Consequences!

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Once upon a time in a career far far away, I was sitting in an auditorium at a sales seminar, listening to the speaker explain that every purchasing decision is made on the basis of emotions.  The two most common emotions that drive people’s purchasing decisions are fear and greed.  He claimed that nearly every purchase we make is driven by one or both of these emotions.  He asked the audience if anyone could remember making a purchase that was not driven by emotions.  Someone in the audience raised their hand and he asked them what their “emotion free” purchase was.  The guy stood up so everyone could see him and loudly exclaimed, “toilet paper!”  This was met with a roar of laughter from the audience. 

When the laughter had died down the speaker asked the poor guy why he was buying toilet paper.  “Because we were almost out”, he said sheepishly.  “And how did you feel about that?” asked the speaker.  There was a murmur of agreement from the audience accompanied by nodding and a giggle or two.  Every one of us in the room could relate to the mild fear that drove that purchasing decision.

If you want to get kinda philosophical about this, you can think for a minute about what an enormous role fear plays in each of our lives.  What kind of person would you be if there was no fear?  What would motivate your actions in the absence of this emotion?  What would our existence be like if our actions did not have consequences?  More importantly, what the heck does this have to do with dogs?

Everything.  I don’t know about you, but I have to constantly remind myself that each and every behavior, whether it is dog behavior or human behavior, has a consequence.  Think about it for a minute…  It bears repeating doesn’t it?  Each and every behavior has a consequence.

Whether it’s your kid being rude, your spouse being extra kind or your dog jumping on you with muddy paws, each of those behaviors has a consequence.  The likelihood that the behavior will reoccur is directly affected by the consequence.

“Well, that’s all just peachy, Jon, but what does that have to do with dog training?”

Consequences are the “reinforcers” we are always talking about!  If you want to know why Fido jumps on you, look for the consequence.  Why is your daughter so incredibly rude sometimes?  What is the consequence!  If your wife is especially kind and sweet to you on Thursday, what is the consequence?  By identifying the consequences of a given behavior we are focusing on what reinforces that behavior. 

When we have a firm grasp on what the reinforcers are, we are in a much better position to modify the behavior.  If we have control over the reinforcers (we don’t always have this) we are able to design a program to modify, increase, or eliminate the behavior.

In the case of the dog that jumps on you, what are the consequences?  Physical interaction is the first one that comes to mind.  The dog gets to “play” with you even if you don’t think it’s fun, it’s still play to him because he initiates the activity and you respond in a way that satisfies his need for physical interaction with you.   Game ON!

What if the consequence was the immediate denial of attention?  The important part of that last sentence was the word, “immediate”.  The strategy only works if the dog understands the removal of attention as a direct consequence of the jumping behavior.

I chose this particular behavior/consequence as an example because I’m using it right now on a dog that is boarding here at the kennel.  He is a world class jumper who absolutely cannot resist jumping and putting his paws on me.  In order for him to understand that this has a negative consequence for him, I wait until he has stopped jumping before I open his kennel door to let him out.  It takes him a minute to settle down, but he gets better at it every time I let him out for his exercise.  Dogs here at MCK get out for exercise at least 4 times every day, so I use this opportunity even if they are not here specifically for training.  Similarly, I refuse to pet, touch, or make any contact with the dog unless he has all four paws on the ground.  Keep in mind, this dog is not here for training so I have not had any focused sessions with him, but we are seeing a huge improvement in the jumping behavior already after a week here at the kennel.

When he goes home, his humans are likely to continue with their old ways and he will begin to jump on people again, but I can’t do anything about that.  Why not?  Because I have no control over the consequences of these people’s behavior!

So now that you’ve read the long version, I’ll give you the short “Easy Button” version:

Look for the consequence to identify the reinforcer.

Determine if you have any control over the consequence/reinforcer.

Modify the consequence to modify the behavior.

Slack Leads to you all!

Have a Frosty Rainier!

We try to get out every morning for a walk.  It was a little chilly yesterday.  That doesn’t bother us at all.

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Sometimes I hunt with a shotgun and sometimes I hunt with a camera, but we’re always hunting as far as Kaia and Peck are concerned.  I enjoy the scenery and they enjoy the “smellery”.

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When the temperature gets this low there is always ice to contend with.  Ice can be a very dangerous element for retrievers.  There’s really no way to teach them how to handle ice other than to expose them carefully and allow them to figure it out.  There are many different kinds of ice that a retriever needs to be able to navigate.  There’s solid ice, wet slippery ice,  thin cracking ice, cutting ice, slushy ice, ice breaking at the edge, and on and on.  If a dog’s first encounter with ice occurs while he is running a retrieve, the odds of injury increase exponentially.  It’s far better to allow a dog to learn about ice while he can approach it with some caution.

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In the photo above you can see Peck’s trail through the ice near the top of the photo.  He charged through a thin layer and I think he was surprised to find it rather uncomfortable.  After charging through the thin layer he turned around to go back and check it out.  I could almost hear the wheels turning in his doggy brain as he stored the data for future encounters with the cold, hard stuff.

This is how dogs learn to deal with a lot of things they encounter.  All we have to do as trainers is get them out into the wilds where they can gather these experiences.  No amount of classes or training programs, books or DVDs can ever replace the simple act of getting out there and doing it.

The dogs and I were walking through a field of mowed Scotch Broom the other day.  I was thinking about a friend who was deathly afraid of allowing his dog to run through the stubble.  It seems his dog had sustained a foot injury on a previous jaunt through the field of sticks.  He didn’t want to let his dog run there, ever again.  My dogs have been running through stubble since they were puppies.  We’ve never seen a foot injury resulting from this. (Knock on wood!)  I believe they have a way of paying attention to their feet that allows them to trot right through this stuff without a problem.  They only learned it by doing it.

Obviously you have to pick your poison carefully.  I would not have chosen to let the dogs learn about porcupines by attacking one.  Unfortunately they made that decision on their own.  But, other things like ice, streams, stubble fields, and numerous other hazards can be learned by the  dogs through repeated exposure.  You don’t want your dog to learn about moving water by having him swim for a 40 yards retrieve across a raging river.  The hazards need to be introduced gradually, beginning with the easy stuff, so the dog avoids injury and fear.

Labrador Retrievers aren’t the only dogs that conquer hazards in this fashion.  They’re just the first breed that comes to my mind because I work with them every day.  Please help me broaden my horizons by sharing how your dogs learn to navigate hazards through repeated exposure.

Slack Leads to you all!

Another Sunday in the Church of Dog

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We decided to take the shotgun for a walk so the dogs and I headed toward Mt Rainier.

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..and we drove up in the boonies near Morton.

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Peck is pretty sure there’s a grouse up here somewhere:

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C’mon, we’re almost to the top!

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Hmmm. No bird on that hill either!

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There was lots of time to take pictures and I could have left the shotgun at home.  We didn’t see a single grouse.  None of God’s innocent little creatures were harmed in the making of this blog post, but I must confess that we had mayhem in our hearts and minds!  We just couldn’t find any birds that wanted to cooperate.  It was a beautiful day and everybody agreed that the air was fresh and the sun was bright. We were thankful for that!

Hope you all had a wonderful weekend!

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!

Just A Hunting Dog?

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I was attending a dog event last summer and overheard a conversation that I found mildly annoying if not outright insulting.  The gentleman doing most of the talking was asking a small group of dog-people if they knew of a young dog that might be suitable for his friend who “just needed a hunting dog”. 

This gentleman went even further to say that a “field trial washout” might make a good prospect for his friend who was only interested in hunting, not competing in field trials or hunt tests.  The implication being, of course, that hunting dogs were somehow inferior to field trial dogs.  The term, “field trial washout” refers to a dog that has not performed well in his training or in any field trials and could therefore be relegated to the subordinate duty of hunting.

The person making this comment was an experienced handler and participated in both AKC field trials and HRC hunt tests with his dogs.  There is no question that he understands the rules, requirements and rigors that challenge the participants at these events.  What I question is how much he knows about hunting in real-life field situations.

Hunt tests and field trials both have their origins in hunting.  The seminal idea behind both of these sports was to provide some form of objectivity in the measurement of a dog’s ability to do his work.  Unfortunately, the longer these sports exist, the farther they drift from their original intent.  Humans’ egos and fierce competition have driven these games to a place where they are no longer so much a measure of a dog’s abilities as they are a training contest.

This is not to say that these events no longer have value in measuring a dog’s abilities, especially in the lower ranks where the youngest dogs participate.  Here the performance of the dog is a more reliable indicator of his or her natural ability because the dogs haven’t lived long enough to acquire all the training and experience that goes into a 3 or 4 year old dog. 

In the upper ranks of these endeavors, money and human ego become more relevant factors.  The top echelons of these sports are filled with wealthy owners, professional trainers, and professional handlers.  The dogs are carted from one event to the next in large, air conditioned trailers.  With each new title or win these dogs become more valuable.  The pages of dog sport journals are filled with glossy, two-page ads offering fresh or frozen semen for artificial insemination to produce the next generation of super pups that can further the legacy of the sire and stoke the ego of the proud owner.

It is perhaps no wonder that the owner of such a dog would look askance at a mere “hunting dog”.  Having invested thousands upon thousands of dollars in breeding, raising, training and campaigning his champion, he is unable to see the value in a good hunting dog.  This fellow’s idea of hunting is a day spent “afield” at a game farm where there is no competition from the public and risk of injury is carefully assessed and managed by the game-farm owner who is acutely aware of his liability as hundred thousand dollar dogs slash across his field in search of planted birds.

The lowly hunting dog, on the other hand, is cast forth on public land where he and his handler have to deal with other hunters of varying ethics and skill level.  The birds are not planted.  They live in that habitat and they fully intend to continue living there.  Having already escaped coyotes, hawks and other predators, these birds don’t give up easy.  There are hazards everywhere and the hunting dog needs to understand and manage risks like barbed wire, hidden ditches, cliffs, shale slides, raging rivers and wild predators just to name a few of the obvious pitfalls.  None of these hazards are a factor on the trial or test grounds.

About a year ago I was present at an AKC event where I witnessed several dogs run a blind retrieve that was in excess of 250 yards.  For those of you not familiar with the terminology, a blind retrieve, in field trial parlance, is a dead bird planted out of sight before the dog comes to the retrieving line.  The dog must then take an initial line towards the blind and accept direction via hand signals from his handler.  I was very impressed to see several dogs in succession that took the initial line and flew like rockets straight to the blind and returned with equal speed and intensity.  As a measure of training ability, this was an impressive display.  It’s also worthy to note that in over 35 years of bird hunting I have never seen a situation that called for a 250 yard blind retrieve.

My dogs and I find that most of our retrieving happens inside of 50 yards with an occasional bird landing outside 100 yards.  Our biggest challenges come in the form of birds that fall in heavy cover, rivers or creeks, tidewater or below cliffs or other hazards.  Those of us who regularly hunt wild birds expect our dogs to be able to negotiate these and other hazards, with or without our assistance.  On nearly every hunt I find my dogs making retrieves where they are completely out of my sight.  In the areas that I hunt, the cover is so heavy that I cannot imagine being able to see either the bird or the dog at 250 yards.

On a recent hunt, Kaia flushed a ruffed grouse that I shot just as it crossed a good sized stream.  The bird fell in heavy cover on the other side of the creek.  She stopped immediately at the sound of my shot.  When sent for the retrieve, she had to get through a barbed wire fence, crawl down a steep bank, thread her way through some nasty sticker bushes, cross the creek, and find the bird in thick brush without my help.  Her return was just as smart and graceful as she once again negotiated each hazard while carefully holding our prize.  Upon reaching me she went to the heel position and held the bird up for me to take as she looked me straight in the eyes.

Of course it would be an impressive display of dog talent and training ability to run 250 yard blinds on a regular basis.  But we’re just “hunters” or perhaps “field trial washouts”.  Of course there are other ways to look at this so, as always, your comments are welcome whether you’re a field trial veteran or “just a hunter”.