Sunday, September 19, 2010

CU Seminar: Final Thoughts

Mostly relaxed in her crate at the seminar.
Photo by Robin Tinay Sallie.

I really enjoyed going to the Control Unleashed seminar. Seeing the demos in person and getting feedback on my handling skills was amazing, but perhaps the most profound lesson came in two short, simple statements. The first is simply a reminder:

Practice doesn’t make perfect… it makes permanent.
Every time a dog (human, whatever) does or encounters something new, that novel experience creates new pathways in the brain. (I’ve heard this referred to as “dendritic branching,” though I'm probably grossly simplifying the concept.) Initially, that pathway is faint, like a deer track in the woods, but each time that the dog does that behavior, the pathway gets stronger.

I think of the well-practiced behavior as an interstate: easy to get on, fast to get you where you’re going, but difficult to turn around if you discover you’re going the wrong way. And just like the roads the ancient Romans built thousands of years ago, these behaviors can become permanent. While that may be desirable for some behaviors, it is less than ideal when it comes to reactive ones.

The take-away message is obvious: Don’t let your dog practice behaviors you don’t like. Find ways to manage the situation, manipulate the environment, or distract your dog so that you avoid reactive outbursts. I really believe this is part of the problem I’m experiencing with Maisy: she’s just practiced lunging at other dogs so much that it’s the most obvious path for her to take when she’s feeling uncertain. I just hope that action isn’t yet permanently part of her world.

Of course, it isn’t always easy to prevent behaviors you don’t like, which brings us to the second thing:

Don’t be afraid of a high rate of reinforcement.
This advice was actually kind of ironic. Not a week before, I’d been complaining about how hard I have to work to prevent Maisy from reacting. As long as I kept my attention on her, and kept feeding her treats, I told my trainer, she’s fine. But that’s exhausting, and inevitably, I need to shift my attention elsewhere, so my efforts fail. I said that I wanted to be able to use fewer treats.

After the seminar, though, I don’t think that should be my goal. After all, a high rate of reinforcement can prevent a reaction. A high rate of reinforcement gives the dog something to do, and it gives them something to focus on. It keeps them on a path you like, and off the troublesome ones- not to mention the fact that it can prevent those pesky brain interstates.

Instead, the goal should be twofold. First, I need to get better at reading Maisy’s body language, and shifting my expectations based on what I see because there are legitimately times where Maisy can make good decisions. She can think through a situation and choose to do something I like, and I have no problem reinforcing those moments. But at other times, she’s too stressed to think, let alone make a good choice. Even if I think she should be able to handle it, I need to honor what she’s actually telling me. I shouldn’t delay a treat that could prevent a reaction just because I think she should be able to handle the situation.

I also need to help her build new roads. I’ve begun doing this in two ways. I’m helping her learn to relax through the relaxation protocol, and I’m helping her learn new communication strategies through the either-brilliant-or-idiotic “poke” cue. Both of these things will hopefully build new paths that are easily accessible, and maybe someday even more accessible than the current ones.

It’s funny how hearing the same old thing in new words can make all the difference. Neither of these ideas are ground-shakingly new- I’ve heard them both before- but the way Alexa phrased them really helped me understand them better. Or maybe I was just ready to hear them now. Either way, I have to believe that in the end, we’ll be a better team as a result of our time with Alexa.


Urban canines said...

I love the road analogy! I must remeber to use that when I think about and explain to others how new behaviours become predictable and understood by our canine partners. Great summaries of the seminar. Thank you for sharing such great posts!

Laura, Lance, and Vito said...

Another great post! But while I whole heartedly agree that the average person uses an extremely low rate of reinforcement, I also think that there is a time where we need to start letting the dog make more choices and learn that alternative behaviors don't earn them rewards any more. Practice can increase the likelihood but unexpected results can also lead to extinction. I think there is a certain stage in the training process, even for reactive dogs, that we need to stop managing so much and let the dogs make a choice and learn from it.

Crystal said...

I completely agree, Laura. The tricky part for me is figuring out when to allow Maisy to make choices and when to help her along. There are times where there is just no way she's going to be able to make a good choice.

While I could allow her to have a reactive outburst in an effort to teach her that that action does not earn her good things, I think that sometimes, the act of lunging and barking can be reinforcing in and of itself.

All of which is to say: this is hard stuff! I have to make split-second decisions on whether or not she can make a good choice, or if I should help her through management, PLUS I need to decide whether or not she will learn what I want her to learn from making a bad choice at that moment... sometimes she will, and sometimes she won't.

I'm figuring it out, but think how much better she could be with a better handler! Oh well, I think she forgives me. :)

Cinnamon said...

Thank you for another great post! I think you showed me what to focus on in my effort to control Cinnamon's reactivity.

Cinnamon's mum

Joanna said...

I agree that the freeway is a great analogy. By the way, Patricia McConnell mentioned this at the seminar, and she called it the "rehearsal effect."