Archive for the ‘positive reinforcement’ Tag
Somehow last week, while walking between the kitchen and living room I managed to misplace my wallet. After spending hours looking, clearly not everyplace, I gave up and cancelled the credit cars and headed off this morning to the Department of Motor Vehicles for a new license. It was during this early morning drive that I passed a couple walking a young cattle dog. As I am prone to do when I see children and dogs off leash, I slowed to a crawl and watched as the couple stepped to the side of the road, called their dog and proceeded to feed her treats while she sat as I passed. Along with the big grin I found on my face, I noticed that I was also getting a bit misty-eyed.
I don’t know how they knew to handle their dog this way. Maybe a trainer showed them. Perhaps a friend read something on the internet and told them. Somehow they knew the right thing to do. Before anyone goes off on the dog being off leash to begin with, I live on a single lane, dirt road, cars are few and far between, there’s plenty of warning when they’re coming, and most drivers are prepared to stop and talk to strollers about the weather or how many gallons of sap they brought in this spring. Dogs where I live belong off leash if you ask me.
Years ago after traveling to New Zealand for a job that fell through, and being disinclined to return home, I took a position selling timeshares. Despite getting spitting distance to actually making a sale, I didn’t last long. The original plan was to work as a river guide and timeshare sales was not suiting me, but I stayed long enough to participate in mandatory morning sales meetings, conducted by a fellow American (not that it matters other than you should have the accent right in your head).
“What would you do,” he asked us with a degree of seriousness that barely hid the fact that the question was rhetorical, “If you were at a party and someone started to throw up on you?”
“MOVE!” responded someone versed in the morning meeting ritual that resembled both a tent revival and rallying of the troops.
“Damn right you would! You wouldn’t sit there and let someone puke all over you, so why will you sit there when someone starts pissing and moaning and complaining about how bad things are, how everything sucks?” the head of sales asked incredulously.
Though I remember little else about my few days selling timeshares, I have never forgotten the message the head of sales was trying to get across to us, don’t let other people get you down. Extricate yourself as quickly and politely as you can, but don’t let them chip away at your resolve to do something you think is worth doing. I didn’t think that selling timeshares was worth doing, but I do think that helping people learn about the most humane and effective ways to train dogs, especially the most vulnerable among them, is.
It’s easy in the dog care industry, whether we’re into training, grooming, vetting or rescue, to be convinced that people suck, that things are horrible, and that nothing is going to ever improve. We need to be on the look out for the spew, or the chisel that many wield, it’s selfish purpose, intentional or otherwise, contributing to our losing heart in our work, and being part of the change that IS happening all around us. Something someone said or did made it possible for that young, active, herding dog to run and sniff to their heart’s and nose’s delight, and learn without being hurt, scared or intimidated.
It was a good start to the day. Now I am fully prepared for it to continue and though am not inclined to superstition, will be happy to find my wallet since I’ve gone to the trouble of replacing everything in it.
A common, and often hotly debated piece of advice is to encourage people to be better leaders. Though seemingly a benign suggestion it is ambiguous enough for both the giver and the receiver of the advice to have very different interpretations of the term. Given that we already have more appropriate terms for our relationship with the dogs we are training- trainer or teacher, there is no need to use a word that comes saddled with the baggage of pack leadership, alpha rolls and dominance. Even if this form of leadership is not what someone is suggesting, we can spare ourselves the need to explain our version of leadership merely by using another word. We don’t need to be good leaders in order to train dogs anyway, we need to be good trainers.
Nothing in life is free (NILIF) or closing the economy on a reinforcer- making the receipt of a valued or necessary reinforcer contingent on the dog’s performance of a specific behavior- is another training option that is not recommended in the group. In general there is nothing wrong or inhumane about it so long as an animal receives enough of the reinforcement to maintain good health and quality of life. Understanding how we can manipulate the motivators we have to train a dog is important. It makes sense if one is going out into the woods with their beagle off-leash to practice recalls, to skip the dog’s breakfast and have a pouch full of steak and cheese. Maybe (just maybe) we can begin to compete with other reinforcers in the environment that are going to make it more challenging for Tippy to respond to our recall instead of the scent of the herd of deer that wandered by before we got there.
If parents are struggling to get little Jimmy to pick up his dirty laundry, make his bed, do his homework, etc., and they are tired of punishing him, taking away his allowance, or making threats, knowing that playing video games is something Jimmy loves to do, they can take advantage of this to build the behaviors they are after. By making playing video games contingent on the performance of the desired behaviors, they can stop threatening punishment and put the ball in Jimmy’s court. Picking his towel up off of the bathroom floor and putting it in the hamper earns him 15 minutes of game time, bed making earns half an hour.
It’s important that any behavioral requirement we put on Jimmy (or Tippy) is one that they are capable of performing. If Jimmy is not doing his homework because the math is too complicated or written words are hard for him to comprehend, and he cannot earn his video playing time, we could expect to see him find other ways to be reinforced, or become frustrated. He might stop coming home from school right away to hang out at a friend’s house where he can play video games. He then starts smoking pot, steals cars for joy rides, gets arrested and ends up spending his youth in detention centers. OK, maybe this is an exaggeration, but my point is that it’s important that all animals have the opportunity to participate in activities that are positively reinforcing to them, and it’s our job as teachers to figure out what those are, and make it clear and possible for them to be attained.
In the case of fearful dogs we can assume that the motivator of the dog’s behavior is to protect themselves, to find a way to minimize what they perceive as a threat to their health and safety. Making the receipt of the most primary of reinforcers, food, contingent on doing something we want them to do, but scares them, is not fair. I would like to think that this is so blindingly obvious that it needs no further explanation. It is one thing to close the economy on food to compete with squirrels, it’s another thing to use it to coerce an animal into doing something that terrifies them.
It is not difficult to make a name for one’s self in this industry, and I say that speaking from experience. Come up with an idea or rehash an old one, package it well and people will buy it. It’s not always a bad thing. I like to think that my focus on the sciences of learning and animal behavior for coming up with solutions to help our fearful dogs is among the good things.
Recently on a social media site someone selling a product, which may be a great addition to the industry, described themselves as a “professional holistic dog trainer.” I asked what that meant and received this reply:
“Professional Holistic Dog Trainer means that I take a look at the dog from the physical, emotional, psychological and spiritual aspects of the dog. I have a very detailed background in bodywork and dog biomechanics so I only do training once I know the body is sound and that the back and neck are not being impinged anywhere.
I have spent 20 years studying and practicing Qi Gong and have a pretty sound knowledge of The 5 Element Theory of Traditional Chinese Medicine.
I am an Animal Healer and have worked for the last 20 years with nutrition for many diseases and behavioral issues to rebalance both.
I have been an Animal Communicator for the past 20 years and have assisted hundreds of humans with their health and behavior issues addressing the problems at the root.
I train positively but use treats very minimally and not at all with my product*. I work with dogs based on their awareness of communication via reading their energy and having clear consistent boundaries that are used in a natural manner as we spend time together.
Hope that answers your question.”
Indeed it does answer my question. I see no reference at all to any formal education in animal training, which despite appearances in most TV shows and too many training classes, is based on the sound principles of operant conditioning. Animal training is a mechanical skill and as such we can be good at it, or not so good at it depending on our commitment to increasing and improving those skills. An educated onlooker can spot a good trainer a mile away in much the same way a fan can identify a team’s great athletes or a band’s star performer. Most of us however are not educated onlookers. It’s not an inherent fault of ours, it’s just the nature of the dog training industry. We don’t often have the chance to see many of the really good trainers in action. Given that, we may be perfectly thrilled with a nice red table wine while remaining oblivious to the fact that an award winning zinfandel is available in the next aisle.
Don’t let the veneer of language sprinkled with the glitter of energy, natural, spiritual, blind you to the obvious. At no point did this trainer ever provide me with information to indicate that s/he has the background, education or skill to effectively and humanely train dogs. Indeed most of the information provided is superfluous or contrary to being a great dog trainer. That one practices an ancient Chinese martial art may be good for one’s blood pressure, but it says nothing of their ability to train dogs. Qualifying the use of food in training (minimally) is an indication that one may in fact not truly be capable of communicating with an animal since as a primary reinforcer, and one of the most potent ones, food is renowned as a motivator and is used by professional trainers across the board. That fish tossed to a seal after they wave at the crowd is a primary reinforcer to increase the chances that that behavior will be performed again on cue.
Professional trainers do not apologize for using food in training. This is not to say that we only use food for reinforcement but the mention of limiting its use is a red flag. We don’t get to decide what is reinforcing to an animal, the animal does. If a dog is not motivated to perform for praise, petting, or play I don’t hold it against them, I break out the cheese. Coming from the position that a specific reinforcer will only be used minimally is antithetical to good training (health or medical reasons may impact our decision but it will not change the position that food holds in the training world). We can make the decision how and what to use for reinforcement in the process of training an animal, not create arbitrary dictates.
The tragedy of the dog training industry in its current incarnation is not that people can come up with enticing ways to market themselves or their products regardless of their quality, as consumers we know this is how the game is played. The tragedy is not that some people don’t use or limit the use of food to train. The tragedy is that most pet owners, the main consumers of the products and services, have never seen what good, efficient training looks like. But the industry is changing and we are becoming more savvy consumers who can tell the difference between a really good cabernet and something in a screw top bottle that just provides a good buzz.
*product name removed
In my world the reality is that those of us living with a dog with fear-based behavior challenges must be better than average pet owners. I say this meaning no offense to average pet owners. Anyone who chooses to live with an animal is ahead of the curve in my book. Most however do not add a dog to their lives in order to have to become a competent dog trainer. And the majority of dogs don’t need them to be. But many of us are living with Mike Tyson and trying to turn him into a ballet dancer.
Dogs from puppy mills, hoarding situations or who have been isolated or abused will require more than simply time and love. Anyone who makes the statement implying that to be the case has identified themselves as either a novice or sadly misinformed about dogs and behavior. That someone was successful with a dog by providing only time and love is little solace to the owner living with a dog who can’t leave their crate, walk through doorways, or be in the same room with their spouse. And it’s little use to a dog who needs skilled handling. Anyone re-homing, selling or adopting out dogs with fear-based challenges who suggests that all that is needed is time and love should get out of the business, there is no excuse for it.
On a daily basis I receive email and Facebook messages asking for “tips” or suggestions regarding how to help a foster dog or a newly adopted dog who is displaying any number of behaviors due to fearfulness and inexperience. I want to help but know that what is needed goes beyond well-meaning advice. The solution they are after doesn’t exist. There is no answer to “what should I do?” when the question should be “what does the dog need?” and that may not be a short list.
If you have chosen to keep a dog and work to help them have a life that isn’t plagued by anxiety, vigilance and fear, you can be better than average. If you have decided that you are not prepared or have the desire to devote the time, energy and expense required to effectively and humanely work with a dog, plan your next move wisely and compassionately. Fearful dogs are a vulnerable population. They are often subjected to abuse in the name of training or rehabilitation. Every move is stressful and scary and their behavior may degrade. Their suffering does not end just because we can’t see it anymore. It’s not easy to be better than average when it means making tough decisions for dogs we care about and are responsible for.
One of my goals for this blog, my Facebook pages, group, and tweets, is to try to stave off the inclination pet owners and many dog trainers have to jump on any bandwagon that comes along in regard to training dogs, or to keep throwing different sh*t against the wall and hoping something sticks. There is no shortage of advice, methods, equipment and supplements out there being touted as helping dogs. Some actually do.
I know that when I explain to someone that what they are doing with their dog is inappropriate that I may come up against the but “somebody told me” effect. If what somebody told them made sense to them, even though it was not being effective, or was in fact causing the dog’s behavior to become worse, I know that I have my work cut out for me. For many it doesn’t even matter who the somebody was. Once I hit a brick wall with a client whose dog had started biting him when he was alpha-rolled. One recommendation I made was to stop alpha-rolling the dog but apparently the advice given to him by the folks down at the corner grocery store trumped the advice he was paying me for. Not only did the original advice mesh with this fellow’s thoughts about dogs and how they should be interacted with, my advice made his behavior the problem. It was another nail in the coffin for modern dog training advice.
It’s easy to be led to believe a particular training method is appropriate because something about it resonates for us. Training is a dance we do with our dogs, we pass our energy through the leash while the dog naturally discovers the ways to integrate their behavior with ours while attaining organic reinforcement for reaching a level of communication only possible when we get in touch with both the dog’s and our true nature. The preceding statement may have created any number of different emotional responses in you. If your response was “right on sistah!” there’s a good chance you’ll be onboard with whatever else I recommend, even if what I said makes no real sense at all. But if you read that and your response was “WTH is she talking about? Sounds like a load of crap to me,” I may find it more difficult to convince you that anything I have to say is worth spending the time listening to it. Or if you are told to, “Up the rate of positive reinforcement for a desired behavior after considering both establishing and abolishing operations,” you may react to the jargon by either being impressed or frustrated because not only do you need to figure out what to do with your dog, you also need to grab a dictionary. Alpha-rolling is pretty straightforward and somebody already told you to try it.
Somebodies come in all shapes and sizes. They may even brandish degrees and certifications. Pay attention to your reaction when faced with advice that is contrary to what somebody else told you to do. When you see yourself digging in your heels to resist it out of hand or are ready to pick up a banner and rush into battle to fight for it, take a step back, a deep breath, and talk to somebody else. Being able to weigh the benefits and risks of how we train means we need more information to put on the scale.
I was having a conversation recently with parents about hitting small children as a disciplinary action. These were by almost anyone’s definition good parents. They loved their children, took great care of them, fed them well, played with them, read stories, and did all the things we would recommend parents do with their children. They also happened to think it was ok to hit them, or use the threat of being hit to get them to do what they wanted them to do. The force of the striking would be considered “low” and from what I saw caused less physical pain than it did fear and upset. I would add that these parents would not hit their dog, send their children to a daycare where children are hit, nor would they hit anyone else’s children. They were also hit by their parents.
As a childless person I know that my opinions on child rearing are considered to be lacking crucial pieces of information, chiefly, not having experienced what it’s like to live 24/7 with a being who is primarily only concerned with doing or getting what they want however and whenever they want it (though one could make the case for that being true of many of the adults they live with and certainly the dogs). I have however spent decades traveling with groups of students ranging from grade school to college age, and think I understand the level of frustration one can feel when faced with trying to explain “why” to a brain that is not fully developed or operating under the influence of newly flowing hormones.
In justifying one’s use of hitting there seem to be categories. The first and most often touted is based on ensuring the safety of the child. Running into the street or sticking a fork in an outlet are obvious reasons in the safety category. And no doubt the emotional distress of the parent witnessing the event might make them more likely to lash out to get a point across. But when safety is at stake we generally find it more effective to prevent bad things from happening rather than rely on punishing after the fact.
What I observed was that majority of the threats of being hit or spanked were because the child refused (or in some cases was not prepared-they were distracted or paying attention to something else) to respond to a request- stop banging on the window, stop chasing the cat, put that down and come over here, hold still while I put your shoes on (I’m already late for work as is!), stop fighting (which should create a huge wave of cognitive dissonance), etc. Parents often resort to using physical force or violence (though in this instance there was never any actual physical harm done to children) to get their way. At what point does a parent decide it’s time to stop hitting children in order to get them to start or stop doing what they want them to? When the parent’s argument for a behavior is able to be processed and accepted? When the child can defend themselves or retaliate?
I empathized with these parents. Our culture does not do a very good job of preparing us with the tools to solve conflicts. We are all too willing and ready to use punishment when rules are broken. We are not given the skills for identifying ways to set up children to be successful or to interrupt inappropriate behavior without creating further upset. I know that in many households the pressures parents are operating under are great. People struggle to do and be the best they can. Few would deny that they want to live in a peaceful world, some would argue that there are times when resorting to force are justified. Even though I can understand the motivation to use force, coercion and physical punishment, I struggle with accepting that its ever appropriate when dealing with populations that are entirely dependent on us for their survival, are incapable of defending themselves, or are already feeling afraid and threatened. And yes, I’m talking about dogs too.
Dogs are remarkable. They are so adept at figuring out what we want that we are often led to believe that we know what we’re going. Enough dogs figured out how to change their behavior when faced with Cesar Millan’s alpha rolling, tssking, and neck pokes that people came to believe that they knew how to be leaders and how dogs need to be handled. As with any product or service being marketed, only the success stories are highlighted and aired, or pasted into magazine ads and stories. But don’t be fooled. For every success story there are failures. There are the people who did not lose 20 pounds in two weeks, stop smoking forever, speak a different language fluently in a month or get 45 miles to the gallon. Unfortunately when we apply the term “failures” to dogs it means either dead or subjected to a life of misery in a cage or on a chain somewhere.
It’s an interesting phenomenon that occurs in dog training. On one hand there are the people who are so invested in the method they are using that they can’t see that any lack of success with it is likely due to flaws in the method in general. Dogs don’t live in packs, they don’t have pack leaders so why should employing a method based on being a pack leader be expected to work? But it often does work, and for this reason, in the cloud of misinformation, people put the blame on the dog or their own ability to fully manifest the energy of a true pack leader.
On the other hand we can have methods which have shown that when correctly applied change behavior in almost all the dogs they are used with. But when these methods are used improperly, usually unwittingly and innocently enough, and they don’t work, the method itself is tossed into the trash and new ones are invented. It’s a lucrative market this dog training industry with its endless supply of equipment and magic methods for changing behavior. It often goes something like this- we are able to train 8 out of 10 dogs using the subpar application of a training method, the two dogs who for one reason or another require a more perfect execution of the method become examples of why the method doesn’t always work, instead of being canaries in the coal mine indicating that there may be problems afoot with the way the training is being performed.
One of the milestones for me in my journey to help a very scared dog was when I realized that I did not have the skills necessary to train a dog with the level of fearfulness my dog was displaying. The margin for error was smaller than it was with other dogs who were willing to continue to remain engaged with me long enough for the light bulb to finally go off in their head, “Oh so this is what she wants!”
I have gotten to the point where I’m confident that I know what I’m doing based on the research I’ve done and education I’ve received in animal behavior and learning. But I also know that I can keep getting better at doing it. No doubt that one day there’s going to be a dog who will point out the flaws in my technique and I will remind myself to point the finger where it needs to be, at me, not at the dog or the method.