced, they know what to do and what is expected of them. Dogs are a little too good at this sometimes; if even one part of that snapshot is different, they seem unsure if any of the rules are different. Your dog may be great at listening at home and during group training class, but at the park he seems to have amnesia. Not to be rude, but it may be your fault. Have you practiced everything at the park like you have at home and at the park? Have you given him time to build his skills in this distracting, exciting environment? Have you considered the fact that you are different at the park? Even your mood can influence your dog's performance. My point is, if you want your dog to listen to you at the park, go to the park and practice. You may well have to re-train initially in the different environment and lower your expectations.

If you start out with reasonable expectations, allow your dog the time to learn, give them opportunities to practice and take steps back in training when your dog is having trouble, the sky really is the limit. By setting your dog up for success, you will find that there really are no limits to what you or your dog can do using reward based training.

Honestly, the only limits to training are physical limitations of the dog and/or human and things that the human doesn't know how to teach!


Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Consultations Not Optional (Or Free)

While this is a big pet peeve of mine, I actually don't have many people ask if consults are optional or if they are free; and I consider myself lucky in that regard. Actually, it's probably the potential clients who are lucky. If presented with those questions, I try not to laugh and then (if we are all lucky) diplomatically explain that I cannot help without getting a thorough history and assessing the dog in person.
I can't stand it when I see that other trainers offer free consults. For one, it's devaluing their time and expertise, which is not the way to run a successful business. This makes me sad for them. Second, it's devaluing the time and expertise of all other trainers. If it seems acceptable for one trainer to not charge for consults, people expect all trainers to do the same. That devalues my job, which is not nice and not cool. 
Aside from people not taking seriously things they do not pay for (an unfortunate truth) the consult is usually the most important hour (or two) that I spend with a client. While it may seem like I am just asking a bunch of questions, typing on my iPad and occasionally petting or tossing a treat to your dog, I'm doing a lot more. With any dog I will be working with, I need to establish a baseline of what their "normal" is before I can start any training or behavior modification program. Everything I do and say during a consult is for a reason- except when I mispronounce your cat's name- that's just me being absent-minded!
The first step in discerning this is when I meet you and your dog at the door. With the exception of aggression towards strangers in which there is a different protocol, I will allow your dog to jump a few times to greet if that's what they typically do. I allow this to see first how your dog jumps (if they greet with exuberance, if they have any awareness of their own size, if they nip, if they bring me a toy, if they jump gently and barely touch me, etc). The other reason is that I want to see how you react to this behavior. I'm not trying to encourage it, and again, with aggression it's different and there's usually at least a leash and a gate involved. I want to learn a few things:

Do you yell at your dog?
Do you laugh? 
Do you apologize? 
Do you grab her by the collar and push her down to the floor? 
Do you ask her to "off" or "sit" about 30 times in a 1 minute time period? 

Whatever your response is, it's your dog's normal and I want to see it. I also want to see how your dog responds to your response to their behavior. This tells me a bit about your relationship with your dog. Sometimes, the relationship between dog and owner is one of the problems we need to fix, and I need to know that- so do you!

Next, we sit down and go through your dog's history. Knowing a dog's past can help us determine why certain behaviors have started or persisted and what has or has not worked in the past. Knowing a dog's daily routine gives me insight into the amount of time you spend with your dog and the amount of time you will likely have to put into training. I'm not going to be very helpful to you or your dog if I can't come up with a training plan that you can actually use and follow through with. I ask you what your training goals are and what behaviors are most bothersome to you. This tells me whether or not your training goals a realistic given your time and your dog. While I am typing up notes, I want to see how your dog responds to the sudden stop in treats from me- this lets me know how your dog deals with frustration. Lots of dogs are not good at dealing with frustration well and are lacking self control. Handing out free treats for a minute and abruptly stopping is an easy way to test this in most dogs. 

Just a quick note on what I am NOT doing in a consult- I'm never going to judge you during a consult or any other time. I may ask probing questions, but it's not so I can go talk to all my trainer friends about how inept you are, I promise. I ask tons of questions about time in the crate and daily walks so I can understand what you have to offer and to make sure we really can meet your goals. If it's just not feasible to meet your goals, I will tell you. I will also offer good alternative goals that are attainable. Plenty of times there are goals that seem out of reach but they just take a little longer to attain and I'll tell you that, too! 

Last, we will work on one or two easy commands. I will teach your dog first, then you practice with me watching you so I can make sure you do it right and to make sure your dog is responsive to you. 

That's it, that's what happens during a typical consult. More complex behavioral problems may have a slightly different protocol, but it follows the same pattern. After I leave your house, I go home and type up notes, do research, and develop your training plan. For every 1-2 hour consult with a client, I am spending an additional 2+ hours at home making sure we have a solid training plan that will work. If we need to tweak it down the road we can, but we need to start somewhere. 

Without knowing your dog's normal, I can't help you. Without taking the time and finding out a thorough history and setting clear training goals, we can't resolve problems. With something so important, why would I not charge for my time and more importantly, why would you not want me to? Just as you won't take seriously a service that is free, why would I take seriously work that is costing me time and gaining me little in return? Not to sound like a money-grubbing jerk, but this is my job. The money I make training dogs is income for my family, so it is very important to me. I'm very fortunate that I get to make money doing something I love, but I still take it seriously and so should you.