Sunday, February 20, 2011

Still Life With Pig

Meet Tofu, a four month old Vietnamese Potbellied Pig and the newest addition to our home!

Tofu arrived yesterday after a harrowing three hour-plus drive through a heavy Oregon snowstorm. His foster family, who bravely drove him here to Bend, had been caring for the little black pig for the last three weeks.  The kind foster family arranged for his medical care, including a much needed neutering. Even now, two weeks after his surgery Tofu is quite amorous, grunting at me in what we have come to call his "Barry White voice".

Many people adopt Potbellied Pigs after hearing that "Pigs make great pets!" and "Pigs can be easily taught to use a litter box!"

Just be aware- pigs can be taught to use a litter box, but many  will never defecate in them, preferring the great outdoors (or your floors) for this activity.

Pigs can also make great pets-if your expectations are reasonable. Do not be swayed by fond memories of the genius-like Arnold the Pig or clever Babe or even sweet naive Wilbur from "Charlotte's Web". Your pig will never gain the power of human speech, nor will he influence spiders to spin webs in which colorful words hang like raindrops-believe me.

Nonetheless, a pig, like any other species, deserves to be taught using the fairest method available.

I believe that when you bring another species into your home, you are as obligated to teach them and to care for them as you would a child. Fortunately this does not include sending them to college, paying for orthodontics, or allowing them the use of the family car.

Knox gets a look at the new guy. "What kind of cat IS that???"
It does, however,  require you, the human with the (presumably) larger brain, to also use the kindest method possible in teaching your new addition the rules of the house.

Today's Lesson

A pig, in nature, would never wear a harness.

This piece of equipment has no meaning in a pig's natural world.

When living with humans, however, a harness is a useful piece of equipment that allows us to safely travel small distances.

But how do we communicate to the pig that despite what he thinks, we are not trying to harm him or trap him (surely a harness must feel this way to a prey animal?)

Simple! We make the entire thing his idea.

What do you mean, Chris?

I'll show you! This video was taken on Tofu's second day in residence at my home. Total time spent training was about nineteen minutes or so, broken into three small training sessions. It may seem like a long time. Some may insist, "Chris! Just slap the darned thing on and be done with it!" But really,  a twenty minute investment in such a useful behavior is well worth the time, yes?  Even more importantly for me, it establishes the relationship between us as one of trust.

You give me what I want and I will reward you for it

Being a young pig, Tofu has had very little experience with a harness. As you will see, in the first frame, he cautiously backs away from the harness. BUT-by the end, he is standing in place for the harness to be fastened! Smart pig!  Watch video by clicking here  -use your back button to return to this article.

How was this training accomplished?

The clicker

A clicker takes a snapshot of the behavior you want. When the click is followed by a reward the clicker becomes a very powerful training tool- the training itself  becomes rewarding!

This results in training that is:

FAST (amazingly fast, especially as the learner 'learns to learn')
Fun for both the learner and the subject
Successfully retained (sometimes years later, even if not performed during all that time)
Simple-anyone can learn how to do this!

I hope you will check back often to learn how Tofu is progressing. We would love to see you here again! And as always, comments, questions, and sharing of ideas are welcome :)

Happy Training!

For more information about Pot Bellied Pigs go to:  
Northwest Miniature Pig Association
If you would like to learn more about clicker training, go to:

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

What Do You See?

We naturally interpret everything our dog does through the only filter we have at our disposal-our own perspective as a human.                    

Unfortunately, dogs are not humans and although so many of their expressions look like ours, they almost always have very different meanings.

Take the photo of the dog to the left.

What would you guess about this dog based on this photo?

Most people will answer "This dog feels sad" Some may also interpret his expression as one of guilt, especially if they had arrived just in time to see him slink from the room.

Actually, the dog in the photo above is feeling worry and is trying to avoid conflict-this worry may have been triggered by something as innocuous as the camera lens, as focused and unblinking as a giant eye. The dog is uncomfortable, yes. Guilty, no. I will explain more about that later.

First, look how similar the dog's expression is to the one of the dark haired woman in the photo, who clearly is feeling sadness (and perhaps guilt). 
    How do I know what she is feeling? I know  this because humans have specific facial expressions that have the same meaning across all cultures.  You may be very surprised at how accurately you can recognize the emotions behind human facial expressions, yourself. Test yourself here (use your browser's back button to return to this article) to see how well you recognize expressions!    
How well did you do? Were you surprised at all?
Now click here to try a similar test of interpreting canine expressions. Very different, right?

Back to our subject at hand. The woman on the right is also feeling conflict of some sort ("Uh-oh! Did I leave my good shoes out?") The little dog below is wearing an almost identical expression.

Once again-with a very different meaning.
The dog may, to us, look remorseful and perhaps guilty (especially given his surroundings).  Likely, this dog is reacting to the anger signals given by the human who just discovered her $1,000 plus mistake.

Consider this for a moment... remorse is "an expression of personal regret". Dogs do not understand the concept of "expensive shoes". To a dog, such as the pug in the photo,  this pile of shoes is merely a pile of chewy stuff that smells wonderfully like us.  

To experience personal regret for something he has no concept of is impossible.

But, darn it-it sure looks like remorse!

Therein lies the problem and the root of so many canine/human misunderstandings. If your own eyes are telling you one thing and yet someone (me) is telling you another, who are you going to believe?

Rest assured,  you are not alone.

This experience is so common that Alexandra Horowitz, Assistant Professor at Barnard College in New York set about finding an explanation.

A study was done in which dog owners were asked to leave the room after ordering their dogs to not eat a tempting treat that was then left behind. While the humans were away, Ms. Horowitz gave some of the dogs the treat, and some she did not. When the humans returned, they were either told their dog ate the treat when it did not, or that the dog did not eat the treat, when it had.
Some dogs were scolded for eating the treat when they had not.
Some dogs were scolded for eating the treats and had actually done so.

The result?

The dogs "looked guilty" when scolded, whether they had eaten the treat or not!


The dogs were responding to the human's behavior. Their reactions were ones of appeasement, not guilt. (You can read a more thorough description of the experiment here)

Next time you arrive home to find a pile of chewed shoes, don't punish the dog! Do feel free to admonish yourself, however.  And feel free to look guilty-you have earned it!
Happy Training!

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Do you know it here? Do you know it there? Do you know it everywhere?

Humans are really, really good at generalizing.

Dogs are not. Maybe it’s because what we ask them to do is so strange and foreign to them that generalizing becomes impossible. I’m not sure. Perhaps it’s a bit of both.

You're losing me, Chris. How about an example?

Okay. If you teach your dog to “sit” by standing in front of him while in your kitchen, then ask him to “sit” while you are outdoors and you are seated in a chair, he will likely look at you, wag his tail and continue doing whatever it was he was doing before you began speaking.

This, to 99% of us looks like “That darned dog just blew me off! He KNOWS how to sit! He just did it 100 times in the kitchen!” Many uninformed trainers will suggest that this is the time for a “correction”.

Not so fast.

Watch this video carefully (just use your computer’s “back” button to return)

  • Did you notice that each time I said the word “sit” my body rocked forward slightly?
  • Did you see that by the third time, all I had to do was rock forward and Dexter sat?
That’s because in Dexter's mind, the cue to sit was not the word, it was my body “signal!”  I did this little exercise on purpose to illustrate a point. But what if you were unaware that your cue is something other than what you thought?

Would you become frustrated when your dog failed to perform as requested?
What if your trainer recommended that you punish the dog for not responding to something he “knows” how to do?
What must your dog think of you if (to him) you become angry out of the clear blue sky?
Would he trust you enough to continue to offer you behaviors in an attempt to figure out what exactly you want?

Detach, detach, detach.

Because we humans are so verbal, we often assume it’s the word that the dog understands and is cueing from, when as you clearly saw from the video sometimes the cue is not what we think it is.
Take your emotions out of the situation. If your dog does not do something you have just asked him to do, is it because the cue is not what you thought it was? Are you bending forward as you give the cue? Rocking back? Blinking? All of these things are usually easier for most dogs to latch onto and understand than a verbal cue!
Take corrections OUT of your training plan. You don’t need them. They only serve to muddle the training process because if your dog does NOT understand what you are asking him to do, why would he understand a correction for something he does not understand in the first place? Never forget that we are teaching another species to perform behaviors that make no sense in his world. In real life, dogs do not instruct one another to "down" or "sit".

If you are getting inconsistent results when you offer a cue, go back to the start and really examine your training. You may even have to train the entire behavior from scratch, using a brand new cue.

Next, generalize the behavior by teaching it again in new locations, using baby steps as you change the environment. Do not expect perfection. Just because your dog sits perfectly at home, this does not mean he will sit perfectly in the middle of Home Depot with shopping carts buzzing around him. Take time to adjust for new situations.
Video is your friend-record a training session or two-you may be very surprised at what you discover (And no, I am not talking about your rear view!)

 Happy Training!