Saturday, April 30, 2011

Wordless Weekend

Friday, April 29, 2011

Clicker Expo 2011 (Chicago): Helix Fairweather- Accelerating Success with Data Driven Training

There are two kinds of presentations at Clicker Expo: lectures and labs, which use attendee's dogs. I love this format, because it means that you get to see how a given idea works on a “real” dog (ie, not the presenter's). Helix Fairweather presented a lab on using data in training, and I really enjoyed the hands-on component. It took a topic that could have been dry and boring and transformed it into something fun and interesting.

This group- and dog- learned all about data-driven training.
Is your training data-driven? If you're like most people, probably not. Still, it's worth making the effort. Helix identified a number of reasons this is true: Data allows you to see progress in black and white: you know that your dog is doing better because the numbers prove it. Data helps you plan for your next session and can show you where there might be gaps in your training. Keeping data gives you a record that can help you learn how your dog learns.

So what data should you keep? There are two main things: rate of reinforcement, and success rates.

A sample training log. Click to embiggen.

Knowing your rate of reinforcement is especially helpful during the initial stages of shaping, because it lets you know if your criteria is too hard or too easy. Count out ten treats, then time how long it takes your dog to earn them. Divide by ten. For most tasks, the dog should be earning a click and treat every 6-10 seconds. Anything less means it's probably too easy, anything more means it's probably too hard.

Of course, these numbers may change if the behavior requires a lot of distance or duration, so repeat this step twice more. The average amount of time it takes the dog to earn ten treats should go down in each subsequent trial, because this indicates that the dog is learning. If it stays the same, or worse, goes up, try to figure out why.

During the lab, we all broke into groups. Each team would work with a dog on a given task three times, timing the rate of reinforcement. The conversations about why the numbers changed the way they did were very interesting. Everything from the way a treat got tossed to distractions in the room impacted those numbers. Figuring it out- and then compensating for it in the next set of trials- was almost like being a detective!

After you've attached a cue to the behavior, you can calculate how often the dog responds correctly to the cue. Count out ten treats. Cue the behavior. If the dog responds correctly, click and treat. If he doesn't, put one treat aside. Repeat until all ten treats are gone. Then look at how many treats you set aside and calculate your dog's success rate; each treat represents ten percent, so if you have two treats left, the incorrect response rate was 20%, and the success rate was 80%.

You can also keep track of how often your dog offers the behavior uncued. Ideally, your dog will only do the behavior when you've cued it, and keeping track of how often he does it without the cue will help you determine if you are achieving stimulus control or not.

No matter what you track, Helix said that it's a good idea to look at each data point separately as well as together. For example, it's a great idea to compare your success rate to your rate of reinforcement. A success rate of 100% with a really low rate of reinforcement is not good if you want quick, snappy responses to your cues. Similarly, a high rate of reinforcement with a high rate of uncued behaviors indicates that your dog doesn't quite understand the cue yet.

If you're thinking this is a lot of work, you're right! In the lab, we had teams of 4-5 people per dog to time, count, and evaluate what was going on. The punch line was that it's easy when there are lots of people to share the work, but not so easy when there's just you and the dog!

One of the best ways to track your data is by video recording your sessions. Doing so will allow you to concentrate fully on the dog, and not on counting or analyzing. Then, later on, you can go back and count and time things to calculate the various rates. It also allows you to see how things like treat delivery, body language or environmental distractions affects your dog. I have to admit, I hate watching myself train. I'm always really embarrassed by my sloppy handling skills, missed reinforcement opportunities, and unclear criteria. Still, I know that in the long run, this makes be a better trainer, too.

Helix also suggested using a voice recorder. That way you can talk as you're training (or immediately afterward) to summarize how things went. It's quicker and easier than writing during a session, although you will want to go back and transcribe those notes for future use.

I haven't actually started to keep data in training. I know I should, but I've been lazy about implementing it. I don't even have any excuses- at least not any good ones. But what about you guys? Do you take data, or record your training sessions in some way? What do find most helpful? What are your tricks and tips for getting the most out of it? If you don't take data, do you think it would help if you started? Why or why not?

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Clicker Expo 2011 (Chicago): Cecilie Koste- Efficient (Clicker) Training

Ever feel like you're stuck in your training? Like you should be able to make more progress with your dog than you actually are? Afraid that you might be doing something to impede your dog's learning? Do you want to increase your skills with marking and reinforcing behaviors? Then settle in, because this is a summary of Norwegian clicker-trainer extraordinaire Cecilie Koste's presentation on how to harness the power of clicker training!

Cecilie talked about many things that good trainers do, but I think the secret lies with establishing a training routine. Cecilie has four stages in every training session: think- plan- do- pause (and think again). Before you does anything with your dog, you should think about your goals, both for the long-term and for the immediate session. What do you want to work on right now, in this moment? Once you've decided, it's time to plan the session. Planning the session is about more than just choosing the criteria; here are some things you'll want to think about:

Your Voice
I would venture a guess that Cecilie thinks one of the most important skills is to be quiet! She said that you should let your clicker, and your clicker alone, do the talking. The click is information, and when you talk during training, you blur the message.

This doesn't mean you can't praise your dog, though. In fact, Cecilie encourages praise; she said a good trainer is generous with reinforcement, and that you can increase the value of a treat by adding in praise, play or petting. I was glad to hear this- I have a very difficult time not talking to my dog. I just get so excited when she does something correctly! Cecilie just said that if you're going to talk, you should be sure to wait at a second or two after the click so you don't overshadow it.

Your Body Language
Being quiet applies to your body, too. A good trainer will think about how she is holding her body- especially her hands- because you don't want to confuse your dog with a lot of extraneous movement. I'm notoriously bad at this- I'm always using my body to prompt responses from Maisy! While this helps her in the short-term, I do think it hinders her from truly understanding the behavior in the long run. As Cecilie pointed out, it has caused her to be dependent on my body language. Worse yet, I'm not really conscious of what I'm doing, so I can't even replicate the body cues that Maisy is reading!

Similarly, be sure that you don't reach for a reinforcer until after the click. If you reach and click at the same time, your dog will probably pay more attention to your hands than your clicker. Some dogs will even interpret your hand movements as the marker! If this happens and you don't know it, your timing will be off, which could have a detrimental effect on the final behavior.

Your Teaching Method
Cecilie said you should shape, not lure, whenever possible. Shaping makes you a better trainer; it forces you to improve your observation and timing skills. It also makes your dog an active participant in the training. Cecilie wants the dog to initiate the session by offering a behavior, instead of the trainer having to prompt the behavior. Thus, you should think about how you could shape the behavior you want to teach, and lure only as a last resort.

Personally, I mix and match. Some behaviors are just easier to lure, and if I'm anything, it's a lazy trainer. While I appreciate that Cecilie's goal is a thinking, active dog, I certainly haven't had a problem with Maisy being willing to offer behaviors (and all of her initial training was taught through lure-reward). Still, I think it's wise to think about what method you'll use to teach a given behavior, and consider how it may impact the end result.

Your Reinforcement
Whether you are using play or food, you should always plan what the reinforcer will be and how you will present it. The way you reinforce the dog can reset him for the next repetition, can get his head or body in a certain position or facing a particular direction, and can even encourage proper chaining of behaviors. Play will increase arousal and put more intensity into the final product, while treats usually reduce arousal, and create a more restrained behavior. Decide what you want, and reward accordingly.

I try really hard to do this. For behaviors that require speed and enthusiasm, I will toss treats or throw her ball. For behaviors that require duration, I reward in place. I've definitely found that Maisy will anticipate the location of the reinforcer, and that I can use this to my advantage. It can also work to my disadvantage, so I know that I need to plan how to deliver that treat!

Now you're ready to train! The most important thing you can do during training is to be focused on your dog. Pretend that you're stepping into a bubble with your dog: all of your attention should be on him. During your training session, your dog should either be offering a behavior or being rewarded for a behavior. If you're distracted or not really paying attention, you will miss clickable moments, which might slow down your dog's learning.

It's okay to stop and take breaks. In fact, you should take breaks so you can evaluate your progress. Just be sure it's clear to your dog when he's supposed to be working, and when he's off duty! Cecilie recommended using a station, like a crate, mat or pedestal so your dog understands that he doesn't need to be offering a behavior. I really like this concept. I've tried using verbal cues to tell Maisy that she's on a break, but using a station seems to be so much more concrete and easy for her to understand. It also seems like this idea would help create an “off-switch,” especially if you used a crate as the station. This would especially be the case if you waited for signs of relaxation or self-control before doing another round of training.

Once you're done evaluating your progress, make a new plan, and train again! If you're planning well, you should see progress in each session. If you're not, then you need to figure out why that is. Are you using your voice or body in a way that interferes with your dog's learning? Is your reinforcement timing or placement affecting things? Is the teaching method slowing things down? Think about it, and then try again.

And that's the quick-and-dirty version of how Cecilie trains efficiently. Some of the material was familiar, and some of it was new to me. But what about you- can you identify any ways you slow down your dog's ability to learn things? Or maybe you do something awesome? Either way, please share your experiences! I'd love to hear what you do to ensure you're making progress towards your training goals!

Monday, April 25, 2011

Will Work for Cookies

Maisy is a complete food hound. She will go with anyone who has cookies, and will do just about anything to earn them. Case in point:

Maisy had never interacted with weave poles before, and yet there she is, happily going in and out of them, working her little heart out for the possibility of a cookie or two. The kidlet also sent her through tunnels, over jumps, and on a wobble board.

I really wish I had video of that last one- Maisy has a strong aversion to things that move under her feet- and yet she was completely willing to get on it in exchange for a cookie. She also promptly freaked out when it moved, prompting the kidlet to declare that Maisy “has issues.” Oh, honey. If only you knew how amazing it is that she did it for you at all.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Who Are You, and What Have You Done with My Dog?

Maisy has improved so much that sometimes I barely recognize her. Last Sunday was one of those times.

Over the weekend, the Minnesota Mixed Breed Club held their semi-annual APDT rally trial. No, I didn't enter Maisy, but I did take the opportunity to expose Maisy to a trial environment. This isn't anything new; I have been working on gradually exposing her to busier environments, with the key word being gradual. Maisy's veterinary behaviorist has cautioned that I need to take things slowly so that I don't accidentally cause her to have a setback. I agreed, and I had every intention of taking Maisy to the trial, hanging around for a half-hour or so, and then going home.

Perhaps you've guessed that's not exactly what happened. In the end, we spent over three hours at the trial site, and she was content to be there. In fact, there were several times where I took her outside in order to give her a break, and instead of sniffing around, she strained and pulled in the direction of the building, clearly eager to go back inside.

She was very flirty. She said hi to every person she could get near with full on grins and helicopter tails. She even tried to say hi to a couple dogs, to the point where she rudely got in another dog's face (total handler fail on my part; I didn't see the dog under the table). When that dog (appropriately) snarked at her, Maisy jumped back, shook herself off, and was like, "Oh. Terribly sorry," and carried on with the business of flirting with people.

Maisy has (had?) two huge triggers: shepherdy looking dogs, and dogs running and playing. She used to be so bad when we did restrained recalls in class that she would become frantic even when we were out of sight in a back room. Just the sound of a handler cheerfully calling "come!" would send her over the edge. So imagine my surprise when she sat in my lap ringside, calm as could be, while a laekenois was sent running over a jump! She didn't even bat an eye when that dog came out of the ring and played tug!

I fed her plenty of treats, of course, and I was surprised by how soft her mouth was. Over the course of three hours, she never once took treats roughly, frantically, or with her teeth! This is pretty impressive since the first sign of stress she shows is a hard mouth. In fact, this is the most "stressed" she looked all weekend (and it's not stress at all, simply interest):

Despite all of this amazingness, I went home feeling a bit apprehensive. Maisy doesn't exactly have a history of recovering from stress well. In the past, she's been edgy and hyper-vigilant for several days after a trial. I expected to see some of that this week and... I didn't. Even on Tuesday night, when we went to our reactive dog class, she was fine. I expected barking and lunging and over-the-top theatrics, but it was business as usual.

So, look out, Minnesota: Maisy and I are back in business. We're ready to enter that ring and kick your butts... or at least have fun trying! Because Q or no Q, I will always be proud of my girl. Maisy has overcome adversity, and in doing so, she has proven herself to be a true champion.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Clicker Expo 2011 (Chicago): Cecilie Koste- Top OTCh: Skills for Top Obedience

Cecilie Koste is an amazing trainer. She's one of the top European obedience competitors, and the videos she showed were darn impressive. I enjoyed her presentation a lot, although like many of the sessions at Clicker Expo, I wish it had been longer. Talking about the skills you need to attain an OTCh in only 90 minutes is pretty much impossible, to the point that I kind of feel like her presentation was more about clicker training obedience skills for competition in general, and less about champion-level behaviors.

Without further ado, here are Cecilie's five steps for achieving great things in the obedience ring:

Step 1: Find the right puppy (and prepare it for training).
Declaring that good trainers deserve good dogs, Cecilie advised that we should take the time to find the right dog. After all, some dogs are better suited for competition than others. She didn't really say much about what the right dog is, which is too bad. While I understand this was not the focus of her talk, I would have loved to hear her perspective on what makes a good competition dog.

For those of you who already have the “wrong” dog for competition- it's okay! She said that any dog can be trained for obedience, it's simply more work. I'm not entirely sure I agree with this- a trial environment may be too stressful for many dogs. And while I certainly don't have a problem with picking a dog with a certain performance goal in mind, it bugs me just a little that this is listed as a step. It's certainly best to pick a dog that is suited to your life and desires, I also think there needs to be a spark- some relational compatibility. Maybe that's why she didn't talk about what the perfect puppy is- your perfect dog and my perfect dog are likely different, even if they both have the ability to attain high-level obedience titles.

Once you find the right puppy, you have three tasks. First, and most importantly, you need to socialize the heck out of that dog! Make sure he experiences as many different environments and as many different (nice) people as possible. (Interestingly, she didn't mention other dogs. I'm not sure if that was simply an oversight, or if she doesn't think that's as important.) Second, develop your reinforcers: Play. A lot. With as many different toys and objects as possible. And don't allow your puppy free access to food. Really work to build a reinforcing relationship with your dog. Finally, get your puppy used to rough handling. No, not too rough, but you don't want a sissy dog in the ring. This is especially important for clicker trainers since we tend to be hands off in training, and thus need to make a concerted effort to teach our dogs to accept handling.

Step 2: Teach the basic skills.
These are simple behaviors that form the building blocks of many different exercises. Cecilie called these the “letters” in the “doggie ABC.” Letters make up words, and words will make up sentences and paragraphs. Just as you can't write a book without knowing the letters, you can't achieve obedience titles without teaching your dog the basic skills.

The goal is for your dog to learn how to offer each of these basic skills without a cue, and without any help or luring from you. Once your dog knows them all, Cecilie said it's quite easy to teach him all of the obedience exercises you'll ever need because you simply wait for him to offer the behavior, then add the cue and develop them into exercises.

The basic skills you'll need are:
1. Look at you (focus)- Cecilie said your dog should be able to do this while standing in front of you, while you're walking away backwards, while in heel position, and with distractions.
2. Targeting- She recommended teaching a nose and paw target, and teaching both with duration.
3. Sit- The dog should be able to sit from a stand, while walking, and at a distance.
4. Rear end control- She teaches this mostly by teaching the dog to back up, but it can also be done with perches.
5. Sit at heel (finish)- She sends the dog to heel position from the front, back, left and right sides.
6. Gallop towards you- Your goal is a dog who runs at you with speed and enthusiasm.
7. Walk and look up (heeling)- Like most Scandinavian trainers, Cecilie recommends starting this by walking backwards and having the dog follow you, walking forward/toward you before teaching the dog to walk in heel position. (This site isn't Cecilie's but shows a good overview of the concept.)
8. Down- Like the sit, the dog should be able to down from a stand, while walking, and at a distance.
9. Stand- Cecilie teaches this while walking backwards away from the dog. The dog will simply stop walking and stay put. She also uses “reverse luring”- teaching the dog not to follow a food distraction.
10. Stay (remain in position)- The dog should stay in all positions: sit, down, and stand. Again, she uses reverse luring here.
11. Doggie zen- This is basically an uncued “leave it.” The dog should not chase or eat food he has not been told to take.
12. Hold- As in the dog holding objects in his mouth. The dog should be able to hold something while at heel, while sitting at front, while you lean over him, and while you touch the object.
13. Let go- As in, letting go of the object. I'm not quite sure how this can be an offered behavior if the dog is supposed to hold an object despite the distractions noted above.
14. Bark- The old “teach the dog to bark so you can teach him not to bark while working” idea, I think.
15. Jump- Including going away from the handler, towards the handler, and curving away (ie, a directed jump).
16. Scent discrimination- Cecilie recommended using duration targeting while teaching this so that the dog doesn't learn to depend on “tasting” the scents.
17. Tracking- This may not be needed, depending on your venue.
18. Go to person- This may not be needed, depending on your venue.

Now, if you're like me, you're probably thinking that sounds overwhelming. That is a lot of behaviors, and a lot of variations on each behavior, to have the dog offering uncued. Cecilie is adamant, though, that she wants voluntary, offered skills in order to fix the problems that surface during the course of trialing. She says it's easy to do this when you can go “back to basics.”

So how does she keep it from becoming chaotic? By utilizing something she called “the Windows principle,” which takes its name from the computer operating system. Basically, she thinks of each behavior as a file to be put in different “folders,” much like you would do on a computer. Each folder is based on the dog's location in relation to the handler. The dog will offer the behaviors that make sense based on context, and since there's only 4 or 5 behaviors he can do in each context, he'll quickly find the one you want. You'll click it, which will tell him to offer it again.

The basic folders are:
Folder 1- the dog is standing in front of the handler. His options are to sit, down, stand, or finish.
Folder 2- the handler is moving backwards. The dog's options are to sit, down, stand, or follow.
Folder 3- the dog is sitting in heel position. His options are to down, go out, or sit and look up.
Folder 4- object dependent. Targeting, jumping, or retrieving can only happen when targets, jumps or dumbbells are present.

Step 3: Perfect the separate parts of each exercise.
Once your dog knows all of the basic skills, you'll use the doggie ABCs to make words by developing each skill into parts of exercises. Split the complete exercises down into manageable parts- that's what you're working on here. Develop the maximum speed and precision you want before you name it, then add the cue and get stimulus control.

Step 4: Back chain the perfect parts into complete exercises.
Now take those words and make sentences by creating a chain. A behavior chain is two or more behaviors that are performed in a fixed order, with the reinforcer coming only after the last behavior in the chain. Back chaining works by teaching the last behavior first, which takes advantage of Premack and uses cues as reinforcers.

When you're doing this, if the dog doesn't perform one part of the chain, don't reinforce that mistake by giving the next cue. But don't be dismayed, either. Cecilie said it's good when your dog tests the behavior because that means he is figuring out exactly what you want. So, if your dog slows down in anticipation of the down cue in the drop on recall exercise, don't cue the drop! Go back to building up speed, and then reinforce the speed by giving the drop cue.

Step 5: Competition training.
The real challenge is to teach your dog to perform at a trial just as good as he does in training, which means your job is only half over. Your dog can (and will) mess up in a trial. This often happens because he doesn't recognize your cues. Maybe there are too many distractions for him to notice, or maybe he is dependent on something you've done in training. Or, maybe he's having an extinction burst, which shows up as increased variability in the behaviors performed. The problem is that bad behaviors are often reinforced in the ring because you allow him to continue the exercise anyway. If this happens just two or three times, you may end up with a ring-wise dog.

So what can you do to prepare for competition? First and foremost, don't compete before you're ready! Don't damage the behaviors and exercises you've spent so much time developing. Next, start training for competition in the beginning, while you're training the basic skills. You don't need to wait until you're training the full exercise to train with distractions like other dogs, an audience, a judge, etc. Then, begin working on a schedule of variable reinforcement, but do it gradually. And, as you decrease the quantity of reinforcement, increase the quality of reinforcement. Finally, Cecilie believes you shouldn't need warm ups, so you know you're ready for the ring when your dog can perform a perfectly backchained exercise on the required schedule of reinforcement on the first try.

As you can see, Cecilie spent most of her time talking about the basic skills needed and relatively little time talking about what she called “half the job”- polishing and proofing your dog for competition. I really feel like it's that polishing and proofing that will get you an OTCh, but I do appreciate that a solid foundation is necessary. I do think that Cecilie did a nice job of breaking down the exercises into the skills needed as well as the different variations on each skill. Just working on each of those little pieces- even if you put it on cue- would go a long way for most people, I think.

Still, despite her explanations, I continue to feel apprehensive about having all those behaviors being offered, not cued! I have so little on cue with Maisy that the idea of having even more behaviors thrown at me is a little scary. People who attended the lab said they felt the same way until they saw it in action with their own dog. They didn't expect that their dog would stop and offer a stand while they were walking away, they told me, and yet the dog did!

Anyway, it was an interesting session, and I definitely want to use some of the ideas. I can see where Maisy is missing some foundation skills (we definitely could work on more rear-end control, for example), and I definitely need to work on training around distractions more. I also love the idea of increasing quality of reinforcement when decreasing quantity, and will definitely implement that. (Maisy's excited about that.)

I'd love to hear your thoughts. Do you think Cecilie's basic skills cover all the bases for competition obedience? What would you add to or remove from the list? What do you think of having all those skills being offered, not cued? Does the "Windows principle" make any sense to you? Let me know!

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Clicker Expo 2011 (Chicago): Kathy Sdao- The All-Seeing I

I almost didn't go to Kathy Sdao's presentation on observation. I've been told- and generally believe- that I'm a pretty observant person, but I enjoyed her other presentations so much that I went because I wanted to see her one more time before the weekend was over. I'm glad I did. I learned a lot... mostly that my skills, while good, aren't as good as I thought. I will definitely be working on improving them.

But if I'm already pretty good, why bother? Well, as Kathy said, the most important training skill is timing, especially that of consequences. Behavior flows continuously, which means that consequences- the click and treat- can just as easily attach to the wrong behavior as to the right one. Easier, maybe, since fractions of a second can matter. I realized this recently when I began capturing a full body shake with Maisy. Once she started to offer the behavior, it became incredible clear exactly the point at which I had been clicking. The shake stops at the same part of her body- about halfway down her back- every time. It looks ridiculous, and absolutely proves that old adage “you get what you click.”

The goal, of course, is to click at the exact moment the dog is doing the behavior. Unfortunately, there will always be a lag time between when you see the clickable behavior and when your thumb reacts. Pure reflexes have a lag of about .120 to .130 seconds; it simply takes that long for your nerve impulses to go from your eye to your brain to your clicker thumb. It gets worse once you add in processing time; an average person's click is going to be .215 seconds late. If you want to know your lag time, you can test it out here.

Although you can improve your timing, the only way you'll ever get that number down to zero is if you can predict the behavior and decide to click just a fraction of a second before the behavior actually happens. You will sometimes guess wrong, of course, but Kathy says that's okay- the results for clicking too early are usually better than for clicking too late. And to do this, you need to learn to see the precursors to the behavior.

This, of course, means that you need to learn to see small behaviors. The very best clicker trainers are the ones who can break down the goal behavior into small, attainable increments. This is widely referred to as “splitting.” The opposite- called “lumping”- happens because the trainer literally doesn't notice the smaller behaviors. The so-called lumpers need to learn to see their dogs, not just look at them.

So what influences your ability to see? Kathy identified four broad areas:

1. Your labels and preconceptions. Research* has shown you don't see what you don't expect. So, guess what you won't see your “bad” dog doing? If I expect Maisy to behave reactively, doesn't it seem likely that I will see and fixate on any example of reactive behavior, even to the point of ignoring her calm, relaxed behavior? Have you labeled your dog? Is he stubborn? Was he rescued from an abusive situation? What are those labels making you see? You need to move beyond the backstory. Move beyond your expectations. See who your dog is now. Expect good things.

2. Judgments and analysis. As important as it is to analyze your training, don't do it while you're training. Just do it.. or rather, just see it. If a click is late, don't berate yourself, don't even think about it, just pay up and keep going. Constantly thinking about and evaluating what you're doing is going to interfere with what the process, and you'll miss seeing some pretty awesome things from your dog as a result.

3. Talking and prompting. Like thinking, talking and prompting gets in the way. The truth is, people just aren't that good at multitasking. On average, people won't see unexpected stimuli 30% of the time. When asked to multitask, this rockets up to 90%! Avoid having this happen to you by remaining silent while training. This includes avoiding the use of a marker word if possible- they engage your “talking brain.”

4. The audience effect. Being watched changes our performance- ask anyone who competes in dog sports! To move beyond this, I really think we need to go back to Kathy's second point. Don't judge yourself- or worry about how others might be judging you. Simply be in the moment. Harder said than done, I know.

Although you can't significantly alter your attention span or ability to multitask (those things are hardwired into your brain), you can change how you attend to things. In other words, you can practice paying attention. Kathy showed us tons of videos, and while I couldn't find most of them online, a Youtube search for “observation test” led to a lot of interesting clips. (This channel has some good stuff, including some of the things she showed.) Along those same lines, take videos of your dog and then watch them. Watch them at normal speed, then slow them down. Learn how your dog moves.

Do an ethogram on your dog. The next time you're watching television, reading a book, or surfing the web, look at your dog once every five minutes. Write down what he's doing. After an hour (or more, if you're patient), look at your log. Do the results surprise you?

Finally, become a “choice architect” while training. Manipulate the environment so that your dog can choose correctly most of the time. This helps cut down on visual distractions (for you). Then decide what to look for, and pay attention! Give your dog your undivided attention.

I hope these suggestions help you. This was a very participatory session, and it's hard to describe the videos in writing without totally wrecking the experience for you in case you are lucky enough to make it to one of her seminars. And even if I did write about them, I think the impact is lost if you aren't experiencing it yourself. Anyway, please let me know how these suggestions work for you! Comment with videos you watched and enjoyed, the results of your dog's ethogram, or any other ideas about observation skills that you might have!

* Much of the research and facts cited by Kathy came from the book The Invisible Gorilla, by Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons. I haven't read it, but I certainly want to!

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Not-At-All-Wordless Weekend

Are you following me on Facebook? If you're not, you're missing out on incredibly cool things, like:

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Musings on Why Cues May Not Be Reinforcing

In my last post, I tried to explain why cues can be reinforcers, mostly because I think it's mind-blowingly awesome: how great is it that I can take a legal reward in the ring? Or that I'll always have something for those times that I run out of treats? The concept is awesome, however it's also confusing. One of the cardinal rules of reinforcement is that the receiver gets to decide if something is reinforcing, so just because a cue can be reinforcing doesn't mean it will be.

Of course, this begs the question: why not? What happens to prevent a cue from becoming reinforcing? At Clicker Expo, Kathy Sdao identified one reason: the use of punishment in training. This absolutely makes sense to me. If the reason a cue becomes reinforcing is because the dog sees the cue as an opportunity to earn reinforcement, then it makes perfect sense that punishment would interfere with that. But I don't train with punishment, and not all of my cues are reinforcing. What gives? Am I doing something wrong, or is there something else at work here?

In search of answers, I went right to the source: Kathy Sdao herself. Last week, I had a twenty minute phone conversation with her, and the ultimate answer was: we don't really know. But we came up with some pretty good ideas. Now mind you, there really isn't a lot of science on it yet, so what follows should not be taken as certain truth. These are theories, so if (when) I write something illogical or silly, don't blame it on Kathy! She was so incredibly nice and generous with her time that I'd hate for someone to attribute one of my dumb ideas to her.

Before we go any further, I need to pick on myself first. The reason some of my cues aren't reinforcing is probably because Maisy just doesn't understand them. I'm really not very good at teaching cues (I find it terribly boring), so Maisy seems to guess which behavior I'm asking for most of the time. She's a pretty good guesser, mind you, but it is clear to me that she has trouble discriminating between even simple things like “sit” and “down.” All that uncertainty no doubt colors her perception of the cues.

But what about other dogs? You know- the ones who are lucky enough to have a good handler and have been trained to understand what cues mean and respond reliably. Why is it a cue may not reinforcing for a dog who's been trained with positive methods? This is the question I explored with Kathy, and the one I want to write about today.

First, it is entirely possible that the trainer only thinks she's training positively. Now, I'm not talking about trainers who are suffering from some misconception about what positive training entails. I'm talking about trainers who understand learning theory and know how to use clickers and treats, yet unintentionally do something that the dog finds aversive. Maybe she intimidates the dog by leaning over him unconsciously, or maybe her voice has just an edge of frustration to it. There are many ways our body language can effect the way our dogs respond, and I doubt most of us recognize that we're even doing it!

And then there is luring. Could luring interfere with the end result? Don't get me wrong- I use luring when it makes sense- but as Kathy put it, there is a “continuum of coercion” at play when we lure behaviors. She didn't use the word coercion to imply that it's evil or wrong; instead she defines it as the dog having no choice in how to respond. Isn't it possible that the dog is so into the lure that he isn't really thinking about what he's doing? And by extension, if he's not thinking, can he really be making a choice about what to do? Instinctively following the lure may mean that the dog is being coerced, no matter how nicely. If so, it's possible that the cue for the lured behavior won't be reinforcing. Of course, since it's a continuum, it's equally possible that the dog is thinking, that dog does have a choice, and that the cue could end up being reinforcing as a result. But it's interesting to consider that even methods that are widely considered "positive" could have a downside.

Speaking of how things are taught, Kathy and I talked about the idea that something could happen in the acquisition stage of the behavior that would effect the eventual cue. This could be something as simple (and as common!) as the trainer's criteria being too high or the rate of reinforcement too low- to the point that the dog felt frustrated with the behavior, or was left with some lingering confusion. Or maybe the trainer's timing is so poor that the dog can't quite figure out what he's supposed to be doing? Couldn't this affect a dog's perception of the behavior, and ultimately, how he feels about the cue? It might... it might not... it would depend on the dog, of course, but Kathy said it seemed plausible.

Speaking of early stages of learning, maybe something went so wrong that it forever tainted the dog's view of that behavior. I'm specifically thinking of single-event learning, wherein a dog forms a long-lasting and negative association with something in just one trial. If a dog inadvertently received punishment from the environment while learning a new behavior- for example, a socially shy dog learning something in an overwhelming group class- it seems possible that the dog could associate those initial bad feelings with the behavior. It seems to me that this might ultimately affect the cue as well.

Although this seems more likely during the critical early stages of learning, I imagine that single-event learning could also happen later on, too. Perhaps a loud clap of thunder happened during a training session with a storm-phobic dog, or there was a lot of static electricity on a given day, resulting in accidental little shocks each time the trainer fed the dog a treat. Depending on how aversive the dog found this, couldn't this affect the behavior (and the cue) too?

But let's put aside blame for a minute and pretend the trainer did everything perfectly. This hypothetical trainer is a brilliant shaper who is great at adjusting criteria so that the dog receives a high rate of reinforcement with minimal frustration, does a great job of taking environmental factors into consideration, and is very conscious about her body language so that it doesn't interfere with her training. Is it possible her dog wouldn't find cues reinforcing?

I think so, if the behavior was “self-punishing.” This would be the opposite of self-reinforcing behaviors where the dog gets some kind of internal relief or inherent joy from engaging in a behavior (typically one the trainer doesn't want). A self-punishing behavior would be something that makes doing a particular behavior painful or unpleasant. It might happen when a dog has some kind of physical condition like arthritis or hip dysplasia that makes it physically painful to do something. Or it might happen when the behavior itself is scary. For example, Maisy doesn't like to step on things that move, like wobble boards, and yet she will do it over and over again, simply because I am asking her to (and if I'm honest, because there are treats involved). I have no idea why she persists- it's clear that it scares her each and every time- but she continues to do it anyway. For her, the cue “step up” will probably never be reinforcing.

Finally, I would be remiss if I didn't mention a plain old lack of reinforcement. Cues become reinforcers because of conditioning- they've been frequently paired with treats or other awesome things. If there aren't enough treats following the behavior to make it exciting, then the effect certainly won't carry over to the cue. This doesn't mean that the behavior needs to be followed by a treat every time- Kathy pointed out that intermittent reinforcement is stronger than continuous reinforcement, and she thinks this would apply to cues as well- but the odds do need to work in the dog's favor.

Anyway, those are just some of my musings about why cues may not act as reinforcers. Are they right? Maybe. Maybe not. I don't know- like I said, they're just ideas we kicked around. And now it's your turn! Poke holes in my theories. Point out the stuff I'm not taking into account. Let me know how your experiences stack up against my speculation. If you've seen it, share some research on the topic with me (I know some exists about “poisoned cues”). Or share your own brilliant ideas. Maybe you've got a theory of your own! I'd love to hear any and all of it!

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Why Cues Can Be Reinforcing

Last week, while summarizing Kathy Sdao's session at Clicker Expo on cues, I wrote that cues can be used as reinforcers. I was pleased that several of you commented with examples of how you do this, and was intrigued that most of your cues-as-reinforcers were for behaviors the dog really enjoys, like retrieving or sniffing. Of course, this begs the question: if the behavior is inherently pleasurable, is it really the cue that's reinforcing?

 The cue "go get it" is exciting, sure, but not because I conditioned it that way.

Well, yes. The cue allows the behavior to happen. Ask any newly-licensed sixteen-year-old: permission to borrow the car is incredibly reinforcing. I use cues this way all the time. When Maisy and I are out, if she walks nicely instead of dragging me towards a smelly fire hydrant, I'll give her the “go sniff” cue as a reward. Of course, that behavior- the sniffing- is not something I taught her to enjoy, and the cue is simply letting her do something she wants anyway... but it's still reinforcing.

Kathy was talking about so much more, though. She said that any cue, for any behavior can be reinforcing. This is a powerful concept because if we can make the cue for an obedience exercise reinforcing, we will be able to reward our dogs in the ring. Of course, that means the cue for a rather innocuous behavior, like sit or down, must be reinforcing, which is a bit harder to think about. I mean, sure, dogs like to sniff, but what's so exciting about sitting?

The answer is that it's exciting because the trainer has taught the dog to find it exciting. This is done by repeatedly pairing the sitting action with a great outcome, like treats. As a result, if the trainer does her job well, the dog will become quite excited to sit. Karen Pryor talks about this in her book Reaching the Animal Mind, and calls the cue “a promise of happy outcomes.” She says the cue tells the dog “if you understand what I'm saying, and you carry it out correctly, you will definitely win” (page 35). In this way, she says, the cue becomes another kind of conditioned reinforcer.

Kathy called it a “tertiary reinforcer,” because it's the third one out. The cue precedes the click which precedes the treat. Of course, the cue isn't as strong as a click. While a click always results in a treat (or at least, it should), a behavior may not always result in a click. We don't click good tries, after all; we only click behaviors which meet our criteria. Therefore, the click is contingent upon the dog performing the behavior correctly, making it an opportunity... and opportunities can be reinforcing, too.

Let me explain what I mean by expanding upon Kathy's metaphor of traffic lights. A green traffic light is a cue for someone to drive. It tells the driver that pressing the gas pedal is allowed now. For people who like to drive, this will be reinforcing in and of itself because the green light is a cue that gives permission to do something they find pleasurable.

For some of us, though, it's not so simple. Although I don't hate driving, I don't find the action all that thrilling, either. Still, it gets me places I want to go, so despite my ambivalence towards the act itself, I like to drive because of the results. This works with our dogs, too. They may not find sitting all that exciting, but it gets them a tasty treat or a toss of the tennis ball. If this happens enough times, it can transform a relatively mundane action into something associated with a good outcome.

The cue also becomes associated with that good outcome. I have had a long history of driving after seeing a green light, and then ending up at my destination. This has happened often enough that now I want to see the green light, not because it will let me drive, but because it predicts that I will end up at my desired location. Similarly, our dogs get excited when they hear our cue, not because they want to sit, but because they want the treat that they think will come when they do. Thus, my green light- and my dog's cue- becomes reinforcing because of the opportunity it signals.

Of course, things can go wrong. I might get in an accident, and the dog might respond to his cue incorrectly. In both cases, neither of us will get what we want. If this happened too often, neither of us would find our respective cues very exciting anymore. Thankfully, these occurrences are rare- or at least they should be. Just as I should be able to safely drive my car before I get in it, the dog should be able to perform the cue before the trainer gives it. This is why Kathy had three entire sessions at Clicker Expo on how and when to attach cues to behaviors.

As fascinating as all this is, I really think it's only half the story. If we want to use cues to their fullest potential by using them as reinforcers, I think it's important to understand why cues sometimes fail to be reinforcing. Because it's true; while cues can be reinforcing, that doesn't mean they will be. Kathy identified one reason (the use of punishment in training) at Clicker Expo, but I think it's more complicated than that. In my next post, I'll share some of my ideas with you.

In the meantime, though, I'd love to hear what you guys think. Does my explanation make sense? Do you have any reinforcing cues that were conditioned instead of taking advantage of your dog's innate loves? How and when do you use them? Let me know!

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Medication Update: 6 months

Maisy has now been on medication for six months- long enough that some days I take it for granted. In many ways, I've gotten used to the New Maisy. The simple act of sleeping no longer astonishes me the way it once did, and even her new found bravery seems less remarkable. For example, this morning in shaping class, she went over a full-height dogwalk. Then she turned around and did it again. And again. And again. She was careful, but she was somehow confident in her caution. To me, this seemed almost normal. To our trainer, it was nothing short of amazing.

I took behavior logs again last week. Maisy was, to be honest, a bit edgier around the house than usual; in two days she had three incidents... if you can call them that. Is it fair to call a soft “wuffing” noise an incident?

The first was probably the worst: She was lounging in the kitchen. I'm not sure what she heard, but she suddenly came trotting into the living room towards the front door, making a series of small wuffs. The whole thing lasted maybe 30 seconds.

The second was quite remarkable: We were both in the living room, and there was a banging noise coming from the back door. She stood, wuffed once, took a few steps towards the noise, and then stopped and looked at me! Instead of flying out of the room, roo-roo-rooing like she would have in the past, she just looked to me for guidance, and when I told her it was fine, she laid back down. Wow. Just... wow.

The last was almost nothing: My husband came home, and when Maisy heard the door open, she looked up, uttered a single wuff, and then fell silent.

All three of these incidents truly demonstrate how much she's changed. She isn't barking and growling and pacing for minutes on end anymore. She's just making barely audible vocalizations; hardly anything to be concerned about. In fact, I imagine they are quite normal. Dogs do bark after all.

What's more telling, though, is the stimuli that she isn't reacting to. Over the past week, spring has really, truly come to Minnesota, and with it, people are spending time outside. I've heard kids shrieking and laughing outside our windows. I've heard dirt bikes racing up and down our alley. I've heard laughter and music and parties. And Maisy has heard it, too. But she isn't overreacting to it. She barely seems to notice it.

Despite everything, I'm still moving slowly with her. There is no need to rush back into competition. I was telling a friend yesterday that I don't plan to be back in the rally ring for another year. Could she do it sooner? Probably. She could probably enter and do well in the trial next weekend. But this new-found sanity of ours is still tentative. It's solid enough that I sometimes forget what she was like, but it's not solid enough that I don't worry it could all be lost.

So, while I don't want to forget how far she's come, neither do I want to dwell on it. Instead, I want to focus on who she is now. Yes, Maisy has made tremendous improvements. No, she's not the same dog. And that's great- it truly is- but it doesn't tell me who she's becoming. I want to take the time to learn her new limits for stress, her new coping skills, her new bounce-back time. I want to know her as she is now, not in context of how she was, but in context of where we're going. Although I have no idea where that might be, I'm looking forward to making that journey with her, wherever it leads us, because in the end, we'll be together.

And that's all that I've ever wanted.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Clicker Expo 2011 (Chicago): Kathy Sdao- What a Cue Can Do, Part 2

In my last post, we established that cues are important. They tell our dogs they should do a behavior. They help get all that crazy behavior-throwing under control. And trained positively, they can even act as reinforcers! Today, let’s discuss Kathy’s cue tips, as well as how to attach a cue to a behavior.

Even the most motivated dog will not perform a cue at times. Have you ever wondered why? Some trainers think it’s because they’re dog is “stubborn” or “blowing them off,” but if we consider Kathy’s analogy of how a cue is like a green traffic light, it becomes clear that there are lots of other reasons. Quick: if you’re at a stoplight that turns green, why might you choose not to go?

Kathy identified 10 different reasons, and while I can’t list them all here (hey- I have to give you some incentive to go to one of her seminars, right?), here’s a few: Sometimes, you can’t see the signal. This time of year, the sun is rising as I’m driving to work, and it’s so bright that I literally can’t see the traffic light. Other times, it’s not safe to go, like when a car runs a red light in the other direction. Maybe there’s something in your way, like a car broken down in front of you, or heck, maybe it’s your car that’s stalled. There are tons of reasons you might not go when you see the cue- how many more can you think of? Because the same is true for our dogs, too, which is why Kathy presented her four cue tips to improve the odds that they will be able to respond when we ask them to.

Cue tip #1: Make each cue salient.
This means that every cue should leap out from the background of human blabbering or extraneous body movements. We tend to be very noisy when we train and cue our dogs, whether it’s excessive chattering or just moving our body around a lot. Shifts in weight or even where we’re looking can confuse our dogs. Make it obvious what's a cue by reducing the background noise. Be quiet and remain still.

Cue tip #2: Make each cue distinct.
Words should sound different from other cue words, and hand signals should look different from other nonverbal cues. Think about how similar “down” and “bow” sound, even to the human ear. How difficult must it be for our dogs to tell them apart? Humans tend to choose cues that are easy for us to remember, but is that fair to the dog? Create a cue dictionary, and when you’re ready to name a new behavior, consider if the new cue is distinct.

Cue tip #3: Give each cue consistently.
Use the same word, said in the same inflection, with the same tone and intensity. Make your gestures and body language the same. And for heaven’s sake, make sure that each family member uses the same cues you do!

Cue tip #4: Minimize the use of compound cues.
This means that you avoid using both a spoken word and a hand signal at the same time. There are two reasons for this. First, it is possible that your dog will decide that only one cue is relevant, and thus will block out the other one. If you then try to use that other cue, it will fail, because the dog has learned to ignore that as background noise. On the other hand, your dog might learn that the word and the signal together are the cue- he learns it as one cue instead of two separate ones. If that happens, you’ll always have to give both in order to get the response, which is like needing two keys to unlock a door. What a pain!

Once you’ve thought through what your cue is going to be, it’s time to add it. Remember that you always always always get the behavior first. If you add the cue too soon, you’ll run the risk of attaching it to a substandard behavior. Once the dog is offering the behavior correctly and regularly, you’re ready! However, you shouldn’t wreck that awesome cue you’ve spent time picking out by giving it when the behavior won’t happen. It is up to you as the trainer to only give the cue when you’re willing to bet $100 that your dog is going to do the behavior in the next 1-2 seconds.

The easiest way to do this is to get the dog offering the behavior like clockwork, one repetition every 5 to 10 seconds. That makes it easy for you to bet when he’s about to do it, and thus easy to add the cue. You can also become astute at observing the small muscle movements that predict he’s going to do the behavior, but that’s much harder, and typically slower.

Would you be willing to bet $100 that this dog 
is going to target the frisbee in the next few seconds?

Here’s Kathy’s five steps to adding a cue:
  1. Click and treat the behavior a few times without giving the cue. This gets your dog in the behavior-offering-groove.
  2. Once your dog is offering the behavior in a rhythmic/predictable way, give the cue just before you think it’s going to happen. Do this several times.
  3. Then do nothing. Don’t cue the behavior. Your dog will likely offer the behavior anyway. Do not click and treat. (Also, don’t be alarmed if your dog has an extinction burst. He doesn’t realize that you didn’t click because of the absence of a cue; he probably thinks you just didn’t see him do the behavior.)
  4. Wait until your dog pauses (probably to give you a “what the heck? Why aren’t you clicking me?” look). In that moment, give the cue, and click and treat when your dog responds. This reinforces the dog for waiting for you to give the cue.
  5. Take a break! This is a lot of thinking for your dog.
This whole process should take no longer than 1 to 2 minutes, and you should repeat these steps as many times as you need to until your dog knows the cue. Then you can start testing the cue in other situations. If your dog doesn’t respond to the cue, don’t repeat it! Since cues can be reinforcing, repeating the cue reinforces not responding to the cue. Each time your dog learns a cue, it gets easier to subsequently teach him a new cue. This is good news, because teaching those first few cues can take a bit of time.

 And that concludes Kathy's sessions on cues, and I really do have to apologize: As hard as I might try to summarize Kathy’s talks well, I know that I will never capture her enthusiasm and knowledge. There are also so many interesting stories and nuggets of off-topic gold that I just can't fit into a post! If you found anything in the last two posts useful or intriguing, please do yourself a favor and go to one of her seminars. She’s absolutely amazing. If you can't get to one of her seminars soon, don't worry- I have one more post coming up about her presentation on observation skills.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Clicker Expo 2011 (Chicago): Kathy Sdao- What a Cue Can Do, Part 1

The fabulous Sara and Layla demonstrate "breathe."
Believe it or not, Sara actually taught Layla to take a deep breath when cued. 

Kathy’s session on developing cueing skills changed my life. Okay, maybe that’s a little dramatic, but it was possibly the best session I attended all weekend. I have to admit, I suck at getting behaviors on cue, so I knew going into it that this would be full of great information. Even so, I was not expecting to feel so devastated about my subpar skills. In a panic, I begged my way into her lab on cueing skills so I could see it in action. I'm glad I did!

In my last entry, we talked about how to get behaviors. That is the first job of a trainer, and despite my feelings to the contrary, Kathy said it is the most difficult part. Personally, I think getting the behavior itself is far more fun than the tedious process of getting the behavior on cue. This is probably why Maisy has virtually nothing on cue (at least not reliably). That’s not her fault, of course- as Kathy pointed out, the reliability of the dog reflects the reliability of the trainer.

Despite the not-fun-ness of it all, it’s important to develop reliable cues so that you can get the behavior you want, when you want it, and also so you aren’t getting the behavior when you don't want it. (This is also called "stimulus control.") Who hasn’t seen the clicker dog offering behaviors willy-nilly? It’s kind of exhausting of watch, and having one of those dogs myself, it is also kind of frustrating. Still, I created this monster, so I can’t get mad at her. It’s time to fix (um, okay, get) those cues!

Let’s start with some information on cues in general. Cues don’t make the dog do the behavior; astute readers will remember that in Kathy’s talk on shaping, she said consequences drive behavior. Those consequences- the reinforcers- provide the motivation for the dog to perform the behavior. Cues simply provide the clarity of “now would be a good time to try that behavior.”

Throughout her talk, Kathy compared the idea of cues to a green traffic light. If you’re sitting in a car at a green light, you don’t go because the light makes you, you go because you want to, and the green light is a cue that gives you permission. What’s more, you can’t go at a green light if you don’t know how to drive, so you always have to get the behavior first, and then attach the cue.

This is different from how people used to train. In the past, trainers would say a word like sit and then make the dog do it by physically manipulating or luring him into position. Kathy calls these words “commands,” which she distinguishes from “cues.” Commands carry an implicit threat: do it or I’ll make you. Cues are simply an opportunity; if the dog doesn't do the behavior, he won't be forced. However, he needs to do do it if he wants to earn reinforcement, and assuming the dog has been adequately reinforced in the past, he should be excited for that opportunity.

It is this last point that absolutely fascinated me. If cues are an opportunity to earn reinforcement, then they should be pretty awesome things, right? Trained well, a cue should be like a release word. They tell the dog, you no longer have to wait, you can do that behavior now, and when you do, I’ll click and treat you.

The cues therefore become reinforcing in and of themselves because they become what’s called a tertiary reinforcer. Primary reinforcers are things that the dog likes inherently. Dogs don’t need to be taught to like hot dogs, they just do. Secondary reinforcers are things that predict a primary reinforcer. Clicks or marker words tell the dog a piece of hot dog is coming through the process of classical conditioning. The tertiary reinforcer predicts the secondary reinforcer which predicts the primary reinforcer. The cue predicts a click which predicts a piece of hot dog. Cool, huh?

Anyone who wants their dog to do complex behaviors, or a chain of behaviors, will recognize the value in having a cue act as a reinforcer. Agility or obedience dogs often need to do a series of behaviors with no primary (food) reinforcer. Being able to reinforce a behavior simply by giving the cue for the next exercise or obstacle will help sustain motivation and ensure that the dog continues to perform over the long-term.

However, there is a catch- in order for a cue to act as a reinforcer, that cue must always predict a good thing. If you mix in corrections, the cue is then sometimes associated with unpleasant things and no longer acts as a reinforcer as a result. Therefore, Kathy said that training positively is not about fairness to the dog- it’s about giving yourself more tools. Losing a reinforcer by using punishment is a big price to pay.

Whew! Who knew there was so much to say about cues? But there’s so much that Kathy talked about them for 90 minutes, and then did two 90 minute labs about them! I only attended one of those labs, but in my next post, I’ll share her cue tips with you, as well as information about how to add a cue to a behavior. In the meantime, I can't wait to hear what you guys think. Have you ever used a cue as a reinforcer, or does this concept just blow your mind? Let me know!

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Clicker Expo 2011 (Chicago): Kathy Sdao- You're in Great Shape!

You guys, I loved, loved, loved Kathy Sdao. In fact, I loved her so much that I went to four of her sessions (the equivalent of a third of the weekend). I skipped sessions that I’d planned on seeing in order to attend her sessions. And I wanted more. Someone bring her to the Midwest, please; I’m dying for a working spot with her.

Why did I love Kathy Sdao so much? Well, she’s wicked smart and has had tons of practical experience, including training dolphins to do defense-related open-ocean work for the US Navy. How cool is that? Her lectures are just packed full of great information and fascinating stories. She’s energetic and engaging and enthusiastic and entertaining! Go see her… and take me with you.

Okay, enough gushing. Dog training is all about changing behaviors, right? The thing is, though, we can’t manipulate the behavior directly- the behavior belongs to the dog. So what we need to do is manipulate what happens both before and after the behavior.

There are many ways to get a behavior to happen from the front end, everything from physically prompting or luring the dog to capturing or shaping the behavior. The method you choose is up to you, and Kathy said that you should understand the science so that you can choose the method for yourself instead of letting someone else decide for you. However, no matter how you decide to train, remember that the fundamental law of behavior is that consequences drive behavior. No matter what you do on the front end, your power as a trainer comes from being a reinforcer, not a commander.

In fact, that’s so important that I’m going to repeat it: Your power as a trainer comes from being a reinforcer, not a commander. If you are labeling your dog in some way, be careful! Dogs that are “distractible” and “stubborn,” say more about you than about them. Specifically, those labels say that you don’t reinforce them enough! Awesome dogs come from awesome reinforcement histories.

Although there are lots of ways to get the behavior, as the title implies, this session was about shaping. Kathy defined shaping as “teaching new behaviors by use of differential reinforcement, systematically reinforcing successive approximations toward the goal behavior.” Or, to put it simply, teaching a dog to do something one small step at a time.

Kathy demonstrates shaping.

Shaping can take place through either reinforcement or punishment, but it should go without saying that Kathy focused on the reinforcement side. Click, then treat. You don’t need to punish wrong responses, you don’t even need to mark them with a No Reward Marker. The opposite of reinforcement is not punishment, after all- the dichotomy is reinforcement versus no reinforcement. You’re either clicking the dog for getting it right, or you’re not clicking.

So, why shape? Well, of course it’s based in the science of operant conditioning, which means that it takes advantage of using consequences in your favor. But it also makes the dog an active participant- there’s two of you present, so why not use both brains? What’s more, it gives the dog a sense of control, and can help him make sense of a seemingly random and punishing world. It allows him to find a way to make the world work in his favor, thus creating a sense of internal motivation and desire to interact with you. And of course, sometimes it’s the only way to get a complex behavior the dog wouldn’t offer otherwise.

Once you’ve decided to shape a behavior, there are a few pre-requisites. First and most importantly, you need to know what your goal behavior is. Be specific- does “come” simply mean “move towards me,” or does it imply that the dog will move towards as soon as you call, quickly, and directly? And what should he do when he arrives- stick around or dash off again? Know what you want.

Once you know what the completed behavior is, you need to know what the first criterion is. What sliver of behavior will you be clicking for in the first 60 seconds? That sixty seconds thing? Yeah, she means it. Your job as a trainer is to choose the criteria, do a brief bit of training, click when it happens (and withhold the click when it doesn’t), and then stop and ask how it went. In fact, that was sort of the refrain throughout the weekend. Many of the presenters I saw recommended working in really short bursts with lots of thinking time in between.

What are you thinking about? Well, you need to assess your dog’s progress and then plan the next 60 seconds. You’re trying to figure out what your criteria will be the next time around. Kathy recommended making the job easier when your dog is getting it wrong half the time, or if he’s getting less than 8 clicks and treats a minute. That’s one click every 8 to 9 seconds- not much time! But it helps underscore just how small your steps should be during shaping. If your dog is doing well, getting 8 to 11 clicks per minute, and getting things right somewhere between 60% to 80% of the time, you’re on the right track. Continue working on that criterion. And if your dog is getting it right more often than 80% of the time, or is getting clicked every 4 to 5 seconds, it’s time to move on to the next step!

Incidentally, if you’re working on a duration behavior and can’t get in enough repetitions in order to get a high rate of reinforcement, you should increase your density of reinforcement so that the dog is getting the same amount of treats- 12 to 15 per minute’s worth of behavior. Deliver them however you want- all at once or one at a time- but make it worth the dog’s while to do that behavior.

Kathy also covered Karen Pryor’s ten laws of shaping, paying special attention to number 5 (stay ahead of your subject by having a plan) and number 8 (don’t interrupt the session gratuitously, which includes talking. Don’t be more distracted than you expect your dog to be!). She also noted that Karen herself says that number 3 (put the current response on a variable ratio schedule of reinforcement before raising criteria) isn’t necessary with dogs, which I thought was fascinating, and relieving- I’ve never done it!

Remember that when you’re shaping, your main job is to sit back and watch your dog. You should not be doing the moving, your dog should. If your dog stalls out and gets stuck, your response should not be to help him out. Instead, have faith in your reinforcement history. He can figure it out. If need be, go ahead and reduce your criteria, but resist the impulse to help him out by pointing or luring him.

And that’s shaping in a nutshell. I feel like I glossed over so much of what she said- her sessions really are just jam packed with great information- but this should give you a good idea of what she said. Even though I shape a lot (I find it addicting, even if I’ll never use that behavior), I still took a lot away from this session.

I have to admit, I’m not very good at the planning/assessing piece. I just sort of… sit down and click. I usually don’t end up where I’m planning to go, either. That’s fine for casual sessions, but I’ve got to admit, it impedes my progress for tricks or competition behaviors. But between this session and Kathy’s presentation on cuing skills, I think I’ve figured out what I need to do! In fact Kathy’s cue seminar was amazing, and I cannot wait to share it with you.

Saturday, April 2, 2011