Friday, December 31, 2010

2010 Year in Review

Wow, 2010 has been nothing like I expected! Still, it’s been a great year, and now that it’s drawing to a close, I want to reflect on the past year.

Let’s start with the obvious, my 2010 goals. I just have to say… I was too ambitious. I set way too many goals, and while I think they were excellent things to work on, it left me scattered. Next year, I’ll have fewer goals.

Anyway, we made decent progress on the Relaxation Protocol, although there’s still plenty of work to be done there. I did a great job of increasing Maisy’s exercise. I think I made some progress on my ring nerves- they aren’t as bad as they used to be, although they still aren’t pretty. I did okay on improving Maisy’s stays, heeling, fronts and jumping skills. I think we probably made the most progress with heeling, but we’ve played around with fronts, too. Her stays and jumping skills are getting better, but still need work.

We failed utterly on completing the ARCH, and on getting one leg towards a CD from any venue. I don’t feel too bad about this, though, because I said at the beginning of the year that it was completely dependent on Maisy.

Trials and Accomplishments
Still, Maisy and I did well at trials before I semi-retired her earlier this summer. She completed her APDT Rally Level 2 title with an Award of Excellence, and picked up two legs towards her URO-1. We also had our fair share of placements, so I can’t complain.

Probably the biggest thing I did for Maisy this year was putting her on medication. I’ve written about this a lot lately, so I won’t belabor the point, but I’m incredibly pleased with this decision. It has made such a huge difference in Maisy’s life- she’s actually sleeping soundly for the first time! She seems so much more comfortable and relaxed, yet it hasn’t changed her personality or drive or enthusiasm for work at all. I just wish we’d done this sooner…

Maisy continues to love to train. As I already said, her heeling has improved a great deal, and she’s finally beginning to drive into about turns and the outside of figure-8s so that she doesn’t lag. Wonderful! We’ve also spent a lot of time working on moving downs (I can now cue a down and keep walking- they’re lovely!) and moving stands (again- I can cue the stand and keep walking). My husband’s jaw dropped when he saw Maisy do a moving stand, followed by a signals exercise, which culminated in a recall.

Maisy continues to grow braver. She is more and more willing to tolerate things moving- like when she learned to jump on the exercise ball this summer! She’s also more confident about pushing objects, and going into tight spaces in order to get her ball. She never used to do that!

My Education and Growth
I continue to learn and grow, too. This year, I went to a number of seminars, including
Suzanne Clothier, Pat Miller, a Control Unleashed seminar, and Ian Dunbar.

I also read a number of dog-books: Conquering Ring Nerves: A Step-by-Step Program for All Dog Sports by Diane Peters Mayer, Animals in Translation by Temple Grandin, For the Love of a Dog by Patricia McConnell, Bones Would Rain from the Sky by Suzanne Clothier, Play with Your Dog by Pat Miller, Just Plain Clicker Sense by M. Shirley Chong, Learning About Dogs: Teaching with Reinforcement by Kay Laurence, Control Unleashed by Leslie McDevitt, Chase! Managing Your Dog’s Predatory Instincts by Clarissa von Reinhardt, The Thinking Dog by Gail Fisher, Stress in Dogs by Martina Scholz and Clarissa von Reinhardt, and Dog University by Viviane Theby.

I think the biggest thing, though, is a profound shift in my relationship with Maisy. When I started this blog, I named it “Reactive Champion” because success in dog sports was important to me. However, over the past year, I have been less willing to jeopardize Maisy’s mental health for a ribbon. I didn’t have to semi-retire her when I did, and I think many people who know her were confused by my decision. Maisy is a great dog, and even when she’s stressed, she continues to work for me, to the point where she can both qualify and place.

I could have kept asking her to do that, but as the year went on, I learned that ribbons and placements and titles are not as important to me as having fun with my dog. And while I do hope to return to trials and fulfill the name of this blog, it’s no longer my first priority. Instead, I simply want to have fun with Maisy and enjoy the time we have together, no matter what we do.

Perhaps the best part of the year, though, has been all the new dog friends I’ve made this year: Elizabeth, Jane, Megan, Robin, and Sara. These are the people who “get it.” They understand why I love trialing, and why I’m willing to give it up. They share many of my philosophies and values regarding dog training, but they’ve become so much more than just dog friends. We’ve become a support system for each other, whether it’s troubles with guys, jobs, or just life in general. I am so grateful for you all.

I’m also thankful for all of my blog friends- there are too many of you to link directly, but your support and kind words have meant so much to me. I’m hoping to get to know some of you better next year, especially those who are local, but even a few of you out-of-towners.

And now… I’m looking forward to 2011!

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Training Tuesday: CC and DB

Click! Good Trainer!
Last time, I admitted that I hadn’t done any of the counter-conditioning that the veterinary behaviorist and I agreed I should do with Maisy. Thankfully, no one can shame me this time, because I’ve been working diligently for the last two weeks.

I chose to focus on the noises the cats make because Maisy seems to think that her official job title is “Kitty Cop.” She takes it so seriously that she will often jump while napping in order to do some police work. Eventually, I hope to decrease some of her resource guarding with the cats, too, but I decided to start with the easier stuff first.

The first few days, I used the clicker, mostly because it is such a strongly conditioned secondary reinforcer that it can pierce her consciousness when my voice can’t. The process went like this: a cat would do something “naughty” (for example, scratching the cat tree), and I clicked. I tried to click before she dive-bombed the cat, not after she’d already started moving towards them. If I wasn’t fast enough, I simply didn’t click. I don’t want her to think that I want her to rush at them, after all! This wasn’t easy- there was only a split second in which to mark the behavior I wanted- but I was successful most of the time.

Once she figured out that staying near me resulted in treats, even when the kitties were naughty, I switched to a verbal marker/praise. Not only is it easier to use (after all, I don’t just sit around with a clicker in my hand), it is less arousing, and (I think) less reinforcing if my timing is off.

The hardest part right now is to catch as many opportunities as possible (sometimes I’m distracted, or napping, or otherwise engaged in life). As a result, my counter-conditioning efforts aren’t as consistent as I’d like, and our progress is a bit slow. Even so, I would say that about half the time she’s either looking at me instead of dive-bombing the cat, or she’s interrupting the dive-bomb to come to me. I’m pretty happy about this!

The Dumbbell
I’ve continued to work with Maisy and her dumbbell. Shortly after I posted about it last, I received an email from Canis Clicker Training about teaching the retrieve. How fortuitous! They agreed with all of you who said that the hardest part is teaching the duration on the hold. According to them, the trick is to click when the dog’s teeth is around the dumbbell, and not when the dog is curling his tongue to spit it out. However, since it’s difficult to see inside the dog’s mouth, they recommended gently pulling on the dumbbell and clicking when the dog grips on to it in order to get a nice, firm hold.

So that’s what I’ve been doing:

I’ve been starting off each training session with a simple grab. Then I move on to lightly tugging the dumbbell, gradually making the tugging a bit firmer, and with a bit more duration. I was actually surprised by how quickly she grasped the concept- it only took a day or two until she seemed to understand that she needed to hold onto the dumbbell. After she got that, I started letting go of the dumbbell for just a split second before taking it and gently tugging again. This took a bit longer- she seemed to think that she should give it to me when I reached for it- but again, she’s figured it out.

In this session, I’m working on moving my hand successively further away before grabbing the dumbbell again. This adds both distraction and duration to the hold. You can see that when I moved my hand too far away, she failed. I’ve been trying not to let her fail more than twice in a row before making the task easier again. (She actually did great in the session after this- no failures at all!- but of course, I didn’t have the video running then.)

I’m glad I took video of this session. I’m pleased with my rate of reinforcement. Even though she is distracted by the door mysteriously opening about 30 seconds in (cat, I assume), she got seven clicks and treats in 60 seconds. It also made me question if I’m holding the dumbbell too high. I guess it doesn’t matter much- I’m hoping to have her pick the dumbbell up off the ground soon- but it might have been affecting our progress. Any thoughts?

I’ve been kind of screwing around with free shaping lately, just for fun. One day, I started out trying to shape a spin, but instead ended up with her sidestepping to the right. That’s kind of neat, so I think I’ll keep playing with it.

I’ve also been thinking a lot about how my body affects Maisy. Both of us are highly dependent on body positioning and movement- shoulder movements for heeling, leaning backwards on fronts, etc. I’m trying to figure out how much of this is desirable and helpful, and how much of it is impeding our progress. Certainly, if we ever return to the competition ring, it will be nice to have subtle, legal ways to cue her. However, the trade off seems to be that she pays very little attention to my words. Sometimes, I get the feeling that’s she’s guessing, even on the basics like sit or down. More on this soon…

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Ian Dunbar Seminar: Train the Opposite to Solve Behavior Problems!

Ian likes to solve common behavior problems by making the problem the solution. To do this, he teaches his dog to do exactly the behavior he doesn’t want. I’ve heard this advice before, especially when it comes to excessive barking- usually, people say that you should teach your dog to bark on cue, and then don’t cue it, but Ian explained it a bit further: if you train one behavior, you often get the opposite for free, so you might as well take advantage of that.

The way Ian does this is to get the problem behavior on cue, and then when the dog naturally does the opposite- being quiet to take a breath for example, you can get that on cue, too. He yo-yos between the two behaviors so that the dog understands the difference, using treats at first, but eventually using the problem behavior as the reward for the good one. Once the dog fully understands both cues, if the dog engages in the problem behavior, Ian simply redirects the dog with the cue for the desire behavior. Makes sense!

He identified seven common behavior problems that people have with their pet dogs, and how he trains the problem to find the solution. Here they are:

1. Hyperactivity
For hyperactive dogs, Ian teaches “jazz up” and “settle down.” First, he trains the dog to go crazy on cue. He recommended jumping around, giggling, and generally acting like a kid. (Bonus points if you actually have a kid to help you with this!) Then, he goes dead still, and the dog usually calms down too. You can read more about this in his own words here.

2. Excessive Barking
For excessive or problem barking, Ian teaches “woof” and “shush.” He finds that for most dogs, you can provoke the barking by ringing the doorbell (or having a friend do it for you). Then, after the doorbell stops- or when the dog stops- you can cue the dog to be quiet. I really liked that Ian teaches his dogs to bark once- and only once- when the doorbell rings. He wants people to know that he has dogs, especially if he isn’t home. You can read more about this here.

3. Jumping on People
His cues here are “hug” (so cute, but that might only work for the taller dogs- or at least the ones more agile than Maisy) and “sit.” You can read a bit more from Ian on dogs jumping up here.

4. Pulling on Leash
Ian, with his malamute loving ways, teaches his dogs to pull on leash, and I can’t think of a better reward for dogs who were originally bred to pull sleds. Alternate pulling with walking nicely (or even heeling), and both you and your dog get what rewards out of the walk. Interestingly, the information on his website (see it here) does not talk about teaching the opposite.

5. Grabbing (“stealing”) Objects
Teach the dog to “take it” and “drop it” on cue. Bonus points if you teach a “leave it” or an “off” cue for those dead animals you simply don’t want your dog grabbing in the first place. Here is some information on how Ian teaches it.

6. Dog Moving at the Wrong Speed
How do you teach a border collie to go faster? Teach him to go slow first! This is apparently good for agility dogs, where you might need a bit more control as you teach the obstacles. Then you can cue the dog to go faster. And once he understands what it means to speed up, you can cue the running dog to move even faster yet! Here’s a video on Ian’s site. This concept could also be helpful for pet dogs on walks.

7. Running Away
Many, many dogs not only fail to come when called, but will actually take off in the other direction! Ian solves this problem by using chase games. Take off running in the other direction, and your dog is sure to follow. I am not sure if Ian teaches the dog to run away on cue by chasing the dog or not. There is a little on training a recall here.

Have you used any of these things? I do play opposites for the recall- I call it the Come! Go! game. I personally haven’t had much luck with the jazz up/settle down games, although Maisy’s hyperactivity is probably anxiety-based. I haven’t tried the game since she’s been on meds, but I bet I’d have better luck now. Anyway, I’d love to hear if you’ve solved a problem by training the opposite.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Medication Update: 2 weeks at 10mg

Maisy sleeping at my parents' house.
I still can't get over it.

Maisy has been on her increased dose of paroxetine for two weeks now. At her re-check appointment, I was told to expect basically the same process as before: side effects possible in the first two weeks, with full effectiveness at six to eight weeks. Thankfully, on the former point, she’s been just fine- no side effects. On the latter, well, I come bearing behavior logs! (If you want to look at the last data set, it’s available here.)

First, and most importantly, the intensity and duration of Maisy’s anxiety-related behaviors around the house continues to decrease. I have three objective factors that I’ve used to measure this: First, did she leave the room? At baseline, she left the room 35% of the time. At both seven weeks and this week, she didn’t. Second, did she scan the environment during the behavior? At baseline, 30% of her behaviors included elements of vigilance. Again, at both seven weeks and this week, that had dropped to 0%. And third, did the behavior last longer than one minute? At baseline, 23% of the behaviors did. At seven weeks, 13% did. This week, none did. In fact, the average duration was just 9.3 seconds!

Subjectively, I’ve also felt that the intensity of her behaviors have reduced. In fact, I’ve started to have trouble defining the vocalization type. Her barks have been very soft, and almost “wuffy” in character. Interestingly frequency of each type of vocalization is more or less the same as it has been in the past: none were silent, 40% were a wuff only, 10% were a growl only, 30% were a bark only, and 20% included multiple vocalization types. However, this does represent a reduction in multiple vocalization types, which does support the idea that the intensity has reduced.

On average, she is having slightly more incidents per day now (2.5) than she did two weeks ago (2). Still, they have reduced from the baseline (3.58). Also, during her first two weeks on medication, she had a few oddities like this, so I’m not too worried. Given the incredible reduction in intensity, as well as the low duration of behavior, I’m very pleased with the current results.

I’m also very excited because only one behavior (10%) occurred during the middle of the night. In fact, there was one night where I was woken up by a large thump, and Maisy looked at me like I was crazy to be awake. At baseline, 35% of her outbursts happened at night. Needless to say, I’m sleeping much, much better these days.

That said, I have noticed a few interesting things. First, only one of the responses was what I’d label “reasonable,” and that happened when Brian came home fairly late at night. I’m really okay with her barking at people walking in the house after 10pm. However, the door does seem to serve as a source of anxiety: during half of all her behaviors, she looked at the door, I will have to start doing some desensitization around them.

Even more interestingly, food was involved a whopping 70% of the time. In half of all the behaviors logged this time, I was eating a snack, and Maisy was (politely) begging. Each time, a small noise caused her to vocalize, even though the exact same noise caused no reaction either prior to or after snack time. These instances did not appear to be resource guarding (she usually rushes at or snaps at the offending cat when it is). The remaining food-related anxiety behaviors happened while she was eating supper. In both of those, she was in a different room than I was, so it is possible those were resource guarding. Still, I don’t think they were based on the location of the cats at that time.

In terms of reactivity, I think she’s doing better overall. However, we have had a few incidents recently. The most troubling was The Dude Incident. After our recent snowstorm, Maisy and I were shoveling out our garage. Maisy was off leash, and we were playing the game in the alley. Occasionally she greeted a neighbor with enthusiasm, but when a man came walking down the alley, she lost her mind. Now, this, in and of itself, is not remarkable. In the past, a similar situation might have caused her to rush towards the scary thing/person, stop about five to ten feet away, and bark and growl. This time, she began circling the man, nipping at him (but never making contact) while growling and barking, somewhat like an overaroused herding dog might.

I’m not sure what to think. She’s never gotten close before, so why now? Has the medicine helped her feel brave enough to face her fears? And if so… is that a good thing? Frankly, I’ve been hoping that this is just a weird side-effect thing (she did something similar during her first two weeks on paroxetine, though she didn’t get as close), but realistically, I know it’s probably an issue. My trainer and I are working on setting up some training opportunities with men so that I can properly do the necessary desensitization and counter-conditioning. Needless to say, in the meantime she won’t be allowed off-leash.

The only other reactivity has been more understandable. In class on Sunday, she lunged at her greyhound friend, Beckett when he was wearing a coat, and at Beckett’s mom when she was carrying some jump standards. Both of those things are weird enough to cause her some anxiety. She did not, however, lunge at the two new dogs in class. In Tuesday night class, the only time she made a peep was when a child clomped through the area wearing snow boots. Once she saw the child, she was fine (and in fact, just about exploded with excitement because she really likes this particular kid), but the noise put her on edge.

Overall, I’m still very happy that I put Maisy on the paroxetine. I’m excited to see the changes over the coming weeks- I have a hunch that this is the right dose for her, but only time will tell.

Update: This afternoon, I emailed our veterinary behaviorist with the raw data logs and a short summary of how things are going. She responded very quickly, saying that she agreed with my theory regarding Maisy's Dude Issue, adding that this is why she worries about vets prescribing meds without discussing behavior mod to accompany them.

She also said that she thinks the increased anxiety around the cats may be an extension of her resource guarding. Her theory is that Maisy knows the cats are still in the house, and knows that they could suddenly appear even when they aren't nearby. As a result, she listens more closely to the noises around the house, and reacts to them a bit quicker. After she told me that, I looked at the logs again, and found that roughly three-fourths of her food-related anxiety behaviors were provoked by noises the cats made in the other room. (I didn't know the cause of the remaining quarter.)

I just have to say, her continued support between appointments is incredibly helpful, and I cannot recommend her enough. Seriously, if you live in Minnesota and need a veterinary behaviorist, you should see Dr. Duxbury.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Ian Dunbar Seminar: Lure-Reward Training Done Correctly

All of Maisy’s early training was done with lure-reward. As a novice owner, it was easy and intuitive, and Maisy learned quickly. I absolutely agree with Ian that lure-reward is the best method for teaching novice owners who just want the basics. However, lure-reward training is not without its critics, and I remember seeing people in my puppy class that struggled to get their dogs to work without food. Today, I’m going to share what Ian said about using lure-reward training correctly.

The first step is to phase out the lure as quickly as possible. The lure should be used briefly, as an instruction to do the dog, and you shouldn’t use a food lure more than six to twelve times before you move to luring with air-cookies. After another six to twelve reps, your air-cookies become a hand signal! Once you’ve reached this step, the treat should always come out of the bag/your pocket/wherever after the dog performs the behavior. Otherwise, you run the (very high) risk that the treat becomes a bribe, not a reward.

Next, you need to get the behavior under verbal command. Since lure-reward training so effective at getting behavior, Ian says that you can name it right away. However, he emphasizes standing absolutely still when you say the cue so that you don’t introduce any inadvertent body cues. After you’ve given the command, wait for half a second before you lure/use air cookies/give your hand signal. If you say the word and lure/give a hand signal at the same time, the dog will be focused on the food/your movement, not your voice, and as a result, is unlikely to pick up that what you said was a cue. When your dog responds to the word, and not your physical movements, have a treat party!

Now you need to motivate your dog to want to work for you. Treats are awesome, of course, but you need to phase them out, too. Ian does this in a number of ways. He asks for more than one behavior before giving the treat. He uses differential reinforcement to reward only the best responses (he recommends using a 1 to 3 ratio as ideal). And most importantly… use life rewards!

There are three main kinds of life rewards: playing with other dogs, walking and sniffing, and interactive games like fetch and tug. Ian said that if you have a dog that plays, you have a trained dog because it is so easy to use a toy as both a lure and a reward. (Incidentally, while he does phase out treats, he doesn’t phase out interactive games ever.) Any time your dog wants one of these life reward activities, ask for a behavior first. When he complies, release him to go play or sniff or chase the ball. Then have training interludes frequently (every 15 to 30 seconds of play, or every 25 yards or so when on a walk) to request a behavior before letting the dog return to the activity.

Finally, you need to figure out how to force a dog to do what you want… without coercion. This is where RRNR comes in, and since I’ve already written a whole post about it, I won’t belabor the point.

Following these suggestions will prevent lure-reward training from turning into bribery. My puppy classes with Maisy were very good about getting us to phase out both the lures and the treats, but didn’t emphasize verbal control- we used a lot of hand signals in class, and Maisy and I are still quite dependent on them to this day. We talked a little bit about using life rewards, but I wish we would have practiced the concept to help drill it home.

What about you guys? Did you use lure-reward to teach your dog the basics? How did you do at phasing out treats, getting verbal commands vs. hand signals, and motivating your dog to work? I’m curious to hear about your experiences!

Sunday, December 19, 2010

We've Created a Monster!!

Photos by Robin.

My dog trainer, Robin, is also a very good friend of mine, which means that I often stay after class to chat and laugh with her. Maisy loves this arrangement, and over the past year, we’ve created a routine. We go to class and work for an hour. We wait the fifteen or so minutes it takes for the other students to ask any last-minute questions, pack up, and leave. And then we get out the ball.

Six months or so ago, I noticed that after an hour to an hour and a half, Maisy would start nosing in my training bag until she found the ball. I thought that was pretty funny, because she clearly understood what came next. Sometimes we only threw it once or twice, and sometimes we played for an hour, but she always got to play with Robin when class was over.

This fall, Robin rented a training ring for an hour each Sunday morning, and invited me and few of our other mutual friends to get together to hang out and train our dogs. Even though this class is held in a different location, Maisy quickly fell into the same habit. After about an hour, she digs in my bag until she finds her ball, and then takes it to Robin.

I just about died laughing the first time I realized what she was doing. I thought it was pretty neat that she remembered that Robin will play with her at the end of class, especially since the Sunday class is in a new place. Still, I wasn’t terribly surprised- Robin is in both places, which is a pretty clear environmental cue that playtime is available.

So imagine my surprise when Maisy began whining an hour into our appointment with the veterinary behaviorist! At first, I couldn’t figure out what she wanted. I asked if she needed to go out, and she didn’t. I asked her to lie down, and she did, but then immediately got up and stared at my bag, which was sitting on a chair out of her reach. When I set the bag down on the floor, and she started nosing at the pocket where I keep her ball.

I burst out laughing. Clearly, Robin wasn’t the cue after all. Neither was the location. We weren’t even at a class, although I can see why Maisy might think we were- we were doing mat work, after all. It will be interesting to see what other scenarios Maisy generalizes this behavior to. At any rate, one thing is clear: we’ve created a monster.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Ian Dunbar Seminar: Types of Reward-Based Training (and Which One is Best?)

Ian Dunbar is widely known as a reward-based trainer, and is often credited as revolutionizing dog training. But what people don’t talk about as often is which type of positive training he uses, and why. Today, I’d like to share with you the four types of reward-based training that Ian identified, and what he likes- and doesn’t- about each of them.

Plan A: Lure-Reward Training
Okay, let’s cut to the chase. Ian likes lure-reward training best, and I can understand why. Lure-reward training is generally very easy and fast to do, making it ideal for the average pet owner who just wants the basics, and wants them now.

Indeed, that’s exactly why Ian prefers it. Since dogs will predictably follow a lure, Ian says that you get a 100% response rate right from the beginning. (For what it’s worth, I think that’s an over-estimate. Some dogs are tragically difficult to lure into a down, but even so, you do get a high rate of response.) Because the dog’s success rate is so high, you can easily pair the behavior with the cue from the first repetition, making it the fastest way to get a behavior on cue.

Since the behavior is so predictable, Ian says that you can train with a differential reinforcement schedule from trial two in order to improve, not just maintain, behavior from the beginning. Ian also likes that lure-reward training comes with a built-in hand signal, and that you can work on several behaviors in the same session.

The downside to lure-reward training happens when people do it poorly. When people fail to phase out the lures in a timely matter, they become a bribe. Instead of using the treat to instruct the dog, people often become dependent upon using food to coerce the behavior from the dog. Ian also says that lure-reward training doesn’t always work with adolescent dogs, especially if the lure wasn’t faded out when he was a puppy.

Plan B: All-or-None Training
All-or-none training is Ian’s go-to when lures aren’t working because the dog sees the food as nothing more as bribe- and one less interesting than whatever is going on in the environment. All-or-none training seems to be Ian’s term for “capturing” a behavior. You wait for the dog to do the desired behavior, and then give a reward.

All-or-none training is easy. Either the dog is sitting, or he is not. It doesn’t take much sophistication, and as a result, is well-suited to basic behaviors and novice trainers. The down side is that since you aren’t giving any instructions (like with a lure), it’s hard to predict when the dog is going to do the behavior. In turn, this makes it much more difficult to get the behavior on cue.

Plan C: Clicker Training
Ian rarely uses clicker training, and he never uses it to teach the basics. Instead, he says clicker training is for anything you can’t get through luring or all-or-none training. Since he believes you can lure everything a pet dog needs, he doesn’t introduce it to his students until a level 3 or higher obedience class. Those dogs already have reliable behaviors, and he introduces the clicker to help refine the behavior, make it more precise, or make it flashier.

He doesn’t like clicker training because it is hard to attach a cue. He also believes that people click too often; because he thinks differential reinforcement is the best schedule to use, he believes that it slows down training if your dog is getting clicked more than 50% of the time. This number seems low to me- I’ve heard clicker trainers say that your dog should be getting it right 80% of the time before you increase your criteria.

Plan Never: Physical Prompting in Training
Physical prompting involves applying pressure with the trainer’s hands or by manipulating the collar in order to get a behavior. He includes tools such as shock collars and the Gentle Leader in this category.

Ian says that using physical prompting involves a lot of skill, more than most students have, and that in his experience, gentle prompting often turns into “physical splatting.” He also believes that physical prompting is a crutch which is incredible difficult to phase out.

Honestly, I agree. Although you can use physical guidance to help get behaviors, it is notoriously difficult to get rid of, so I generally avoid it. What I found interesting is that Ian doesn’t think props (like a physical channel to teach the dog to back up straight) are a crutch, and doesn’t find it hard to phase them out. I can’t comment on this- Maisy generally finds props scary, and it’s easier to find a way to teach a behavior without a prop as it is to desensitize her to the prop.

I have used all four of these methods. Most of Maisy’s foundation behaviors were taught with lures, because that’s what we were taught in our big-box store puppy classes. Once we began competition training, I started using a clicker to shape behaviors. I’ve done relatively little capturing and physical prompting, but I have used both. I don’t think any one of them is “best.” Instead, I choose my method based on the task at hand. I will admit that I tend to use shaping a lot because I think it’s the most fun. Still, Ian’s probably right that lure-reward training is easier and faster for the average pet owner.

What about you guys? Which method do you use most? Does it differ if you’re just starting out with a behavior? How do you choose which method to use? Do you think one is better than another? Let me know what you think!

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Training Tuesday: Three Things

On Retrieves and Jackpots
Maisy still doesn’t have a formal obedience retrieve, and while we may never get the opportunity to use one, I still want to teach it. It’s been a good exercise for me- it’s really helped me pay attention to my timing, criteria, and rate of reinforcement, but that’s all beside the point. I’ve been using Shirley Chong’s method to shape a retrieve, and overall, it’s been going well, but I’ve struggled to add duration to the hold, so that’s one thing we’ve worked on lately.

Now, when I work with Maisy- on any task- I often toss treats on the ground away from me to help reset the exercise. I’ve also mentioned before that I use jackpots while shaping, and my typical method is to click, toss a treat, and then verbally tell her how smart she is as I continue to toss treats, one at a time, on the floor for about ten seconds. Then we return to the exercise.

Last week, while working on holding objects for longer periods of time, Maisy did a lovely four second hold. I clicked and tossed a treat, which Maisy found, then looked at me, eager to start the next rep. I belatedly realized that, hey, that was pretty good, and murmured, “Nice!” The second I said that, Maisy immediately began searching the floor for more treats.

Apparently, I have a jackpot marker.

The Come! Go! Game
I’ve been wanting to write about the Come! Go! Game for a long time, but it’s better with video. It’s also been hard to get video of it, but today, I finally have some! It’s not the best example, but here it is:

The Come! Go! Game is basically the Premack Principle at work. Premack says that you can reinforce a low-probability behavior (coming) with a high-probability behavior (running away). Interestingly, as you do this, the low-probability behavior gains value, and the high-probability behavior loses value.

You can totally see this happening in this video. At first, Maisy runs far away, and quickly, when I tell her “Go!” But, as the game goes on, she not only quits running as far, she also takes several cues to take off running. This happens every single time we play the game. The first few reps are enthusiastic, and then she decides it’s more fun to stay near me, which in the end, is exactly what I want anyway.

However, it does mean that if I ever train an obedience go-out, I can’t use “go!” as a cue.

The Stuff I’m Supposed to be Working On
Last week, at our re-check with the vet behaviorist, we agreed that I’d start working on counter-conditioning Maisy to everyday noises around the house. I have failed miserably at this. It seems like I never have treats handy when I need them, and at the end of the day, I’m too tired to get up and grab some.

I’m posting this publicly in an effort to embarrass myself into doing it. I've already put a glass jar with treats (glass so neither canine nor feline can chew it open) and put it in the living room where I spend most of my time. I've also stashed a clicker there, because even though a clicker isn’t the best tool for counter-conditioning, there are times where it can be helpful.

Next Training Tuesday, I want you all to shame me if I don’t report progress on this, okay?

Sunday, December 12, 2010

And now for something completely different...

Last weekend, I did something I never in a million years thought I’d try: conformation. And you know what? I had a great time!

A few weeks ago, I asked my friend Dawn to let me know the next time she had a conformation event coming up so I could go watch. Not only did Dawn have one planned, but she was also looking for a handler, and would I come and handle her bitch Grace?

I refused. I told her that I didn’t know anything about conformation, and there’s no way I could do it. But Dawn assured me that it was okay, especially since she wanted Grace to lose. See, Dawn wanted to get a few more points on her bitch Peace before the end of the year, but to do that, Peace had to defeat another dog. Unfortunately, Dawn’s breed, Cardigans, aren’t very common in our area, so Dawn had to enter them both so that Peace would have someone to beat.

So I went. I figured that since my job was to lose, there was absolutely no pressure. I could pick Dawn’s brain about cardigan structure (and I did learn some interesting things), learn how conformation shows work (I understand them now, even if the judging still mystifies me), and generally just have fun.

And I did. I loved that there was no pressure. All I had to do was trot Grace around the ring a few times, lift her on a table, pretend to stack her, and smile. Oh, and did I mention that I won? I guess I’m not very good at losing, but Dawn didn’t mind- after all, it was her dog that won either way!

In fact, I’m so bad at losing that not only did Grace win her class, but she was also the de facto best in breed. That meant that we got to compete with all of the other dogs in the herding group who won. I didn’t expect to win in group- and we didn’t- but Grace did get Group 3, which is the conformation way of saying third place. We beat another dog! (Okay, so I really had nothing to do with Grace’s win- all I did was hold on to her leash and lift her on the table. In fact, I didn’t even do that right, because the judge manually restacked Grace.)

I had a lot of fun though, and if I get a purebred dog, especially a puppy, I will definitely show in conformation. Since I don’t plan to breed, I’m not particularly worried about winning or putting a championship on my hypothetical dog, but participating seems like a great way to introduce a dog to the trial environment. I got to take treats in the ring, and I was allowed to use them any time I wanted!

Plus, it was really fun to go in the ring, to play with dogs, and to hang out with friends. Just so you know, Dawn, I expect that the next time you need a handler, you’ll call me first!

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Re-check with the Veterinary Behaviorist

Maisy had her eight week re-check with Dr. Duxbury, her board-certified veterinary behaviorist, on Monday. This appointment lasted longer than I expected- almost two hours- and we reviewed the behavior logs and the charting that I had done. We also discussed my general observations, as well as my goals and hopes for Maisy. I guess I still don’t know if Maisy’s response has been “typical,” but Dr. Duxbury did say that for most people, the level of improvement we’ve seen in Maisy is “enough.”

I don’t want to undermine Maisy’s progress- it’s been phenomenal, and I’m thrilled. In fact, Maisy was incredible in the exam room yesterday. At our first appointment, Maisy alternately paced and sought out interaction. She settled only when I asked her to, and it was very clearly an operant behavior, not a truly relaxed one.

This time around, Maisy was much calmer. She spent most of the time on her mat, and she had a very soft, heavy-lidded look to her eyes. Incidentally, I’ve heard people talk about this look on email lists before, but never really understood what they meant. Now I do, and I must have pointed it out to Dr. Duxbury half a dozen times because I was so amazed. Although she did get up from time to time, her body movements were soft and fluid instead of quick and frantic. She wasn’t pacing so much as she was bored. She was truly a different dog. Dr. Duxbury even said that she wished she’d taken video at Maisy’s initial consult!

With that said, I want more progress. Maybe that makes me greedy, I don’t know, but like Dr. Duxbury said, we won’t know how much more is possible without trying. She certainly didn’t seem to think I was being unreasonable, and I completely trust that she would say something if I was.

We discussed my goals for Maisy. Dr. Duxbury wasn’t surprised that Maisy had a hard time when we were at my parent’s house, but she was a bit concerned by how long it took Maisy to recover. (I actually feel like a three to four day recovery period is a big improvement for her, but I don’t have any data to back that up.) We agreed that a short-acting, as needed medication is probably in Maisy’s best interest. We discussed both trazodone, which is a serotonin modulator, and alprazolam (Xanax), which is a benzodiazepine. Since we don’t have any big events planned for several months, we decided to wait until we’ve decided what to do with her routine meds.

Because I want to see the number of anxiety-provoked reactions around the house reduced from the current average of two per day to something like three or four per week, we agreed to increase Maisy’s paroxetine. Currently, she’s on 8mg (1mg/kilo of body weight), and we decided to increase it to 10mg (1.25mg/kilo). I will continue to keep intermittent behavior logs, and we’ll consult again in four to six weeks. At that time, we’ll discuss increasing to a max of 12mg (1.5mg/kilo) and/or adding a second medication (probably clonidine, a centrally acting alpha-agonist).

Speaking of behavior logs, I totally got a gold star. I’m glad they were useful, because they are an awful lot of work. Honestly, I’m not looking forward to doing more of them, but I can’t deny their importance. Dr. Duxbury’s student analyzed them for patterns (she thought maybe Maisy was having a series of lower-intensity behaviors that culminated in a high-intensity one, but that theory didn’t pan out). We also discussed the fact that some of the stimuli that Maisy is reacting to is reasonable- for example, someone at the door- while some of it isn’t. My new task is to start coding my logs in an effort to pinpoint which type of stimulus is causing most of her reactions.

I will also start doing some desensitization and counter-conditioning around the house. I decided to focus primarily on interactions with the cats, mostly in an effort to help reduce the stress in their lives, too. Dr. Duxbury also recommended giving a treat when Maisy startles but doesn’t go over the top. Obviously, being consistent with this will yield the best results, so I’m going to have to pay close attention to what’s going on. I will also need to have treats close by, which may result in my being mugged for a few days. This could be interesting!

Like I said, it was a great appointment, and I was absolutely thrilled with the professionalism, respect and attention we received. Seriously, if anyone in the area needs a vet behaviorist, I can’t recommend Dr. Duxbury enough.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Ian Dunbar Seminar: Punishment, the Dog-Con System, and the Concept Formerly Known as Instructive Reprimands

Punishment is a hot button issue in dog training, and like every other trainer, Ian Dunbar has ideas about how punishment should (or shouldn’t) be used. However, he has unique ideas regarding behavior and misbehavior, ones I’d never heard before, so I can’t wait to share them with you.

But first, a definition: “punishment” is any consequence that reduces behavior. Therefore, a consequence cannot be considered punishment unless the trainer actually uses fewer as training goes on. This means that, for the average pet owner, most “punishments” are simply consequences which are painful, fear-inducing, or annoying… and completely ineffective! (I imagine they’re also confusing because the dog doesn’t understand why those unpleasant things are happening.)

The use of punishment in training is a difficult skill to master. To be done well, punishment must be immediate so the dog needs to know why he’s being punished. It must be consistent and happen every time the misbehavior does. It must fit the crime- serious enough that the dog wants to avoid it, but not so intense that it’s abusive. There should be a warning first, so the dog can avoid the punishment by changing his behavior. The dog must know what is expected of him, and if he fails, Ian says that the punishment the dog receives should instruct him on what to do instead.

This last point is interesting, and Ian contends that it’s often overlooked. I think he’s right. After all, whether it’s a collar correction for leash pulling or a time-out for playing too rough, most punishments only tell the dog which behavior was wrong, but do nothing to help the dog figure out what the correct response was. They don’t instruct the dog, and Ian believes that punishment can and should be instructive. He accomplishes this by using his voice, which allows him to use his language, feelings, and creativity in training to help the dog understand both how important it is to respond as well as providing consequences if the dog doesn’t.

He starts by letting the dog know if and when he ought to respond to a command through his “Dog-con” system, which basically formalizes when the dog may disobey. He created this system since he believes that it is rare that a person needs absolute reliability from their dogs.

The Dog-con system has three stages, each using a different version of the dog’s name prior to issuing a command. At Dog-con 1, Ian uses a dog’s nickname or a term of endearment to indicate that the command is more of a suggestion: “Hey, Huey, you wanna sit? No? Eh, whatever.” At Dog-con 2, Ian uses the dog’s real name to indicate that he expects the dog to respond. “Hubert, sit.” Dog-con 3 uses the dog’s full, formal name, and indicates that it’s show time; the dog ought to pull out his flashiest performance. “Hubert Lewis, sit!”

This concept absolutely hurt my brain when I first heard it, because when I give a cue, it’s generally because I want Maisy to do it. It took me awhile to figure out that there are times when I don’t really mean it. As it turns out, I use different cue words instead of prefacing the same word with different versions of her name. For example, whereas “come!” means “get your butt over here right now,” the variant “come on” means “when you’re ready, please head this way.” I didn’t set out to teach it this way- if I had, I would have chosen more distinct phrases- but Maisy and I both seem to understand the difference. So, I guess Ian and I are doing similar things, just in different ways.

Ian thinks 100% reliability on the first cue is impossible. Whether your dog is distracted or simply has better things to do, there isn’t a dog alive who will be perfect, even at Dog-con 2 or 3. However, instead of applying a punishment that causes pain or fear- things that are unnecessary in training- Ian uses his voice to get the dog to do what he wants. He does this using a method called repetitive reinstruction as negative reinforcement (RRNR). (Scientifically-minded readers will undoubtedly notice that the method is technically not punishment, a fact which Ian both acknowledged and dismissed by saying we shouldn’t get hung up on terminology. He said that the distinction is too fine to really matter.)

RRNR is actually pretty simple to implement. If the dog fails to respond, Ian continuously repeats the command until the dog complies. If the dog is at a distance, he will move closer to the dog as he repeats himself. If the dog was distracted, this helps bring the command to the dog’s consciousness, and if the dog simply chose not to respond, this lets him know that Ian was serious. Either way, once the dog has finally performed the cue, Ian will repeat the exercise until the dog responds on the first request, and then reward the dog.

Although many trainers worry that repeated cues will result in learned irrelevance, Ian doesn’t. He argues that if the dog fails to respond, the cue is already irrelevant in that moment, and you can’t make something more irrelevant. Besides, Ian makes sure that the dog does respond eventually, which means the dog will learn that the cue must be followed.

While RRNR helps instruct the dog when he fails to comply, it doesn’t work when the dog is trying but gets it wrong. When this happens, Ian will use a “specific redirection,” which tells the dog what he ought to be doing. For example, if the dog is jumping up, you tell him to sit. If the dog is lagging or forging at heel, you can tell him to “hurry” or “slow down.”

It sounds like this works well for him, but I (and others at the seminar) are concerned about doing this since cues can act as a reinforcer, which would mean you’re actually rewarding the very behavior you’re trying to punish. When someone asked him about this, Ian seemed confused, so clearly he hasn’t had this happen. Either we misunderstood how and when he uses specific redirections, or the cues Ian uses don’t have a strong enough reinforcement history for them to act as reinforcers.

At any rate, while I agreed with Ian’s feelings on punishment- it doesn’t need to hurt or scare a dog- and I felt confused by the rest. But maybe that’s just me. What do you guys think? Have you tried RRNR or specific redirection? What’s your experience been? Do you do something else entirely? I’ll be curious to hear what you think!

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Behavior Logs- Chart

Because I'm a geek, I made a spreadsheet summarizing the behavior logs I've been keeping on Maisy. Because some of you are geeks, I'm sharing it. Click the picture to embiggen so you can read it.

First, it has to be said: I know that the data isn't perfect. Taking data for only two days may or may not be accurate. Also, the categories in the chart above are completely arbitrary (and also retrospective); when I first started keeping the logs, I had no idea what to look for. For example, since I didn't know eight weeks ago that I'd be interested in the duration of each behavior, I didn't write down start and stop times. Still, my logs were fairly detailed, so I think the data in the chart is close, although not perfect.

Also, you'll see that there are two columns for seven weeks. The first is the first four days after we arrived home from Thanksgiving. I've written before that Maisy has a fairly long stress recovery period, and that was evident here. The second column reflects the data after she seemed to have recovered, although it's possible that there were still some residual stress hormones in her body.

With that said, here are my thoughts. Feel free to chime in with your own.

Number of Incidents
Overall, the trend is downwards, although she was actually above the baseline during the stress recovery period. She's still having approximately two incidents per day where she startles or overreacts to minor or undetectable stimuli in the environment. This number is higher than I'd like, and although I'm not sure what's reasonable to expect, I'd like to see it at more like 3-4 times a week.

Time of Day
I included this because a third of all the incidents during the baseline happened overnight. The number has gone down significantly, which I hope indicates she's sleeping sounder.

Vocalization Type
I'm really not sure what to make of the data here. About the only conclusion I can draw is that she growls less and, at least while recovering from stress, barking more. Possibly more of her incidents are silent, although the last column sort of undermines that conclusion.

As I already noted, I didn't track duration, although my notes were pretty good. The number of incidents lasting longer than one minute have been reduced by approximately half.

Leaving the Room and Vigilance
These two categories are very similar. Any time an incident included a notation about scanning the environment, I counted it as "vigilance." This has dropped off dramatically, from 30% of all incidents to 0%. (And only 7% during the recovery period!) This is a huge improvement! Leaving the room is probably related to vigilance, but often, I couldn't see what she was doing when she went to a different room, so I listed it in a separate category. The data shows that she's leaving the room far less often, contributing to my conclusion that she's less vigilant these days.

This is a completely subjective measure, and retrospective, so take it with a grain of salt. Basically, if I read over a notation and thought it sounded worse than usual, I counted it as high intensity. This is probably the least accurate metric, and it also hasn't really changed. I'm not sure if that's because she's still having large explosions, or if it's because she's mellowed out so much that incidents that might have only been at a medium level during the baseline now seem high intensity to me.

Sample Notations
Maisy was napping. My stomach growled. Maisy jumped up, growled briefly, then trotted into the kitchen, looking around.

We were lying in bed, just on the verge of falling asleep. Maisy suddenly lifted her head and growled for approximately 20 seconds, then "wuffed" several times. She went into the kitchen, looked around for a moment, then ran towards the back door while barking.

Two Weeks:
We were in the kitchen, playing ball. The wind howled outside, and Maisy rushed toward the back door growling. Then she returned to me.

We were sitting on the couch together. I called out to Brian, who was in the other room. Maisy jumped up, startled, then lay down again.

Four Weeks:
We were sitting in the living room, and one of the cats were in the front room. Maisy made a single, soft "wuff."

We were in the living room on the couch. I accidentally "dinged" a glass, and Maisy barked, then trotted around the room for approximately 90 seconds, looking in both the kitchen and at the front door before settling down again.

Six Weeks:
Maisy and I were sitting together, and Brian giggled at something he read. Maisy jumped up, rushed towards Brian, and sat next to him.

Maisy was chewing on a rawhide, then suddenly stood, "wuffed" softly, and let out a short, low growl towards the front door.

Seven Weeks, Recovery Period:
Maisy was lying on the bedroom floor. Brian was in the other room, and when he shifted, his chair made a creaking sound. Maisy jumped up and let out a single bark.

Seven Weeks, Post-Recovery:
Maisy was eating out of a food-toy. I shifted my foot and it made a cracking noise. Maisy jumped up, and rushed approximately one foot away with her tail tucked. She barked three or four times as she did this, then looked around for about five seconds before she let out two small "wuffs."

Medication Update: 8 Week Re-Check

Maisy has a re-check appointment with Dr. Duxbury, her veterinary behaviorist, this week. We are going to evaluate her response to Paxil, the current dosage, and consider if an additional medication might be helpful. I’ve kind of been freaking out about this. I have no idea if Maisy’s response to the meds is typical; maybe the average dog is doing better (or worse) at this point. But I guess this is why I hired a professional, right?

There is much less preparation to be done this time around; no form to fill out and no videos to be taken. Because I’m a geek, I have been keeping behavior logs, although the behaviorist didn’t request them. Instead, I was told to be ready to share my general impressions of how Maisy’s doing, and the areas of continuing difficulty.

I find this incredibly overwhelming. I think she’s doing well, and I’m happy that I chose to put her on medication. But she’s not doing as well as I hoped, and I have no idea how much improvement is reasonable to expect. I don’t think Maisy will ever be “normal,” but how close can we get without overmedicating her?

After several days of panic, and many scribbled pages of notes, I realized that it would be easiest to think in terms of goals. How would I like to see Maisy behave? What do I want to see change? In the paperwork I filled out prior to her consult, I identified two goals: for Maisy to be able to relax, and (if possible) to be able to take her to trials again. Although I still have these goals, I’ve expanded on them so that I have a better idea of what I’m looking for. I’ve also prioritized them, because it’s far more important that she can relax at home than at a trial. I’ve listed these goals below, along with my comments on her progress.

1. Ability to relax at home. Specifically, I want Maisy to be able to hang out and/or take naps without startling over undetectable or minor environmental stimuli. Overall, she’s improved. Her vigilance has reduced, as well as frequency of outbursts. The outbursts are lower intensity and lower duration. She is less restless, and is choosing to nap instead of seek constant interactions with others. She is sleeping more often and more soundly, and is demonstrating increased impulse control around the cats.

2. Ability to settle in low-stimulation environments. If I take her to a friend or family member’s house, I’d like for her to feel comfortable enough to lie down and chill instead of pacing or wandering around. Although my parents thought Maisy did well at their house over Thanksgiving, and commented that she seemed calmer, I think that her vigilance and outbursts were on par with baseline data, or possibly even higher. (I wish I’d done behavior logs at their house.) Also, she paced the entire time we were at my grandparents’ house one afternoon, and couldn't settle, even when there were treats involved.

3. Ability to sleep in low-stimulation environments, especially for overnight trips to a family member’s house, but also at hotels. Maisy didn’t sleep the first night at my parents’ house, instead pacing most of the night, punctuated with barking outbursts. After about 12 hours, she seemed to get used to the environment, and was sleeping better than she had prior to medication (even at home), but not as well as she had been when I did the logs for the six-week update.

4. Ability to recover from stressful events within 24 to 48 hours. Maisy had an average of 3.75 outbursts a day for approximately four days after returning home from my parents’ house, at which point they reduced to the six-week levels, or maybe even a bit better. Despite the frequency of outbursts, 40% were silent (compared to 14% at baseline), which seems good. She was able to sleep (and absolutely crashed the night we got home), although not as well as she’d been doing prior to the trip.

5. Ability to go to trials without demonstrating reactivity. Bonus points if she can relax in her crate at a trial, or can do full days and/or multiple days. Obviously, we haven’t tried this yet. We’ll continue to wait and watch to see if it’s appropriate. It may not be, but I would really like to be able to do at least a single run at a small trial once or twice a year. That said, I do recognize that it’s not likely that she’ll ever be in it for the long haul.

Overall, while I’m pleased with Maisy’s progress, I’m hoping for more. I’m looking forward to discussing everything with Dr. Duxbury, and can't wait to tell you guys about the appointment. It's sure to be interesting!

Friday, December 3, 2010

One Year Blog-iversary!

Wow! Today marks one year of blogging!

I'm pretty impressed with myself; when I started this blog I seriously doubted that I'd keep up with it regularly. This is post number 147, though, so I guess I've done okay!

To celebrate, I'm hosting a Mystery Giveaway! If you win, I will send you a special surprise in the mail.

(It probably won't be a cat, though. Sorry.)

To enter, all you need to do is leave a comment. It can be about anything, but if you need a topic, I'd love it if you told me about the coolest trick your dog can do, or about a trick you really want to teach your dog, or even about the cool trick you saw a dog do once. I'm not picky. Please make sure that I can contact you somehow (either through your blog, or leave an email address), and let me know if you or your dog have any food allergies just in case I decide to do a food-related surprise.

I will choose a winner at random next Friday morning, and will update this post when I do.

Update, Friday, December 10th:
Okay, it's time to choose a winner! I used my favorite random number generator to pick a number between 1 and 18:

And who does that comment belong to?

Congrats, Dawn! I will be emailing you to arrange for you to receive your prize! I love that you have Magic pick things up for you. I'm still working on teaching Maisy how to do that, so I'm envious!

And thanks to everyone who entered. I loved reading about what your dogs do. There are some neat ideas in the comments, and I'm excited to try them!

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Why I Love My Clicker

Crappy picture is crappy. But I didn't want to spend more
than five minutes shaping this behavior, so this is as good as it gets.

I’ve been thinking a lot about feedback this week. I’ve been thinking about Ian Dunbar’s approach to giving feedback. I’ve been thinking about the way I give feedback, and especially my own shortcomings in my rate of reinforcement. I’ve been thinking about how I react to criticism, and how my dog reacts to being told she’s wrong, too. And after thinking about it, I’ve come to the conclusion that I love my clicker.

Well, I already knew that. Most positive-reinforcement trainers use one. Even trainers who use collar corrections add in clicker work from time to time. It’s a great tool, which is why I was surprised that Ian seemed kind of anti-clicker during the seminar. It seemed to be about more than just the fact that he’s a pet dog person; his criticism of the clicker wasn’t about new students having difficulty with timing or misunderstanding the concept. Instead, he seemed to take issue with the feedback the clicker itself gives: impersonal, sterile, and devoid of emotion and instruction. But in a lot of ways, that’s exactly why I love it!

Is that weird? Maybe. After all, I do understand Ian’s point. All the clicker can do is say yes, you did that correctly. That’s it. It has one setting, one level, one message: yes. It can’t judge quality. It can’t say hey, that was even better than last time. Which is why I supplement the clicker with my voice sometimes, like I did in the chicken video. And if I’m going to do that, why should I bother using the clicker at all?

Because it’s different. Here’s the deal: our dogs hear our voices a lot. I talk to my husband, I talk on the phone, I talk to the cats, heck, I talk to myself. There are even toys that let us talk to our dogs when we’re gone! Of all the times that Maisy hears my voice, how often is it directed towards her? And even then, what percentage of that is meaningful communication versus me just chattering away at her because I love her? The vast majority of the time, my voice is simply background noise with little relevance to her life.

The clicker, on the other hand, is distinct. It’s easy to pick out of the sounds of day to day life because there isn’t anything else in the environment like it. More than that, though, it’s reliable and predictable. That sound always means something good is coming. It may only deliver one message, but that message is unambiguous, easy to understand, and worth paying attention to.

As a result, the clicker is able to get through to my dog much easier than my voice can. When Maisy is distracted or excited, she tends to tune me out. I can almost hear her sometimes: yeah, yeah, I know you’re talking, mom, but right now I’m concentrating so much on those chickens that I can’t be bothered to figure out if your words are for me or not. The beauty of the clicker is that she doesn’t need to think about it at all. She just knows that it’s for her.

Granted, this response happens because the clicker is a conditioned stimulus, not because it’s magic. Any sound can be conditioned the same way, including our voices. In fact, most clicker trainers have a verbal marker that they use, too. However, Lindsay Wood’s thesis found that it takes longer to train a behavior with a verbal marker than with a clicker.

In short, I’ve found that the clicker just relays the message better than my voice does. Of course, that’s still just one message. No matter how good it is at it, it can still only say one thing. I know that Ian really likes to say both yes and no, but honestly? I don’t. It’s not that I necessarily object to saying no- I understand that you need to inhibit behavior sometimes- but I prefer to focus on what’s going well.

I’m a sensitive person. As much as I learn from criticism, as much as I need it and want it, my ego is fragile. I do much better when I’m given positive feedback most of the time. The trainer that Maisy and I work with now is excellent at this, and when I fail, the positive feedback she’s given me previously is able to offset the current negative feedback. It helps me from taking it too personally, and the end result is that I feel generally confident in my abilities and I’m more willing to take risks, even if they might end in an error.

Maisy’s very sensitive, too, so I think she might feel the same way about negative feedback. But even if she doesn’t, and even if my next dog isn’t as soft as her, I know that I’m just not good at giving negative feedback. When I experimented with no reward markers earlier this year, I learned that when I have permission to say no, I quit saying yes. I become frustrated with my dog and with myself. Obviously, this does not help our training.

True, the clicker is just a tool, and like any tool, it has both good points and bad points. But for me, the clicker forces me to focus on the positive. It keeps me on track. It makes me look for success instead of dwell on failure. And most importantly, it builds up my confidence, Maisy’s confidence, and our confidence in one another.

And that’s why I love my clicker.