What a Bunch of Sit!

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Diesel’s training is progressing nicely.  We have a Front-Sit that’s working well.  In the coming days we’ll try to build a Heel-Sit too.  First I think we need to work on steadying his Front Sit so that I can walk away and trust him to hold Sit reliably.  I begin this phase by stepping carefully to the right or left while he is in Sit, then returning to my position and reinforcing his steady Sit with a click and treat.  As he becomes more reliable I will stretch my movement until I can walk completely around him while he holds the Sit position without moving his furry little bottom.

I don’t normally train a “Stay”.  I think Stay is a goofy command because its meaning is so arbitrary.  Want the dog to stay in the car while you run in the store for a minute?  You tell him Stay, right?  Want him to keep sitting next to you while you fumble with your house keys? Tell him Stay!  And what do you tell him as you walk out the door and want him to remain in the house?  Stay, right?  Each one of those Stays means something different to the dog.  In many cases he can be expected to break the command because you really can’t expect him to remain on Stay for 4 hours until you get back, so he breaks stay the minute you’re out of sight.  If you’ve used Sit and Stay, he now gets to blow off 2 of your commands in one fell swoop!

What does Stay mean?  And, since your Stay command is arbitrary to the point of being almost meaningless, why should he listen with rapt attention to your other cues/commands?

So, Sit is a big deal in my program because it’s the cue/command that replaces Stay. 

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Book Report: Positive Gun Dogs

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Positive Gun Dogs By: Jim Barry, Mary Emmen and Susan Smith

This book is the result of a collaboration between members of a yahoo discussion group dealing with clicker training.  It is published by Sunshine Books which is part of Karen Pryor’s clicker training empire. 

Jean Donaldson’s blurb on the back cover states that this book is never preachy in tone.  Apparently being a clicker trainer herself has made Jean tone-deaf because this book is preachy as hell right from the get-go.  Already on page one of the introduction the authors describe “force fetch” as if it were some kind of torture carried out by medieval henchman in dark dungeons.  By the time you finish the first page of chapter one you will read:

If you were to ask the average gun dog trainer to explain learning theory, he or she would not be able to do so and might even scoff at the idea of needing to understand such a thing.

Blanket statements such as the quote above do nothing to enhance the view of clicker training in the eyes of the “traditional trainer”.  Rather, these kinds of derisive comments serve only to alienate so-called traditional trainers and boost the egos of the authors who apparently harbor a sacrosanct belief that theirs is the only “right” method.

My question is this: If you truly believe in positive reinforcement then why don’t you just present the positive and effective aspects of your methods rather than using so much space to criticize and impugn the methods of others?  In a book as short as this (100 pages) it seems that all the space used to denigrate other methods is a product of the authors’ insecurity with their own techniques.

On pg. 13 the authors tell us the one area in which they use traditional training methods is in “snake avoidance training”.  For this kind of training the authors grudgingly admit, “electronic collar training is the most reliable.”  Apparently they don’t want this kind of reliability unless it’s a life or death situation involving a reptile.  Many trainers prefer to have this same degree of reliability in other situations as well.  We’ve never hunted around snakes, but having a 100 percent reliable remote-sit has saved my dogs from peril more than once. 

The chapter on basic learning theory is helpful if you’ve never read anything about operant conditioning. The information is straightforward and well presented. There are some good explanations of the operant conditioning quadrant, the Premack Principle and other learning basics. 

The next two chapters go on to explain more detail about the practical use of positive reinforcement and how to keep records of training progress.  Here the book shares a problem typical of clicker training literature, namely the seemingly endless use of jargon and acronyms.  One would think that a tome espousing the wonders of learning theory would find some way to make its contents easier to digest without all the alphabet soup.

In Chapter 4, Obedience Fundamentals, I was dismayed to find:

…,in hunting the dog can drop the bird on the ground rather than delivering to hand as the dog must for tests and trials.

This statement indicates a lack of familiarity with hunting retrievers and the job they perform in the field.  All of the bird hunters I know require their retrievers to deliver to hand.  Dropping a bird at the hunter’s feet is a sure way to cause unsafe situations in the field because wounded birds can create quite a disturbance in a duck blind or a small boat.  A quick game of “chase the bird” in a crowded duck blind is never a good idea.  Loaded shotguns and wild bird chases in a confined space are a recipe for disaster.

Another thing I find disappointing is the attitude that hunt test and field trial dogs are somehow superior to hunting dogs.  As in the example above, such attitudes are often based on deeply flawed assumptions about the role of a hunting dog in the field.

What follows in the next 4 chapters is basically an adaptation of Rex Carr’s training system that has been used to train retrievers for 50 years.  The system has been adapted to focus more on the carrot and ignore the stick, so to speak, but most of the underlying structure and drills are the same.

I must admit that I experienced a bit of cognitive dissonance as I read the book.  I attribute this to the unusual combination of its condescending tone, and political correctness combined with the fact that parts of the book actually mention bird hunting as if it were acceptable to the authors.  In one paragraph the reader is admonished on the horrors of inhumane training and in the next we read about the importance of retrieving “crippled birds” quickly before they get away.  All the while the book consistently uses the female pronoun for dogs; her, she, etc., as if the authors thought they were addressing a group of feminist duck hunters.  Odd, perhaps that was their target demographic?

While the authors admit that virtually ALL the dogs performing at the top levels of gundog sports have been trained using traditional methods; they claim this is simply because the science of clicker training is so new that it hasn’t had time to reach the top levels of these sports.  I seem to recall Karen Pryor making similar claims in the 80’s.

I spent a considerable amount of time and money to learn what I know about clicker training.  I’m very glad that I did.  Within the realm of positive reinforcement are some very powerful tools to help learning and behavior change.  What I’ve also learned is that they are not always the best or most effective tools for every dog in every situation. 

Nothing in this book has changed my view which can be summarized as follows:  Traditional methods work.  Clicker training works.  If you observe carefully, a dog will show you what approach or combination of methods works best for him or her.  If you decide what approach to use based on human traditions or your own ideological convictions, you have ignored the dog.

In closing I would like to add that $24.95 (plus $5 shipping) is entirely too much to pay for this book. 

I Hope This Clicks!

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Diesel’s training is underway!  Before we could really get started I wanted him to have a day or two to settle into our routine.  I also needed time to observe and make some decisions about methods and tools.

I decided to employ positive reinforcement and clicker training with Diesel.  Those who know me will already know that I use traditional methods with some dogs and clicker training with others.  I try to let the dogs tell me what is going to work best with them.

Diesel showed some timidity when I approached him with a training lead in my hand.  He also showed some other signs of subordination and/or submission that didn’t seem appropriate to the situation.  Basically, we’re dealing with some fear issues.  When I play with Diesel and get him in the mood for some rough-housing, the timidity goes away and he shows a bolder, more confident side.

Of course I could use traditional training methods to develop obedience in Diesel, but I would risk losing that happy, playful demeanor he shows when we’re just goofing off.  The trick here will be to get him to a place where he is making good decisions about obedience and still keep that happy-go-lucky attitude that makes him such a fun guy to be around.

Wish me luck!

Tall Tails and/or Science

Interesting article in the Washington post today.

NPR has the same story here.

Wonder of wonders!  Researchers have discovered that the manner in which a dog wags his tail reveals something about his present emotional state!  They even drill down to the evidence that shows a “right wag” or a “left wag” can give clues about the dog’s intentions to attack or remain relaxed at the approach of another animal.

Personally, I would probably be looking at the other end of the dog, you know, the end with all the teeth?  That end usually gives the most accurate clues about the dog’s emotional state and intentions.

I really enjoyed the comment section just below the articles.  There are some funny folks out there!  As you can probably guess, the discussion quickly devolved into emotional condemnations of docked tails and other atrocities.  Meh… not so fun.  People really love to criticize each other for their “wrong” ideas about dogs, don’t they?

Just so you know:  I’m wagging to the right at the moment.  Friendly and relaxed!

Sometimes Extinction Is A Good Thing!

Behavioral science is full of screwy, confusing terminology.  “Positive reinforcement” isn’t necessarily good. “Negative reinforcement” gets a bad rap partly because of the word, “negative”.  “Negative” and “extinction” can actually be good things.

In the highly derivative and somewhat esoteric language of behavioral science, “extinction” means the withholding of reinforcement (reward) for a previously learned behavior.  Let’s look at a typical example.

Fido, a little Shih Tsu, has developed a habit of whining and jumping up on your legs when he wants attention.  This is previously learned behavior.  Guess who taught it to him?  Yes, that would be you.  Now your friendly neighborhood behaviorist (dog trainer) tells you to ignore Fido when he jumps on you and that will cause the behavior to stop.  This is what we call behavioral extinction.  The behavior (jumping) will eventually go “extinct” when the reward (your attention) is no longer reinforcing the behavior.

 As a trainer, this is a very familiar scenario to me.  It’s also one of my biggest challenges because people find that when they stop rewarding a behavior, the behavior actually INCREASES!!!  In our example, you have stopped rewarding Fido’s jumping.  Each time he jumps, you turn away from him and completely ignore him as long as he has his little paws on your legs.  The problem is that you find he is now getting really frantic and jumping and whining and pawing even more.  You then decide that “extinction” is just a crock of behaviorist crapola and you surrender to your dog’s frantic attention-getting strategy.

What actually happened in the preceding paragraph is called an “extinction burst”.  It is extremely common and quite predictable in most cases.  Fido’s attention getting strategy is suddenly not working, so he tries even harder to get your attention, leaping, whining, barking, etc. until you finally give in and pick him up just to get the noise to stop.

Too bad.  By picking him up you just made the problem even worse.  And you were so close to the goal line too!  You see, typically an extinction burst marks the beginning of behavioral change within the brain.  If you can get through 3 or 4 of these kinds of burst-episodes, that’s all it normally takes for Fido to give up the jumping behavior because he understands that it just doesn’t work anymore.

Once you have successfully modified this undesired behavior, you can give Fido a new behavior by rewarding a SIT with your attention and affection.

Still think “extinction” is behaviorist crapola?  How long would you continue to go to work if they stopped paying you?  How frantic would you be to get the pay that you had already earned?  When it was obvious that your place of work was not going to pay, would you keep getting up at 6:00 AM every morning and going to the same office demanding your paycheck?  Probably not.  At some point even the most dogged (pun intended) of us would give up and try something else.

So… what undesirable behaviors are you currently reinforcing and how would you go about bringing them to extinction?

Diesel Dawg!

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We adopted a new dog last night.  Just like that. We really couldn’t say “no” to a handsome fella like “Diesel”.  As you can see from the photo, Diesel is a German Shepherd.  He’s 9 months old and ready to learn.  To keep a long story short, I’m just going to tell you that he wasn’t working out in his previous home.  It wasn’t Diesel’s fault and it doesn’t help to blame the owner either.  Things just weren’t working for him. 

It was sad to see his guardian tell him goodbye, but enough of this sad stuff!  It’s time to start looking forward to a better, brighter future for this young guy.  He’s a bit aloof right now, as GSDs are prone to be.  He’s afraid of his own shadow at the moment, but I believe that will change as his training progresses and his confidence builds.

My plan at the moment is to keep him for about a month so we can work on basic obedience and social skills.  When I’m confident that he’s ready, we’ll start looking for a new home for Diesel.

I wasn’t crazy about the name, “Diesel”, but he does seem to recognize it.  Perhaps it’s more important to work on substantive issues rather than get hung up on a name.  After all, he’s got a lot of new stuff to work out, so I think I should let him keep the name.  What do you think?

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That was FUN, but it’s time to get back to work.

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The kennel re-opens today after being closed for 2 months.  The first dogs show up this evening and more are coming throughout the week. 

It’s been a glorious sabbatical! I’ve had plenty of time to work with my own dogs.  We’ve been hunting in Eastern Washington, the Olympic National Forest and some local areas that must remain secret!  Kaia is hunting better than ever and Peck, who was just a bumbling puppy last season, has become a hard charging little bird maniac. 

The re-opening of the kennel doesn’t end our hunting season, but it reduces it to a series of short, local hunts rather than the 3 week epic bird-a-thons we’ve been enjoying on the other side of the Cascades.

 

I’m glad to be getting back to work.  All this time off is great, but I miss having all the dogs around.  I’ve had a chance to recharge and I’m ready to take on the wild beasts again! 

I have a class starting at Sprinker Center called “Click It, Don’t Kick It!”  This is a positive reinforcement training class that runs for 6 weeks.  We start up on Tuesday 11/5.  You can get details and sign up info HERE.  

Or just call Sprinker Recreation Center at 253 798 4000

Next, on Saturday Nov. 9 we begin our next series of Beginning Obedience for Sporting Dogs.  This is a traditional training class primarily for young sporting breeds, Labs, Pointers, Setters, Goldens, Chessies, etc.  This class runs every Saturday for 6 weeks, from 10 to 11:30 AM here at Muck Creek Kennels.  To sign up for this class, just call Muck Creek Kennels at 253 442 9625

See you in class! 

Oh…. I almost forgot…  Don’t forget to bring your human!