Friday, March 30, 2012

Some Random Thoughts From A Trainer’s Perspective About Dogs, Clickers, And Life Rewards

The most unfortunate thing about clicker training is the name
The word "clicker"conjures up a gimmicky toy, a fad, something cheap and temporary. Actually, clicker training employs the laws of behavior and relies upon the science of learning. It is both simple and complex. It is therefore also ironic.

Clicker training ROCKS
Once your dog understands the game “I do something and you tell me if I am on the right track and then reward me for it” only the sky is  the limit.  

Must I always use food as a reward?
No. You must, however, use something your learner finds rewarding. Food happens to be a. necessary for survival b. universally enjoyed c. easy to obtain and use

How can I tell the difference between a clicker trainer and a trainer with a clicker?

The most telling indication is that clicker trainers do not intentionally add corrections into the training process. There is no need, as the “no” is built in to the click. No click means “try again, dog”.  Leash pops, “Eh-eh’s” and the like are not only irritating and unnecessary, more importantly, they can weaken the cue. A cue is an opportunity-it is never an implied threat. 
A cue is an opportunity for good things to come
A command says  “Do it NOW or else.” 

Good training is fair to the learner
Tasks are sliced into tiny steps and then taught one step at a time. If you get to a sticking point, simply go back to the last step and then work your way back up. 
This ensures a fast-paced, fun, and effective learning environment. 

A clicker is a marker, not a remote control. 
It doesn’t make the dog do something. It does tells the dog something “Yes, this is exactly what I want”

Can anyone can call himself or herself a dog trainer?
Yes, anyone. Even the guy in the yellow suit standing next to us who looks like he should be getting back to selling used cars. Just because an individual has a lot of dogs does not mean that person understands dog behavior. The guy in the yellow suit may work around lots of cars, (get it? LOTS of cars?!) but that is no guarantee he has the skills to repair one.

So, what questions should I ask a potential trainer?
Where did you learn to become a dog trainer?
Do you hold any certifications and from what organizations?
Do you belong to any professional groups? Which?
What was the last seminar you attended or book you read about dogs or dog training? What tools do you use? 

But I don’t want to use treats!
Somehow the notion that a dog should work for us motivated only by the sheer joy of being in our presence became accepted as truth. 
Treats are not a "bribe" and they will not result in a dog that "only works for food" (oddly enough, I never hear "My dog only works to avoid a correction") or one that is "spoiled", nor will it result in a dog that "begs for food". Can all of those things occur around food? Yes. But that is not what clicker training is.

My dog "knows he is not supposed to ----------"
Dogs have a far different culture than we do. In our culture it would be considered the height of impropriety to sniff the genitals of someone you were just introduced to, especially at a business meeting (if you try this at your next company gathering, do let me know how it turns out) If you are a dog, however, this is a perfectly acceptable greeting. It is not “right” or “wrong”, it is simply a cultural difference. Teaching your dog to abide by the rules of your culture is the fair thing to do-do not expect that he already knows the customs of your country. In Greece, holding your hand outstretched, palm showing, is the equivalent to giving someone the middle finger in the United States. If no one teaches you this before you visit Crete, you might receive a punch in the nose from a parent while innocently asking their child to "halt" as a car approaches.

Routine and practice are your friends
If you give a dog too much room for invention, his ideas of fun and amusement will likely not be ones you would suggest for him (unless you also enjoy digging holes, barking, and shredding things- I do not judge)

Will I have to carry a clicker and treats with me forever?
No. We use clickers to teach a specific behavior. The click marks the behavior, the food (or reinforcer) creates the association (good or bad) and what is reinforced will likely be repeated. In other words, given enough practice the behavior itself becomes the reward.

To gain control, you must give up control
I know, it sounds very new-age and annoying, but bear with me here. Push someone and they lean towards you to keep from falling over (the opposition reflex). Remember the old black light posters from the 1970's with the butterfly or a bird in flight that said "If you love something let it go, if it comes back to you its yours..." (Stay with me! I promise I am going somewhere with this) Set the environment up in such a way that the learner does what you want him to do of his own volition and you hold all the cards. 

B.F. Skinner (Walden Pond) says it like this:  “They are doing what they want to do, not what they are forced to do. That's the source of the tremendous power of positive reinforcement-- there's no restraint and no revolt. By careful cultural design, we control not the final behavior, but the inclination to behave-- the motives, desires, the wishes.” 

In other words, make it their idea. Come on-it's a dog. It's not that hard! Here's the thing-we constantly struggle with what we think the dog should be doing-in other words, we are fighting ourselves. The dog is simply being a dog. Manage his environment and set him up to behave in ways which you approve.

1970's Flashbacks? Why am I reading this blog, again?
Because you love your dog! 

Peace Out.

Monday, February 6, 2012

A Personal Lesson In Behavior

I wrote the following after reading about a controversial method (shock) to stop severely disabled persons from hurting themselves. The individuals behind the button administering the shocks had the best of intentions. Despite this, the system was abused, according to court documents. Some of the parents of these students reported success when nothing else had worked. Using force to control behavior often works. But at what cost? Because it does come with a price, not only to the recipient but to the giver. I have replaced the word "shock" with the word "force" in this article, as undoubtably shock will one day be replaced with some new instrument serving the same purpose.

How it started

I have (reluctantly if I may be truthful) somehow always found myself involved in causes related to mental retardation. My stepmother was a change maker in the field of mental retardation. She was the founder of a group that took mentally retarded young adults (back when they were called mentally retarded and not mentally disabled) on vacations to places like Disney World. This was before the integration of mentally disabled persons was common and many of them had never been on a vacation before.
She also fought, and I do mean fought (there were organized protests against the idea) to establish group homes for mentally retarded individuals in local residential neighborhoods. At the time, I didn't realize how brave my stepmother was. I would go to work with her and help as a teaching assistant in classes for mentally retarded children. I would go home at night thinking, "How do the parents do it?"

And then it was me

Before autism was so commonly diagnosed my son visited pediatric neurologists, MD's, pediatric opthamologists and other professionals in hopes of explaining his strange behavior. All scratched their heads in puzzlement, as my son could speak a bit and he obviously enjoyed being held and spoken to,  contrary to the image of autism the doctors held at the time-that of an unreachable child incapable of forming bonds with caretakers. My son's behavior history was complicated and chaotic. He had completed certain milestones right on schedule, and others were skipped completely. He went from never crawling to walking. He went from never speaking to a three-word phrase ("It's all gone") All the while screaming, biting, pinching and having tantrums not daily, but hourly. He never spent a complete night sleeping, but would wake at odd hours and go into the kitchen to methodically pull the labels off of cans or spread flour onto floors or countertops. My home was toddler-proofed and child-locked and yet he still managed to leave the room looking like a family of raccoons had broken in. The pressure never ended and I am not sure how I lived through it.

A chance encounter with a book provides clues

It wasn't until I picked up a book at my local library just to read, nothing more, that the mystery was solved.  I began reading the first page. Then slowly sat down and read the entire book over the course of some hours, crying at times because finally someone else described my son and what it was like to live with an autistic child. At the time, my arms were always scratched and bruised as my son lashed out in frustration of not being able to tolerate sensations too raw for him to bear-temperature change, sounds, and most of all, changes in routine. In the back of the book was an 800-number for a national autism group (this was before the World Wide Web), which I called first thing the next morning, trying to speak to the kind woman who answered through a throat strangled with tears of both relief and also great grief. The woman asked where I lived and suggested I seek a true diagnosis so I could get my son into an appropriate learning environment.

The diagnosis

Off to (a university near my home) for an evaluation we went, but only after a long drawn-out battle (the first of many battles with red tape) with DenialCare Insurance Company. The battle ended with a personal call to my home from the president of the company, reluctantly agreeing to foot the cost of the evaluation. I didn't win them all, but that one felt good and I learned how to negotiate and win against large entities with way more money and education than I possessed.

After a ten-day on site evaluation the diagnosis was clear and I was called to meet with the staff to discuss the findings.


He tested appropriate to his age level in some areas and some at the level of a toddler (he was seven) We sat in chairs placed in a circle as each expert read her bit of bad news. A social worker was required to be there. She cocked her head in sympathy and said "Mom, how do you feel about what you are hearing?" I just turned away from her, and continued asking questions of the rest of the panel.

But she would not drop her efforts to justify her presence in the group, asking again "How does this news make you feel?"

"How do you think hearing that your child that you brought into this world will never live on his own, will never marry, will never drive a car, will never hold a job, and will never have a child of his own, feels?" I still burn at the simplicity of her question in the face of such a dire and complicated diagnosis. This would not be my last encounter with people like this social worker, who rely on rote to avoid painful truths. I am not sure what she expected with her question.

In any case, after the meeting, I had some decisions to make. Medication for my son was suggested. I was warned that if I did not get these harmful behaviors under control now, my son would be "chemically straight-jacketed" as an adult. I became a reluctant student of behavior and sought help immediately from behavior specialists. I was very very lucky to live in a state where such options were available. My son now lives in a house with other autistic adults, supervised three to one (some homes require one to one supervision so I take this as progress) and holds a simple job in a place that uses respect and kindness in all of their interactions with my son and the others like him. No force was ever used to change my son's behavior. I chose to not use medication as none existed that showed true change, but rather worked by blanketing impulses.

"(insert some dire outcome) will happen if we don't use (insert some force based method)"

I look at it another way. The behavior of the learner may indeed be stopped more quickly (not changed, mind you, but stopped) if I would use force, but I would also be changed. And I am not willing to undergo that transformation. Management, reinforcing behavior, setting up the environment for success-all may take more time than using force but I will consider that time well spent.
I have heard that everything happens for a reason.
I have done things I am not proud of; I have not been perfect. But I hold one thing close to my heart, as evidence of good:
There are people willing to work to change behavior using kindness and respect and that makes the world a better place.
"If we hit hard enough, we clear a little place in the wilderness of civilization, but we make the rest of the wilderness still more terrible" ~ BF Skinner

Related Reading:
"Don't Shoot The Dog" Karen Pryor

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Why Should I Bribe My Dog?

"My dog should do what I ask because I said so. No bribes here!"
"Of course he's listening to you! You have treats!"
"Giving treats creates a dog that is sure to beg at the table"
If I had a dime for every time I have heard one of these statements, I would be writing this on a keyboard made of gold, just like Kanye.
Like most conventional wisdom, all of these statements are born of a toe dipped into the pool of truth. You certainly can teach your dog to only perform some of the time when you have a treat in your hand and you most certainly can create a dog who begs at the table. I have provided a step by step training plan at the end of this article to teach those very things (not that you'd want to!) But first, I want to talk about some of the reasons we may struggle with the idea of training with food. 
"My dog should do as I say. I should not have to use treats at all"
There is a pervasive belief in our culture that dogs live to please us. At the same time, we are told that dogs are out to take over ("dominate us" is the way this is usually described) the household given half a chance. I am not sure how these two beliefs can exist at the same time but they do and I believe that this dichotomy accompanied by childhood memories of strict instructions to never feed our dog from the table is largely responsible for the angst we feel when we consider training with food.
"Of course he's paying attention to you! You have treats!"
Here's what I say to this: Yes! Exactly! Food is a very powerful reinforcer. Why wouldn't he pay attention to me when there is the possibility of earning a treat? After all, what do we do when we plan a celebration? We include FOOD. We make special food for special occasions, share our favorite food in casual gatherings, prepare meals by hand for those we love, in fact, we rarely do anything socially with others without food being present in some way.  Yet we are appalled when a dog is also happy to see and eat food. Why? Is it that we think of it as a bribe and not a reward?
"Okay, you tell me why training with food isn't a flat out bribe"
Bribe: Something serving to influence or persuade.
Reward: Something given or received in recompense for worthy behavior
Common denominator? Both involve the giving of something desired in return for an action. 
The difference? One happens before the action, which is  usually an unsavory act (bribe) and the other after the action, usually a worthy act (reward) 
Let's not forget biology
A dog will work for his food, just as dogs have done from the beginning of time. 
Dogs that must find their own food do not lie around waiting for it to be delivered. Even dogs in the poorest countries that live off of trash heaps must work for their meals, dodging competitors in an attempt to get the best food first. It is not a life of leisure.
Clicker (or marker)Training
There are many good books and articles written about clicker training, making it unnecessary for me to explain the concept here. I have included some excellent resources at the bottom of this page so I will only make the following points:
Clicker training is not about the food. It is about reinforcement and creating a positive association between the cue (command) and the behavior (the "sit" or "stay" or whatever you are teaching). Think Pavlov and the power of association. 
Teaching in small steps and rewarding each successful step while gradually increasing the difficulty of the steps allows you to teach a dog anything he is physically and mentally capable of performing. As a bonus, properly rewarding those achievements creates a dog that enthusiastically participates in the training process; a dog unafraid to try different behaviors because if he is on the wrong track, he knows it instantly by virtue of not hearing the click. The click=yes=reward (usually, but not always, food) Why food? As we have already discussed, food is a very powerful reinforcer. It is also convenient and necessary (all living things must eat)
People new to clicker training are often surprised at the small size of the treats used. Most often they are the size of a pea. Training sessions are kept short so the actual food consumed is fairly small. You can always reduce regular feedings by the amount you give in training sessions if weight gain is a concern.
Now, as promised, here is a step by step plan to teach your dog to beg at the table and to only perform "sometimes" when food is used.
Begging at the table: Feed your dog at the table for breathing. He shows up, he gets food. Just toss your little fluffball bits of steak and other goodies as you eat dinner and I guarantee he will be back the next time around! Oh, wait...what? You only meant to do that once and he should know when not to beg? Sorry, your dog learns fast and remember, food is a powerful reinforcer. Toss him treats while you are eating and you will have a dinner companion forever. Bonus: you can easily teach him to also whine by tossing him a treat when he does to "make him stop"
Teaching your dog to only work "when he feels like it": Begin this behavior by holding the food out in an obvious manner (you may try waving it near his nose) as you ask him to do something over and over again. Confusing him is the goal here so it really helps if you talk to him throughout. Just assume that even if he does not understand every word, he surely understands what you mean. Here is an example:
Hold food out as you say "Sit!" As the dog moves towards the food, jerkily move it around, like a mosquito in flight, always keeping it in the dog's view as you provide a running commentary; "Nooooo, sit. Did I say come and get the food? No, I said "sit" SIT, sit, sit, SIT, sit sit. Noooooo, SIT, Fluffy. Fluffy...Fluffy...Fluffy... SIT. Oh, here. Here is your cookie. Next time sit when I ask you to.
Better yet, you could just consider that you hold all the cards and make the power of food work for YOU!

Happy Training!