Thursday, August 29, 2013

CPDT Study Session #6: Why Do Dogs Do That?

In her book Coaching People to Train Their Dogs, Terry Ryan identifies a number of reasons a dog might behave in a certain way. Let's look at those today.

Phylogenic behaviors are those that have developed over generations and therefore have evolutionary significance. These behaviors can be broken down into three main categories.

The first is food acquisition. This is a fixed series of behaviors that seems to be hard-wired in most dogs. The sequences goes like this: Search or find prey – stalk prey to get as close to it as possible – rush towards the prey – chase after the prey (because it likely took off when it saw the dog rushing) – bite/hold/shake/kill the prey – and dissect and eat the prey. This sequence can often be found in dog play, either with other dogs or with toys (which explains why so many dogs like to de-stuff their toys).

The second is hazard avoidance, in which the dog will avoid danger and/or seek safety and comfort, and the third is reproductive behaviors, for obvious reasons. Both of these will influence a dog's behavior quite a bit; testosterone often causes male dogs to mount, mate, and mark while estrogen and progesterone will cause a female dog to go into heat about twice a year for 20 days duration. During this time, the female's behavior towards a male will be quite... flirty.

Another reason dogs may do something is because it is an otogenic behavior. This is a fancy term for learned behaviors, although not necessarily trained behaviors. An otogenic behavior is one developed due to the influence of environmental factors. While a phylogenic behavior will be shared among all dogs, otogenic behaviors are specific to an individual.

Next, we have fixed action patterns (or instinctive motor patterns). These are patterns of behaviors that are triggered by something specific. The sequence needs to be completed before the dog will stop the pattern. The pattern is fixed, that is, it doesn't vary much (if at all) from time to time. That said, behavior modification can change a fixed action pattern. The food acquisition series I described above is a fixed action pattern.

A dog's temperament can also influence behavior. Temperament is a tricky thing, consisting of a mix of genes and environment, but a dog with a shy temperament will behave differently than one with a bold temperament.

Finally, we have instinctive drift, first discussed by the Brelands in their paper The Misbehavior of Organisms. Instinctive drift is what happens when an animal's innate behavior is so strong that overcomes a learned behavior, even when there is a reinforcer offered for the learned behavior.

Those are the reasons Terry Ryan identified as causes of behavior. Have you come across any others?

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

CPDT Study Session #5: How Did Dogs Become Dogs?

Answer: We don't really know. But we have lots of theories.

Let's start with what exactly domestication is. Wild animals can either be tamed or domesticated. A tame animal is an individual who has gotten used to humans. A domesticated animal is part of a species whose involvement with humans has resulted in extensive behavioral and biological changes.

We do know that dogs were once wolves, and we know that they are domesticated because of the many profound changes they've undergone. Physically, most dogs look quite dissimilar to wolves. Their ears can be floppy, their faces are shorter, their tails may be curled over their backs, their coats have far more color patterns. In short, they physically look more like wolf puppies than adult wolves.

This tendency towards puppy-ness is called paedomorphism, and it also describes wolf vs. dog behavior. Wolves are more physically active, mouthier, more destructive, have far more desire to roam, and are generally more wary of new experiences than are dogs.

As for when domestication happened, well, according to fossil evidence, domestication happened 12,000 to 14,000 years ago. According to DNA analysis, it happened around 80,000 to 130,000 years ago. So who knows!

There are three main hypotheses about how wolves became dogs:

The Village Dog Hypothesis suggests that wolves hung around human settlements, scrounging for food. The boldest, friendliest wolves were more likely to live (as the ones who threatened villagers were likely killed), and they slowly evolved into dogs.

In the Hunting Hypothesis, wolves and humans developed a symbiotic relationship. Either wolves began following the humans or the humans began following the wolves while hunting. They tolerated one another because each could offer the other an advantage in hunting. Again, the wolves that worked cooperatively with humans would have a better chance of breeding.

Finally, we have the Nurturing Hypothesis, in which wolf pups whose mothers were killed would be brought back to the village to be raised, likely by children or women. The more docile pups would live to adulthood to pass on their genes.

So there is your down-and-dirty overview on how dogs (maybe) became dogs.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Kathy Sdao Seminar: Letting Reactive Dogs Choose

The overall theme of this seminar was choices. Early on in this series, I talked about how our dogs need to have choices. I also alluded to the fact that this can be hard to do when you have a reactive dog who might make dangerous decisions. Thankfully, Kathy talked about this! Her acronym SMART (See Mark And Reward Training) actually includes a sneaky second S: Set up.

Setting up means that you control the environment and not the dog, and refers to both training sessions and life outside training. Kathy told us that so much good training can be undone if the dog practices bad behavior outside training sessions. She gave us the example of a dog who barks at windows when people pass the house. Even if you train for an hour every evening, the eight hours your dog spends barking out the window while you’re at work will have a stronger and longer-lasting impact on his behavior.

Good set ups mean that you limit the dog’s activities so that he can’t rehearse the very behavior you’re trying to change. It’s kind of like a bucket of water: if you don’t plug the holes, the water will leak out. No matter how much water you add, you simply won’t make progress.

Not drowning!
This is especially important with reactive dogs. We talk about keeping them “under threshold,” and again, this applies to both training and life. Kathy used a drowning analogy. If a child can’t swim and falls in the deep end of the pool, you not only want to pull him out of the pool but you also want to prevent him from going near the deep end again. This means that reactive dogs often need to be heavily managed or even confined early on during their training.

With a controlled environment, we can help our reactive dogs make good choices, making the neural pathways for the desirable behavior stronger. Then we can slowly add in distractions, which can become cues to perform the behavior we want. This allows us to “retire from the full-time job of cueing!”

Having lived with a reactive dog and as a result been very vigilant about possible problems, I love that phrase. In fact, this is why I eventually stopped taking Maisy to trials for awhile. As hard as it was, I couldn’t control the environment and was exhausted trying to constantly prevent her from going over threshold. Worse, I failed, meaning that the reactive neural pathway in her brain was constantly activated. Truly, going slow was actually much faster in the long run.

What have you done to set up your dog’s environment- and his life- so that he could be successful?  

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Review: Orijen Tundra Freeze-Dried Dog Food (Courtesy of!) sent us some Orijen Tundra Freeze-Dried Dog Food to review, and Maisy was super excited about it (which is like regular excited, but with a cape).

I love freeze-dried food for backpacking trips. A full day's worth of calories for the Maisy Dog only weighs 2 ounces! For those of you who have hiked for many miles with everything you need on your back, you'll know why this is so exciting.

I reconstituted the Orijen and another freeze-dried food using cool water. Even though the package recommends warm water, I used the cool water as it's just more true to what happens in the back country. Both foods needed to be broken into smaller pieces in order to dissolve.

Then I set the Orijen down next to the other freeze-dried food, and the Orijen was a CLEAR winner. Maisy chose it time and again, no matter how many times I shuffled the two bowls around.

So it's two thumbs and four paws (plus one ear) up for Orijen's freeze-dried food!

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

CPDT Study Session 4: Puppy Development

5 months old and venturing off on her own.
I'm currently starting the two weeks I've set aside to study ethology, and I decided to tackle the section that I felt weakest in: puppy development. I went through every book in my personal library that looked like it might have information on this topic and read through the relevant sections. As it turns out, this website was probably the most useful. (I also looked at Coaching People by Terry Ryan, Off-Leash Dog Play, by Bennett and Briggs, Dogs by the Coppingers, and Successful Dog Adoptions by Sue Sternberg.

In all this reading, I discovered a sneaky truth: there are no hard-and-fast timelines, nor even agreement on what each stage is called. The first part wasn't really a surprise, but I was a bit taken aback by the fact that there are so many ways to break down a puppy's development. I'm going to try to synthesize this material into something cohesive, but you should keep in mind that these periods can overlap, and that the breed of the dog will influence the timelines.

 Neonatal Period, birth to 14 days
The neonatal period is rather boring, truth be told. In this stage, a puppy's eyes are closed and he is functionally deaf. He is completely dependent on his mother, and researchers have found little to no classical conditioning happening at this stage (at least, not in a way they could use). The puppy's task at this time is to develop some basic mobility and sensory awareness.

Transitional Period, 14 to 21 days

The transitional period begins when the puppy's eyes open and ends when he startles at noises. This usually takes place between 2 and 3 weeks. The pup's eyes will be a hazy or cloudy blue color, and will remain that way until 6 to 8 weeks. The teeth begin to form this point, and the sensory capabilities continue to develop.

Socialization Period, 3 weeks to ?? weeks
During this period of time, which most sources agree starts around 3 weeks, the puppy's brain develops rapidly. Although a puppy is born with basically all the brain cells he will ever have, the brain volume increases greatly due to the synaptic connections that are being physically formed. The Coppingers did brain scans and found that when a puppy is born, his brain volume is 8 cubic centimeters. By 2 months, it's 50 cubic cm, 80 cubic cm by 4 months, and 100 cubic cm at 12 months, which tends to be its final amount.

The connections that are being formed are due to socialization. This is where the puppy basically learns safe vs. not safe. If he encounters novel people/dogs/animals/surfaces/objects/sounds/etc. and has a good experience, that thing becomes classified as safe. If he encounters something and has a bad experience, that thing becomes not safe. If he doesn't encounter a certain thing at all, it will default to the not safe category. This is where behavioral problems like fear or aggression can come from.

 The socialization window ends anywhere from 10 to 16 weeks. Dehasse says that studies have shown that between 3 to 5 weeks, a puppy will investigate just about anything without much hesitancy. At 7 to 9 weeks, the puppy needs more time to overcome his uncertainty (Dehasse uses the the word “fear”) and investigate a novel person. At 12 weeks, the puppy can overcome his fear, but only with “active manipulation” from the person. At 14 weeks, Dehasse says that socialization to people is nearly impossible if the dog hasn't already experienced them.

 The Coppingers assert that by 16 weeks, a dog's personality is set for life. If he's timid at 16 weeks, he'll be timid at 3 years. They acknowledge that training and behavior modification can change the dog's personality, but are quick to say that the dog will have a social “accent” for the rest of his life. I really, really like that phrase, because it's a great way of describing how a dog can change yet still have lingering effects from the past.

Other things that happen during this stage:
At 3 weeks of age, the puppies begin to play with one another. From now until 7 weeks, they are developing bite inhibition. This is why it is so important that puppies stay with their litter for at least this long.

 Mother dogs tend to initiate weaning at about 5 weeks. She does this by growling or snapping at her pups, especially when their sharp little puppy teeth hurt her teats. In response, the pups will roll over in deference. A puppy who is force weaned by being separated from his mom tends to show a reduction in appeasement behaviors; he has literally not learned how to do them. This can create issues in social hierarchies down the road.

 House training happens during this stage as well. In the neonatal period, Momma Dog stimulates elimination. Around 2 to 3 weeks, elimination becomes spontaneous on the part of the puppy, and very soon after, the puppy will leave the bedding area to eliminate. By 8 weeks, the puppy will have developed substrate preferences for elimination. This is why it is so hard to house train a mill or pet store puppy; he has literally learned to pee where ever he is at the moment.

Fear Periods Multiple, but first one 7 to 12 weeks
This is probably where the biggest variation between puppies occurs. Although puppies will go through several fear periods- defined as a time when the puppy is especially sensitive to bad experiences- they vary in timing and number. Dehasse argues that the first fear period begins when the socialization period ends; around 12 weeks. The Coppingers, on the other hand, suggest that the first fear period starts around 7 weeks.

 The owner's job during this time, whenever it happens, is to prevent or minimize bad experiences as much as possible. Bad experiences tend to be traumatic at this time and has a lifelong impact on behavior. There is at least one more fear period (and sometimes more than one) between 6 and 14 months, which roughly correlates with puberty.

Hierarchy and Status Development, 3 to 4 months
Bennett and Briggs were the only ones to label this as a separate developmental period, although Dehasse did allude to it. During this time, dogs start to figure out who they are in relation to other dogs. They also begin teething during this time as their incisors come in.

Flight Instinct or Exploration Period, 4 to 8 months
Puppy develops some independence during this period. He changes from the sweet shadow that follows you everywhere to no longer needing the immediate protection of his owner. This manifests itself as a desire to explore territory, and he will venture further and further away. This is the period where dogs begin to “blow off” their recall cues and find being chased a grand game!

Puberty, 6 to 12 months
During this time, pups begin to figure out all things sexual. An unspayed female will go into heat for the first time around now. Dogs will also begin to show wariness of the unknown. Dehasse says this isn't so much a behavioral fear as it is a cognitive process.

Social Maturity, 1 to 3 years
Social maturity very much depends on the breed, with smaller dogs tending to enter social maturity before bigger dogs. During this time, we see the effects of the earlier periods, and especially the results of our socialization efforts (or lack thereof) and experiences during the fear periods. This means it's when reactivity or aggression tends to rear its ugly head.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Kathy Sdao Seminar: 10 Ways to Get Behavior

As presented by Kathy Sdao.

Picture is unrelated. But beautiful!

1. Physical Pressure
Also known as “molding,” this method involves the trainer physically putting the dog into the position you want. To do this, the dog needs to yield to your action. Although this method can work (it’s how I taught Maisy to shake/give me her paw, and how many people teach sit), it does require a cooperative animal. Since the dog is passively allowing the behavior to happen, it can be tricky to get the dog to understand that he needs to offer the behavior.

2. Prompting
Similar to using physical pressure, in this method, the trainer elicits the response by doing something that prompts the dog to take action. For example, if you walk towards a dog that is facing you, he is likely to step backwards. This is a common way to teach the dog to back up. This tends to be used mostly with reflexive instincts.

3. Luring
Kathy actually listed this as 2b because it is a subset of prompting. In luring, we prompt the dog to do a behavior by using food to get the dog to do what we want. Although it is widely used among positive trainers, the dog is acting more passively than some people would want.

4. Targeting
This requires the animal to place a body part against an item. This does require some pre-teaching so that the dog understands what he’s supposed to do when the target item is presented, but once the dog has learned that, it can be used to elicit a variety of behaviors. It can be used in a similar way to luring, although it doesn’t have to be. It’s a great technique for people who want the dog to be an active participant because the dog has to think through the options and make choices.

5. Capturing
In capturing, the trainer can be quite lazy. Instead of figuring out how to elicit a behavior, the trainer simply watches for what she wants and then rewards it. This makes capturing great for behaviors that are already in the dog’s repertoire and that he’s likely to do (such as sitting or lying down). Capturing doesn’t work for behaviors the dog doesn’t innately do.

6. Shaping
This is what many people think of when they think of “clicker training.” In shaping, we allow the dog to offer behaviors and then click/reward small steps towards the goal behavior. It requires the dog to be an active participant in his training, and can often result in very creative behaviors.

7. Classical Conditioning
First discovered and studied by Pavlov, classical conditioning is a method of getting behavior that relies on creating associations between two things to create automatic responses. In Pavlov’s case, he could get the behavior of drooling by ringing a bell. Classical conditioning is used most often in behavior modification, but can also be used for developing strong recalls.

8. Removal of Inhibitors
If something is preventing a dog from performing a behavior, removing that thing will often allow you to get the behavior. Often, the thing that is inhibiting the behavior is something scary, so this is really about allowing the dog to feel safe enough to perform.

9. Modeling or Mimicry
This method of getting behavior involves demonstrating what you want, and then having the dog copy what you’re doing. Although it is possible for dogs to do this, they are not naturally good at it. It’s really more useful for primates.

10. Verbal Instructions

This one isn’t used for animals at all as it requires a shared understanding of verbal language. In other words, it’s only for humans, and only for those who speak and understand the same language! Still, it is a way to get behavior, so I’ve included it here!

Friday, August 16, 2013

CPDT Study Session #3: Important or Not?

Last weekend, I read Excelerated Learning by Pam Reid. As a side note, this was the first book I ever read on dog training, and it took me two months to get through it… and even then, I didn’t understand much of it. This time around, it took less than two days, and most of it was review.

But there was one section that I found very enlightening (and which I cross referenced against several other books): the processes of habituation, adaptation, and sensitization. Each of these is a way that a dog determines whether or not something is important or not, and how to respond.

Habituation happens when a dog “gets used to” something. Typically, the stimulus they get used to is something that initially causes either a startle or orienting response (“Woah, what’s that?”) but not outright fear. Through repeated exposure, the dog learns that the stimulus is not important and quits reacting to it.

The author gave the example of dropping your keys on the kitchen floor; the loud noise would likely cause your dog to jump or whip around to look at what just happened. If you were to drop your keys every thirty seconds, your dog might realize that nothing bad happens to him, and so the noise has no significance. This is habituation.

Habituation is prone to spontaneous recovery. That is, if your dog habituates to the sound of dropping keys on Monday, but then you don’t drop them again until Friday, chances are pretty good that he would startle or look for the source of the sound again.

Learned irrelevance is similar to habituation. When a dog has learned that something is irrelevant, he doesn’t react to it. However, unlike habituation, the stimulus originally caused little (if any) reaction. This means that stimuli that have been subjected to learned irrelevance are not susceptible to spontaneous recovery. The most common example of this is a dog learning that cue words have no consequence or meaning because they’ve been introduced so poorly or repeated so often.

Although adaptation is often used interchangeably with sensitization, they are not the same thing. I have a decent collection of books on dog training and ethology, and even so, only this book and Ken Ramirez’s book on animal training distinguished between the two.

Adaptation does not involve learning (as habituation does). Instead, it is a physical process in which the sensory neurons get overloaded. For example, people who smoke typically don’t notice the smell that clings to them while non-smokers notice it right away. This is because the smokers have adapted to the smell.

The opposite of habituation is sensitization. Instead of getting used to something, the dog’s reaction to the stimulus becomes stronger. Using the example of the keys, if a dog is becoming sensitized to them, each subsequent time you drop them, he will go startling to more intense reactions like barking or running away.

This is part of why expecting a dog to “just get over” something can backfire; instead of teaching them the stimulus is nothing to worry about, they get worse. Stimuli that elicit strong emotional responses tend to sensitize. The problem, of course, is that you don’t always know when something will do this. If your dog was a rescue, and if his previous owners threw keys at him to punish him, he might have a strong response to that and sensitize to it.

Of course, it may have nothing to do with a previous experience; anxious dogs are likely predisposed to sensitization instead of habituation. The author notes that sensitized dogs tend to over-react to many things, and often this is a very generalized response instead of stimulus-specific.

Finally, since we’re talking about the idea of “just get over it,” a discussion on flooding is worthwhile. Also known as response prevention, flooding is an extinction procedure in which the dog is forced to be around a stimulus the startles or scares it. Because the dog is prevented from escaping an uncomfortable stimulus, they often get worse; being trapped is scary.

This isn’t to say that flooding never works- it can- but the author states that it only works if the dog becomes exhausted and unable to respond. Personally, I am so not interested in doing that to my dog, but even if was willing to do it, the risk of learned helplessness is too great.

Learned helplessness happens when a dog is subjected to aversive stimuli that has nothing to do with his behavior, his behavior has no effect in preventing or stopping it, and he’s unable to escape. Dogs who develop learned helplessness become shut down and “just take it.”

And that’s your quick crash course on what happens when a dog decides if something is important (or not). Anyone else out there read Excelerated Learning? What was the biggest thing you took away from it?

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Review: Nature's Variety Instinct Raw Boost Minis from

Guys. Guys! This month, Maisy tested Nature's Variety Instinct Raw Boost Minis from and she loved them!

Okay, well, Maisy loves everything. Seriously, pocket lint and "air cookies" work on this dog. Girlfriend is a garbage disposal on legs. That said, these treats are pretty great. Here's why:
  • They are actually training-treat-size. I wouldn't have minded if they were about half this size, but they are just fine as they are. (I tried to break them in half, but because they are dehydrated, they crumble pretty easily. I didn't try using a knife. I probably should have, but honestly, I'm too lazy for that.) 
  • At 2 calories a pop, they're easy on the waistline. 
  • The ingredients are great, although dogs with allergies will want to check the ingredients; it's not single-source protein and it has a few fruits/veggies/supplements that could give some dogs problems. 
I totally recommend these treats, and didn't tell me to say that. They did give me the product for free, though. My opinions are my own (and include a strong preference for narwhals).

Finally, told me to tell you that there is a Rafflecopter giveaway available. I don't really get all this new-fangled technology stuff, but "rafflecopter" is an awesome name, amirite?

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Kathy Sdao Seminar: See and Mark the Behavior You Like!

If reinforcing behavior is the most important thing you can do when training a dog, then marking that behavior probably is the second most important. But then, the trainer’s ability to see behavior is also important. Honestly, it almost feels like a chicken-and-egg argument; you could make an argument that they are equally important.

Kathy thinks that teaching people how to mark behavior takes precedence over sharpening their observational skills. Of course, marking behavior does require seeing it, but she likes to backchain when training humans as well as animals, so let’s talk about marking first.

Kathy works with a small group on their skills!
Marking is important, Kathy told us, because figuring out which behaviors are correct is harder for the animal if the reward is functioning as both information and the reinforcer. It’s just not as clear. And of course, a marker like a clicker has a number of other benefits. Kathy identified four: the clicker acts as information (yes! That is the behavior I want!), a secondary reinforcer (which strengthens the behavior), a bridge (making a promise that reinforcement is coming), and also as a cue (to eat).

Good markers are SURE:
Short, preferably only a fraction of a second.
Unique and unlike any other signal the animal will recognize.
Reliable or consistent across trainers, contexts, and times, and
Evident and easily distinguished from other stimuli.

Once you have an effective marker, you need to protect it. Markers become weak when they don’t provide information, have become poisoned or infected by use during anxious situations more often than calm ones, or don’t actually mark anything. They can also become weak if the trainer requires the dog to do more behavior after the marker has been given.

But marking a behavior is only worthwhile when the timing is good, which requires us to clearly see what it is we are marking. Good timing is essential because otherwise you run the risk of inadvertently mark and reward the wrong thing! It’s also challenging to have good timing because there is an inevitable time lag between seeing the behavior and the physical action of clicking. Assuming absolutely no cognitive processing time, the nerve impulses needed to travel from the eye to the brain and then the brain to the fingers is about 125 milliseconds. It may not sound like much, but remember that you will need time to think and then your animal will need time to process the sound.

Which means that good timing requires you to be able to see a behavior before it happens; you’re clicking the earliest precursor to the behavior. You also need to pay attention, which is, let’s face it, harder than it sounds. You need to be very clear about what you’re looking for and give your full brain power to the act of seeing even the tiniest of changes.

You’ll need to get past your judgment and analysis, past talking and prompting, past labels and preconceptions, and past the audience effect (people watching you) if you are to see clearly. Really, seeing requires you to be fully, completely present, something that is far more difficult to do than it sounds.

See- Mark- Reward. All important, all dependent on one another. And all skills that you can not only learn but also improve. So, what do you do to improve your ability to train effectively?

Friday, August 9, 2013

CPDT Study Session #2: Schedules of Reinforcement

I’m in the middle of the two week period of time I’ve set aside to study for the learning theory part of the exam. I actually haven’t done much reading yet, both because I’ve been busy and because I’m pretty confident about my knowledge in this section. One thing I did want to firm up was my understanding of basic schedules of reinforcement. These schedules specify the timing and frequency of reinforcement, and each type can be useful in the right situation.

Continuous Reinforcement Schedules (CRF)

Most training starts here, with the continuous rate of reinforcement. This means that every time the dog does the behavior, he gets reinforced. It works best during the teaching phase, and it helps establish a strong contingency between the behavior and the reinforcer.

If you use a continuous reinforcement schedule, keep in mind that these behaviors are quite susceptible to “extinction,” which means that if you stop reinforcing the behavior, the dog is going to stop the behavior. Since it can be difficult to be sure that you reinforce every instance of a behavior, this schedule is a bit impractical. This is why most trainers switch to some kind of variable reinforcement schedule, but it is possible to use a continuous rate for the life of an animal (indeed, it’s what the Baileys- arguably some of the best animal trainers of the 20th century- used most of the time).

Partial (or Intermittent) Schedules (PRF)

There are several types of partial (sometimes called intermittent) reinforcement schedules. Although each type is distinct from the others, they do have several things in common. These are used when a continuous schedule is simply too cumbersome, for whatever reason. They are more resistant to extinction, and they typically feel more “natural” to people. You do need to be cautious that you don’t “thin” the schedule too quickly as this will cause “ratio strain” and degrade the quality of the behavior.

Fixed Ratio (FR)

A fixed ratio is when the reinforcer is given after a certain number of behaviors. The number after the abbreviation informs you how many behaviors need to be done before reinforcement is earned. For example, an FR5 means the dog must do five sits (or whatever) before receiving his treat.

Fixed ratios will produce high, steady rates of responding due to their systematic, consistent, and predictable nature. That said, fixed ratios also have a “post reinforcement pause” where the dog will briefly stop doing the behavior immediately after being reinforced. Their response time will increase as they approach the next opportunity for reinforcement. If your ratio is very high (such as an FR400), the post reinforcement pause will be longer.

Variable Ratio (VR)

In a variable ratio, the frequency of treats given is variable from trial to trial and should happen after an unpredictable number of times. It’s typically done around an average number of times. For example, a VR4 would mean that the treats are given approximately 1 out of 4 responses. During a series of behaviors, the treat may be given on the 2nd repetition, the 6th repetition, and then the 4th repetition.

Variable ratios yield high, steady rates of responding, and there is a much lower rate of post response pauses. This schedule is also more resistant to extinction and useful for fading out a fixed ratio schedule. That said, a truly variable ratio is difficult to achieve as we humans tend to be pattern dependent.

Fixed Interval (FI)

In a fixed interval, reinforcement is given after a certain period of time. An FI5 would indicate that reinforcement is given for the first correct behavior after 5 seconds (or minutes, depending) has passed since the last reinforcement.

Interval schedules (both fixed and variable) are great for teaching duration behaviors. A fixed interval is prone to extinction, though, and has a pronounced post reinforcement pause. In this case, the pause is “scallop-shaped;” the behavior levels off in the first bit of time, and then increases in frequency as the time for reinforcement comes due. This is similar to a student checking the clock more frequently when class is almost over.

Variable Interval (VI)

In this schedule, reinforcement is given on an average amount of time, which means the first correct behavior after an unpredictable amount of time has passed is reinforced. Like the variable ratio, a VI4 would mean that the reinforcement happens approximately every 4 seconds (minutes, etc.), but that the amount of time elapsed will change from trial to trial.

This schedule produces a slow, steady rate of responding, although you don’t tend to get a particularly high rate of behavior. It has good resistance to extinction, making it particularly good for fading out a fixed interval schedule. Like the variable ratio, it can be difficult to be truly unpredictable.

When I get around to it, I’ll post about the differential reinforcement schedules. There are quite a few of these, and they are arguably more interesting than these more basic schedules. But for now- what are you guys studying?

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Soul Mates

I love my dog. I’m sure this is surprising to exactly no one; I am not shy in sharing just how enamored I am by her. Maisy is also my heart dog, a term that I loosely define as a one-in-a-lifetime dog that worms her way into your heart despite all odds. Again, this probably isn’t a huge surprise. But is she my soul mate?

Photo by Laura.

I had never really given much thought to the concept of soul mates; despite having been married for over ten years, I rather assumed that there are many people in the world that you could meet, love, and live with happily. I still think that’s true, but it’s also true that there are people in the world who you immediately “click” with.

I was forced to confront the concept of soul mates last December when Maisy had her first modeling job. Between sets, the “wrangler” assigned to us told me that she was an animal communicator. Although I’m skeptical of them by nature, I’ve always been intrigued by animal communicators... just not enough to actually pay them money! I didn’t want to ask her to give her services away for free, so instead I asked what kinds of things people ask about. She recounted a recent encounter where the person wanted to know if she and her dog had been together in previous lives. The animal communicator told me that they hadn’t; sometimes relationships are just a one-time deal.

Then, in an off-handed kind of way, she said, “Not like you and Maisy. You guys are soul mates. Your souls aren’t always in the same form- you’re not always a human and a dog- but you always find one another in each life you have.”


So there I was, pondering the idea of not only soul mates in general, but also very specifically. Was this true? And what is a soul mate anyway? Most websites have some variation on the same theme; a soul mate is a person with whom you have an immediate connection. Someone you love so deeply that you wonder if you’ve ever truly loved before. Some who brings you peace, calmness, and happiness.

And, yes, I did feel an immediate connection with Maisy. From the moment I met her, I knew she had to be in my life. Even though I didn’t really like dogs before. Even though my ex-husband objected to the idea of a dog. Even though I had to jump through a lot of hoops to bringing her home. I do love her deeply, and she does bring me so much joy. She often helps me feel better when I’m down, and she seems to instinctively know what I need from her at those times. But still, I was skeptical.

Until I read this definition from an article on MindBodyGreen: Soul mates are brought into your life so that you can grow and expand into the best version of yourself.

Well… yes, I believe Maisy has done this for me. In fact, the animal communicator had to interrupt herself at one point to say, “I’m sorry. I don’t usually read dogs without their person’s permission, but Maisy is being very loud and insistent right now. She says that you are her best project.”

This gave me chills. There are so very many reasons for this, many of them too personal for such a public space, but suffice it to say that Maisy is the best thing that has ever happened to me. Her presence in my life has created so many connections. Many of the most important relationships in my life- Sara, Margaret, Laura, Nicky, Megan, Elizabeth, Ryan, Lauren- have been because of Maisy. These are the people who have supported me and loved me through a very difficult year, who have enabled me to confront the demons of the past so that I can grow into the person I am meant to be. I love them all dearly.

So is Maisy my soul mate? Maybe. I still really don’t know what I think about the whole concept, but I do know that I couldn’t have made it through the last year without her and the people she’s brought into my life.  

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Kathy Sdao Seminar: The R in Dog Training

To Kathy, the most essential thing to understand about dog training is that consequences drive behavior. Period, end of story. What happens after a behavior happens is the best predictor of whether or not that behavior happens again. There are other important things, of course, and in fact, Kathy has an acronym for them: “Get SMART,” which stands for See, Mark, and Reward/Reinforce Training. (There’s actually a second S- set up- which I’ll talk about in a separate post because there’s a lot of great material there to apply to reactivity.) But the most important is the “R,” so that’s what I’m going to write about today.

The camera caught me mid-reinforcement!
Let’s start with the difference between reinforcement and rewards. Although it might appear that she’s using the two words interchangeably, she’s not. They aren’t the same thing. Rewards are given to an animal; it’s something he earned. Rewards don’t necessarily affect behavior (although they can create good will and enthusiasm). On the other hand, behaviors are reinforced. Reinforcement both causes the behavior to be repeated or occur more often and are contingent on that behavior happening. Reinforcement, Kathy says, is the trainer’s responsibility, not the animal’s.

Obviously, the more reinforcers you have, the better, and the amount of things you can use as a reinforcer is really limited by your own creativity. Classical conditioning will allow you to create a reinforcer. Or, you can use things your dog is distracted by as a reinforcer (this is basically the Premack Principle, and it’s very potent). And, as I’ve discussed on this blog before, cues can also be reinforcing.

I’ve always found this last bit fascinating, if a bit confusing. The truth is, while it’s awesome that cues as reinforcers gives you a lot more options, there are some downsides. You have to put a bit of work into cues-as-reinforcers; the cue must be familiar and the behavior must be fluent. It also needs to have been taught with positive reinforcement only. And then, if you’ve been lucky enough to create reinforcing cues, you need to be careful. If you give them simultaneously with bad behavior- such as when we try to redirect a behavior we dislike- it can reinforce that bad behavior. Oops.

This isn’t the only way reinforcement can go wrong. Remember how Pavlov’s dogs were conditioned to feel happy when they heard a bell that was followed by food? This can happen to anything. So if there are two events that happen sequentially, the way the dog feels about the second event can go backwards in time and contaminate the first. Sometimes this is awesome; dogs learn to love their clickers because they’ve been followed by treats. Sometimes, not so much. Kathy told us that if you reinforce a dog immediately after you’ve punished him, that punishment will become a reinforcer.

Say what? But… yeah, it can happen. It’s just two events getting associated with one another. For example, if you yell at your dog and then immediately praise him for making a better choice, the dog can learn to anticipate being praised after you yell. Or if you give him a collar correction for pulling on leash and then click and treat for heeling, collar corrections can become an opportunity to earn food. If this happens, every time you try to punish your dog by yelling at him or using a collar correction, you’ll actually be reinforcing the behavior and therefore causing it to happen more often!

This also works the other way around. If something bad happens immediately after you’ve offered your dog a toy or some food, then the bad thing can contaminate the good one. This can create a dog that “isn’t food motivated”- not because he doesn’t like food, but rather, because he’s afraid of what it predicts. And this doesn’t have to be punishment. If you try to help a dog get over his fears by luring him into the situation (for example, luring him to you to get a nail trim or to step on a wobble board), you’ll actually make things worse.

But don’t let all this scare you away from using reinforcement! For one thing, even if you aren’t a clicker trainer, it is impossible to avoid (anything that increases a behavior is reinforcement). Instead, avoid the pitfalls by simply separating reinforcement (good things) and punishment (anything scary or bad) with a pause long enough that the dog doesn’t associate the two.

Okay, so you’re ready to reinforce behaviors. You know how to avoid poisoning your treats. So… how do you give them? Experienced trainers know that the way you deliver reinforcement influences the final behavior. Using a marker (like a clicker) will reduce the impact of food delivery because the marker says that’s the behavior. Even so, that marker becomes a sort of cue in itself: it tells the dog that he has earned his reinforcer and that he should go to the location it will likely be delivered. Don’t fool yourself into thinking that only a clicker will tell the dog this; my Maisy has discovered that praise or even just a smile from me means that she should look for her treat. This is why, whether you use a marker or not, the place you give the treat matters so much.

There are three main places to give the treat: in position (while lying down, in heel position, etc.), in order to set up the next repetition of the behavior (for example, tossing the treat away from the dog’s mat when teaching “go to bed”), or “direction sliding” (where you move the dog to the correct location in order to fix a problem such as forging in heel or to further the dog’s learning such as teaching a spin). The option you choose will depend on both the stage of learning your dog is in as well as your final goal. And you may even switch back and forth between locations!

So that’s the down and dirty on reinforcement, AKA, the most important part of dog training. What have you learned about reinforcement? Worse yet, what did you learn the hard way?

Friday, August 2, 2013

CPDT Study Session #1: Instruction Skills

The section on instruction skills counts for 32% of the exam. The CCPDT’s study objectives indicate that there are three main components to instruction skills: interpersonal skills, teaching skills, and managing the training environment. To study, I read chapters 5, 6, and 7 of Terry Ryan’s book Coaching People to Train Their Dogs. I was a bit underwhelmed by what I read, which I take as a good sign. After all, if there was nothing new, that means I’m in good shape, right? Anyway, since this portion of the exam counts for a third of the final score, let’s take a deeper look at what is covered and what I read about.

Interpersonal Skills
This subsection includes verbal and written communication skills and interacting with clients. It includes an emphasis on client compliance, classroom management, and clients with special needs. I feel confident about this section (this is what I did for four years in social work school, so…).

Things I read about: tips to remember the humans’ names, things that get in the way of effective verbal communication, things that prevent you from listening effectively, and tips for handling an emotional or difficult student.

As a social worker, I do that last one a lot. The author recommend the acronym STOP:
(look for) Signals that you’re getting upset,
Take control of your own emotions,
(act) Opposite to your signals, and
Practice doing this in low-confrontation situations!

I think that’s pretty good advice. Being mindful of my own feelings and reactions helps me work with my clients better. I will occasionally find that I dislike working with someone; when I stop to think about why, I will find that something about them triggers my own stuff. (We all have stuff.) Knowing that can help me either get past that or request a reassignment in cases. Deep breathing, pausing before I reply, and using a calm, quiet voice will go a long way to defusing situations. This is because people tend to mirror one another’s feelings, and I want to be the one controlling the emotional tone.

I also liked the section on working with people with disabilities. I have been doing so professionally since 2001, and I thought the author did a nice job of briefly summarizing the various things you need to think about when helping someone with a disability train their dog. You need to consider the physical, environmental, and intellectual needs of handlers with disabilities. From the person’s ability to use training equipment and props to their need for additional space due to adaptive equipment to the pace at which they learn, there’s a lot to consider.

Teaching Skills
Here the exam addresses learning styles, the development of curriculum, handouts, and homework, knowledge of available resources, and the selection and use of demo dogs.

The author wrote that there are three main learning styles: auditory, visual, and kinesthetic (doing). A good instructor will ensure that each lesson includes all three styles. I did appreciate that she pointed out that for some of us, knowing why is just as important as knowing how.

I really appreciated that when she discussed the pros and cons of using either your own dog or a student’s dog for demonstrations, she pointed out the need to consider the stress levels of the dogs. Maisy can be a demo dog, but she’s not crazy about waiting around for her two minutes to shine.

The author also gave a number of suggestions for both developing handouts and assigning homework. I did find her homework section interesting, as she suggested ways to do so that I had not considered before. You can tell students to practice until they reach a particular goal, to practice for a certain amount of time each day, to do a certain number of repetitions, or challenge them to beat their own personal best records.

Managing the Training Environment
Finally, we look at the safety, physical layout, and distractions or disruptions that may happen in a training facility. She talked about what you should consider when choosing a site, whether indoor or outdoor will better meet your needs, and how to set the space up so dogs will be successful. She recommends the use of signs and props to create stations or designated walkways, which is pretty brilliant.

She also talked about preventing and breaking up dog fights, as well as what to do afterwards. Thankfully, I’ve never had to break up a fight in class, but it was nice to read about it anyway.

The section on distractions or disruptions was okay. She talked a lot about kids in class (I don’t see this much, but probably because I teach primarily reactive dog classes) and students who are talking too much. I have honestly found that my biggest interrupters come from outside the class: when I taught at PetSmart, it was customers, and now it’s people that are using the space we rent or people who wander in looking for the business next door (we keep the door locked now!).

Anyway, that’s some of what I read for this section. What about you guys? Anything interesting? Any books that I absolutely need to get my hands on? For the next two weeks, I'm going to brush up on Learning Theory. I feel very, very, very confident about this section, but let's do this anyway.